As a fashion designer, she was often the gaffer. Now Debbie Cotton tells Island Life about a different ‘Gaffers’ adventure – and much more.
As diverse as they may sound, fashion design and horses have been two of the big passions in the busy life of Debbie Cotton.
She talks about both with equal enthusiasm, and how she managed to combine the two, allowing her to offset the pressures of a business career that took her to all corners of the world by returning to the tranquillity of life around the stables.
Debbie recalls how she often landed at Heathrow Airport from a visit to the Far East in the early hours of the morning, take a taxi dash to Lymington, a ferry across to Yarmouth, and by early afternoon she would be riding out with the Isle of Wight Hunt.
Several times during what has been a whirlwind life, Debbie thought about easing back on the throttle. But each time a new and interesting project has been thrown her way – and she is not the type to resist a challenge.
One of her big ventures these days is to oversee the running of the Old Gaffers’ Festival in her home town of Yarmouth – a gathering always recognised as one of the major social events of the Island calendar.
She fell into the role almost by accident seven years ago, admitting she knew nothing about boats, and never pretended to, but had built the reputation of ‘being good at organising things’. Having been invited to join the committee by then chairperson Pat Lester, she willingly agreed, and soon took over as chair.
Since then Debbie has played a key role in the development of the Festival, and points out that it is almost totally reliant on sponsorship and costs more than £65,000 to stage. So when the IW Council withdrew their sponsorship last year, and then announced they were going to charge for using their land and hand all stallholders a licence fee it put the future of the Festival in jeopardy.
But Debbie and her fellow committee members – all volunteers – are a resilient group. And the show goes on, anticipated to be even bigger and better thanks to the generous backing provided of Wightlink, Yarmouth Harbour Commissioners, Southern Vectis and the local police, as well as enthusiastic residents of Yarmouth.
She said: “The committee members are just fantastic people. They are devoted volunteers who do an amazing job and are unusual in as much as they do their own job to perfection, but do not try to get involved in other people’s jobs.”
The Festival may only last three days – this year it takes place on June 4, 5 and 6. But Debbie and her committee members spend the best part of 10 months planning the event, which attracts tens of thousands of visitors from the Island and mainland.
The focus this time has been on improving the evening entertainment. Debbie says enthusiastically: “We wanted something different so on the Friday night we are having Rob da Bank.” Maybe sensing that the Island based Radio One DJ and Bestival organiser may not be on my radar, she enquires: “Have you heard of him?”
There was relief on her face as I nodded, and her next revelation was unveiled with equal enthusiasm. “On the Saturday night we are having Abba and The Beatles tribute bands, so it should be a lot of fun. We are also having a fancy dress on the Friday night themed Buccaneers and Belles.” It appears that all the hard work that began last September will again reap its rewards when the Festival springs back into life in the picturesque West Wight town. A pause for breath and then Debbie recounts how those other two passions – fashion and horses – became an integral part of her life. But amid the exuberance there have been moments of deep sadness.
Born and brought up in Gosport, Debbie was just a toddler when her father William Bury, a former bomber pilot during the Second World War, was among those killed when the BOAC Comet he was flying crashed off the Island of Elba, where there remains a memorial to him to this day. As pilots were not insured in those days Debbie was educated privately at Portsmouth High School, paid for by BOAC and the RAF Benevolent Fund as part of compensation.
She was also allowed to fly anywhere in the world at just 10 per cent of the cost, and took advantage with many trips. She also toyed with modelling, but more out of fun than as a prospective career. Despite the tragic loss of her father, she recalls: “I had a glorious childhood with ponies and dogs, and many other animals. I always wanted my own pony, so I had a paper round and did all sorts to raise money so I could buy one. Before that I used to have ‘pretend gymkhanas’ around the living room with rabbits!
“The first time I ever saw a horse was when a greengrocer used to deliver vegetables around Gosport, and we were allowed to sit on its back as it moved up the street. I was desperate for a horse of my own, and in the end I bought a Dartmoor pony called Thomas. He cost me £37-19s-6d” Meanwhile, Debbie always dreamed of becoming a fashion designer, saying: “I was obsessed with clothes and still am. One thing I didn’t like was when my mum used to dress me the same as my sisters. When she turned her back I changed because I hated looking the same as everyone else.”
She studied at Portsmouth Art College, where she left with a diploma in Fashion and Textile Design. The college was where she met Bob Cotton, later to be her husband for 25 years. Despite deciding she wanted to take a year off to see more of the world, she moved to London and began work immediately with a tailoring company.
Soon her career began to rise to incredible heights. After a spell working for a tailoring outlet owned by the Irish Government she was offered a post with large public company Alexon, where she sat on the board and ran the design rooms for all their labels, including Alexon, Eastex and Dash which she developed.
Debbie also sourced new brands to buy in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and developed the first sportswear brand from the Far East to be purchased by Marks and Spencer. It was then that she bought her house in Yarmouth, and her love of horses grew even more. “I walked up the hill one day, and saw all the horses, and that was it,” smiled this vivacious and energetic lady.
She acquired Red, the first of her four horses, who is now the grand age of 30. Red was joined by Polly and later Cady and Annie, which Debbie rides out with the Hunt and in dressage.
When her fashion career was at its peak there was more heartbreak with the loss of her younger sister, while her husband suffered a series of strokes, and needed 24-hour care. Although Debbie tried to continue her work in London, it proved impossible, and even though Bob made a good recovery the strain on both proved too much, and they were divorced a few years ago.
A dinner party at The George in Yarmouth opened the door for her next venture. A meeting with Claire and Glyn Locke came at a time when they were setting up an Italian mail order company for ladies’ clothing just outside Yarmouth. Debbie went along initially to help out for a couple of weeks, but stayed five-and-a-half years, during which time the company Artigiano went from strength to strength. Then she decided it was time to take stock and enjoy Island life a little more.
That coincided with her introduction to The Gaffers Festival, but there was still time to become honorary secretary of the Isle of Wight Hunt, a post she held throughout the turmoil that came with the fox hunting ban. She admits she even became a banner-waving protester in London against the Government ruling.
Now the ‘Gaffers’ is looming again, and afterwards there might be a short rest. But Debbie is clearly not the sort to sit around doing nothing for too long.