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  • Written by Rebecca Campbell
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A Novel

Written by Rebecca CampbellAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Rebecca Campbell


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On Sale: February 26, 2002
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-58836-221-6
Published by : Villard Ballantine Group
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Fashion college has taught Katie Castle everything she ever needed to know: how to smoke cigarettes and drink; how to flirt with gay men and straight women; how to get into clubs without paying. Possessed of a sharp eye and a stiletto tongue, Katie talks her way into the job of her dreams. Working for chic designer Penny Moss, Katie snags not only a town house in London’s Primrose Hill but also a cute fiancé, Ludo, who happens to be Penny’s son. But one act of libidinal folly with the company delivery driver costs Katie everything: job, boyfriend, flat, friends. Will she be forced to move back with her sartorially challenged parents? Or can she maneuver a return to fashion that somehow doesn’t involve (gasp!) retail?

Rebecca Campbell has invented a wisecracking heroine who’ll keep you laughing right up to the last page. Katie’s misfortune will be your delight, as this irrepressible wit carpe diems herself into a set of adventures that once again propels her to the top. Slave to Fashion marks the arrival of an uncommonly smart and very funny new writer.


Chapter 1
The Way We Were

At five past six, every day, the same question:

“Katie, what have you done?”

For some people that might have been a question filled with foreboding. You know, what have you done with your life; or look what you’ve screwed up now. But from me, at this time, it always got the same answer, a smart answer:

“Made coffee, chatted to the girls, tried (and failed) to make the printer print, had my nails done next door at the N.Y. Nail Bar, went for a latte at Gino’s (flashed my second best smile at the divine boy Dante, but I wouldn’t tell Penny that), chatted some more to the girls, thought about the collection, phoned the factory (why can’t they learn to speak English?), got a sandwich from Cranks, puked it up in the bog, had a spat with the French, sent reminders to Harvey Nicks and the new shop in Harrogate. Just the usual.”

And Penny, breathing exasperation into the phone, always came back with, “You know exactly what I mean. What did you do?”

And so I’d give up. “Three and a half.”

“Not bad for a Tuesday.”

“Bloody good for a Tuesday. But today’s Wednesday.”

“Well, not bad for a Wednesday, either. What did you say you did?”

“Three and a half.”

“And what about Beeching Place?”

“Just one and a half.”

“Oh. Still, that’s . . . six thousand for the two shops.”


“You know I’m no good at fractions. What did you say you did?”

The miracle is that I managed to stay sane for so long.

I suppose when I first went to work for Penny she was pretty good. After all, she’d built up Penny Moss from not much more than a market stall into a perfectly respectable business, a business that people had almost heard of, even if they sometimes got us mixed up with Ronit Zilkha, or Caroline Charles, or, heaven forfend, Paul Costelloe. Two shops and a wholesale side that had taken off and was cruising at a comfortable altitude. People had worn our clothes on daytime telly. Penny, conspicuously without Hugh, had been in Hello!. Well, okay, OK! But, as Penny pointed out to anyone who’d listen, it’s got a bigger circulation anyway. A cabinet minister wore one of our suits at the party conference (a coffee tussah silk affair, like a funked-up Chanel) and, for the first time, looked more feminine than her male colleagues. Professional women who want to look chic and chic women who want to look professional wear our clothes. The next time you’re at a wedding, look around you. There, among the neuralgic pink and monkey-puke yellow, you’ll see our clothes: subtle, perfectly tailored, elegant.

Where were we? Yes, just as we were beginning to make some real money, Penny started to get battier. She’d always had tendencies. Odd flights of fancy, a fondness for viscose. But now she was forgetting things. Losing things. The usual signposts in the foothills of senility. If I sound callous, it’s because she’s not my mum. She’s Ludo’s. Oh, God! It’s all getting complicated already. I’ll have to set it out straight, or you’ll never catch up.

My name is Katie Castle, and this is the story of how I had everything, lost it all, and then found it again, but not quite all of it, and not in the same form, and, if I’m perfectly frank (which, I have to confess, doesn’t come naturally), not, in every single particular, quite so good. The story’s mainly about me, but it also involves, in no special order:

•Penny, my employer, the wife of Hugh;

•Hugh, the husband of Penny;

•Liam, my Big Mistake;

•Jonah, who was nearly an even bigger mistake, but who turned out to be a Good Thing;

•Veronica, my loyal and faithful servant, up to a point; and

•Ludo, who is the adored child of Penny and Hugh and who was, at the very beginning, the point at which you came in, my beloved, my betrothed.

