Luella Bartley and Katie Hillier have spent much of their careers overlapping and interweaving with each other. Most prominently and recently they headed up the youth-oriented Marc By Marc Jacobs line during a period of peak rejuvenation, and they now work predominantly on Hillier Bartley, a burgeoning brand that has won acclaim for its assured sense of sophisticated, sensual womanhood.
Given these two roles, it is perhaps inevitable that discussions of age and youth - forever a central concern when it comes to the oft-myopic gaze of the fashion industry - arise throughout our conversation with Luella Bartley. The positive vigour with which she muses on the subject, however, makes for a refreshing break from the hand-wringing think pieces that so often obscure, rather than illuminate, the importance and reality of the issues involved.
In relation to this, Luella says warmly of their time at Marc Jacobs: “Whilst there were definitely pieces in the collections that I would wear, it certainly felt theoretical as opposed to instinctive. Which was great, we loved what we did there, and I liked that - being able to speak in that way to young girls about important things, but through a medium of fun clothes.”
This was perhaps most memorably delivered in the form of their debut collection which, with its bold graphic themes, made a strange sort of perfect sense for both the storied brand itself and the very modern, young audience they were now appealing to. “We were both Marc by Marc Jacobs fans, back when the line first started,” says Luella. “You know, we would religiously go and buy a load of stuff right at the very beginning of the season. I remember it as something so special, and we wanted to get those values back. It was the cool girls’ thing. The New York Downtown cool girls’ thing.” It would have been so easy to get swept away in that haze of nostalgia, both for the brand as a whole and on a personal level as designers. Luella and Katie however, were savvy enough to channel the subtle changes in today’s forward thinking fashion tribes.
For the collection, they worked with the London-based graphic designer Fergus Purcell, whose vibrant, archly humorous designs for Palace have made the skate brand arguably the most hyped streetwear brand since Supreme began to stick its box logos all over Lafayette in the mid-90s. “I suppose it was in a way a strange reference point for Marc By Marc Jacobs, but we wanted to do something that felt very ‘Marc’ but also had a very ‘street’ feeling, even if that sounds so wrong somehow.” The result was a collection of motocross-inspired prints that blazed down the runway in striking fashion. Luella sums up its resonance and relevance perfectly: “before, you’d perhaps want a boyfriend who did motocross - now you yourself would do motocross.”
It’s worth spending the time to delve into that Marc By Marc Jacobs period, and their approach, because it makes Luella and Katie’s eponymous line all the more intriguing. When the Marc line folded into the main collection, the pair were free to devote the majority of their time to work on the brand they had been envisaging together for a long time. “I guess we were working on it for maybe a coupe of years beforehand, it took us a long time to really think about what we wanted to do and make sure that it was a complete identity before we presented it to anyone else.” That ‘complete identity’ seems to be built on evolving in a different direction to the one they took with Marc. Instead of transplanting their own youthful, fashionista selves to a contemporary setting, they simply acknowledged and celebrated the fact that those same fashionistas were now successful, grown women.
“I’d always been tempted by the rush that comes with ‘oh yeah, she’s really young and cool…’ but I’m not! I’m 42 now! It was time to grow up.” Luella continues, “Katie and I are coming from slightly different places - I’ve had a family for a start - but we still share the same reference points, we’re still good friends and we still want the same things. We both have a lot of life experience, and sometimes that experience is slightly different, but it’s still two forty-year-old women working out what life’s about. Working out their complete identities, what sexuality is about for a woman growing up and growing older.”
It is on this subject, and how that manifests itself in the two Hillier Bartley collections to date, that Luella really comes to life - her words tumble enthusiastically over the sound of her children in the background and this writer’s own increasingly unnecessary interjections. “I think things have changed so much for women of our generation, but I don’t think that’s really reflected in the way that they dress particularly,” says Luella. “How does the cool, scruffy indie kid grow up into a sensual woman? How do you meld those two feelings?”
For Hillier Bartley, the answer was to channel both menswear silhouettes and the icons of the glam rock era - two touchstones that have played a role in women’s fashion countless times before but never with that same foundation, that same perspective that Luella and Katie built upon. The result is the Hillier Bartley woman: “a little bit disreputable. Confident. Cocky. Quite dandy.”
It’s a common thing for a disparity to exist, particularly amongst emergent brands, between the creative vision/concept for a collection and the end result that customers see in the look book or on the rails. Yet with these words, everything about the collections fall into place. The I Don’t Give A Fuck appropriation of Saville Row tailoring that revels in luxurious construction and materials whilst never conforming to the harsher proportions of women’s couture. The distinctive sense of arch, playful feminine guile reclaimed from the particular, peculiar tropes of male, twentieth century icons (Luella references Bowie and Lucien Freud in particular). Everything comes together in a way that feels louche and roguish and, yes, cool - but ultimately wearable. “It’s not super difficult or really conceptual - it has something that gives colour and confidence without descending into silly fashion.”
Testament to the impressive careers of both Luella and Katie is how they have managed to bring everything together so cohesively and effectively. Luella is quick as well to point out that while they have very similar points of view in their work, they manifest themselves in very specific, complimentary skill-sets. “We sort of interweave - obviously I do the clothes and she does the accessories - but we’re both there for each thing. We’ll go out and research together…” Luella pauses for a moment before continuing: “I’m more chaotic in my approach, whereas Katie is much more business-like and ordered. I don’t feel like we’ve ever had to compromise.”
The impression you’re left with in the end, is of two designers who are beginning to celebrate and revel in the very things that are often shunned into the shadows. Its when we’re discussing Instagram and the rise of social media during the time that Luella was away raising her children (“Katie does all that, she’s really good at that stuff”), that it feels like we get to the crux of things:
“Fashion does feel very different. Very, very different. But, you know, that’s exciting too. We’ve got another conversation going and there’s lots of interesting people saying interesting things, so you know…that can only be a good thing.”
By James Darton for Semaine