Most of us, if pressed to take part in a charity run, could root around in our wardrobes and muster a pair of Lycra shorts, trainers and a sports top. And if we couldn’t find something suitable, we’d nip out and buy it.
Not Deborah Meaden. When the Dragons’ Den star agreed to join a 10k race this summer — ‘and believe me,’ she says, ‘I’m no runner’ — she didn’t have a thing to wear.
She cobbled together an eccentric blend of High Street casual and sporty, and exhumed an old pair of lace-ups from the bottom of her shoe cupboard.
‘I teamed some tailored linen shorts from L.K.Bennett with a T-shirt,’ she says, ‘but I have a few problems with my knees and I thought: “I’m not going to be able to run in these old shoes.”
This time last year Deborah Meaden, 61, (pictured) made a pubic pledge not to buy any new clothes, shoes or handbags for 12 months
‘So I had to succumb. I confess it! I spent £70 on a new pair of trainers.’
Why the mea culpa, you may wonder. Why did Deborah, 61, feel so guilty about shelling out a few quid on essential footwear for a sponsored run which saw her raise £7,500 for the wildlife conservation fund Tusk Trust? It wasn’t exactly a flagrant act of self-indulgence — particularly for someone who’s worth around £40 million.
The reason is that this time last year, Deborah made a pubic pledge not to buy any new clothes, shoes or handbags for 12 months.
‘I’d been thinking about our national obsession with consumerism for some time,’ she told me last January. ‘I’d also been contemplating all the clothes, bags and shoes in my dressing room and realised I had enough to last a lifetime without buying a single item.’
She had a laudable motive for this act of self-sacrifice. Mindful of the effects fast fashion has on the planet — we in the UK send 13 million items of clothing to landfill every week —and conscious that if we double the number of times a garment is worn, we could cut greenhouse gas emissions by around 44 per cent, she decided to do her bit.
She had a laudable motive for this act of self-sacrifice. Mindful of the effects fast fashion has on the planet and conscious that if we double the number of times a garment is worn, we could cut greenhouse gas emissions by around 44 per cent, she decided to do her bit
‘I wanted to do something to help. And in a small way, I could. By buying fewer clothes and keeping old ones for longer, we can reduce the adverse effect on our planet,’ she said at the start of her challenge.
So Deborah made her pledge: ‘I will re-use what I already own, redeploying the stash of designer shoes, the rails of ball gowns, dresses and suits; the three drawers of jumpers and dozens of scarves I have acquired since I first appeared on Dragons’ Den almost 15 years ago.’
And by making the promise publicly — to our readers and to her 434,000 Twitter followers — she knew she could not renege on it.
Today she’s delighted to announce she has been true to her undertaking with one single, minor infringement: those running shoes.
‘I have stuck to my pledge!’ she says. ‘I’ve bought one thing — the trainers — because I couldn’t do the run without them. But otherwise I haven’t cheated once.’
But what a year it turned out to be! In many ways, the challenge has been less exacting because, thanks to Covid, she hasn’t had the usual glittering functions and high-powered business meetings to attend.
‘Instead, I’ve spent most of the year in my farmhouse in Somerset,’ she tells me in a Zoom call from that 16-acre property. ‘To be honest, I’ve barely felt the pain of self-denial.
Today Deborah (pictured with husband Paul) is delighted to announce she has been true to her undertaking with one single, minor infringement
‘There have been no “I’ve got nothing to wear” moments. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed not having to buy clothes, because I don’t like browsing round shops.
‘I’m all for easy shopping. If I’m in London, I go to Selfridges or I buy online on sites such as Net a Porter.
‘So I think I should extend the moratorium. Perhaps for another six months or even a year. It hasn’t really hurt, and I want it to.’
Today we find Deborah in festive mood, in her large beamed office converted from a farm outbuilding. She has a tinsel halo in her hair and mud-splattered jodhpurs teamed with sheepskin boots (sitting at her laptop she kicks her legs in the air to show me).