There’re lots of other people as well, friends and hangers-on, but you’ll meet them when you meet them. I’ve decided to be honest, so you might find yourself thinking me a madam or a minx, but even if I do some bad things, and some silly things, you must try to stay on my side, because in the end I turn out to be quite good, I promise.

In the beginning. Like everybody else, I live in London. Like almost everybody else, I live in Primrose Hill, the bit of London where Camden stops being horrid and Regents Park stops being boring. Like not quite everybody else, but like an awful-lot-of-body-else, I work in fashion. So I’m not really a designer, but anyone who works in fashion will tell you that the most important person in any fashion company is the production manager. We all know that. What’s a designer, anyway? A tricky East End nonce who knows what to steal and who to screw. Or who to be screwed by. Not even an original thief, but a parasite on parasites. A magpie collecting bits of tinsel other magpies have thieved. Art school losers too good at drawing to make it as artists, too vain to be teachers, too thick to be anything else. I love them, but I wouldn’t want to be one. And anyway, we don’t really have designers in our company. We have Penny. And Penny has me.

I started in the shop. There was a card in the window: “Help Wanted. Experience preferred.” Well, I had experience. Penny and Hugh interviewed me. I did my trick of being girlie and grown-up at the same time: girlie to Hugh and grown-up to Penny. The shop’s on a little lane just off Regent Street. It looks quite small from the front, but it goes on up forever, stairs winding into the sky. I should say that it starts out as a shop, and then it becomes a studio, where the samples are made, and then at the top it turns into an office. I spend most of my time at the top, with Penny, who goes home at four o’clock every day except Friday, when she goes home at three. That’s why she always phones me at five past six to find out how we’ve done.

The girls in the shop don’t like me very much. We all chatter away whenever I drop down to see how things are going, but I know they bitch about me when I’m gone. That’s just the way shops are—there’s nothing else to do. If it’s not the fat bums and flabby tits of the customers, then it’s the stupidity and cruelty of the bosses, and that sort of includes me. They don’t like the way that I skipped upstairs, leaving them behind. They think I think I’m too good for them now, which I do, and I am. But our warfare is cold, and mainly takes the form of sulks and obstinacy over rotas.

Things are different with the studio. The problem there is that I have to tell them when things go wrong. I have to make them do things they don’t want to do, and then I have to make them do them again. I have to tell them off. Penny is too grand to concern herself with such matters as stretched necks, lumpy zips, badly distributed ease on the sleeve head, sloppy felling, and wavering seams. And that means, of course, that it’s me who has to stand there as Tony, our unreliable, temperamental, irascible, but entirely essential sample machinist, throws one of his tantrums, spitting out curses in Maltese and rending pieces of calico to frayed white ribbon. It’s me that has to endure the open enmity of Mandy, with her leopardskin pants and tongue to match.

But I didn’t care. And why didn’t I care? Because my life was perfect.

.      .      .

A poet died in my square. I read her poems once, but they were all me me me. The flat isn’t mine, of course. It’s Ludo’s. But it felt like mine. I’d made it mine. Everything apart from the brick and slate had been chosen by me. Out had gone Ludo’s schoolboy clutter—his saggy old armchair, his disgusting family heirloom curtains; pictures of dead people. So now we had clean lines, a gleaming wood floor, blinds that seemed to make the rooms lighter rather than darker when they were down. There were always flowers. Ludo hates flowers. “I’d see the point if you could eat them,” he’d say. His horrible old books were confined to his study—the Smelly Room, I called it.

Ludo. Everybody loved Ludo. He was so helpless. He looked like a completely random pile of clothes, hair, shoes, and beer bottles somehow come to life. I tried to do for him what I’d done for the flat, but it didn’t take. It was like trying to polish suede. At least I managed to get him to cut his hair, which was something, even if he resented it in that slow-burning way of his.

The really funny thing about Ludo is that he was a teacher. And he didn’t even have to be. He could have done all sorts of things, he was so clever. But instead of all sorts of things, he taught English at a school in Lambeth—the kind of school where even the teachers carry knives. I suppose it was some kind of reaction against his parents. Or rather against Penny. He’d spend all night marking in the Smelly Room. He had views about the National Curriculum, but none of our friends ever listened.

