From coal dust to diamonds
Despite its flawless façade, a diamond starts life as a piece of coal that transforms under time and pressure into the glittering end result.
And just like the jewel that propelled her lustrous fashion career, Mexborough-born Debbie Wingham used the stress, adversity and knockbacks she faced to remodel herself from an undervalued diamond in the rough into a polished and priceless designer to the stars.
Holding the crown as the world’s most expensive couturier and cake artist, 36-year-old Debbie has become a notable name in the luxury sector, using millions upon millions of pounds worth of jewels in her designs.
But while her journey to a sparkling career hasn’t always run smoothly, she has never let anyone along the way dull her shine or break her.
South Yorkshire roots
The daughter of a coal miner, Debbie grew up in the South Yorkshire town of Mexborough where she had her first taste for fashion as a young girl.
When most children would have been playing dress-up with dolls, Debbie was designing real-life outfits at just eight-years-old.
Debbie picked up the basics while watching her mum, a skilled self-taught seamstress, sew. Inspired by what could be fashioned from a piece of fabric, Debbie would spend hours drawing her own designs in the hope that mum would make them.
“She’d always say no, you can try and do it yourself. She still has some of those early drawings now; proper Debbie Wingham Vintage,” Debbie says.
As an 11-year-old first year at Mexborough Academy, Debbie began making clothes for the sixth formers. She’d also help out in the school’s wardrobe department for drama productions.
Having dyslexia, Debbie found she excelled artistically at school rather than academically and so became very focused on a creative career.
Moving to the capital
Aged 18, she followed her dreams to London, the land of inspiration and opportunity. Moving from a laid-back life in Mexborough to the capital’s diverse and chaotic streets, Debbie knew her only hope of launching a clothing empire was in one of the iconic fashion capitals of the world.
Choosing to by-pass studying, Debbie jumped stilettos-first into the working world, making quirky women’s wear which she sold on the cool markets of Portobello Road, Greenwich and Spitalfields.
It certainly wasn’t glamorous in those early days. I was hustling really and teaching myself new skills while out in the field. Admittedly I made lots of mistakes but I took them all as lessons that I’ve never forgotten.
After a few years of trading on the markets, Debbie was fed up of standing out in the cold for long hours and so teamed up with other designers to open a collaborative boutique in Hoxton, East London.
They moved to the West London shopping district of King’s Road in Chelsea where chance saw a socialite stop by one day – a day that would become a turning point for Debbie.
The girl was admiring a top and skirt that she liked and asked me if I could make her a specific dress. I said, ‘If you’re paying I can make you whatever you want.’ Little did I know that she was going to wear it to the BAFTAs. My friend called the next day telling me to check the papers; journalists were calling her the best dressed of the night and questioning who this mystery designer was.
This was back in 2005 and a 21-year-old Debbie had spent three years trying to find her feet and make a name for herself.
As her first proper dress, the publicity and critical acclaim helped Debbie realise her forte lie in red-carpet wear, switching up her signature style.
The real-life ‘Devil Wears Prada’
They say the more cuts a diamond takes the brighter it sparkles and for Debbie, she had to keep bouncing back stronger from the many rejections she faced.
Not long after the BAFTA dress, Debbie had her first real ‘Devil Wears Prada’ experience that almost made her pack up her sewing machine and move back up north.
After spending months trying to get her name known by magazine editors and journalists, Debbie eventually received a phone call one evening requesting a dress for a photo shoot by the next morning.
I didn’t have anything like the dress they described, but I lied and said I had just the thing – I wasn’t about to let the door shut that early. But it was 4.45pm, the fabric merchant closed at 5pm and I didn’t even have enough money to cover the rent never mind pay for fabric with a price tag longer than my phone number. I spent my last few pennies on the fabric and stayed up all night making this beautiful gown. Off I went at 8am sharp to the publication’s office to be told by the deputy editor they’d managed to source vintage Dior instead. I knew I couldn’t compete with that.
Emotionally, financially and physically drained, Debbie summoned the true Yorkshire grit from within and demanded to speak to the Editor-in-Chief and explain her story. Like the fictional Miranda Priestly, they retorted ‘Do you even know who she is?’
She eventually came down and I asked her to at least look at what I’d made. She unzipped the garment bag with her nose upturned like I’d handed her a steaming bag of dog poop but said it was alright. Then she turned to me and said, ‘Can I offer you some advice? Stop now because with your northern accent and figure, you’ll never work in the luxury industry or be the face of a brand.’
