I USED to sell incredibly well in Glasgow,” Tanya Sarne tells me before she tells me anything else. The founder of the fashion label Ghost, much loved by the likes of Emma Thompson and Jennifer Aniston back in its 1990s heyday, is actually trying to remember the name of the shop that sold her clothes in the city. “Was it Warehouse?” she asks. It probably was. The Warehouse on Glassford Street run by David Mullane.

These days Sarne is no longer involved with the label which she took to great heights in the last years of the last century and the first years of this, but at 78 she can look back on a life that stretches far beyond the pages of Vogue.

She is in London today. She has just travelled in from her house in the country to talk to me and to have her picture taken for The Herald Magazine. And yes we talk about fashion. But there is so much more to talk about. A failed marriage, an absentee husband, a brush with infamous horror, lots of famous faces, a hugely successful fashion company, business skulduggery, drink and drugs, rehab, motherhood, serious illness and, in passing, Jack Nicholson.

Hers is a survivor’s story, I suggest. “One has to survive,” she says .“You either sink or swim. You just have to get on and do the best you can in life.”

The Herald: Tanya SarneTanya Sarne (Image: free)

And she has. Now, she has written it all down. Sarne’s new memoir, Free Spirit, is a real-life picaresque novel that takes our heroine, nee Tanya Gordon, from London in the final days of the Second World War to Hollywood and from innocence to experience; from being a lonely housewife then a single mother to the boss of a fashion label worn by superstars and supermodels. One which leaves her in its final pages a little bruised perhaps, but unbowed.

“Definitely triumphant,” is her own summary of where she is now.

Free Spirit is a good summation of Sarne’s approach to life, but the book doesn’t shy away from the loose threads and frayed holes that make up the patchwork that is her life. Not all of it was easy to revisit, she admits.

“It was difficult for me to write about motherhood and bringing up my children because I know I wasn’t a very good mother. I know I wasn’t the best mother I could be.”

Yet she still has a relationship with both her adult children. “I have a great relationship now, yeah,” she agrees. “Also, when I started, I wasn’t going to mention drugs. I was just going to mention alcohol. But then I thought, ‘What the hell, I may as well be honest.’” The result is an eye-opening insight into the singular life of a singular woman, one that began in the last days of the Second World War.

Tanya Gordon was born in January 1945 when V2 rockets were still raining down on London. Her parents were then homeless Romanian refugees relying on the kindness of friends for shelter. It set the pattern for a restless life.

When she left school in 1963, Gordon’s headmistress told her she would never amount to anything. She spent the next few years moving from one job to another. She did some modelling, was briefly an assistant to the cultural attache of the Persian embassy, became a go-go dancer, even taught history at a school.

Sarne also began to learn the hard truth about men. Working as a go-go dancer she was regularly propositioned, “including from a TV writer who wanted to be beaten up, a musician who wanted to beat me up and a film director who wanted a threesome,” she writes.

The Herald: Tanya Sarne on the catwalkTanya Sarne on the catwalk (Image: free)

If only that was the worst of it. She is painfully honest about the assaults (sometimes literal) men carried out on her. For a long time she didn’t have a great opinion of the male gender. Understandably.

“I don’t think I’m unique,” she tells me when I bring it up. “It’s true there are a lot of men who do behave like that. There will always be men like that.”

Michael Sarne wasn’t one of them, but he had his own demons. The actor and singer entered the picture in the mid-1960s. He was already a star, with a number one hit in 1962, Come Outside, a duet with Wendy Richard (before she turned up in Are You Being Served? and EastEnders). Michael Sarne courted his future wife assiduously, even getting her fired from a job in a literary agent’s office because he was hanging around too much.

“I found him pompous and arrogant and wished he would leave me alone,” she writes of her suitor when they first met. And yet four years later on the eve of her 24th birthday he told her they were going to be married the next day and would then fly to Hollywood where he was about to direct a film, Myra Breckinridge. And they did.

Pompous and arrogant aren’t the most attractive qualities, I suggest.

“Well, yes. He’s also very loveable and very funny and clever. And in those days you left home to get married. I’d had such horrible experiences with men, and my granny really pushed me too.

