The accidental fashionista
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-porter.com 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.”