Waltham Forest Voices (3) – Alan Freedman, Son of a Showgirl

Betty, on the right, with friends

Betty, on the right, with friends

Interview by: Claire Landon

Born in Leytonstone in 1954, Alan Freedman arrived into the world a year after his parents opened Doreen Fashions on Lea Bridge Road.

His mother, Betty, had a musical background and always dreamt of a career in show business, while his father Leslie was a bookkeeper.

He then spent the next 55 years living above mom-and-pop’s Leytonbased women’s apparel shop, which came to fame as a mecca for crossdressers.

“Trannies started coming in the late 1950s. We had to keep that quiet, since it was against the law. The first male customer was a diplomat, and he recommended the business to a friend. That was the start,” says Alan, who never saw his upbringing as unusual.

“Once you get used to it, you don’t notice. I was always about the shop, working in it from time to time,” he continues and then reveals that he took over the business following the death of his mother in 2010.

His parents “were marvellous. They loved the shop, it was their life”. As Alan grew up, attending Leyton County High School for Boys [now Leyton Sixth Form College], Betty and Leslie expanded the business with branches in Trafalgar Square, City Road, Leather Lane and Baker Street.

Doreen’s became a London institution. He remembers driving from shop to shop with his parents, observing London out the car window.

“Male customers were happy to be among women shoppers, and they liked being served by our assistants. We used to have an extra curtain in the back for the men, so the lady clients didn’t mind either.”

Since then, of course, crossdressing has become much more accepted, even in the mainstream, thanks to the likes of Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry, who for years kept his workshop in Walthamstow.

Even so, says Alan: “We’ve always been very discreet, and don’t like to name-drop”. That said, famous names Alan Carr and David Walliams bought some red boots, while Kylie Minogue has also been a client.

Betty used to go to all the gay and tranny parties at venues like the Way Out Club in the 1990s. “Everyone loved her”, says Alan, who himself saw Divine – who worked extensively with American counterculture film director John Waters, and was named ‘Drag Queen of the Century’ by People magazine – during the punk era. “She was amazing.”

He describes other well-known acts such as Danny La Rue OBE as “brilliant”, and also saw Dame Edna, when she first started out. But despite these glamorous experiences, Alan, who asked not to be photographed, insists: “I’m a bit of an introvert. It’s my mother who was the showbiz-y person in the family.”

The business, in the meantime, is moving with the times. Although customers have always preferred to visit the shop in person, rising rent and business rates, plus parking restrictions, have forced Alan to close on Lea Bridge Road.

“For us, the web was more of a sideline, but we are now building a new website and hoping we can retain our customers.”

Alan and long-serving staff member Marcie continue to take orders by phone, and meet customers to drop off goods.

“I’m trying to keep the business going to maintain all that my mother stood for. She continues to be the face of the business, I like to be behind the scenes.”

www.doreenfashions.com