“He had a shiny red convertible Rolls Royce by the way. I won’t say I wasn’t impressed. And it was exciting and he loved me and the only proposition I’d had before for marriage was from a rather plump man from Hatton Garden who’d got down on his knees and said, ‘I promise to look after you for the rest of your life. You’ll never have to worry about anything. I will take care of you.’ And I told him to f*** off.”

Michael Sarne took her to Capri and she fell in love with him. Marriage and Hollywood followed. Neither really worked out. It soon became clear that her new husband was distracted by the film he was making – a notoriously troubled production and ultimately a box office disaster – and by his new friendship with John Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas fame. (It is very clear that Tanya Sarne didn’t much care for Phillips.)

Her husband basically forgot she was there, I suggest. “He didn’t forget I was there, but the film was all-consuming,” she replies. “And he met a lifestyle he’d never met and got completely absorbed into it.”

Which left his wife effectively living alone most of the time in their Malibu beach house. “I didn’t know who I was any more,” Sarne recalls. “I was just completely lost and the only thing I could do was get pregnant. Nothing else to do. The perfect time to have children. And learn to cook.”

The Herald: Tanya Sarne Tanya Sarne (Image: free)

Now and then she mixed with the stars and wannabe stars. The likes of Jack Nicholson would turn up from time to time, but he had no interest in her. Nor her in him particularly.

“People are in awe now, but at the time Jack Nicholson had just made his first film, I think. So I wasn’t overawed by any of these people. But they were definitely overawed by themselves.”

There were some people who she was friendly with. Sybil Burton, Richard Burton’s ex, lived next door and was kind to her. And now and again her husband would take her out for dinner with Anthony Newley and Joan Collins or the actor Sharon Tate, who was married to the film director Roman Polanski.

Out for dinner one night in August 1969 with her husband, Phillips and Phillips’s then girlfriend, the four of them discussed going up to Tate’s house for a drink. But in the end they decided against it. The next morning they woke up to the news that Tate, then heavily pregnant, and four others had been brutally murdered by followers of Charles Manson the previous evening.

“I think we all went numb. Absolutely numb,” Sarne recalls now. “I couldn’t take anything in, but I was horrified. And I did buy a rope ladder so I could get out of my first floor bedroom window if I heard someone coming in the front door.

“Hollywood was very, very strange at that time. It was after the summer of love and there were a lot of drugs and people were dying. People were dying around us from too many drugs. I wasn’t touching them because I was pregnant. Also, I tried acid and I hated it. It was not for me.”

The Sarnes returned to London in 1970 with their daughter Claudia, to a spectacularly inappropriate house in Kensington which had five floors, its own lift and an 11-year lease. They had another child, a son, William. But the marriage was not in a good place. Sarne was convinced her husband was having affairs. In Los Angeles she had had one herself with the film director Roger Vadim, who was married to Jane Fonda at the time.

Returning to London didn’t help things. “Michael has no common sense, no kind of structure in his life and I couldn’t live like that any more,” she tells me.

And then he disappeared off to Brazil in 1973, leaving his wife with two small children and no money. She eventually followed him there, with her kids in tow. But her husband repeated the same pattern of absenting himself that he had begun in LA.

“I went to Brazil to see if I still had a husband,” Sarne tells me. “I believed I had to try to make my marriage work. I should have finished it years before I did, but anyway ...”

In 1975 Sarne and her children returned to London penniless. She started selling alpaca jumpers for a man she had met briefly in Brazil. It was the beginning of the second act of her life. But it was a family tragedy that was to really change everything for her. The death of her mother.

“It was so unexpected. I collected my children from her when I finished work and then I get this call at three in the morning.”

Her mother’s death was understandably traumatic.

“My mother was the closest person to me, apart from my children. It changed my life. And that’s when I started drinking. I used to drive for hours on my own just screaming my head off. And then the grief turns to anger. Or it did with me anyway. And I was so angry with everything, with the world. I was determined to just fight. That’s what I did.”

And how. She set up a fashion label which she co-ran for five years before a fallout with her partner saw her walk away. Then in 1983 she came up with the idea for Ghost, the label that was to make her name. Teaming up with guest designers and sourcing high-quality viscose from Italy, she offered clothing that was the opposite of the power dressing coming into vogue at the time; clothing for all shapes and sizes.

