Miki Sekers (1910-1972)
Family Background and early life
Miki Sekers (Miklos Szekeres) was born in 1910 in Sopron, a provincial city in western Hungary, the son of Pal Szekeres and his wife Jolan. Captivated as a child by the arrival of a circus, he wanted to attend their every performance, and immerse himself in the world of the imagination, but his father, a textile technician, insisted that his son entered the same profession. In 1922, when he was 12, the family moved to Budapest. Miki was a poor student at school until his final year when he excelled in drama and literature. He took every opportunity to see the wide range of plays and operas performed in the capital city, often by international stars, and was determined to become a theatre director, but his father prevailed, and in 1930 Miki was sent to study textiles in Germany.
A Textile Manufacturer in Hungary
By good fortune, the Krefeld college where he studied had inspiring teachers, a modern curriculum, contacts with the leading manufacturers, and a good understanding of the new artificial and synthetic fibres, thought likely to supersede traditional silk. After excelling as a student there, at the age of 21 Miki was immediately offered a role to work as a managing director in a new textile mill in Budapest alongside his father. His employer was looking for fresh ideas and the latest technology, which Miki was now well qualified to provide. He designed the fabrics, and by being introduced to the leading London and Paris couturiers, learnt how to anticipate fashion trends.
Given extensive responsibility while still in his early twenties, Miki thrived. He helped to design and equip the modern Adria mill, and as his responsibilities for creating collections increased, was able to persuade his distant cousin Tomi de Gara (DCB; qv) to join him in 1935. What induced him and Tomi in 1937 to contemplate setting up a new mill of their own in England remains uncertain. Was it anti-Semitism in Hungary, by then a hostile and intolerant climate, or the threat of Germany as a neighbour, even before the Anschluss of 1938? Otherwise, perhaps it was simply an admiration for England and the English or the attraction of having an enterprise of their own, an opportunity that they could never realise in Hungary where Miki still felt he was working under the critical eye of his father.
Establishing West Cumberland Silk Mills in Wartime
The Special Area Reconstruction Act passed in 1935 provided for factories to be built by Local Development Councils in designated depressed areas, including West Cumberland. Manufacturers could rent these factories at low cost, but had to provide half the capital; the other half was given by the Special Area Reconstruction organisation as a long term loan at low interest, often with extra support from the Nuffield trustees.
In 1937 Miki’s agent in London had told him that Andrew Vigodny (DCB; qv) had set up a tannery in West Cumberland under this scheme; and wished that others would follow in his footsteps. Miki and Tomi investigated, visiting at the end of 1937, and met Jack (later Lord Adams (qv)). Adams’ commitment to rid the area of long term unemployment inspired them: he told them there would be a loyal workforce, good people around him, and a place he would quickly get to love. They secured backing for their share of the capital required and applied, got approval from the Foreign Office for resident working permits for themselves and some key workers from Hungary, and finally received approval from the Board of Trade.
Building work started in Hensingham, on a site just outside Whitehaven, in June 1938. As soon as the first looms were delivered, local weavers were recruited and trained by a small number of skilled Hungarian immigrants. With supplies of raw materials and customers established, all fifty looms were in production by May 1939. But when war was declared, orders dried up and by the end of that year the mill was making losses and threatened both with insolvency and closure. The offer of more capital helped them survive. Once Great Britain declared war on Hungary in December 1941, Miki and Tomi risked being interned on the Isle of Man as enemy aliens. They were saved by the first contract from the Ministry of Aircraft Production for the mill to weave parachute silk. When supplies of this vital raw material dried up, Miki was invited to participate in trials of nylon, a new fibre, researched by DuPont.
There were several crises as the supplies of nylon fluctuated, but Miki and Tomi had two powerful allies with strong links to government ministers. Major Morrison, the director of the Nuffield Trust; and Jack Adams, the secretary and leader of the Development Council were much needed in the delicate negotiations with the officials for the Ministry of Aircraft Production. They both admired Miki and Tomi, appreciated what they had achieved so far, and had faith in the prospects for their future. By the end of the war the silk mill was estimated to have woven a million yards of fabric, enough for tens of thousands of parachutes. In 1944 Miki was given permission to develop fabrics for future civilian use, a crucial new chapter.
Post-War Innovations and Business in Dress Fabrics
Fibre manufacturers such as British Nylon Spinners who needed to find commercial markets for their products, valued innovative designers like Miki for their design flair and ability to introduce their products to leading couturiers. The mill had a long and lucrative association with them. Entirely original crinkly lightweight fabrics using nylon were developed with their support and, with the backing of the Board of Trade, production started even before the end of hostilities. Miki later enjoyed a consultancy role with Chemstrand, the American producer of acrylic fibres.
