John Redfern, was born on November 11, 1820. His father, also named John Redfern, owned a specialty clothing shop in Cowes, Isle-of-Wight, England. Young John spent his early life learning tailoring and draping techniques. John Redfern set up his tailoring business in Cowes High Street following his marriage to Harriet Beazley, and between 1847 and 1856 they had four sons and a daughter. During John Redfern’s lifetime, the Cowes shop employed nearly eighty women who lived and worked on the premises producing high class haute couture for wealthy patrons. These girls became known as the Bunny Girls, for reasons unknown.
In 1869, Redfern & Sons was commissioned to design the bride’s and bridesmaids’ dresses for Eliza Hoffmeister, the daughter or a wealthy local physician. This commission garnered a good amount of attention, including that of the of royalty. By the 1870s Redfern & Sons had become one of the dressmakers for Alexandra of Denmark, the future Princess of Wales. By 1871 Redfern had expanded his tailoring business to include the design and sale of silk dresses and mourning dress. In addition to clothing the Princess of Wales, Redfern & Sons also was dressmaker to Lillie Langtry, a well-known actress of the time, and Prince Edward’s royal mistress. Lillie’s hourglass-shaped silhouette contrasted with the slender appearance of Alexandra, but Redfern was able to accentuate the finer points of each figure and use both as a form of advertisement. By the mid 1880s Redfern & Sons was successful in becoming Tailors by Appointment for the Princess of Wales, Queen Victoria and Queen Emma of the Netherlands, among others.
The Isle-of-Wight was a popular destination for yachting, tennis, and riding, and women who enjoyed these activities needed proper attire to fit that lifestyle. John Redfern recognized this early on and became one of the first designers to produce tailor-made, two-piece jacket and skirt ensembles. These were often constructed in sturdier textiles such as wool serge and jersey. Redfern & Sons became famous for their everyday fashionable wear: sporting costumes, tailor-made dresses, walking outfits, traveling suits, and outdoor coats. Often Redfern would incorporate intricate braiding and buttons into the details, giving the garments a somewhat military style.
John Redfern recognized that his customer was not always be able to travel to him, as was customary, and so by the 1890s, Redfern & Sons established fashion houses in London, Paris, Edinburgh, and two in New York (tailoring and furs). Eventually they would expand to have offices in Manchester, Nice, Cannes, Aix-les-Bains, Chicago, Sarasota Springs, and Newport, Rhode Island. Redfern & Sons also ran a successful catalogue-style mail order business, offering even more flexibility for their clientele.
In 1892, a scant years before John Redfern’s death in 1895, three of his sons, Frank, Stanley, and Ernest were joined along by their father’s business partner, Charles Poynter, a principle designer and a director (whose adoption of the Redfern name has led to much confusion in regard to his relationship to the family) took over the company and changed the name to Redfern Ltd.
Redfern Ltd. expanded their offerings to include formal wear such as court dresses, wedding dresses, and ball gowns, as well as lingerie and specialty underthings, including the “Redfern Corset”. The Paris location became their couture house, but tailored garments, especially the signature coat and skirt sets, remained popular everywhere. During the time of this transition, scandal erupted when Matilhilde Sabail, posing as a fashionable woman of means traveling for pleasure, was apprehended after delivering a trunk containing valuable Redfern dresses in the latest fashions to their Fifth Avenue location. This scandal did not seem to have much effect, however, and their popularity continued.
In their heyday Redfern & Sons was possibly the best known fashion house in the world with a clientele that included Queen Victoria and her daughters, Queen Empress Alexandra, Actress Lily Langtry, various Empresses of Germany and Russia – and the wealthy socialites of Europe and America. In 1913, Redfern, like many other couturiers in that time, launched perfumery line. In 1916, Redfern created the first female uniform for the Red Cross Society. Redfern Ltd. eventually closed in 1932, briefly reopened in 1936, and finally closed for good in 1940.
Head to Toe Fashion Art. John Redfern ~ 1853-1929, Biography of John Redfern, fashion designer. [Online]. Available: http://headtotoefashionart.com/john-redfern-1853-1929/
Klein, D. John Redfern, the Man. [Online]. Available: http://recollections.biz/blog/john-redfern-ladies-tailor/
Klein, D. Redfern Ltd. – Under Charles Poynter Redfern. [Online]. Available: http://recollections.biz/blog/redfern-ltd-under-charles-poynter/
Lid, A. and McKechnie-Lid, K. John Redfern/Redfern & Sons/Redfern Ltd. [Online]. Available: https://lilyabsinthe.com/adams-atelier-where-history-meets-fashion/fashion-history/john-redfernredfern-sons/
Friends of Northwood Cemetary. Burial Record for John Redfern. [Online]. Available: http://www.friendsofnorthwoodcemetery.org.uk/burial_record/redfern-john/