“Not only all shapes and sizes, but clothes that gave them confidence,” Sarne suggests now. “That they felt good in. There was very little mid-market then. I also knew that women had to run for a bus and take the kids to school and go to meetings, so I wanted clothes that you could dress up or down and were really functional.”

And it worked. By 1989, turnover was up to £1.5million, helped by fashion shows in which Sarne’s daughter Claudia and her friends – Rachel Weisz and Neneh Cherry, before they were famous – would model for her. Soon the likes of Naomi Campbell, Helena Christensen and Kate Moss would be on the catwalk for Ghost taking payment in clothes.

“They travelled a lot and they could put about 12 of my outfits in one tiny little suitcase and just hang them up in a bathroom when they got somewhere. They didn’t need ironing.”

Not everyone was so thrilled by Sarne’s label. “The upper echelons of fashion did not accept me, no. My clothes were too cheap for a start. Grace Coddington’s comment was, “She just makes clothes that people like to wear’.”

Vogue’s former creative director at large wasn’t offering a compliment. “She meant it as a total put-down.”

Success is the best revenge perhaps and Ghost’s rise was rapid. But that brought its own problems.

“Yes. It meant four hours’ sleep a night if I was lucky.”

She found her own way of supplementing it. “Cocaine was like fuel in the car. It gave me energy. I didn’t need to sleep so much. I was wired up to go.”

Did that make her difficult to work for? “Not to begin with,” she says. “When I started I used to make lunch for everyone and I took everyone to the seaside once a year. It was a family atmosphere and I wasn’t difficult to work for until … Maybe around the millennium I started getting very difficult. I had gone over the top then. I’d lost control. And then I became a bit of a monster.”

She finally agreed to go into rehab in 2002, at the age of 57. Was it a different Tanya who emerged?

“Yes. To some extent. I wasn’t as self-confident. I was much more vulnerable.”

Back at Ghost some of her team struggled with this post-rehab version of their boss. “I wasn’t walking around with a spliff in my hand,” she says.

“The atmosphere changed a bit and some people at Ghost left drugs on my seat to get me back into it again, but I didn’t.”

Meanwhile, turnover was now up to a reported £25m, but the label was struggling as overheads rose. Late in 2005, Icelandic firm Arev bought 51% of the business. Barely three months later, Sarne was put on gardening leave.

“The idiots got rid of me. They didn’t honour the contract. A year later I started another business, Handwritten. It was Ghost basically. But then the Crash came in 2008 so we never did as well as Ghost. But we did OK and I actually have more clothes I wear now from Handwritten than from Ghost.”

Another label, the eponymously titled Sarne, followed, but that, she says, was just a hobby. The fashion industry is much less fun nowadays, she suggests. “My early shows, the models would dance and dance and dance, [the fashion designer] Ossie Clarke was there with his dog. The shows lasted at least half an hour. Now I think they’re about seven, eight minutes long and God forbid a model should do anything but walk. Everything’s become less fun and more corporate.

“I’d hate to start a business now. It would be so difficult. And with Brexit it would be impossible because my fabrics all came from Italy, my manufacturing was in Romania, all EU countries.”

She is clearly no fan of Brexit. “What a disaster for the country.”

These days Sarne has remarried, to Andrew McGibbon, a session drummer turned programme-maker for the BBC, and is a walking advert for embracing the third age.

“I play tennis about three or four times a week. I do an exercise class. I do NA [Narcotics Anonymous] meetings most days, trying to help newcomers. I’m talking about working with someone who has a big cashmere label.”

The desire to work is still there? “If I see something that has potential and it’s enjoyable and it doesn’t take up too much of my time … Because obviously I haven’t got the energy I had before.

“I’ve got to keep mobile because I’ve had so many health problems. I hope I’m through them now. I had a brain tumour. I had three operations, six weeks of radiotherapy and the reason I stopped Sarne was breast cancer. I just got a five-year all-clear.”

Good news and a good place to leave her today. One final question though. What are you proudest of, Tanya? “Well, I built a very successful fashion business which women loved. If I gave women pleasure by doing what I did, that is so gratifying. It’s a fantastic feeling.”

Not just a survivor then. A success. What do headmistresses know?

Free Spirit by Tanya Sarne is published by Mitchell Beazley, £20