Seducing Ludo was easy. I could tell that he liked me because he blushed the first time he met me. I was still in the shop then, and he came in to see Penny. Although it was August, he wore a hairy tweed jacket, like a cowpat with arms.

“Mum in?” he said to Zuleika, the Lebanese girl who’d been there for years without doing very much, unless you count having lovely skin as doing something. Before she had the chance to answer, I carpe diemed.

“She’s lunching with Vogue. You must be the genius. I’m Katie Castle.” Before he knew what was happening, I had him out of there and into Slackers wine bar. During the first bottle of Pouilly-Fumé we did, in a slow spiral downward, his favorite books, his favorite films, his job, his loves, his hates, his inner despair, his aching loneliness, his family. I sighed and nodded, eyes moistening in sympathy. And then, in a textbook maneuver, I led him from that dark place and showed him that life could be fun. I joked, I flirted I sparkled, and we spiraled up through the second bottle, like pearl fishers. I made it seem as though he were doing the entertaining: I laughed at his first jokes, moved closer, bent toward him, touched his arm.

And, you know, it really wasn’t all pretend. Underneath all that hair and cobwebs and mustiness, I found a perfectly nice-looking man, with a lovely, shy smile and really quite kissable eyes. Even if he hadn’t been my big chance, I still might have fallen in love with him. We made it back just before Penny—I was always a good judge of a lunchtime. Zuleika was fuming, but that didn’t matter. Penny made her entrance and enveloped Ludo in her customary critical embrace. And instantly, with that famous low cunning of hers, she knew.

“Darling, have you been getting in the way of the girls?” she declaimed, and without pause swept Ludo up the stairs to write the check. But on his way out, a long, long half hour later, he asked for my number, and his fate was sealed.

Of course, Penny tried to fight it. Penny understood me very well. Because, I suppose, we’re really quite alike. Or could it just be that she always thinks the worst of people and the worst, on this one occasion, just happened to be true? I always had an ally in Hugh. Hugh loves women, and the prettier they are, the more he loves them. And whatever they might say in the shop, or the studio, or anywhere else, I am pretty. Hugh always thought I was good for Ludo. “You’re good for Ludo,” he’d say. “You bring him out of himself. Stop him from brooding and sulking all the time like a wolf in its lair.” It became clear that Ludo was a disappointment to him. Hugh was big and bold and successful and confident. He’d sent Ludo to his old school, hoping it would turn him into a copy of himself. Instead poor Ludo emerged broken and resentful. To Hugh and Penny’s despair, and despite insanely good grades, he refused even to apply to Oxford, but went instead to some college in Wales. “Not even a wretched redbrick,” as Hugh bemoaned. “Looks like a Bulgarian nuclear power station.” It was always hard working out Hugh and Penny as a couple. Hugh was posh, you couldn’t escape that. He had that faint sheen that only posh people seem to carry with them, even into late middle age. Not like my parents. Not, I suspect, like Penny’s. Penny had been an actress. She would rattle off titles from TV series in the sixties I’d never heard of. She talked about a play. There had been a couple of films. Sean Connery was mentioned, but I never worked out in what connection. She said that she had given it all up for Hugh and Ludo. Penny Moss—her maiden name—began as a hobby. She made her own clothes in the sixties— tie-dyed head scarves, crocheted ponchos with matching berets, that sort of thing, I imagine. People liked them. She began to sell them to friends. The next thing she knew, she had a Saturday stall in Portobello, just a bit of fun, really. And then the first shop.

All this time Hugh’s enterprises—things in the City, investments, speculations—were starting to “go a little stale,” as he put it. And then, sometime in the early 1980s, there came a point when Penny Moss began to bring in more than he did. Rather than pick up the gauntlet, he capitulated. Drew up the drawbridge and took to golf. Penny used to drag him into the office occasionally, to help with hiring and firing, but it was more symbolic than anything. He didn’t seem too bothered about it. He’d bought the fabulous house in Kensington. He still had a few investments, and Penny Moss was doing nicely. Why work when, again in his words, he could simply “live off his hump”? But this had all led to a power shift in the relationship. And Penny was never one to miss an opportunity. As Hugh retreated, so she advanced. She’d been attractive (I’d seen—who hadn’t?—the photographs) as a young woman, but as a woman of a certain age, she was a stunner. She went every year to Cannes during the festival, and there were rumors of affairs with the most surprising people. Could Peter Sellers really have proposed one moonlit night on a yacht chartered by the French minister of culture? She claimed she kept the ring as a memento when he refused to take it back. Did Marcello Mastroianni really suggest a spot of troilism with a Scandawegian starlet? Penny used to talk about these things in a wistful sort of way, as though it were something she’d desired rather than achieved, but Ludo’s grumpy silence on the subject offered some kind of authentication. I got the feeling that he’d been teased about her at school. I found it hard not to laugh whether or not the stories were true.