Already, before the war ended, Miki’s ambition was to establish the mill’s reputation by selling ranges of innovative and high-quality fabrics to distinguished designers in London and Paris. Alongside this eye-catching strategy, he aimed to produce and market standard lines, in volume, to provide a commercial backbone for the business, marketing these in association with fashion names so as to give the standard lines a special cachet. Miki had pivotal roles in both designing top-end collections, and then in promoting and marketing the more commercial ranges. The former helped establish the business brand and reputation, while the latter made the profit.
Soon after the war Miki resumed his contacts with couturiers and quickly realised that many of his tie fabrics could be made to suit the 1947 New Look established by Christian Dior (1905-1957), adding brocades and taffetas with a richness of handle. His first couture collection was for the 1948 season; but it was not until December 1949 that he swept the board introducing his fabrics to Dior, Jacques Fath, Jean Desses, Paquin Lanvin, Molyneux, Schiaparelli, and Balenciaga. He also provided fabrics for leading London couturiers, often aiming at Norman Hartnell (1901-1979) and the other suppliers to the Royal Family, with the aim of generating further prestige from the association. With his flair for publicity and marketing, he commissioned artists such as Graham Sutherland (1903-1980), Oliver Messel (1904-1978) and Cecil Beaton (1905-1980) to design brocades, which added to the company’s fabrics’ reputation for glamour. A high point for the silk mill was the Sekers white brocade chosen for her wedding dress by Princess Margaret in 1960. Miki venerated the Royal family, just as he valued the British citizenship he had been accorded in 1947. By then he had transliterated his birth name Szekeres into Sekers. (His Hungarian name Miklos, translates as Nicholas, so he was familiarly known as Miki; whilst those who called him Nicky only claimed to know him).
The home market for the silk mill’s ranges was responding well, until in 1947 the government demanded restrictions on domestic consumption, requiring 60% of production to be classed as Utility. The silk mill had to export most of its production, or go under. Miki took to the road, or rather to the air, flying in 1948, to Belgium, Sweden, Canada, and New York, then to France & Switzerland. Within a few years, the aim of 60% exports had been exceeded. By 1952, 30% of the silk mill’s production was being bought in Australia and New Zealand. Apart from the crinkly nylons, the standard lines that kept the looms going were colour dyed plain satins, and pure white fabrics for weddings. In addition, the Jacquard looms were used to produce colour woven brocades. Miki quickly showed a talent for promoting these ranges, arranging publicity and fashion shows at home and abroad, linking the collections with the Paris couturier models. He was awarded an MBE in 1955 for services to export.
The number of people employed increased from 83 in 1945, to 156 in 1947. By mid-1947, an extension to the Hensingham factory was complete. It housed a further sixteen Jacquard looms, doubling the mill’s capacity weaving brocades, and in 1950 a night shift was started to meet demand. A second extension was completed by October 1952, when the number of employees increased to 230. The success of the business was by no means solely due to Miki’s determination and energy. He was fully supported by Tomi de Gara, who established a firm financial structure, and whose rigorous approach to efficient production complemented Miki’s imagination and flair. Tomi was by nature self-effacing: he had no time for publicity. This was patently Miki’s forte and responsibility. Production was competently overseen by George Spira (DCB; qv), and the design and development of several collections per year was the responsibility of Bill Hamilton (DCB; qv). The business was floated on the Stock Exchange in 1955.
After an assessment of the market, the silk mills began making fabrics for home furnishings in 1959. This required a different approach to marketing, with stocks held in Whitehaven and a London Office in Bruton Street, the focal point for a sales team distributing ranges to retailers, which offered samples at point of sale. The first collection was shown and promoted in 1960. While dress fabric sales stagnated, demand for furnishing fabrics grew, and by 1965 were four times higher. In 1962 the furnishing range was awarded the Duke of Edinburgh Award and in 1966 Sekers were awarded The Royal Warrant for the supply of furnishing fabrics to the Queen.
The furnishing fabric business was profitable from its inception as the market was expanding. Home interiors, no longer drab, were seen as expressions of taste and fashion. Here, Miki’s flair for colour and for promoting the Sekers brand at the point of sale added value, and for a time Sekers was a household name. The Whitehaven site was enlarged in response to demand, adding curtain making services and a range of upholstery and flame retardant fabrics was aimed at the markets for contract furnishings.
The mill was again enlarged in 1964, when the profits doubled to £187,000. By 1965, this figure had reached £283,000, with furnishing fabrics contributing all the growth and about two thirds of the total production. In 1966 there were 150 looms and nearly 500 employees. A new and highly visible London office was established in Sloane Street and the company was not yet 30 years old.
Private Life and Public Life: Devotion to Culture
When they arrived in Whitehaven in 1938 Miki shared rented accommodation with Tomi de Gara in Coronation Drive in Whitehaven. He made lifelong friends with his neighbours, having to learn to penetrate their Cumbrian dialect, whilst they had to overcome his Hungarian accent and unconventional command of English.
