Ronay has had a remarkably versatile career. She was born in Hungary in 1944, the daughter of legendary food critic Egon Ronay, and began a foundation course in art and design at London’s St Martin’s College. She always knew that she wanted to design, but everything changed when she was stopped on the street and asked if she wanted to go into films. It was, by her own admission, something she “fell into”. Her first outing was in 1960’s The Pure Hell of St Trinian’s, which she still recalls very fondly.
“It was a small part, but a great first experience. My father told me I should get an agent and so I did. In those days you had to do repertory theatre to get your Equity card. I ended up acting in places like Bromley, Canterbury and Guildford. They were good days.”
More roles followed in iconic TV programmes The Avengers, Special Branch and even a Carry On film. Ronay would spend the next 12 years acting. She cemented her skills with a course at Rada and even enjoyed a spell of modelling. She went where the work was and found herself having a lot of fun. Her chiselled face became one of defining images of the 1960s. But alongside all of this, she never lost touch with her love for designing.
“I always used to make my own clothes,” she says. “Vintage is my great love and was, of course, very much a la mode in the 1970s. I soon found that a lot of my friends – girls I’d acted or modelled with – also wanted the clothes. That’s how I met my first business partner.”
Before she knew it, Ronay had opened a shop on Chelsea’s King’s Road. Her days were spent reworking vintage clothes and then selling them. The business really took off.
“A lot of people are doing what we did back then with vintage garments, but in those days it was something completely new. I started finding lots of knitwear patterns. We set up production in Devon and everything was hand knitted. No one was doing hand knits at that time and so suddenly we found ourselves selling them in the shop alongside the vintage clothing.”
Just listening to Ronay speak conjures up vivid images of this experimental time. Her rich and authoritative voice radiates an effortless glamour, recalling an era when actresses learnt their craft meticulously and had deportment off to a fine art. In hindsight, one could say that she was always going to make it big. And yet when success started to come Ronay admits that it was quite overwhelming.
“After our first showing at the London Design Collection [the forerunner of London Fashion Week], we got huge orders from all over America, which we could hardly cope with,” she says. “But again, it was totally organic – and amazing. We started showing in New York, Paris, Milan, Japan and sold masses everywhere across the world.”
Fashion shows followed in the 1990s, along with concessions in Harvey Nichols, Liberties and Selfridges. Ronay’s ascent seemed unstoppable. She stuck to what she knew and loved best – the niche that she had pioneered – knitwear. When other designers have branched out into other directions, what is it that has kept her with knitwear?
“I adore 30s and 40s styling and the knitwear from that period. It’s just so comfortable in the day. And then, if you have a really good design, you can wear it in the evening, too.”
Ronay has just brought out her Spring/Summer 2015 collection, which she says, follows much the same influences as her early work.
“As long as I keep it feminine, romantic and pretty, it works. Fit is paramount. The garment has to be really flattering and I spend a lot of time on fitting to get it just right. This summer we’re very print orientated and we’re doing our own prints in-house. The beauty with these dresses is that they can be worn in the town and the country. My son, who used to work for Diesel, is great at graphics, so I give him the design and he executes it. And then everything is printed in England. It’s pure fabrics all the way: silk, cotton, nothing synthetic.”
Ronay remains greatly influenced by her clients – many of whom have been with her since she started out in the 1970s. What type of woman buys her clothes?
“They’re all fairly wealthy, because the clothes aren’t cheap. I have a lot of ladies – and by that I mean titled ladies. Camilla Parker Bowles is a client. They’re all pretty good-looking, dynamic women and they all know that they want.
“But I think the clothes are also ageless. My daughter – who is in her forties – buys them and so do a lot of her friends. I know how to dress all of these women. They generally want something that has a sleeve and is below the knee. We’ve got a lot of clients from West Sussex.”
Over such a long career Ronay has found that the challenge has been keeping her designs fresh. She’s pragmatic about this: “That, after all, is the job of a designer,” she laughs. But she has discovered that she has needed to tread a fine balance.
“Yes, I need to keep things modern, but also in keeping with what my clients want, rather than being radically different. I’ve tried that and it doesn’t work. My ladies want something new, but it must be similar to what has gone before, otherwise they get confused.
“In the old days, when I did fashion shows, I’d design something very radical and enjoyed doing that to an extent, but thought that it was kind of ridiculous: I was making something that I knew would never sell. I like the practicality of someone saying: ‘Yes, I definitely want to buy that’.”
Scores of happy clients have been saying exactly this to Edina Ronay for over 40 years now. She is one of the most important British fashion retailers working today, has dressed society figures from royalty to red-carpet stars, and has been honoured as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Not bad for a woman who admits that she didn’t really plan for any of this.
“Today, of course, it is very different,” she muses. “Life has changed so much. I was very lucky to start out at a time when things were more exciting – when there were more opportunities.” What advice would I give to new designers today? “Try and begin by working for a company for a year so that you can pick up vital tips. And then, when you do branch out on your own, make sure that you have a financial partner. Nine out of ten new fashion businesses fail unless they have amazing business sense and backing. Sadly, there are not many British fashion houses left; they’re all big conglomerates.” Women all over the UK – and beyond – are certainly thankful that Edina Ronay’s company remains one of these.