Donna Ida Thornton transformed a former curry house in Pangbourne into a beautiful home – and now she’s off to start a new project, renovating a listed manor, discovers Rebecca Pitcairn
If you ask any woman what item of clothing is the hardest to shop for, I’ll guarantee she’ll say jeans. Jeans are one of those items that most of us wear on a weekly, if not daily, basis so it’s important to find a pair that fits. Yet this fashion staple is notoriously difficult to get right. It’s one of the reasons Australian-born designer Donna Ida Thornton set up a new boutique jean concept 16 years ago.
“When I first moved to London in the late 90s I was temping as a PA for the president of a big marketing company, but was desperate to start my own business. I was always in jeans, but really struggled to find styles that I felt comfortable in and suited my shape. There were these department stores that had these really amazing denim floors with great stock, but they just didn’t have that personalised, expert service I was after,” explains Donna, who has become known as the ‘Jean Queen’. “My boss’s daughter suggested I open my own store selling only jeans and in 2006 the first Donna Ida boutique opened on Draycott Avenue in Chelsea.”
The Donna Ida stores, which could also be found in Belgravia and Guildford, have since been and gone with the business moving online five years ago to focus on Donna’s own brand, which launched in 2012.
“We were originally multi-brand, but it was always in the business plan to launch our own, it just took time to work out what the gap was in the market and that was high-waisted jeans,” says Donna, who names all her designs after women. “Ida is my middle name, but it was also my grandmother’s name and so I name the styles after women she would have liked to have hung out with. There’s Ivy, Eliza, Norma and Edna, so they’re all sweet old-fashioned names although many are coming back into fashion now.”
While the Donna Ida brand may have moved online, Donna hosts regular pop ups and says the ethos remains exactly the same as it was when they had physical stores. “We have a team of amazing stylists on the end of the phone, our clients send us pictures and we facetime them, it’s a really personalised service,” she adds. “It’s easier for people as well – they don’t want to get on the train and go into London anymore, particularly since the pandemic, so really we were quite ahead of the curve going online when we did.”
While Donna has no formal design training, her keen eye for style has attracted a cult following over the years with celebrities including presenter Amanda Holden, Dame Kelly Holmes and model Jodi Kidd wearing her designs, which also include denim jumpsuits.
“I know what I want and I know how I want it to look and so I just work with the pattern cutters to make it work,” she tells me. “I think it goes back to my childhood, I always liked making things when I was a kid, when I was playing with dolls I’d always be making them mini-dresses or even mini-furniture for their dolls house. I understand construction and once you understand the engineering behind design, it’s exciting because you can make things look amazing.”
Donna regularly shares snippets of her home life with her 56,000 plus Instagram followers. Until recently, this was centred around the property she shared with her husband, restaurateur and president of the Restaurant Association, Robert Walton MBE, in Pangbourne. It was Donna’s keen eye for design that helped them transform the pub-turned-Indian restaurant on Reading Road, into a stunning home for the pair and their five chihuahuas; Julio, Fernando, Eduardo, Gonzalo and Emilio.
“The house was an Indian restaurant that my husband owned,” she explains. “It was originally a pub and he bought it from the brewery and turned it into an Indian restaurant and we’d eat there quite regularly. But it was on three acres of land and he decided that actually it would be nice to convert it, so we did. It took two years and originally it wasn’t the plan to live there, but as I got more involved in it all, the more I liked the idea and so we stayed for six years. It’s right on the Thames and I love being by the water so it was wonderful living on the river.”
Donna filled the house with eclectic one-off finds, as well as pieces she found in sample sales and Ikea staples to create a bright and breezy home which perfectly represents her personality – “I’m really into just finding stuff, it doesn’t have to be expensive, I’m a big fan of Homesense in Reading and TK Maxx,” she says with a smile.
While Berkshire remains the home of the Donna Ida brand (the company’s warehouse is in Aldermaston), Donna and Robert have taken on a new, much larger renovation project in Devon. The couple are busy repairing and restoring the Grade II* Listed Jacobean manor house hotel, Langdon Court, in Wembury, with the aim of reopening it in the spring.
“It’s a mammoth project, but we’re loving it,” says Donna. “It will be an exclusive use venue for events such as weddings or special birthdays so it won’t be open every day, but I think that keeps the house special. Houses like that need to be nurtured and we just want to look after her.”
If Donna’s experience building a successful brand, creating a beautiful home and looking after her customers are anything to go by, there’s no doubt she’s going to do a great job.