The ac­ci­den­tal fash­ion­ista

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

How­ever much you dress it up, the fash­ion business is all about sell­ing clothes. Thus in ar­ti­cles about fash­ion there tends, some­where along the line, to be a pitch. Usu­ally this gets buried near the end, but with Lulu Kennedy it’s il­lus­tra­tive to give the sell mar­quee billing.

On a car park bench, be­hind her of­fice on Brick Lane, London, this new mother is de­scrib­ing her clothes col­lec­tion, Lulu & Co. This was born in 2010 as an ad­junct to Fash­ion East, the three-de­sign­er­per-show London Fash­ion Week in­cu­ba­tor she has run since 2000 – and which has pro­vided a vi­tal leg up for now-thriv­ing la­bels in­clud­ing Holly Ful­ton, House of Hol­land, Gareth Pugh, Mar­ios Sch­wab and Louise Goldin.

That first col­lec­tion was sup­posed to be a one-off – “10 col­lec­tions by 10 de­sign­ers” – says Kennedy in her sur­pris­ingly quiet de­fault tone. When it sold, the re­tail­ers asked for more, and now it’s taken off – with a full col­lec­tion of its own on the LFW roster. “It’s like a lot of things in my life that seem to just hap­pen. And which are fun.” Lulu & Co’s suc­cess, which Kennedy makes sound as ac­ci­den­tal as find­ing a fiver be­hind the sofa, means it is now sold at Lib­erty, Net-à and beyond. This “is kind of a sur­prise”, she says.

The new au­tumn/ win­ter range whim­si­cally fea­tures rain­bows, in hon­our of her six-mon­thold daugh­ter Rainbow, who is in Fash­ion East’s HQ asleep on a Louise Gray MA show coat. To­day, Kennedy wears a rainbow jumper above a pair of Top­shop ma­ter­nity jeans so com­fort­able she hasn’t traded them in yet. Of her col­lec­tion – as well as of her po­si­tion as an MBE-wield­ing key in­flu­ence in London fash­ion, she says: “I sort of landed in th­ese sit­u­a­tions and was very lucky.”

Oh come off it, I think: surely all this softly spo­ken, it’s-allserendip­ity stuff is shtick. Suc­cess­ful la­bels are cyn­i­cally mar­keted. Surely you don’t be­come the queen of east London’s fiercely com­pet­i­tive fash­ion scene with­out chop­ping off a few heads along the way.

Kennedy was born in New­cas­tle, and raised in Devon in the wake of her fa­ther’s job as a teacher. She fondly de­scribes her par­ents as hip­pies. There were oc­ca­sional up­root­ings to Si­cily or Ibiza be­fore pen­ni­less re­turns. As a stu­dent she de­camped to Naples, be­fore re­turn­ing to London in the Nineties. “I was work­ing in an art gallery on Brick Lane. The own­ers had just bought the Old Tru­man Brew­ery – 11 acres of empty ware­houses. They had seen me around and asked me to work for them. I knew artists and de­sign­ers and started rent­ing them stu­dios. That snow­balled and we ended up host­ing shows.”

Her very first show was Hus­sein Cha­layan in Septem­ber 1997: “It was in­sane. One of his most con­cep­tual, with the wooden cone­heads. That gave me the bug.”

Not long after the own­ers came back: “They said ‘you know a lot of young de­sign­ers and are al­ways help­ing them out, bung­ing them a free venue: why don’t you do it as a proper project?’ So we did. We found spon­sors, gave out bur­saries, got ex­perts in to give them ad­vice. Ob­vi­ously, I didn’t have ad­vice to give at that stage.”

Kennedy is com­monly char­ac­terised as the fairy god­mother of London fash­ion, thanks to the support her bur­saries (funded by the Brew­ery and now Top­shop) she and her pan­els of ex­perts give young hope­fuls. She is also free with her ad­vice. “I think I’ve got a big sis­ter com­plex. I’m al­ways ‘why don’t you just do that – it works!’.” She is in­deed the el­dest of four sib­lings, and al­ways used to dress up her brother: “Poor thing – I prob­a­bly wanted him to be a girl.”

Around 40 de­sign­ers have ben­e­fited from her big sis­ter­ing, although Kennedy says she has not counted. Since 2005, she has also over­seen MAN, the menswear brother to Fash­ion East. And not all of her grad­u­ates have reached fash­ion star­dom. She says: “You can’t fake tal­ent. So the ones that have made it, you could tell they might make it from the start. But that’s not ev­ery­thing: they have to have the de­ter­mi­na­tion and the drive to make it as well. And they have to have the de­sire to make their own business rather than to work for some­one else.”

So fol­low­ing fur­ther ex­am­i­na­tion I con­cede Kennedy’s spiel might just be for real: her suc­cess re­ally is pro­pelled only by her own benev­o­lence. She checks her phone for Rainbow up­dates, and we get up from our benches. I won­der, as she has all those menswear stars of the fu­ture in­cu­bat­ing at MAN, whether there will be some Lulu & Co for the chaps at some point. “Erm,” she says with a tilt of her head: “I hadn’t thought of that.”

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