Emilia Wickstead, the New-Zealand born, Milan raised, Central St Martins graduate fashion designer, is the woman everyone is talking about in London. She dresses them all, from royals to politicians, society muses and red-carpet regulars. She is reshaping the image of the modern woman with a fresh perspective on elegance and style.
As one enters her flagship store on Sloane Avenue in London, it is almost impossible not to feel this consistency of the story that she is telling.
“When we redesigned the shop with Fran Hickman I really wanted to tell my two stories. One being a little bit eccentric and liking to mix things up and the other one being very clean cut and architectural, choosing strict design lines and choosing the garment to be really stunning.”
We sit down on a floral sofa with the ever smiling, sparkly and elegant New Zealander and I am eager to understand what cements the coherence of her brand.
Semaine: Do you remember your first Fashion Memory?
Emilia: “My mum was a fashion designer. So my first fashion memory would be from her starting her business from home in New-Zealand when I was a child. Downstairs from where we lived, next to a garage she created her own little studio and work room. I remember playing there and watching her work. She did everything, the sewing, the patterns…”
Semaine: It must have been an incredible insight. Did you always know you wanted to follow her footsteps?
Emilia: “No, Not at all! I had been engrossed in the fashion world because of my mother from a young age and it definitely played a big part in that choice. We worked and lived in the same place. But it really only hit me when we moved to Milan when I was 14 years old and I went to school in Milan. I had arrived in a fashion capital and it was the first time I had seen a designer store and the first time I was exposed to fashion week. I also had really inspiring art teachers. One was an ex-fashion designer. I guess all of those things came together and that was it… I then went on to study fashion design and marketing at Central St Martins in London. But I think if I hadn’t gone into fashion, I would probably have gone into painting, or something in the world of interior.”
Semaine: How much do you think you’ve inherited from your mother?
Emilia: “She was really great with her made to measure and tailoring. She always use to say that ‘ simplicity is sometimes the hardest thing to achieve’. She was always making incredibly sophisticated pieces. I am a hundred percent positive that there are traits from her business model and from her vision, brand aesthetics and identity that has transpired into what I am doing. No doubt about it. You can’t help it. So many memories are linked to what she created. I couldn’t really avoid it.”
Semaine: How did you choose London to open your business?
Emilia: “England is home. I have been here since I was 19, met my husband when I was 23 and now our two children are British. Our life is here. I couldn’t have imagined opening in any other place really. I also felt when I arrived in the UK that it was a place where you could be yourself and do what you wanted to do.
It has been so supportive and welcoming to a young designer, with a dream, wanting to start their own brand. The UK is a very big wide eyed International New Zealand in a way. I brought back qualities from wherever I lived: From New Zealand it is work ethic. Everyone there is very humble, realistic and not very materialistic. I feel I was very lucky to grow in that environment. Then I moved to Milan which is all of those things but I think I got out at the right time.”
Semaine: You have a very unique identity. Can you tell us more about your inspirations?
Emilia: “My initial inspiration has always been very nostalgic and it still is to this day of this very old world. I have always looked at Christian Dior and his salon shows and it inspired me for my business model and concept. When I started out, I always had a little private area where I could take measurements or when we were pre-selling where we could have the models showcase the collection. We used to do very small intimate fashion shows for a clientele who predominantly were looking to purchase the collection, who wanted to buy the collection and wear it the next day - 'buy now, wear now' ”
Semaine: Where do you get your inspiration from?
Emilia: “It can be from opening up a page in a book, seeing someone in the street, going to an exhibition or traveling to another city. I also watch a lot of old films. I love the 60’s and the 70’s, that would be my favourite at the moment.
But then there is something so dramatic and wonderful about the 40’s and the 50’s that is so playful. I guess there is always an element but I think right now I am into anything that is postmodern and links to the 60’s and 70’s. It’s the music and the veneered wood - I’m having a moment.
For the colour palettes I generally get inspiration from imagery or films and create a vision for every collection. This particular floral came from Dorothy Draper, who was this eccentric American interior decorator in the ‘50s. She was very experimental and eclectic. Everything had bold fabric, patterned carpets and printed chairs. I love throwing that in the mix of clean cut lines and beautiful architectural pieces. If you pick up Haute-Couture the way that a dress is constructed and the design lines are exceptional. You don’t see that on the High Street or in a lot of modern day quickly churned out garments. A lot of the time print will take over and you won’t notice a cut on a garment anymore. It’s so important to have the right balance.”
