Pollyanna's Rita Britton talks to Yorkshire Life about Barnsley roots

PUBLISHED: 19:00 12 December 2010 | UPDATED: 15:15 20 February 2013

Rita Britton

Rita Britton

A famous Yorkshire designer who put Barnsley on the fashion map? That'll be Rita Britton, then. Tony Greenway finds out about her Yorkshire life...

Rita Britton is a gift for a journalist. Ask her one question and she's off, chatting away, rarely pausing for breath. Ask her for an opinion, and she tells you.

She's frank, honest and she tells hilarious stories. After one, she says, almost as an afterthought: 'That's not for print, though.' Pity. Rita, a former Yorkshire Woman of the Year, put Barnsley on the fashion map with her internationally famous, cutting-edge, haute couture store, Pollyanna, which is known and respected from New York to Milan.

The Victoria and Albert Museum dubbed Pollyanna 'one of the foremost shops in the world', and it's not hard to see why. Here you can buy (among others) Jill Sander, Yohji Yamamoto, Nina Ricci and Dries Van Noten. Or Rita's own designs. Everyone from locals to Hollywood stars shop here. Married with three sons, Rita is passionate about Barnsley, and is governor at Northern College, helping people who missed out on their education.

Q: You and Pollyanna have become standard bearers for Barnsley. Whenever 'creativity' and 'South Yorkshire' are mentioned in the same breath, your name immediately pops up. Does that ever get exhausting?

A: It doesn't, really. I remember years ago Hilary Alexander (Fashion Editor from The Telegraph) came to Barnsley to do the first big interview with me, which was a big opportunity. I remember picking her up at Wakefield station and immediately her notebook came out and she asked: 'How do you equate selling designer clothes in a leftwing town?' I said: 'Look, if this article is going to be a p*** take of Barnsley, I don't want to know.' She said: 'It isn't. But you've got to realise that Barnsley is partly why we're writing about you.' I took that on board. She was saying that, maybe, if my store had been in Bond Street, she wouldn't have been writing about me.

Q: Are you an eccentric?

A: People say that to me. A person we were in a meeting with yesterday said to my son: 'Mark, your mother is an eccentric. Leave it like that.' Afterwards, I said to Mark: 'Hang on. I'm not an eccentric!' He said: 'Mother... you ARE.' But what might seem eccentric behaviour to other people is normal to me. You don't see eccentricity in yourself.

Q: So what was the eccentric behaviour in question?

A: Well, my son had pointed out in this meeting that I won't go into other clothes shops. As crazy as this seems, I have never been into Harvey Nichols in Leeds or Manchester, or Flannels, or any of them. That's because if I don't go in, I won't be influenced by other people's points of view. I can be clear about what I want.

Q: Could a girl from 1960s Barnsley ever plan to be a fashion designer with an internationally renowned clothes store?

A: No. I left school at 15 and, back then, you thought your life was mapped out for you. You either went into a factory or a shop - and I went into a factory.Well, it was a paper mill. I was there for nine years and it was an enjoyable period of my life. I have a great family who were very ambitious for me. But I think most of what's happened to me has happened by accident rather than design.

Q: So how did you start out on the road to Pollyanna?

A: One day, I said: 'I'm going to open a shop'. So I borrowed 500 from my dad and started off with just two rails of stock from Mary Quant. I can remember my dad coming home at six in the morning after a double shift and driving me down to London. He'd park outside Mary Quant, sleep in the car, drive me back to Barnsley and then go back to work - which is a different ethos than today. Incidentally, I remember the people at Mary Quant serving me tea and cucumber sandwiches with no crusts. I thought: 'They must be incredibly hard up.'

Q: Do you have a favourite place in Yorkshire?

A: Yes. Two. First is Salts Mill in Shipley - the late Jonathan Silver (who created Salts Mill) was a friend of mine. I love going there at Christmas. One December, I remember, it was a cold afternoon, just starting to get dark, the crows were flying over the hill at the back and every window was lit and looked Christmassy. I thought: 'Why would people go into a big city to do their Christmas shopping when they could come here?' It's a tradition for me to go to Salts Mill and have a coffee or something to eat with Robin Silver (the director). The other place is Dean Clough in Halifax. I'm a big admirer of Sir Ernest Hall who started it, and his son, Jeremy, who now runs it. Oh, and I'd also have to say the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. I couldn't choose just one, though.We're lucky to live in this region, close to beacons of such wonder.

Q: Is there anything you don't like about Yorkshire?

A: It would be patronising to say that everything in Barnsley and Yorkshire is wonderful, because it isn't. It's a bit like your children or your parents. You love them, but you have to say there are things about them which annoy you. Then again, you have to be careful that you don't demand too much perfection. Hmmm. Having said all that, I'm actually struggling to find something that does annoy me...

Q: Who's your favourite designer? We're going to stick our neck out and guess Yohji Yamamoto.

A: I do love the Japanese designers. There are three who deserve accolades: Rei Kawakubo from Comme de Garcon; Junya Watanabe and, yes, Yohji Yamamoto. I hate the word "fashion". It smacks of disposability. You know: 'I'll wear this season's colour and then throw it out.' To me - and Jean Muir had this - good design is about longevity. I love having clients in the store trying to outdo each other over whose clothes are oldest!

Q: Do you have a favourite restaurant in Yorkshire?

A: That's difficult. I travel so much - I go to Paris a lot - that I enjoy going to our local pub, the Rose and Crown, because I really love food that's incredibly simple. I'll walk down and, after a few glasses of wine, struggle back up. Or I go to the Spencer Arms in Cawthorne. To me, what makes a good meal is gorgeous fresh fish cooked to perfection. And we have a French chef here who does food I adore. Although that sounds like a bloody advert. Sorry.

Q: We saw you on TV not so long ago having Botox treatment. Do you indulge?

A: To be honest, yes, occasionally, I do have Botox. I don't make any bones about it. I'm not one of these women who say: 'I've never had anything done'. Get a life! It's demoralising for other women if you're not honest. The secret is to take all the help you can get - but don't go barmy. I do go to the gym. I do eat incredibly sensibly. And I detox. (Laughs) I do it as much as anything to prove I'm not an alcoholic!

Q: Could you live anywhere else?

A: What - other than Barnsley? Oh, no. No, I couldn't. It's amazing. Barnsley draws me back, like a magnet.When I'm on the motorway and I see the Barnsley sign, I know I'm coming home.Why would I want to live anywhere else?.

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