At six-foot-tall, Debbie had always been a larger than life character but the cruel words got to her. After walking out with her head held high, she crumbled on the phone to her mum who told her to come back home.
While debating her next steps, Debbie received a phone call from a familiar cold voice the next morning asking her to bring eight dresses to the showroom which they may or may not use over the forthcoming six months.
With only eight dresses in her lifeline of a collection, Debbie had neither the time nor money to create another eight samples but she decided to go for it. Her risk paid off and four of the dresses were used in the glossy pages of the magazine.
She said on the phone that she saw of lot of herself in me. Perhaps it was my bravery and bolshiness at just 21. But I had the last laugh in the end. I saw her again some time later at a fashion show where she said she’d been wrong about me and that I should be grateful she gave me the incentive to try harder. She then said she might even wear one of my designs to her next event. Now I’ve never been a catty person but I said to her, ‘Oh, darling. Surely a piece made by a Yorkshire girl would never be good enough for you,’ and walked off.
On the up
Debbie’s celebrity client list was growing and she started making finale pieces for big fashion houses under non-disclosure contracts. Soon, her designs were being shown in Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Elle, Glamour and Hello.
They also made their way to the small screen, appearing on Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty.
Yet none of this work was under her own brand.
Following years of ghost designing, Debbie decided it was time to do her own runway show and what better place than at the home of the A-listers in Hollywood.
In 2009, Debbie launched her debut collection as part of LA Fashion Week, with models walking poolside at the iconic Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard.
This Grecian-inspired collection of red-carpet wear captured the interest of a range of stars such as Katy Perry, Dita Von Teese and Kate Winslet.
Back on home turf, she was also invited to be a guest judge on season five of Britain’s Next Top Model where the contestants wore her gowns for an underwater shoot.
The start of the Black Diamond obsession
While home from LA, it is here that Debbie met her now-husband and embarked on a whirlwind romance that would inspire her future fashion standing as the world’s most expensive designer.
We got engaged really quickly just ten days after meeting and my husband proposed to me with this black diamond ring. I’d never even heard of them before but he wanted to get me something that matched my quirky personality. Black had become my signature colour. My collection was called Noir, I was always dressed in black and with long black hair I’d been called the couture version of Morticia Addams. Plus I was a coal miner’s daughter.
A blonde bombshell once sang that diamonds are a girl’s best friend and Debbie’s new sparkler sparked a fascination with these rare black diamonds that would become her muse and change her life overnight.
Following a two-year sabbatical to spend time with her husband and his two young daughters, Debbie was looking for ways to relaunch her career with a bang. She’d always tread in the well-heeled shadows of someone else’s shoes and so now was the time for her to rightfully claim her own recognition.
Inspired by what lie wrapped around her finger, Debbie came up with the idea of creating a black diamond dress as media exercise which took around 12 months of hard work to create.
The biggest logistical problem Debbie faced was sourcing and loaning these rare diamonds. Extensive thought would need to go into it about diamond size, clarity and aesthetics to be able to pull off such a feat.
There was no model about how to launch the world’s most expensive dress so I had to create one. I’d always been more of a ‘doer’ rather than a ‘gonna’ and my new name was Wingham so I just had to wing it.
The stunning chain-mail dress with intricate peplum and shoulder cape detailing featured 50 2ct black diamonds, 1,500 white pointer diamonds and a 5ct black diamond centrepiece to the bustier. It was valued at £3.5million making it the world’s most expensive dress on record.
It was nerve-wracking at first working with such expensive jewels but you soon get used to it. To be honest, it was very rare that I was in close contact with the diamonds and if I was, it was usually in a vault flanked by security. We used placebo gems in production and swapped them out at the last minute so there was limited interaction.
Debbie launched the dress at Monaco’s prestigious Fairmont Hotel in Monte Carlo and overnight, her career rocketed, thrusting her name into the luxury fashion sector.
The dress became the talk of Hollywood. It appeared on the pages of over 100 luxury magazines, made front-page news worldwide and was talked about on BBC News, E! and Access Hollywood.
It opened up a whole new realm of lavishness for Debbie and this one-of-a-kind piece is still her favourite to date.
The World’s Most Expensive strikes again
In 2013, Debbie challenged herself again, this time creating a red diamond Abaya worth £11.7million.
After visiting the Emirates, Debbie was inspired by the elegantly dressed Arabian ladies whose traditional clothing was very heavily detailed with a similar beading style to her own designs.