Miki married Agi (Agota) Balkanyi (1917-2001) in 1941: she was the third child of Kalman Balkanyi, the head of a cultivated Budapest family, and the granddaughter of the city’s most prominent liberal publisher and patron of literary talent, József Veszi (1858-1940). Stranded in England during the war, after enduring bombing as a hospital nurse in Bristol, she was rescued by Miki. They married and moved into rented accommodation at Fern Bank, St Bees. Together they enjoyed the peaceful land of plenty, as Cumberland seemed to them. They shared a love of the arts and became dedicated fell walkers, gardeners, and parents, bringing up their three children Christine (1942 -1995), David (b 1943) and Alan (b 1947).
When his business commitments allowed, Miki took every opportunity to participate in music and theatre, including staging amateur theatricals at home in St Bees; or musical evenings around the gramophone. But the family also experienced anxiety and then grief when Miki’s young sister Anico died of TB in 1942 having chosen to come to England on the eve of war. Soon afterwards, his father was a victim of the Nazis, dying in 1945 when he appeared to be almost out of danger.
After the war, Miki was a regular and enthusiastic visitor to the Edinburgh Festival. He also enjoyed the revived fortunes of Covent Garden and took every opportunity to visit museums, and attend concerts and plays when abroad on business. It was at Edinburgh in 1949 that he was so impressed by the productions of Glyndebourne Opera, that he introduced himself to John Christie (1882-1962), the founder of Glyndebourne, and offered to help by sponsoring fabrics for some new productions. These two mercurial temperaments hit it off and what followed was significant. Glyndebourne at that period could only survive from one year to the next as a short festival season. It had no financial stability, as it depended on the pocket of John Christie. Its new general manager Moran Caplat (1916-2003), however, welcomed Miki’s idea of raising money by publishing a lavish programme book, like the one he had seen at the Aix Festival in 1951, and charging supporting companies handsomely for advertising in it. Within a few years this proved to be a success and Miki was brought into the orbit of the Christies and their ambitious, yet unconventional vision.
He shared in this and much admired the Glyndebourne perfectionism. In response, Christie and Caplat were won over by his enthusiasm, and commitment. They probably also understood that his appreciation of opera was not superficial at all. He worshipped artists, and his deep admiration for their gifts and an understanding of their sensitivity led many artists to love him. In 1951 Miki went on to participate in the creation of the Glyndebourne Festival Society, the body of supporters that underpins Glyndebourne to this day. In 1953 Miki was invited to become one of the founding trustees of the new Glyndebourne Arts Trust, and so helped to establish the charity that created a stable future for the whole operation. He remained a trustee and backer of Glyndebourne until his final years, bringing in and introducing new supporters and sponsors, promoting Glyndebourne’s reputation widely.
This was incidentally also a platform where Miki got to know and be known by people of consequence: captains of industry, politicians, as well as leading performers, set and costume designers and music critics. It was there, for example, that he met and befriended Oliver Messel, the designer, and John (later Lord) Wilmot (1893-1964), the former minister of supply who became the chairman of the silk mill. He was quickly immersed in a world of culture where he was contributing to the success of an outstanding musical enterprise.
His ability in this sphere was quickly noted. Having appreciated their seasons of concerts at the Royal Festival Hall, he was invited to join the board of the London Mozart Players; and soon became the chairman. Later he was to chair the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and was an active trustee of the Yehudi Menuhin school. He was able to appreciate how the arts enriched lives, perhaps even more when travelling on business abroad than in his adopted home country, but the inception of his own contribution to the artistic life of the North West came about by almost by accident.
His base for entertaining customers, supporters and friends was Rosehill, a Georgian country house not far from the mill, initially bought and restored in 1946 as a home for the family to live. It was there his wife Agi excelled at turning what had been a bleak house into a comfortable home, where guests were warmly welcomed, fed and looked after.
In 1955, Miki rescued a few fragments from a late Georgian music hall behind the Royal Standard Inn at Whitehaven harbour, with a vague idea of converting a barn at Rosehill into a small theatre, along the lines of the theatre at Puddle Dock created by Bernard Miles (1907-1991). The barn collapsed while it was being excavated but instead of being put off, Miki’s response was to imagine something rather grander: a venue which could attract performers of the first rank to a part of the country that had long been deprived of high culture and to provide seasons of plays and recitals throughout the year. Like Glyndebourne, it would be a charity, supported by industrial and private sponsors; and would help local employers to recruit and retain staff who might otherwise think of the region as a cultural wilderness. Oliver Messel produced exquisite designs for the interior, John Claridge, his assistant, interpreted them with panache, and using specially woven red silk for the walls so that it became what would be described by a journalist as a jewel box, ‘a Glyndebourne of the North’. There is in fact little in common between the two enterprises, but for their founders’ desire for the highest quality, and their audiences’ appreciation of the resulting enchantment.