But that’s all ancient history. I’ll cut to the chase. Ludo was mine, whatever Penny thought about it. We lived together in the Primrose Hill flat, and we were engaged, although Ludo could never quite remember when or how he had asked me to marry him. When it became clear that she could not maneuver me out of Ludo’s life (she’d tried both blackmail and bribery), Penny had the good sense to draw me up to the office, to avoid the shame of her sweet boy consorting with a shop girl. I was made an assistant to Carol, the previous production manager. But Carol must have known the writing was on the wall, and after a week, to everyone’s relief, she left to do volunteer work in Egypt and was never heard of again. I used to like to think that she’d been eaten by a crocodile. I know that might suggest that I’m a bit lacking in the generosity of spirit department, but I used to be much preoccupied by the question of whether it would be better to be eaten by a crocodile or a shark. Crocodile always seemed more likely, because of Tarzan. You see, I could always imagine myself as Jane, whereas sharks mainly seem to eat Australians, and imagining oneself as an Australian is out of the question.

With my new job I soon found that I had new friends. The London fashion world is a small one. There are six people you have to know. Enter that blessed circle and you will never miss a party and never brunch alone. If I hadn’t quite made it into that circle, I was at least a satellite of a moon orbiting a planet that was part of the circle, and for now, that would do.

And then—could it really be just nine months ago?—came that phone call from Penny and my usual smart reply. But it was not to end there.

“Katie darling . . .” A bad sign, that “darling.”

“Yes, Penny?”

“There’s some trouble at the depot. Cavafy says he can’t find the right interlining. I know it’s there, somewhere. You couldn’t go out there tomorrow morning and check for me, could you? There’s really no one else I can ask. You can do it on your way in to work.”

I pulled my Jean Muir face and hissed out three shits and a fuck. The depot was the worst thing about my job. A hideous warehouse in outer Mile End, full of toiling women whose lives were simply too awful to contemplate. Cavafy was the old Greek who ran the place, with his idiot son, Angel. And the “on your way in to work” was typical Penny. Mile End was no more on my way in to work than my ass is on the way to my elbow.
Rebecca Campbell|Author Q&A

About Rebecca Campbell

Rebecca Campbell - Slave to Fashion
Rebecca Campbell was educated at the London School of Economics and the London College of Fashion. She and her mother, Paddy Campbell, run a clothing design firm that sells throughout Ireland and the United Kingdom. She lives in North London with her husband, a writer, and their son, Gabriel.

Author Q&A

Interview with Rebecca Campbell

Rebecca is one of those English people blessed, or cursed, with an ‘interesting’ family. Her mother, Paddy Campbell, is a half-American former screen actress turned fashion designer. Paddy’s mother was a famously beautiful dancer, and her father one of the most celebrated newspaper cartoonists of the inter-war years. Rebecca’s father is an architect, the son of Lord Jock Campbell of Eskine. Lord Campbell was an old friend of James Bond author Ian Fleming, and as Chairman of the Booker corporation, he instigated the premier English literary prize.

So, I ask, is what’s more in the blood, fashion and glamour, or literature?

I suppose I always had both, but for a long time they were things that I rebelled against. But I think that if I’ve inherited anything, it’s the fashion side of things through Paddy. Inherited is the wrong word: it’s more that I absorbed a love of clothes from the womb onwards.

Designer, writer, mother — how do you do it?

I’m a good designer a bad mother and a fast writer.

How did you get into fashion.

Nepotism — the only way! My mother had started up a design business in the seventies, and I suppose I always knew that it would claim me, although I fought it for as long as I could. I studied at the London School of Economics: a very serious place, and I thought I’d better get a serious job when I graduated. Big mistake. I spent a terrible year working for a scary Japanese bank, surrounded by people who were much better than I was at whatever it was that I was supposed to be doing. I jumped just before I was pushed, and spent some time learning the rudiments of design, pattern cutting and all that, at the London College of Fashion. And then on to Paddy Campbell.