The black and red Muslim cloak featured 3,000 stones in total including the one-in-100-million rare natural red diamond; this alone was worth £5.4million. It was flanked by 50 2ct white diamonds, 50 2ct black diamonds and 1,000 rubies, all set in platinum and hand-stitched used 14ct white gold thread.
It was much easier the second time round as the nerves had gone and I knew what I was doing.
Again, the media went wild with this record-breaking most expensive garment ever made. But little did Debbie know the Abaya would also lay the foundations for another career path; this time in the baking world.
Couture to Cakes
Now with three girls at home having had a daughter of her own, time was spent having girly days during her sabbatical years.
I’d never been the mumsy type before and lived off a diet of champagne and canapés. As I was constantly sewing I’d never had the time to cook before and so couldn’t even boil an egg eight years ago. The girls and I started watching things on TV like Cake Boss where they made the most amazing creations from cake. One day I just decided to give it a try.
Swapping couture for cakes and fabric for fondant, Debbie fell into the heady world of patisserie and honed her craft as a sculptress. Yet she kept her talents hidden away in a forbidden cake room within her home.
By chance, a client came over from Dubai and stumbled upon this room, exclaiming this was just what she needed. The lady had been at the Abaya showcase in the Emirates and was looking for the equivalent of one of Debbie’s dresses but in cake form.
It was my first ever cake commission and of course, I love a challenge, so it was never going to be your typical eight-inch round with a character on the top – that’s just not my thing. Instead, we combined fashion with cake and created a six-foot runway with special effects built in.
The cake took over 1,100 hours to create, which, based on an average full-time working week, is over 31 weeks of designing, baking, sculpting and finessing.
It weighed over 450kg – around the same weight as a male grizzly bear – and included edible props and models along with smoke, music and lighting.
But of course, the brilliance didn’t stop there.
Two weeks before deadline, I had a phone call saying ‘You’re the diamond girl, could you put a few diamonds on the cake?’ The client owned a portfolio of jewellery that they wanted to gift their daughter for her birthday and engagement. The next phone call was from the jeweller asking me if I was sitting down before reeling off a list of items longer than me in heels.
Echoes of the Yorkshire anthem of ‘Ow Much? stunned Debbie into silence. £48.5million to be precise.
Along with emeralds and amethysts, the list of 4,000 items included a 5.2ct pink diamond, 6.4ct yellow diamond plus 15 flawless 5ct white diamonds. The frosting was speckled with 76 2ct black diamonds and 62 2ct white diamonds.
A third entry into the World Record books for Debbie and a promotion to cake expert to the stars.
While it had taken her 15 years to build up a reputation in haute couture, Debbie saw sweet success in just three years for her cakes, racking up a range of clients from Justin Bieber to Drake while also having her own published magazine columns and TV shows.
She has recently hit the news again with her first realism piece and favourite cake to date, the million dollar Arabian bride. This full size life-like creation weighed over 100kg, using 1,000 eggs, 20kg of modeling chocolate, 50kg of lace fondant and 5,000 hand-crafted flowers and pearls to create the stunning bride.
Turning her talents back to fashion, Debbie also created the world’s most expensive shoes valued at £11.7million for the same Dubai cake client, this time featuring rare pink and blue diamonds plus 1,000 white pointer diamonds in the quilted 24ct gold painted design.
Future of Fashion
While her name is now notorious within the luxury sector, Debbie still has plenty she wants to achieve and projects she’s looking to develop including her Future of Fashion academy which she launched in 2013.
To inspire the next generation of creatives and offer opportunities for young people aged seven to 16, the project has helped 5,000 kids so far progress in their fashion careers.
Based worldwide with programmes in Europe and the USA, Future of Fashion is one of Debbie’s main focuses as she looks to expand even further afield.
She has also written a book, From Coal Dust to Diamonds, which gives an uncut view into the highs and lows of her 18-year journey and will be available towards the end of the year.
Her career might have taken her around the world from Dubai and Qatar to Russia and the Ukraine, Monte Carlo and Marbella to New York, San Francisco and LA; but it is crystal clear she’s still a Yorkshire girl at heart and hasn’t let fame or fashion change her.
I believe that whatever industry you are in, if you’re committed, passionate and interested then you are already half way there. We all have bad days but I try and use these as an incentive to keep pushing forward, breaking down any goals I have into smaller, achievable sections of the bigger picture. I’ve never let the industry define me – I am who I am and I won’t change for anyone.