Murray Arbeid, who has died aged 76, was a “garmento”, as they are called in New York, immersed in the garment trade from childhood and never more content than when solving a three-dimensional problem in cloth. An Arbeid evening gown – he didn’t do clothes that had to get up, go out and earn a living before the cocktail hour – would be bang on the fashion yet considerate of its wearer. Maintaining that duality is not easy, and Arbeid’s skill was perfectly demonstrated by two midnight-blue dresses of related cut from the 1980s, for Diana, Princess of Wales, and Shirley Bassey, that showed off the unique shapes and assets of both: ingeniously secured for generous Shirley; strapless for toned Diana, who wore it for an official portrait.
Diana, Princess of Wales, in a midnight-blue creation by Murray Arbeid. Photograph: Nils Jorgensen/Rex Features
His father, Jack Arbeid, a master diamond-cutter who inherited a jewellery business, and his mother, Ida, were from London’s East End, where most people they knew were in the schmutter business, wholesale and retail. Murray was evacuated to Cornwall during the blitz and, back in London after the war, went to Regent Street Polytechnic (now the University of Westminster), and then the London Institute of Fashion, to learn the complex geometry of pattern drafting. He found a first trainee job as a 30- shilling-a-week cutter with a gown house in the garment district that ran north of, and parallel with, Oxford Street.
Arbeid had the taste, and the talent, to aspire to couture, and in 1952 was taken on as an apprentice by Michael Sherard who, unusually, ran a formal Paris-style house in London; some of his staff had served their own apprenticeships in Paris, notably Mme Raymonde (trained by Madeleine Vionnet, prewar mistress of the most difficult simplicity), who became Arbeid’s mentor. His next teacher, the dressmaker Alice Edwards, had excellent contacts in Paris, as her clients expected her to modify Gallic fashion for their figures, and she became Arbeid’s social finishing school.
With enough introductions it was possible then even for a very young newcomer to set up a small salon, and Arbeid was in his mid-20s when he rented space in the garment district, where the workshop junior had only to sprint half a mile to match samples. In the 70s, he moved up to Bond Street, where he and his partner, the milliner Frederick Fox, shared premises. By then the garment district was shrinking, the old independent mid-price labels ceding their business to high-street chains. He later relocated to Sloane Street, taking his loyal hands with him, such as the legendary Irma, whom he had poached from Balenciaga in 1955: outfits for his private customers were usually single-needle – one worker sewed them from start to finish.
Arbeid predated the designer-as-cool-public-figure era, preferring the professional respect of his peers for his speciality, evening wear. “Others do day clothes better,” he said, “so let them get on with it.” He joked that if there were a Nobel prize for taffeta, he would have won it. He might have ventured earlier in the afternoon for ensembles for receptions, to be worn with Fox hats. But no wedding dresses: “There are enough pressures in life without having to put up with neurotic mothers of the bride, and there is no other kind” – although he did concede that brides-to-be could choose a gown from his range and have it made up in white. The “range” was his wholesale collection, available in stores and what used to be called “modom shops”, sold in France, Germany and Japan, but selling strongest in the US, where he adopted the garmento approach of lugging a trunk show to upmarket department stores across the country: women without youth, but with ample money and engagement diaries, bought and bought.
He kept a sense of humour about presentation. At the end of a 1989 leopard-skin print collection, a Tarzan figure threw Arbeid over his shoulder and carried him off the runway. In 1985 he paraded his models down the aisles of a London-Houston Continental Airlines flight, mid-Atlantic. “It was a bit like Dallas without the sex, actually,” he explained. They had to change in the galley to a strict countdown, “sort of an army manoeuvre”.
In the years after her marriage, Diana needed for public appearances the drama and volume of Paris or Milan show-stoppers, but from British houses, and Arbeid became a regular at the palace, supplying what the designer Bruce Oldfield described as “gorgeous loss leaders” – party pieces that barely recovered the extra costs to Arbeid of fittings and long consultations (Diana economically wore them again and again with changed accessories). Still, they promoted his rails of retail, especially in the US, and attracted Queen Noor of Jordan, Estée Lauder and the novelist Danielle Steel, among others, as clients. He produced a guest collection for the house of Norman Hartnell after the royal designer’s death in 1979, although he was just as satisfied being among fellow garmentos at his trade stand at London Fashion Week at Olympia, with or without a visit from the Diana entourage.
Arbeid retired in 1992. He was told in 2000 that he would die from an inoperable cancer by the end of the year, but he outlived the prognosis by more than a decade. Fox, his partner for 53 years, survives him.
• Murray Dennis Arbeid, designer, born 30 May 1935; died 22 August 2011