Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Tessa Balfour is many things

Lady Tessa Balfour in her London flat.
by Frances Schultz

Where there’s passion, there’s purpose, so the saying goes.
This is a connection more obvious to some than others, however, and sometimes the less obvious the link, the better the story. For example there’s one about a not very bright little girl in the English countryside who liked to sew. She would grow up to be a light in the London fashion world and a countess, to boot. Turns out she was rather bright after all.

Tessa Balfour actually is many things, with “bright” being just the beginning. She is a United Kingdom director of the New York-based Carlisle and Per Se collections; a sitting magistrate; president of the Catholic Clothing Guild; wife of investment executive Roderick Balfour; mother of four stunning daughters; grandmother of four; and “chic and well-connected,” according to no less than The Times of London.
Carlisle Consultants inthe U.K., aka "The Sisterhood": Caroline Hextall , Carol Magee, Tessa Balfour, Karen Nicholson, Beatriz Bolton, Vicky Wilson, Anna Pearson-Gregory, Nicky Baring, and Edith Sinclair.
And although she does not like to talk about it, Lady Balfour is also daughter of the late 17th Duke of Norfolk and sister to the current 18th duke.

Theirs is the oldest dukedom in Britain, and the family has been one of England’s most prominent for more than 500 years. As wife of Roderick Balfour, the 5th Earl of Balfour, she is also the Countess of Balfour. Oh, and one of her brothers-in-law is television personality, Sir David Frost. But she would rather you didn’t ask about it.

“I find talking about my family background rather uncomfortable!” she states. “My father was the most humble of men, as is my husband, and I try to be the same. I like to earn respect via my achievements rather than my position.”

Roderick Balfour, Nick George, Lady Marsha George (Tessa's sister), Lady Maria Wigan, Tessa in Carlisle A/W 2009, Lady Kinvara Lanza with her husband, Riccardo Lanza, and Charlie Wigan (Maria's husband).
Tessa's daughters at Maria's wedding party: Lady Kinvara Lanza, Lady Maria Wigan, Lady Willa Franks, and Lady Candida Balfour.
Rod and Maria en route to her wedding at Arundel cathedral.
School photo of Tessa's grandchildren (from her oldest daughter Willa), Arthur, Esme, and Violet.
What she is keen to talk about is her late-blooming career in the fashion business. “I was a stay-at-home mum and didn’t work when I was bringing up my children.”

(Although the last time one checked, bringing up children did involve a spot of work from time to time ...) “And that is why Carlisle is such a joy to me now. It’s very rare, particularly for women my age in England—I’m about to be 60—to have a career that we really enjoy and that we can do.” She had thought 60 was over the hill.

As if. “I was always interested in fashion and as a child I was very dyslexic. Dyslexia of course wasn’t diagnosed in those days so I was just thought to be rather thick and stupid. So I went to a convent boarding school.” Lady Tessa may have lacked in Latin, but she excelled at her cooking and stitchery.

“When I did my sewing exam I got a Grade 1 because my buttonholes were so neat and tidy. So I’ve always adored my sewing and made quite a lot of clothes,” both for herself and for her children when they were small. The sartorial side of her remained in the avocational realm for some time, however.

Not only could she sew a mean button-hole, young Tessa could whip up a mean coq-au-vin. As a single young gal about town, she applied her admirable cooking skills to a small catering business in the City, mainly organizing business directors’ lunches. Later, she made a brief stab at the nightgown business.

“That actually wasn’t terribly successful,” she allows. And then she worked for the Tatler magazine, glamorous tabloid to the rich and aristo, as a contributing editor. A dream job for an aspiring fashion journalist, that must have been great fun. “No, actually,” she corrects. “It was extremely hard work, and it’s such a bitchy business. I got fed up.” But soon enough she was sailing into marriage and motherhood, roles she relished.

Now her four daughters are grown up and busy with lives of their own. One daughter, Kinvara, ran the U.K. division of Daily Candy, and another runs a booming little catering business. “They’re all quite entrepreneurial,” she says, “I’m extremely proud of them.”

Her husband, known as Rod or Roddy to his friends, is in the thick of enterprise as well, as a partner in the Virtus Trust group, an award-winning professional trustee business that also has a presence in the U.S. Her husband says he is “eternally grateful” for Tessa’s support when he started his business “from round the kitchen table.”

But as his success became established, so did his wife’s availability to opportunities for herself.

Lady Tessa holding her grandaughter Aliena Wigan at her Christening at Arundel Castle. Tessa is wearing the Amity suit from Carlisle S/S 2010.
“One of my greatest and oldest friends, Vicki Wilson, had worked for Carlisle here in the 1990s,” Tessa begins. After a number of years the business closed. (Vicki Wilson, incidentally, also founded and managed the pre-school where a young Diana Spencer once taught.) “Then I heard through the grapevine about eight years ago that Bill and Caroline were thinking about coming back,” she says, referring to parent company Connaught Group founder and Chairman Bill Rondina and President Caroline Bowen.

“I was in New York with Roddy on a business trip and went to see Bill and to meet Caroline.” The prospects were promising, and several weeks later she flew back again, this time with Vicki Wilson. The deal was sealed. “I don’t know what our proper title was, but we called ourselves the U.K. directors, and we had a charming little showroom just off Knightsbridge opposite Harrods.”

