My Life In Fashion: Lulu Guinness
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It all started in 1987. I was a little adrift doing various jobs – everything from back-up singing, modelling and working in PR. I’d lived in Paris before – a hugely creative time for me – and I had this idea for a lady’s briefcase based on the Filofax, which was big at the time but mainly aimed at men. It sounds funny saying this now, but someone had made a fortune from it. I wanted to create something that was supremely elegant, made from black leather with a colourful lining, that had all these separate little pockets to show off all your really 80s things – like your Ray-Ban sunglasses, your Mont Blanc pen and your Sony Walkman. It was a success and that’s where all it started, from my basement in our Notting Hill house.
I’ve always been creative and into vintage style, so people told me to make bags that reflected how I dressed. I always had my own strong ideas of how I wanted to look, which was based on a 1940s and 1950s idea of glamour and femininity. Things really took off for the brand when I made the Rose Basket – that’s what made me and the brand famous. It was a conversation starter.
My grandmother’s clothes and evening bags were an inspiration. She came from the family that owned Lewis's department stores in the north of England and later owned Selfridges, so fashion was very much in the DNA. I remember being in awe of her wardrobe as a child. There were pieces from the 30s, 40s and 50s — the years of Chanel and Dior. That sense of craft and beauty hit at an early age. It was like the dressing-up box of dreams.
I like that bags are their own thing. They’re not necessarily reliant on the rest of an outfit in the same way that clothes are, which means you can be more creative and have fun with them. I really see bags as something to treasure – tomorrow’s heirlooms, we call them. And with some of the collectible pieces, like the Rose Basket and Fairytale Castle, you could see them as wearable works of art. I liked the idea of creating a bag that makes you do a double take. I like surprising pieces. You can create extraordinary pieces and shapes because handbags don’t always have to be functional.
As the founder of the brand and the creative director, it’s the creative side that I really love. I was always involved in every aspect of the design side of the business. I love ideas. I recently moved away from London to a countryside folly in Gloucestershire, and I’ve had time to go back to my roots and get really creative. Sketching, painting and hand embroidering, the ideas have been flowing thick and fast. After decades of working hard, this all feels like a bit of reward. Doing things by hand is so good for the soul.
The current collection is inspired by where I live, my little folly set in a meadow in the Cotswolds Golden Valley. I find it so peaceful and restorative here – and beautiful, of course. So, that’s what you see in this collection – florals, the colours of the countryside and even a few sheep. I’m also really excited about our upcoming collection linked to this year’s Chelsea Flower Show where we will have a trade stand with lots of fun products like the garden shed and geranium flowerpot.
My favourite bag is always the one that I’m designing. I always hope people will never have seen anything like it before. From the new collection, my favourite piece is The Folly. We’ve created a brilliant replica of my new gothic home – our miniature take on the original building is pentagonal- shaped and captures all the things I love, like growing and arranging flowers in vases on the window sills and watching the sheep graze the pastures from the upper bedroom window. The bag is crafted from a coarse linen fabric, colour-matched to shades of Cotswolds limestone and slate. The magic is in the detail: daffodils in the front, a hollyhock in the back, not forgetting the candelabras with candles which are lit to seal the ambiance.
The main thing I’ve learned is that things move fast, especially in fashion, and you have to adapt and change with it. When you’ve run your own business for as long as I have, you’re constantly learning new things. It’s a rollercoaster. But it’s about changing in the right way, to be modern and move with the times but not lose that innate sense of who you are and what it was that made you a success in the first place. That’s the key. And it’s not always easy.
Getting my OBE from the Queen was definitely one of my key moments. It was such an honour and I absolutely adored the Queen. Having one of my original designs, the Rose Basket, placed in the permanent exhibition at the V&A was definitely a highlight, too. It feels good to be part of fashion’s history.
I try not to look back, only forward. As soon as everyone starts doing something, I always want to do something else. It makes me think, how can I move things on? You have to keep moving in order to evolve and keep things interesting. I also get bored easily. As I said, I’ve gone back to my roots recently getting crafty and creative, but also moving forward in a way that feels authentic and true to me.
I still keep a firm eye on the fashion industry and at the moment, Harris Reed. He loves glamour and creativity in equal measure and also champions fluidity. His first show for Nina Ricci was beautiful. I would love to do bags for his personal label.
My style is very me – it’s just part of who I am and connects through to my brand. Vintage was always my first love and why I lived next to Portobello Market for 35 years. I never thought I suited jeans, so I created a style wearing 40s tea dresses or 50s circle skirts and embroidered cardigans etc. I’ve now converted to wearing high-waisted, side-buttoned indigo jeans from Toast.
I find inspiration everywhere and it’s not necessarily directly related to fashion and what I see on my travels. I’m inspired constantly by the art world – from surrealism to pop art – and by the work of upcoming female artists who I love to collaborate with if I can. My brand is influenced by my style, vintage markets and things I have seen on my travels.
I’m also inspired by those who dare to be different, like the designer, Elsa Schiaparelli, a hero of mine. She was so sure of who she was and really pushed the boundaries of women’s fashion. She elevated getting dressed to an artform, and I love that.
I get dressed according to my mood. Colour is a wonderful mood booster, so I’ll reach for something bright if I’m feeling a little on the dull side. What you’ll always see me wearing, of course, is my red lipstick.
I collect powder compacts – I have hundreds of them. I had tables specially made to display them. And it goes without saying that I have a lot of bags. I love to put my collectible pieces on display at home.
I’ll always have a soft spot for vintage evening purses. Currently, though, I have a hand-woven wicker bag that I absolutely love. I can carry fresh roses from the garden in it. My favourite coat at the moment was made for me by Her.o – I love the embroidery and the craftsmanship involved.
I like small brands, hand embroidery and old kimonos. Near Stroud, close to where I live, is a community of creatives, so there are frequent open studios where you can buy clothes and hand-made homeware.
I used to wear a lot of Moschino for a sense of humour and irreverence. I have treasured pieces of Vivienne Westwood, too, – she was my favourite designer for a long time. Anyone who lived through the era of Alexander McQueen and watched his shows is in awe of him. And I love hats by Philip Treacy and Steven Jones. I wore Marni wedges for years, as they had the highest wedges I could find that I was able to walk in!
I do love wow pieces like my John Rocha giant bolero which represents a rose. I wore this to the opening of the Fashioning The Rose exhibition at the Garden Museum last year where our Rose Basket was on display.
My advice would be not to take yourself too seriously in fashion – and life, come to think of it. I’m not really a rules person; wear what you love and what makes you feel good. And red lipstick never goes amiss.
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