What are your clothes like?

Well, we like to think that we’re pretty chic and elegant. It’s mainly dresses and suits for women in business or the law. Oh, and posh weddings! We do lots of posh weddings. We’re the kind of company that never makes headlines, but the people who know about fashion know how good we are.

What about famous customers?

It’s not something that we like to talk about, but we’ve dressed princesses, and Prime Ministers’ wives, and a lot of famous actresses. But I don’t want us to sound too grand. I think what we do best is making ordinary women feel conformable and glamorous at the same time.

What made you suddenly take up writing in your thirties?

I’d always wanted to write, always felt that at some level that’s what I was. But writing takes time, and I never had any. Bizarrely it was having my son, Gabriel, that gave me some breathing space away from work to see if I could cut the mustard. And I couldn’t have done it without my husband, Anthony. He’s a wonderful writer, and he basically taught me how to write by criticising the things I showed him. But even before I’d put pen to paper, most of the characters had a kind of life. I knew all about Katy Castle, the social climbing, ruthless, but still likeable heroine. I knew all about the awful Penny, and the loathsome Milo. They were almost as real as the actual people around me. I just didn’t quite know what they were going to do with each other until I started typing.

Is the Katie castle Character based on you?

Only in the sense that all the characters a writer invents are in some way a part of her: Madam Bovary c’ et moi and all that. Katie’s much naughtier than me: she says and does things that I only think about. And she’s a lot funnier than I am — one of the great things about being a writer is that you get more time to think up a smart-alec reply. I’ve always had that thing — the what do you call it when you think of a good put down when its too late?

Esprit d’escallier?

That’s it, the spirit of the stairway. Well, Katie always gets to say just the right thing at just the right time.

What are your influences? Which other writers do you like?

One of the spurs to writing Katie Castle was reading the early novels of Evelyn Waugh. There’s such lightness and grace there, but also a deadly, cold-hearted satire. I read Waugh just after I’d ploughed through a pile of city girl novels and it was so wonderful to come across the real thing after all that dross. It made me want to at least try to combine his care over language, with the accessibility of the city-girl kind of novel.

Any one else?

Another important influence was reading Vanity Fair. The ‘heroine’ Becky Sharp, is such a bitch, and an incredibly modern sort of bitch at that. There’s an honesty in the portrait that you just don’t get in my contemporaries. For too many modern women writers, their heroines are just too straightforwardly virtuous. And their failings are the kind of failings you read in horoscopes — you know, ‘you’re too generous for your own good’, or ‘your willingness to trust will cause problems this month.’ I wanted to write a female character with some deeply unattractive, and yet all too human qualities, and still make the reader love and identify with her.

Are there any similarities between writing and designing clothes?

I suppose they’re both, broadly speaking, creative endeavours. And they both require a certain degree of craftsmanship. But no, there are far more differences than similarities. Fashion is a collaborative enterprise. So many people are involved in producing a collection, from the designer, the paten cutter, the sample machinist, the people in the factory. Writing, on the other hand, is almost completely solitary. And of course, although you could make a case for seeing fashion as a sort of language, conveying certain messages and ideas, it’s a very crude compared to written language. Turning from dealing in shapes and textures and colours as a designer to using words as a writer is amazingly liberating. There’s suddenly so much to say!

What’s next?

I’ve nearly finished my second novel, which is called Alice and the Dead Boy.

Is it Katie Castle II kind of book?

Oh no, it couldn’t be more different to Katie Castle. It’s a sort of tragic romance, with some slapstick thrown in. After that I’ve got about half a dozen more ideas, but I’d like to take a little time out, play with my son, just muck about really. And then there’s always the Spring and Summer collections, and then the Autumn Winter range, and so on ad infinitum.



Advance praise for Slave to Fashion

“I love this book! It’s a fantastically sharp, witty novel, full of hilarious observations and wincingly good one-liners.” —Sophie Kinsella, author of Confessions of a Shopaholic

“Slave to Fashion is so chic, it’s on fire! So deft, it’s designer!” —Molly Jong-Fast, author of Normal Girl

“Sharply observed and very amusing.” —Kirkus Reviews

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