Thelma Madine’s creations may not be to everyone’s taste, but we think she’s ridiculously cool. Her statement ‘If you’ve got a skill like sewing, then you’ll always be able to make money’ directly influenced our decision to start a small craft company at uni (called The Tat Gallery, har har).
From selling couture little-person clothing, crashing down to earth with a dose of bad karma, and right back to the top and beyond by taking the traveller community by storm and becoming a bestselling author in her spare time.
We met up with her for a tour of the Nico showroom just off London Road, armed with Liverpool’s glitziest cupcake courtesy of the Custom Cupcake Company for the ‘Pool’s queen of couture.
Though hitched at 16 and a mother of two by 18, ‘It wasn’t really seen as that young then – it was the next step, just what you did. I had no ambition at all.’ So where did the fashion start? ‘My husband had money,’ she explains, ‘and when the kids were at school I wanted something to do.’
But Thelma had bigger plans than the wool shop her fella was thinking. ‘I used to go all over the world and buy designer clothes for kids, simply because I couldn’t find clothes I wanted to put on my kids – Germany, France, everywhere – and brought them back to England to sell.’ With six Madine’s Miniatures at one time all over Liverpool and Ormskirk, Thelma may have been given a leg up by her husband but was becoming a businesswoman in her own right.
‘I found that with kids’ clothes, you can sell things in Liverpool that are really expensive; they mightn’t even have a house, they’ve got no money, but their kids are dressed immaculately, and the same with the girls when they grow up – they always look amazing when they go out. I don’t know if it is just a Liverpool thing but you could sell something here – even Ormskirk, the things we sold to the Liverpool mums we couldn’t sell to Ormskirk mums, and that’s literally down the road, but to them it’s too expensive, because they’ve got the big houses and things like that, whereas Liverpool mums put it on their kids. You grow up knowing that you get a new outfit for Christmas Day, Boxing Day, Easter, Good Friday, and you carry that on as a teenager and as you get married you do it to your kids as well.’
‘Then I got divorced after 15 years,’ she explains. ‘I was so young; obviously everything I had – unknowingly – was in my husband’s name. Everything was his and he just took it all off me, leaving me with nothing.’
She continues, ‘I had three kids so I had to do something, and the only thing I could do was sew because my mum was a tailoress and my aunt was a machinist, and even though I didn’t know I was taking it all in as a kid I must have been. I just made stuff for myself and the kids.’
Skill – check. But how did she make her mark on children’s fashion? ‘I love history, so I used to look at the history books and the old-fashioned christening gowns. I bought a roll of silk and that’s how I started making dresses.’
She found her way to Paddy’s Market, knowing from past experience there was a demand for luxury children’s clothing. ‘I started making Victorian Christening dresses with silk and lace and things. People were selling Christening dresses for say, £10, £15 pounds and mine were 70/80 pound. “In the market? You’re never gonna sell them,” they’d say. But I made samples of each design and they used to come and order from the samples for a certain date and I did really, really well with it. My order book was full all the time I was in the market. Then I started doing Communion as well in the same vein, going back in history and looking at Victorian times and things like that. So that’s how the market stall started.’
But things would go arse over tit again for Thelma again, this time resulting in a year’s prison sentence of which she served four months. With kids to feed, she’d committed benefit fraud. ‘If I can put this in a way without sounding like I think everyone should do it, I would probably say it was the best time of my life. When you go to prison, it strips you of everything and basically you’re not a mother, you’re not anything. You make relationships in there because of who you are. It’s a way of looking inside yourself, and it taught me not to be judgemental because you’re with people down from murderers to those with driving offences. It’s a case of, take people on face value and don’t pre-judge because I think we’re all a little bit guilty of that. There’s always a story behind it. I met people I would never ever have met in normal life. It made me a better person.’
Fast forward a few years and there’s an average of eight months’ waiting list on Thelma’s bridal creations. Producing a dress with her team made entirely out of hair for Liverpool’s queen of the curly-blow Voodou, it took upwards of 300 hours to make, weighing in at around 15 stone and using 250 metres of hair. With 1,500 crystals and 12 underskirts, the dress carried a price tag of around £50,000.
Which gown is her favourite? We personally want the one embroidered with fairy lights, fire extinguisher in tow! ‘Probably the one I’m working on at the time, because to that girl it is the best. They always say “is this the best one you’ve ever done?” but obviously it’s the best for them. I’m just doing one now, it’s a Communion one – the whole bodice is a peacock’s body, with feathers. That’s really lovely.’
So would she wear her own dresses? ‘I’ve worn them for the pantomime at Christmas [Jack and the Beanstalk, Epstein Theatre]. I was Fairy Moonbeam and the dress I wore got bigger and bigger and bigger for each dress in each scene, so that was absolutely massive at the end.’
Despite Nico’s success, Thelma has no plans to expand. ‘Customers come to me from all over the world: America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa…everywhere, because 80% of my clientele are travellers so they will go round the rest. The other 20 per cent are mainly Liverpool/British girls, so whether I’d expand to another country, probably not because I do get enough work. We actually turn away more than we actually do and I don’t think I could fit any more hours in the day anyway!’
