Niki Cleovoulou, dress designer
Niki has always been a perfectionist, since she first learnt sewing and pattern cutting in Cyprus before coming to London at the age of thirteen in 1959. “I could never pass any faults. I don’t care about the money, I don’t care about the time, I don’t care about the trouble, so long as I can do something good for the customer, then I can be happy.” she declared with a grin of satisfaction, speaking of her work today as a designer and maker of haute couture gowns for special occasions – in plain words, a traditional dressmaker.
“I couldn’t go to school because of the war in Famagousta,” revealed Niki regretfully, giving the reason for her journey across Europe in her early teens, leaving the village of Styllous to live with her brothers in Neasden, who were students at that time.“Within three days they took me to the factory in the West End where my older sisters worked. I was a machinist, making skirts for ladies’ suits.” she told me. And so Nikki’s working life in London commenced, and the photograph above serves to illustrate this time eloquently, revealing Niki as a poised young woman of modest temperament, full of life and anticipation at the possibilities of existence.
In those days, Niki’s godfather Sophocles came regularly to the Spitalfields Market to buy fruit and vegetables, and he always got his hair cut by a young bachelor Kyriacos Cleovoulou at the salon in Puma Court. It was a chance meeting that was to decide the course of Niki’s life, because their respective families decided to put Niki and Kyriacos together. “They came over to see my family in Neasden. It was very difficult for us to go outside or even be alone,” admitted Niki, rolling her eyes with a blush and a shrug, “It was arranged, we got engaged within two or three weeks and married three months later.”
“We came to live here in Spitalfields in 1970, but the building had to be fixed up because it was in a poor state and we did the salon first. I remember the men with barrows of fruit and vegetables running around shouting at four in the morning, and people going to cafes for breakfast early. You could do your shopping at dawn. It was very friendly, like a family. My husband used to go and buy boxes of fruit, he knew everyone and they knew him because they all came here for haircuts! He used to open very early in those days.
A year after we were married, we went to Cyprus together for two months and when we came back he stopped cutting hair and worked with me in the factory, where I taught him how to sew trousers. But then the factory burned down, so my husband went back to hairdressing, ‘Hairdressers always have money in their pocket.’ he used to say, because he never had to wait until pay-day as other professions did. He set up a sink and all he needed was a comb and scissors to earn money.”
Although Niki held great affection for the sociable life and community that she encountered living in proximity to the market, she was less enthusiastic about the living conditions in the tiny rooms above the salon in Puma Court where she brought up her two young sons George and Panayiotis, while still doing sewing from home. “It was very difficult, there was no bathroom – so my husband fixed one up in the hallway and we had a kitchen at the back.” she confided, thankful that within five years they were able to buy a house in Palmer’s Green and Kyriacos could commute on the train to Liverpool St each day.
Throughout all these years, Niki earned money through her sewing and yet, as she confessed to me, she was secretly frustrated because she never got to design dresses as she had always wished, “I was doing my dress designs but only for the people that knew me. I thought, ‘If only, if only everyone knew what I could do, I could make a dress for the Queen’ – I had so much confidence in myself and my gift.” Niki never gave up her ambition and, even though she was qualified in pattern cutting in Cyprus, she achieved a City & Guilds’ Diploma that qualified her in this country too. Then, just ten years ago, working in partnership with her daughter Stavroulla (widely known as Renee) she created Nicolerenee, making bespoke wedding dresses and gowns for special occasions, working from the old family premises in Puma Court.
My conversation with Niki took place over a cup of tea in a quiet corner of Cleo’s Barber Shop, the salon where her husband Kyriacos began cutting hair in 1962 – where her godfather Sophocles came for a haircut in 1969 and discovered that Kyriacos the barber was an eligible bachelor. It is a location charged with powerfully emotional resonance for Niki and now, five years after Kyriacos’ death, their three children, Panayiotis, George and Stavroulla have reopened the barber shop, continuing the tradition for a second generation. When the time came for Niki’s portrait, we walked through to the premises next door, once derelict, now a showroom full of elegant silken gowns arrayed upon rails, all examples of Niki’s talent and expertise. Here Niki took out a favourite pink dress, full of proud memories, that she made for herself and wore frequently in the nineteen sixties, still in immaculate condition today.
This is a story that shows how external events can affect a life, sending Niki from Cyprus to London and from Neasden to Spitalfields, while equally illustrating the power of resolute self-belief to overcome obstacles. As Niki confirmed when she held up the dress in triumph, cast her eyes around the rails of dresses filling the tiny shop and said with a gleeful smile, “In the end all my wishes have come true, because I have the shop here today with my daughter, and I am a very happy person, especially when I can talk about my work!”
Niki on a visit to her childhood home in Styllous, Famagousta, Cyprus in 1966
Niki’s father George, 1966.
Kyriacos at the Acropolis, early sixties.
Niki and Kyriacos outside St Andrew’s Church, Kentish Town on their wedding day, 1969.
Kyriacos and Niki
Cleo’s Barber Shop in Puma Court, Spitalfields, nineteen eighties.
Kyriacos stringing beans in the yard at the back of the salon between haircuts, ten years ago.
Niki Kleovoulou today.
Photograph copyright © Jeremy Freedman
You may like to read my earlier story about Cleo’s Barber Shop