Over the years, the bustling showroom business evolved. In 2007, as Vicki Wilson retired in order to fulfil other commitments, Tessa searched for another partner. She met Beatriz Bolton in 2007. “A very feisty lady,” she calls her, clearly meaning a compliment. Cuban-American and living in the Isle of Man, Beatriz was Tessa’s “perfect choice.” Indeed. Beatriz is now the U.K.’s top seller. “The Isle of Man is a tax exile island for U.K. citizens,” Tessa points out, “and it’s a very social island, so they all need lots of clothes.”

About the time Beatriz came on board the decision was made to close the Knightsbridge showroom and to sell the clothes instead through individual consultants holding private trunk shows around the country, the same way they’ve been sold in most U.S. markets since the company’s inception in 1982. Today as international regional manager, Beatriz is in charge of sales, freeing the Countess of Balfour to do what she does best.
Tessa at her London flat modeling a piece from the collection. This quarterly ritual takes place during what are called “previews."
“Tessa romances the collection to such a degree that we are able to translate that directly to our selling,” says Beatriz. By “romances” she means “models, describes, embellishes, extols the virtues of” every jacket, skirt, trouser, blouse and dress of each of the lines’ four seasonal collections: Spring, Summer, Fall and Holiday.

This quarterly ritual takes place during what are called “previews,” hosted by Tessa herself in her own fashionable London flat. “I make my sitting room into a little catwalk,” she says, and then she models every piece. “I do quick quick quick changes, and I can’t get behind the screen every time so they have to see me in my bra and knickers,” she continues, laughing easily, in the manner of one who is sure of herself yet not taking herself too seriously.
Tessa selling to one of their favorite customers, Rosemary Earle.
Not to diminish her expertise, however, nor the power of her inherent style and 5-foot-9-size-6 glamour. “She understands the clothes,” says Beatriz, “from the fabrics, to the way they’re constructed.” She’s done her homework on the trends and colors of each season, and she’s assuredly familiar with the work of other designers and easily draws parallels between their work and Carlisle’s. So the U.K. consultants and special clients attending her previews get, not only a fashion show, but a mini-seminar in the fashion scene of the moment.

Moreover, says Beatriz, it’s extremely entertaining. “She’s funny and quick off-the-cuff, and she has a generous and kind heart.” It’s a combination of qualities that immediately puts people at ease, but that also allows her “to get away with murder,” Beatriz adds with a giggle. Indeed one suspects the countess has a fun, mischievous streak as wide as the Thames, but feels that she must button up for the press — an entity she and her family generally avoid like lepers.
Beatriz Bolton with Rosemary Earle.
Tessa’s people skills undoubtedly serve her well in other aspects of her busy life, not the least of which is her official role as magistrate. Akin to judges in the States, English magistrates, also called justices of the peace, preside over courts for both criminal and lesser offenses. Unlike U.S. judges, however, “We are non-paid,” Tessa explains, “We have training but not a legal degree. In the old days a magistrate was chosen for being a respected member of the community. Now you have to go through quite a rigorous interviewing process [to be selected].” (See

They sit in threes, like a mini-jury, of which Tessa is chairman and therefore in charge of the court when she is sitting. Each group of three, or bench, presides over a certain region of the country. Tessa’s jurisdiction includes West Sussex, incorporating the formidable Norfolk family estate of Arundel.

Now home to Tessa’s brother, Edward Fitzalan-Howard, a.k.a. His Grace the Duke of Norfolk, the nearly-thousand-year-old Arundel Castle is considered one of the finest in the country, boasting exquisite architecture and priceless collections.

Tessa's house, Burpham Lodge, last winter.
View of Arundel castle from Burpham Lodge.
Comprising several thousand acres, Arundel has been the seat of the Dukes of Norfolk and their ancestors for 850 years. Among the most notable might be the 2nd Duke who fought with Sir Francis Drake to defeat the mighty Spanish Armada in 1558; and the 3rd Duke who was uncle to Anne Boleyn and father Catherine Howard, both ill-fated wives of Henry VIII.

Tessa’s late father, Miles, the 17th Duke, did not grow up at Arundel, however, having succeeded to the title from a cousin. Tessa spent her childhood days in the nonetheless equally grand trappings of Carlton Towers, in Yorkshire. Carlton is as large as Arundel and considered the finest example of Victorian Gothic architecture in England, if not the world. Another of Tessa’s brothers, Lord Gerald Fitzalan-Howard, and his family live at Carlton today.

Incidentally, portions of both these family estates are open to the public and have extensive and informative websites: and

Tessa and Rod have made their home at Arundel since 1985, in a beautiful old stone and flint vicarage a short distance from the castle. Like many in their set they spend weekends in the country, giving or going to house parties, shooting, tennis-ing, and what not. Her schedule in the city is quite active as well, between her civic and philanthropic duties as well as her Carlisle concerns.

“You know the wahn-duh-ful thing I really can say about my Carlisle wardrobe is that it takes me everywhere. The beautiful tweeds I can wear out shooting or for country weekends, and then I often wear one of their leather skirts for a chic cocktail.” Her clothes, says the Countess guilelessly, are “commented on, and admired, wherever I go.”

Not bad for a little girl whose strong suit was sewing buttonholes. It was in retrospect a promising start, and to the manor born, sartorially and otherwise.

For more information on Carlisle, click here.
Photographs by Alex Lloyd Photography Ltd.

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