Susanna Williams was modelling in the 1982 Benson & Hedges Fashion Design Awards when her name was called out on-stage. She had won the Young Designer of the Year Award. Surrounded by the cheers of the other models, she "dissolved" when she realised she had won.
A first-time entrant, her design - a four-piece navy blue silk party ensemble that included a swishy skirt and bouffant-sleeved blouse - was modelled by former beauty queen Delyse Nottle. Busy back-stage with her next change, Susanna was unable to accept the award herself so her mother, who was seated in the audience, did so on her behalf.
Susanna’s fiancé and business partner John Tibbetts was also in the audience. A year earlier, in June 1981, they left their Cook Street Market stalls to open a store together, Gillymouse and The Gringo. The name stems from their nicknames - Californian-born John was known as The Gringo and Susanna was called Gillymouse after mispronunciation of the Spanish version of her last name, Guilliamos.
Susanna was born in Spain and moved with her family to New Zealand. After attending Epsom Girls Grammar School, she had plans to be a lawyer. But she gave up her studies in 1977 when her part-time sewing job at the Cook Street Market lured her into the fashion world.
Susanna was sewing jersey knit skirts with a handkerchief hem for a friend when she met another stallholder, John Tibbetts. He encouraged her to start designing her own garments and soon she had withdrawn from law school to sell her clothes alongside John’s casual menswear range. During the week Susanna would make five pairs of rayon pants a day - a one-size-fits-all style with tiny pleats and an elasticated waist. The pants, which she sold for $25, would sell out every weekend.
Their popularity prompted her to open her own stall under the label Susanna Francesca. "I basically made a pair of pants that proved successful enough to last me three years," she told Apparel magazine in 1985. Her neighbouring stallholders, SooKim’s Suzanne Bringhams and Le Ballon Rouge’s Janice Giles-Brown, were more than happy to share their knowledge, but it was John Tibbetts, she says, who taught her the trade. "I followed him around constantly, picking up tips on buying fabrics, dealing with suppliers and so on."
Susanna was also fortunate to gain experience in the high-end fashion world. Her height and ballet training meant she was in demand as a model, including a long-term position as Colin Cole’s bridal model. Her modelling experience also led to a part-time tutor role at the June Dally-Watkins Deportment School and Model Agency headed by Maysie Bestall-Cohen.
John and Susanna’s store, Gillymouse and The Gringo, was in a rented retail space and workroom located at 179 Hobson Street until, like many neighbouring buildings, it was demolished to make space during the property development boom in the 1980s.
Susannah and John, who were by now married, sold their label wholesale while they made plans for their next venture. They realised they wanted to open a new shop. "We learned so much from having direct contact with our customers," Susanna said. In June 1985 they opened 'John Tibbetts: Shirtmaker and Clothier' in Elephant House Lane, Parnell. When Susanna was asked by Apparel magazine why she was not included in the name of the shop, she explained that it would be too clumsy to have both their names. "I know what I do and don’t have to have my name on it to prove that to anyone. I’ve also discovered that women like wearing men’s labels." It was true that it was the era of male designers such as Pierre Cardin and Yves Saint Laurent, but it did made it difficult for Susanna to leverage off the success of her Benson & Hedges win.
In 1996, Susanna left both New Zealand and the fashion industry to study acting. She had always been interested in theatre, including involvement with the Howick Little Theatre as a costume designer and actress, and a role in the 1992 film, Alex. She only returned briefly to New Zealand. Now married to Chris Devereux, Susanna lives in the United States where she works as an actor and designer, no longer designing clothes but a range of luxury bed linen.
Text by Kelly Dix. Banner image of Susanna Williams on the cover of Apparel magazine. Image © Apparel magazine.
Last published May 2018.