The ensemble is topped by a snug grey, wool jumper which, like the boots, is from Cornish clothing company Celtic & Co. ‘I wore these jodhpurs to go riding in yesterday and they’ve got mud on them. No not horse manure! I draw the line at that,’ she laughs.
‘I’ll probably wear them for three days or so.
Practical, no-nonsense and straight-speaking, Deborah is, face-to-face, warmer and funnier than her Dragons’ Den persona
‘I wear jumpers maybe eight times between washes (I always wear something underneath them) —unless they’re covered in dog hairs.’
‘So you’re not over fastidious about cleanliness?’ I joke.
‘Very nicely put!’ she laughs. By cutting down on washing, she’s also saving energy and helping to husband the world’s resources.
Jodhpurs are her favourite garment and she’s practically lived in them during lockdown.
‘I’ve probably worn them for 90 per cent of the time. The cost per wear, she says — a figure calculated by dividing the price of a garment by the number of times you wear it — is a very good value 30p.
‘Sometimes I laugh at myself. For Zoom meetings I’ll wear a lovely silk blouse on my top half — I’ve got a beautiful purple Diane von Furstenberg one I’ve had for eight years, and I team it with a ten-year-old Alexander McQueen leopard-print scarf — and I think: “You’ve no idea what I’m wearing on my bottom half!”
‘I love the shape of jodhpurs. They’ve got more structure than leggings and they give at the knees but don’t bag. They’re a great design.
‘The ones I’m wearing today are showerproof because it’s howling out there, and when I run from my house to the office I get wet.’
Practical, no-nonsense and straight-speaking, Deborah is, face-to-face, warmer and funnier than her Dragons’ Den persona.
She’s been on the BBC 2 TV series, in which would-be entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas to five multi-millionaires willing to invest their own cash, since 2006.
So far she’s ploughed more than £3.3 million of her own money into around 63 nascent businesses.
At the start of her no- new-clothes experiment, she apologised in advance to viewers that she would be re-wearing the same old outfits, which she did during this year’s filming in the summer under strict Covid guidelines.
Today, she says there are investment pieces in her wardrobe that she’s worn at least three dozen times.
‘I’d rather pay £1,000 for a dress and wear it 30 times than £100 and never wear it,’ she says. ‘I really do get value from my clothes. And if I see something languishing in my wardrobe that I haven’t worn for a season, I give it to a charity shop.
‘My husband, Paul, thought my no-new-clothes-for-a-year plan was a great idea. He hates waste. We’ve had a one-in, one-out policy with clothes for about ten years. It was Paul who suggested it.
‘He pointed out that it forces you to think hard about whether you really want to buy a new item if you have to give another away to make room for it.
‘You quickly learn which items you’ll wear and wear, and which will end up at the charity shop.’ Her wardrobe contains an eclectic mix of High Street, designer and even some charity shop finds.
Last January, our article about her clothes embargo caught the eye of Oxfam, which runs a sustainable fashion campaign.
It asked Deborah to become a supporter and she readily agreed. But long before this, despite her wealth, she was a thrift store devotee.
‘Good heavens, yes!’ she cries when I express surprise. ‘The last things I bought in an Oxfam shop — not this year of course — were some really nice chunky vintage jewellery and a long, vintage coat dress for evening wear.’
She’d like to eradicate any stigma attached to buying second hand. ‘I think we should stop thinking that buying in charity shops is all about: “I can’t afford.”
‘It’s about being quirky, different; creative. It’s also about cutting down on waste. Why wouldn’t you be proud of that?
‘When I go into charity shops, lots of whispering and elbow-nudging goes on. People say: “You look so like that woman from Dragons’ Den.” But they don’t believe it’s me because they’re surprised to see me there.
‘I used to think it was a bit big headed to say, “Yes, I’m Deborah Meaden”, but now I think it sets people’s minds at rest, so I say: “Yep, you’re absolutely right.” ’
Back in 2006, Deborah — who confesses she didn’t have a clue about fashion then — took on a stylist called Minty to help overhaul her wardrobe and ‘polish up my appearance, so I would pass the scrutiny of the TV cameras’.