Despite a waiting list longer than a roll of silk, however, she explains, ‘We do have spaces available where when traveller girls – they call it “running off” – it means they’ve been on their own with a boy past midnight so basically that means they’ve got to get married.’ I’m gobsmacked by this rule and she elaborates about what exactly they’ve been doing in that time. ‘It doesn’t matter – if they come back past midnight and they haven’t had a chaperone, she has to marry that boy. So we do have spaces where we can fit them in within 3, 4 weeks.’
Thelma has often cited the late Alexander McQueen as her inspiration, but are there any designers closer to home she admires? ‘There’s quite a few Liverpool designers who are very good in their own way, like Philip Armstrong. People like that have cornered the market in what they do.’
With Nico reaching from strength to strength and having become a beloved TV personality, Thelma could have afforded a little relaxation. But what came next was Thelma’s Gypsy Girls, giving young travellers the opportunity to become her apprentices. So what on earth was her motivation for making life even more challenging for herself? ‘I’d seen that the girls were controlled a lot by their husbands, and it’s usually because of the purse strings, and they would have to go and ask for money. In the travellers’ world it’s a slur on the family if the girls work; it looks like the husband can’t take care of his own family. So I wanted to try and break that mould a little bit.’
This isn’t just speculation on Thelma’s part. Traveller Lilyann herself claimed on the show, “For sure my father, he won’t give my Mammy two pence,” so Thelma’s ambition to give the girls something to fall back on in a predominantly patriarchal community is admirable, if controversial.
She also explains that the girls being out alone without a chaperone is an issue: ‘The parents of the girls we took on, I said I will personally look after them.’
But perhaps her most admirable motivation was the simplest: ‘No one would give them a chance; remember, a lot of these kids leave school when they’re around 12, so they haven’t got the education behind them. They’re very insecure in a workplace surrounding and a lot of them have really good ideas, but they couldn’t really express them so I’m giving them a way of saying, “c’mon, let’s have a go”. If a traveller kid learned to make stuff in their travelling community they would have a really good business.’
The girls were a handful and a half on the show – are any of the original 12 still around? ‘We’ve still got two; they’ve been here three years now.’
But there were bound to be one or two sour grapes from such a traditional community. ‘One of the mothers came down to see me because I think she said I called her kid a liar. But what you’ll find with most of them girls is if they don’t wanna do something or want their own way they make up lies.’
‘We went to a ball [in Alma de Cuba] – we actually took the girls who’d made their own outfits – but one of the girls’ parents wanted the mum and the sister and the auntie all to come and chaperone, and we said “well you know, she’s fine with us”, but they wouldn’t allow it. They wanted to come into the party as well with her. So a little bit controlling like that really.’
‘A lot of them [parents] were saying about their kids that you’re saying all travellers can’t read and write. I’ve never ever said that. I’ve said most travellers can’t read and write, and a lot of them can’t tell the time and it makes it really difficult to try and teach them. If someone can’t even recognise a letter how can you tell them to join A to B if they don’t know what A and B is?’
‘We’d say it’s break at half 10; they don’t know when half 10 is, so we had to put a paper plate on the wall with arrows, like when it was 10:30 draw a little cup of tea, and then lunchtime we’d do a meal and put one o’clock on all these paper plates so they could match up the paper plates to how the clock looked. It was absolutely insane. The reason they take them out of school that early is they don’t want them mixing with gorger kids, which is us, or country kids.’
The travellers on the show have stringent morals that seem increasingly alien to mainstream society. In one episode traveller children are invited to a birthday party at Thelma’s home. Would she like her youngest daughter  to be mates with travellers? ‘I would, and I think we could learn a lot from them. They could learn a lot from us as well. I would love my daughters to be brought up like young traveller girls up to a certain age because their morals are really high. But it’s not realistic, and that’s why it’s such a coveted world. They don’t let anyone in, they don’t want anyone to talk about what they do, it’s secretive, and it works for them, and I’ve been to their weddings and everything.’
‘ A lot of people go, “oh look at the state of them with their little belly tops” and that, but their morals are so high – they wouldn’t even talk to a boy, or if someone even said the word sex they would run a mile. They won’t listen to anything like that, they get really, “it’ll scandalize our name”. The only thing a traveller girl’s got is her reputation, and once that’s gone it’s gone. Their morals are up there when it comes to anything like that – it’s unbelievable, and that’s why they don’t want them mixing. There’s a young girl we’re making a dress for now – I asked how long have you known him, she said three weeks. I went, three weeks? She went, well yeah, we don’t have boyfriends before we get married. They get married and that’s it. Her sister and she are both getting married. I think she’s 16 and the other must be about 18, ‘cause they’re on the shelf, aren’t they, if they’re a certain age [laughs].’
