Madeleine Leddington knows a thing or two about fashion.
A tailoress, she opened her first shop in 1968 and went on to launch seven more across the Midlands and beyond in a glittering career spanning some 45 years.
Today, at 82, Madeleine continues to be at the forefront of fashion, taking twice-yearly buying trips to Milan and Paris to kit out the shop she still runs in Solihull.
“You have got to have a good eye for fashion,” says Madeleine, who lives in Redditch.
“You have to be really interested in it to be successful.”
Madeleine’s love of fashion stemmed from her childhood.
“I was given a sewing machine and embroidery sets as Christmas gifts. I always loved fashion.
“I went onto become a tailoress for a manufacturing company, making beautiful suits and coats.”
She opened her first shop called Madeleine Ann, selling childrenswear, in Stourbridge on September 3, 1968, whilst living in Wombourne with her husband Eric.
“We gave the shop the name Madeleine Ann because we felt it had a nice ring to it.
“Back then, childrenswear used to be beautiful, lovely coats and dresses. I had the best era in childrenswear.
“I bought in most of the clothes but I used to make capes and caps. I’d have them in the shop window and they’d be sold in a day or two because they were different and well made.
“I really enjoyed doing that.”
When the shop next door became vacant, Madeleine was encouraged by her husband Eric to buy it and open a second boutique, this time selling ladieswear.
“My husband persuaded me to use the next door shop for ladieswear. We ran them together for a while.
“M&S started to become more fashionable with childrenswear and I decided to concentrate on ladieswear instead.”
Then, in 1978, tragedy struck.
Whilst working together in London, Eric suffered a heart attack and died.
Madeleine says: “We were on a buying trip and he had a heart attack and within 10 minutes he was gone.
“It was terrible. He was only 52.
“He was a very good husband. We were devoted to each other.
“He used to come on the buying trips with me and do the business side of things for me. He did the paperwork as I’ve never been any good at that.”
Finding herself a widow at just 47, Madeleine threw herself into work.
In the late 1980s, Madeleine opened a shop in Worcester then sold the Stourbridge shop and went onto open more boutiques in Leamington Spa, Stratford-upon-Avon, Bath, Tettenhall, Birmingham and Solihull.
“We’d never had children so I just concentrated on my work. I became a dedicated career woman.
Gradually, over time, Madeleine closed six of the boutiques and now focuses on just her flagship shop in Mell Square, Solihull, where she still works three days a week.
She also goes on buying trips to Milan and Paris twice a year.
“I really enjoy my trips,” she says.
“I stay in nice hotels. I used to go to the big fashion weeks but I don’t need to do that anymore.
“I know all the showrooms now. I can go and sit in comfort and be given nice food and drinks whilst the models come and show me the clothes. It’s very enjoyable.
“I buy some French clothes but it’s mostly Italian clothes I prefer.
“I never buy with a particular customer in mind and I don’t buy only clothes that I would wear. That would be a fatal thing to do.
“You have to have confidence in what you will sell.”
Understandably, fashions have changed enormously over the past 45 years.
“I’ve gone through many different eras,” she smiles, “I’ve seen quite a few changes.
“I wouldn’t say there’s any particular era I like better than another. I enjoy all the different things that come in and come out. I find it fascinating.
“I like the fashion today, it’s going back to being much more ladylike and classic than it has been in recent years.
“It’s going back to how it was when I first started out. It’s more feminine again now, simple and stylish.
“I’ve never done high street fashion. That’s why I’ve been able to compete with the chain stores because my clothes are more expensive. I have a niche.
“I think the biggest compliment I’ve had, and it’s one I’ve been paid quite a lot over the years, is that women tell me when they’re having a wardrobe clear-out, they always keep the clothes they’ve bought from me.
“It sums up my philosophy. I sell investment pieces, clothes that are flattering, that you won’t get tired of wearing.”
A Madeleine Ann customer tends to be a “stylish lady aged 25 plus”.
“I’d say my customers are people with good taste!” she laughs.
Madeleine has no plans to retire. She is known as a legend in the industry.
“Well that’s quite nice,” she says, “I suppose I am quite well known, I’ve certainly seen lots of people come and go.
“There was a time when I spent every moment in the shops but I have to pace myself a bit now.
“I keep myself fit, I don’t do anything physical like go to the gym but I think being on my feet in the shop and chatting to customers keeps me young. I have very nice staff too, they keep me young as well.
“I shall continue toddling along quite happily.”
After decades in business, she still gets the same buzz when new stock arrives in her shop.
“Just this morning the new Armani collection arrived and I couldn’t wait to open it and take a look.
“I’ve still got the same enthusiasm after all these years. You have to have that.”