Designing corsets alongside running a chic cafe has been a lifelong dream for a Warwickshire fashion designer. Zoe Chamberlain reports.
The tables are dressed with lace cloths, adorned with silver teapots, cake stands and delicate rosebud china cups.
Waitresses dressed in black and white wait on the tables, which line a Victorian arcade with shop windows filled with beautiful gowns.
This is the result of Gillian Wesley’s dream to create a moment, an experience that takes her customer back in time.
And that time is very poignant to her, for it reflects back to a time when her great-grandmother was dressmaking to support her family – just like Gillian is now.
“My great-grandmother sewed to support her family,” says Gillian, 51.
“I was raised in a creative family, where my mother was always sewing.
“It’s nice that I support my family in that way too.
“It must be in the genes.
“Now my daughter is 17 and at fashion college so I guess it’s been passed onto her too.”
For Gillian, it all began when she left a job in catering and returned to college to study fashion and design as a mature student. Part of her course was in corsetry.
She started to make corsets from her kitchen table with her son and daughter playing at her feet.
She says: “I was interested to know how they were put together.
“I made a few and hung them up. People saw them and said ‘I want one.’
“I became known for them – staff in the supermarket would say ‘you’re the one that makes corsets aren’t you?’
“I like the way you have to be very accurate with a corset and the way you can embellish them.”
Once the children were grown up, Gillian felt ready to expand into a shop.
And her life changed overnight in July 2010 when she won a competition called ‘The Business’ run by Coventry City Council and the Birmingham Post’s sister title, Coventry Telegraph.
It gave her a shop in Coventry rent-free for a year. It turned my life upside down,” she says, “it was the opportunity of a lifetime.”
After around 18 months, Gillian decided to expand and found a former builder’s merchants in Knowle.
It gave her enough space for her wildest dreams to come true – a shop and arcade to display her corsets and a Catwalk Café for afternoon tea and fashion shows.
“I think the builders thought I was mad when I said I wanted to put in a Victorian arcade and a red carpet down the middle,” she laughs.
“The reason is that some of the fabric I work with costs as much as £700 a metre so I wanted to display my corsets and skirts without them being touched and the shop windows are ideal for that.
“The idea for the café came about because there are often boyfriends, friends or family waiting around whilst a lady or bride is having a fitting.
“I thought it would be nice for them to have a place to sit and have a coffee and cake and read the paper.
“It’s also a lovely experience for the whole bridal party to have afternoon tea whilst choosing and fitting.
“A lot of groups of ladies come just for the café. I hold ‘yummy mummy’ mornings too, there’s plenty of space for pushchairs, I have a baby change area and a toy box.
“All the food is homemade and the china mismatched. The customers love it.
“My husband works in the food industry and he thinks it’s great too.”
Gillian has converted a stable at the back of the property into a studio to enable her to photograph her work, and her workshop is reached by a spiral staircase from the bridal boutique.
Even the toilets are glamorous with dressing room lights around the mirrors.
There’s also a little shop, selling gifts and off-the-peg corsets from £265. Made-to-measure corsets cost £500 upwards.
“I have boxes with sample corsets that women can have fun trying on.
“Some plan to buy a corset as underwear but many leave in a very different frame of mind.
“Once they’ve tried one of my corsets on, most women decide to wear it on the outside instead.
“They put them on, look in the mirror and are amazed. They say ‘I feel really good.’
“A lot of people buy them for special occasions and parties then wear them again and again, with trousers, skirts or even a pair of jeans.
“Many come back saying they’ve never had so much attention from both men and women.
“It gives them a lot of confidence.
“I could write a book about the stories behind why the women come to me. It gives them a huge confidence boost, especially if they have just been through a divorce or something like that.
“Some ladies just love them – I have one customer who has bought 14!
“I always say to them, once you’ve had one, you’ll always want to come back for at least one more and they generally do.
“My youngest customer was a 15-year-old who had curvature of the spine. Her mum wanted her to have something trendy to wear but that would also support her back.
“Wearing a corset made a big difference to her.
“A lot of people expect corsets to be uncomfortable and are amazed when they’re not at all.
“My oldest customer was a 65-year-old lady who bought a black corset for herself as she’d wanted one all her life.
“I love the way corsets make women feel.”