After the opening in September 1959, it quickly became a beacon where renowned artists gave superlative performances. Miki participated in the planning and management of this enterprise, on top of all his other responsibilities, whilst artists appreciated his close involvement and support, as well as the comfort of being looked after at Rosehill.
While Miki had been able largely to fulfil his youthful ambition of devoting himself to the performing arts, he had not neglected the visual arts. Many of the leading Paris couturiers whom Miki admired had formed collections of pictures, and the London couturier Edward Molyneux (1891-1974) likewise. They were early in their appreciation of Impressionists and Post-impressionists, in particular. Emulating them, Miki was able to buy from London dealers an outstanding Braque still life, a Degas ballet dancer chalk drawing, a Monet landscape and an early Picasso, among other paintings of that period. (His early support for the local artist Percy Kelly (1918-1993; DCB) is referred to in the article on Bill Hamilton (DCB)). With some fine English and French eighteenth century furniture and china, these acquisitions demonstrated his discerning eye and much enhanced his home at Rosehill.
But Miki’s devotion to culture was not pursued solely for himself: he believed in its power to enrich anyone’s life, and he enjoyed the opportunities he had to encourage artists at the start of their careers. His base for many of these activities was not Rosehill, but the mews house that the company rented in London. His role in the arts as well as industry was recognised by a knighthood in 1962. By then his health was beginning to cause concern, and after a bout of viral pneumonia, he spoke of aiming to reduce his workload.
The silk mill established before the war in Whitehaven was well-equipped to supply parachute silk during the war; and then innovative nylon fabrics in the post war years. It had profitable lines in satins and brocades until the 60s. Society than changed and as fashion became more informal, dress fabric production and profit declined. However, from 1960, Sekers’ position as a supplier of furnishing fabrics grew, and might have sustained profits for decades to follow. New looms had been bought, but by 1965 were under-used, so the mill’s overheads were mounting, and profits declined further. As trade fluctuated, the share value fell. The finely honed partnership and well-directed management of the firm was then replaced by friction and the mill’s directors seriously considered selling the company.
Miki had had another attack of viral pneumonia in 1963 and then he suffered a severe illness in the summer of 1965. This was accentuated by congenital heart disease, diagnosed a few years earlier. Meanwhile, Miki was spending an increasing proportion of his time on his many other pursuits. In 1968 he was invited by Roy Plomley (1914-1985) to appear on Desert Island Discs. In this year he was largely abroad occupied with a project to launch Iraja Hoffmeister, known as Ektor, a young Brazilian couturier in Paris, a venture which proved abortive and cost him a significant proportion of his life’s savings. He had experienced and overcome reverses, setbacks and tragedies before, but he did not accept these final setbacks with equanimity. After prolonged and at times acrimonious negotiations, and following a heart valve operation, Miki retired as joint managing director of the mill at the end of 1970. He and Agi reluctantly gave up Rosehill. Based now in London, his deteriorating health prevented him from sustaining a new career as a consultant, and he was disappointed to have to draw in his horns, after a lifetime of generosity. In June 1972, he died at the age of 62 when on holiday in Yugoslavia. His funeral was in Belgrade and his ashes were scattered there on the Danube. Lord Goodman (1913-1995; ODNB) gave the address at his memorial service in London in December that year. Portrait photographs, which demonstrate his energy and flair, are in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery.
With his ebullience and ambition Miki had created a vibrant business and a well-known brand. It was his success as a textile entrepreneur that enabled him to play a role as an impresario and supporter of culture, making a contribution to the artistic life of Cumberland with international stars performing at Rosehill. He was an animateur who not only believed in the power of art and artists to enrich the lives of all, but also one who helped to make that happen. He had a gift for friendship and was generous to a fault. His many friends and admirers in Britain, his adopted homeland, loved him for his colourful imagination, energy and personal magnetism. But even they could do little to reverse the decline in health and fortune that blighted his final years.
- Joe Blackadder, Rosehill, The Story of a Theatre, 1959-2009, Carlisle, 2009
- Herbert Lobel Government-financed factories and the establishment of industries by refugees in the special areas of the North of England 1937-1961, http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/9750
- Thomas Tuohy, ‘Hungarians in Cumberland, Miki Sekers and Tomi de Gara; Oliver Messel and John Claridge’, British Art Journal xvii, 1, Spring 2016, pp 108-122
- Sir Nicholas Sekers, ‘Development and Organisation of West Cumberland Silk Mills Ltd’, in Edwards and Townsend (eds.), Business Growth, London, 1966, pp 29-38
- Booklets published by the Silk Mill in 1951 and 1953 with illustrations of models and cuttings of actual fabrics, with texts illustrating the development of the company
- Family information