Semaine: How did people start talking about your brand?
Emilia: “Word of mouth is the way it started really. We only hired a PR company a year ago. It’s very home grown. Sometimes I wish we would have done a little bit differently so it would have gone a little faster but all in all it’s great.”
Semaine: Do you use social media?
Emilia: “I only use Instagram really. I am very visual, I love images and I think it’s an amazing way to define who you are; for someone to read into a little bit of your person life, but mainly your work life and your vision. I have a little bit of everything on mine.”
Semaine: In a sense we feel you are redefining feminine codes, can you tell us more about that?
Emilia: “Yes, it’s a new kind of modern. It’s about redefining modern femininity. At the moment we are so over exposed by reality tv stars and how they define sexiness and sensuality.
It’s important to keep creating in the way that I do. Garments need to have that sense of sensuality and they need to feel fashion forward but I feel like I am creating something new and fresh whilst still having an element of sophistication. It’s the young woman wearing it but it’s also the older woman - that’s very important.
It’s all about taste and taste making and going with your gut. That’s how I feel women should go about dressing up. That’s my gut selling what I am proposing and in the message I want to transcend to woman to what they should wear and to my daughter and I feel strongly about it.”
Semaine: I remember Samantha Cameron wearing one of your sapphire-blue dresses when David got elected as an MP. How did you feel?
Emilia: “It was definitely a very big moment for me as a designer. To encounter someone in the spotlight for something so monumental. It was pretty phenomenal and all of that exposure was great for the brand internationally as well as nationally. I was really starting at the time. I had just opened the store around the corner. It was a huge pat on the back and a huge accomplishment for the brand."
Semaine: Is she the Emilia Wickstead woman?
Emilia: “It’s absolutely great to have someone so intelligent and charismatic and just a wonderful genuine person to wear your designs. It’s the icing on the cake.
The Emilia Wickstead woman is always sophisticated and intelligent, but she is also outgoing and I always say: ‘The most modern woman in her circle’, you want to be her as much as you want what she is wearing.
A modern woman today is a mother, she is working, has every shape and form, she is also fashion forward. Women are extraordinary when you consider how they manage juggling all of this really."
Semaine: What relation do you have with your clients?
Emilia: "I am very close with a lot of my first clients. At the beginning it really did feel like a one man band. It was myself and another person running the business. I grew really close to my first clients and they became close friends which is great. As the business grows, I have less and less time to spend in the shop but the bespoke has grown into bridal and that’s when I get one on one time with the bride which is something I really enjoy."
Semaine: Why did you start as a bespoke tailor?
Emilia: “It was merely for financial reasons. Of course there must have been an influence from seeing my mum running her bespoke business but we couldn’t afford to carry stock or to produce stock for wholesale. So we had to start the business, see if there was a market for it, see if people liked the Emilia Wickstead vision and brand and identity. Test the waters in a way.”
Semaine: Where do you see your brand evolve?
Emilia: “Oh into so many things. Ultimately I see growth in every shape and form but what I love is our little point of difference which is our made to measure and made to order (which is the fast version of the made to measure) - which is very unique. We are sort of the only brand that does that.
I think I would just love to see that we can flourish by opening our business concept and our brand in other countries and for other women to enjoy what we have been doing. I like to think that Emilia Wickstead is for every woman. I would just love to see that our brand identity can spread internationally and we can have loads of little Wickstead houses."
Since Europe’s chicest have worn her designs it seems that Emilia has touched a sensible chord in the fashion world. No other brand seems to target this generation of sophisticated yet cool crowd. The modern Hitchcock heroin, the sensuality without the over-sexuality, the simplicity without the boringness.
Her taste is so defined, her offer so unique, her understanding of the market so thorough and her identity so clear that her success came with no surprise.
The ability to define one’s own identity without being victim of the current ‘trends’ is what makes a brand’s strength. It’s not PR, it’s not want-to-be, Emilia Wickstead is anchored in her own era, a nostalgic yet modern world.
And don’t we all wish we could prance around the city dressed in her clothes, day and night.
By Marie Winckler for Semaine.