Two Wiggy British Nobles, Annette and Danny, Stage a Design Revolution in Philadelphia
But just as a terrible rehearsal is supposed to guarantee a great opening night, things started falling into place. A backup generator was rolled in, and the hairdresser arrived with the wigs. Out front the audience perched on cream-colored chairs and applauded wildly as the models—faces powdered and cheeks emblazoned with black beauty spots—paraded in oversize shirts slit up the back, paisley pants and striped tops and vests. Grinning with relief, the Nobles took a victory stroll down the runway. "It is like magic when it works," Danny said.
This winter Danny, 34, and Annette, 39, are hot tickets in the U.S. fashion world. Expatriates from Britain who have been in business stateside for only two years, they have already been nominated for a Coty, the rag trade's equivalent of the Oscar. Their fresh, easygoing female fashions with, as Danny puts it, "a twist," are snagging such fans as Christie Brinkley, Susan Sarandon and Boy George, and the Nobles expect to gross $5 million this year. "The first time I saw their clothes, I absolutely flipped," says Details editor Annie Flanders. "They are the right clothes for the moment."
America's new sweethearts of design might have been picked by central casting for their role. Annette still acts like a slip of a girl with bright red hair and nails and a gap-toothed grin. Danny, who at 5'6" is two inches taller than his wife, has dazzling blue eyes and a thick mop of hair he has streaked with peroxide. But despite their raffish looks, the Nobles are hardheaded in business choices. The first was to settle in Philadelphia, a city not renowned for trendiness. "The costs in New York would have been prohibitive," explains Danny. He spent two years, from 1980 to 1982, designing for another husband-and-wife team, Albert and Pearl Nipon. "This country is incredible," says Danny. "What we have accomplished in the States, we couldn't have managed anywhere else in the world."
The Nobles have been in motion most of their lives. Danny was born in Canada and moved at age 4 to London, where his father was an executive in the women's underwear business. After a stint at art school, Danny graduated from the London College of Fashion in 1970 and the following year married choreographer Arlene Phillips. In the early '70s Danny assisted designer Bill Gibb and then signed on with Bus Stop, a chain of trendy boutiques. He started his own business in 1976, turning out such lighthearted outfits as see-through polka-dot pants worn with basketball sneaks.
Annette, who was born in Wales, the daughter of former Olympic diver Arthur Smith, was shipped off early to Hertfordshire to study ballet. After a short stint at medical school, she discovered she was so skilled at drawing muscles and bones that she switched to the Brighton College of Art. The couple met when Danny came calling at Annette's design and pattern-making studio. "He wanted my services," she laughs. "He was actually very shy and nervous, a sweet little person. You couldn't hear a word he was saying. Look what I've done to him." After Danny separated from his wife, he started dating Annette, and they married three years ago. "We have been together eight years," Annette says. "In any other relationship it would be 16, because we are together all the time. It is wonderful when you open your eyes and the first thing you get is a business question instead of a 'Good morning, darling.' " Danny picks the fabrics and is the designer. Annette edits the drawings and makes the patterns. "I don't know if it is good or bad," she says, "but we are very dependent on each other."
"We are very free-spirited people," Danny insists, but the Nobles, who recently bought a 19th-century house on Philadelphia's historic Society Hill, are also savvy about their future. "We want to build carefully and steadily," Danny says. "We want to be around for a long time. We're not the flavor of the month. We have a message, we are making clothes we believe in, and I haven't come to a fraction of my potential."