Minty gave Deborah confidence ‘to know what worked and what didn’t work’, and encouraged her £10,000 investment in a wardrobe that would fit her entrepreneurial TV image. Deborah bought, for the first time, sharp Max Mara suits and killer Louboutin heels.
She still has these pieces, and alongside items by Armani and Danish designer Malene Birger, there are also High Street staples from Mint Velvet and L.K.Bennett. Some of her best-loved garments are more than two decades old.
‘I’ve got Paul Smith suits I’ve had for 20 years and a beautiful Azagury evening dress I bought for the awards ceremony when Dragons’ Den was nominated for a Bafta in 2007.
‘It was a panic buy and I wouldn’t have spent the money on it — I’m not going to tell you how much! — if I hadn’t been buying it in such a hurry. But it’s gorgeous and I’ve probably worn it 30 times.
‘I’ve also got a 16-year-old Donna Karan evening dress, and every time I put it on someone says: “Oooh, that’s lovely!” ’ She shows me some of her favourite pieces: a Peter Pilotto evening dress patterned with bright, geometric shapes which she bought seven years ago for £700.
‘It’s been worn and worn,’ she says. There’s that Zoom ensemble — the purple top and scarf — as well as a £60 kimono from One Hundred Stars, decorated with huge bird motifs.
‘I wear it for lounging in,’ she says. ‘The cats know I’m ready to sit down when I put it on, and they come and jump on my lap.’
While most have applauded Deborah’s shopping embargo, a few have objected that it is a privilege of the wealthy to ‘choose’ not to buy clothes while many have this constraint forced upon them by lack of money.
‘I do understand it when people say: “It’s easy for her. She already has a wardrobe full of clothes.” I can’t help that, but it doesn’t make my decision any less valid. I’m still doing something to help.
‘One of my Twitter followers agreed. “That’s the point,” she said. “She can afford to buy new clothes and she’s made the decision not to.” ’
Others have blamed her for contributing to the demise of the High Street. Her response is crisp.
‘We need to make changes, to switch from fast fashion to sustainable clothes,’ she says. ‘Retailers and entrepreneurs are good at adapting, and it’s a matter of thinking differently, of re-purposing, hiring instead of buying.
‘Shops could offer their customers a chance to re-sell their pre-worn items so others could buy and enjoy them. With such business models, they could thrive.
‘And consumers need to change their habits, too — buying one good outfit that lasts for years and years rather than five cheap, disposable ones.
‘Even those fleeting moments where you want something new and different pass. Don’t succumb to them! Think: “What do I actually need?” ’
In her own family, Deborah’s mother, Sonia, now in her 80s and still ‘properly glamorous’, has set a precedent for keeping stylish garments for decades.
‘She has classic pieces from the Sixties, including a Mary Quant dress that she’s given to my sister, Cass. It’s still gorgeous.’
And, of course, the Royal Family has a history of thrift. ‘Prince Charles is a huge supporter of the campaign for wool, and I’ve noticed he’s worn the same beautiful suits for years,’ says Deborah.
‘He’s been talking about climate change and the need for sustainability for decades, too. At the beginning we thought he was a bit mad, but he bravely carried on. He’s always been a marvellous recycler. It’s not a bandwagon he’s jumped on — and here we are, 30 years later, thinking the same.’
Deborah co-owns the West Country textile mill Fox Brothers, established in 1772 and based in Wellington, Somerset, where it produces woollen cloth that will last a lifetime.
‘The cloth is beautiful and expensive, but you wear it for ever. If it goes into holes, you get it repaired,’ she says.
Mending, darning, re-purposing; recycling: they are old-fashioned virtues that have become mainstream. ‘I couldn’t be more delighted to be in the vanguard of a movement to buy from charity and second-hand shops; to re-use and repair; to select items of clothing with care and discernment and to spurn throwaway fashion,’ says Deborah.
It is a thought to take into the New Year. Perhaps we should all resist the urge to spend, spend, spend, and make do and mend, instead.
Deborah supports Oxfam’s sustainable fashion campaign. onlineshop.oxfam.org.uk