Thelma could be forgiven if her ego were bigger than her gowns. So is she still primarily a fashion designer? ‘I just consider myself exactly the same as what I was – just let me get on and do my job. I find it difficult to go anywhere because it takes a long time if I ever go into town, which is very rare now – you get stopped all the time for photographs, which is great, y’know, I’m not knockin’ that – but where it took me 10 minutes before, it takes me about four hours to get somewhere and come back. But no, I wouldn’t say it’s changed me at all. That doesn’t even come into my head, it’s just a case of loving what I do and I’ll carry on doing it. If I don’t get that feeling in my stomach when someone comes to pick their clothes up, then I’d stop. But I still get that excitement when they come in, when they’re trying the clothes on – we’ve actually created that and made someone really happy – I still love that feeling. So if that stops, I’d give in then.’
‘Liverpool girls are the best dressed in the country or probably even the world,’ she (rightly) claims, having commented on my outfit (Mary Janes, red lippy, red neckerchief). ‘They know how to put things together and they all have their quirkiness; they’re not afraid to try something different.’
Despite all the stress, the bottom line is that Thelma is her own boss. ‘There’s no nine to five,’ she explains about her least favourite aspects of being self-made. ‘If you’ve got to work 24 hours a day, you work 24 hours a day. I’ve got a bed upstairs where I sleep, so it’s a case of if I’ve got to get something done – they’re coming to pick up at nine in the morning – then I stay all night and make sure it’s done. That aspect of it does it does hinder on family life because you do spend a lot of time here.’ And the best? (We reckon it must be playing dress-up, but each to their own). It lets you be creative. It’s a case of, especially with my clients – they’ll walk in and give you a carte blanche. They’ll have an idea but let you run with it, and they’re open to ideas as well, which is brilliant because the people I make for don’t follow fashion, they follow themselves, and if they want to look good I work with them and do that.’
With the economy in tatters and university fees skyrocketing to £9000 a years things are set to get worse. Whilst past generations that went to university were assured employers would be falling at their feet, young people are crippled by debt and often working any job to stay afloat – leaving many questioning whether university is the right path. ‘I think it depends on what your trade is and what you want to be. My brother’s a doctor, and obviously you’ve got to go along them lines to do that,’ she says.
‘I don’t think for a sewing or dressmaking career you should go to university because we have girls coming here who have firsts in their degrees and everything in dressmaking and they can’t sew, and it’s not fair because the richer kids can get somebody to make their collection for them and when they get a job with this collection it’s not really their work if they’ve paid somebody to do it. So it’s sort of pushing the other kids out who have to do it themselves. It will look amazing and the other kids who’ve had to do it themselves look like they’ve done it.’
‘I think, depending on what you want to do, if you want to teach in it then yes I think you should, but if you want to make a career out of making things for people then no I don’t, I think you should go to specialist courses say, if you’ve got an idea in your head of what you wanna do. We do courses here now in the academy where we’ll teach them to make the corsets we make – it’s a special method of doing it – so when they leave here after five days – when you think of that compared to the fees you pay for university, they can actually make a corset. Or if they want to come on the embellishing course we’ll teach them how to do that properly as well. So I think you should pick your courses to suit what you wanna be. I don’t think university is for every type of trade, no.’
‘A lot of people these days have the idea that their name’s gonna be over a shop, and they’re gonna be sitting giving orders and drinking piña coladas on the beach, and if that’s in your head then you’re going along the wrong lines because it’s not gonna happen.’
So what advice does she have for anyone aspiring to build their own business? ‘To start off with your overheads are really low, so if you can do it from a back room in your house then do it for as long as you possibly can. All the years I worked in the market I didn’t have bags because it’s expensive to get bags made so I used to have black bin liners I put over the top. But it’s what they’re buying, and if that’s good enough then you can get away with things like that.’
With an insatiable traveller appetite for her gowns and increasing mainstream interest, business shows no sign of slowing for Thelma. Does she hope her youngest will follow in her dressmaking footsteps when she takes a well-deserved break? ‘She’s probably the only one out of all my kids that has shown any leaning towards this; she loves the diamonds, creating things – she’ll make herself a bow or whatever to go with an outfit.’
‘The others can’t sew a button on. My daughters – one’s an air stewardess, one is a psychologist, and I think it’s because I was so young when the oldest ones were so young, I didn’t allow them to do anything; if they needed something doing I’d do it, it wasn’t a case of “come on, I’ll show you”, but with the younger one, she’s more involved and enjoys it, so hopefully she’ll be the one that’ll take it over.’
Thelma is a Scouser through and through: down to earth, hardworking and always willing to help others. Not only has she overcome a bad past and built a successful business, she genuinely cares about changing perceptions – making her a three-dimensionally Top Scouser. ‘I think coming from Liverpool makes everyone feel special anyway. If you’re away from it, it’s like a family that you’re going back to. There’s a lot of people come from Liverpool who’ve done good things and I do think there’s something about Liverpool that gives us that confidence to go out and do things. I don’t even think it’s cocky; more self-assured, and confident – you just feel that you can do it. It’s good to think of the city and the schools and the way we’ve all been brought up so everybody’s like that to a degree.’