SPREADING HER WINGS
WOMENSWEAR DESIGNER OR ART CURATOR? EVENTS GURU OR RETAIL MAVEN? THE SINGULAR FORCE IN BRITISH STYLE THAT IS ALEX EAGLE EVADES EASY CLASSIFICATION. WHICH IS JUST THE WAY SHE LIKES IT.
Alex Eagle – the amazing retail experience that evades easy description: is it a concept store? A fashion boutique? A purveyor of gorgeous accessories for the home? An art gallery? – used to be located at a single shopfront among the many that line Walton Street, in the quaint and extremely monied bit of London where Knightsbridge blends into South Kensington. From the moment it opened in late 2014, London’s tastemaker grapevine hummed with word of this cosy, cleverly fitted-out space, and its eclecticism, originality, and deep appeal.
Here was a store where a small clutch of Venetian crystal glasses, produced by the nobleman Giberto Arrivabene, would be arranged under a light on a shelf with the solicitude of a dealer of priceless works of art, next to a single pair of deep jewel-green velvet mules by the obscure designer Beryl Le Monde, showcased with equal care. Delicate racks were hung sparingly with silk and satin pyjamas and subtly patterned silk-twill dressing gowns. Lucite shelves in the front vitrines would hold a pair of sheepskin-clad stools one week, and limitededition Perspex replicas of famous, rare album covers from the 1970s the next. Line drawings by the fashion illustrator Tanya Ling filled one wall in a mesmerising undulation of deep blue against white; close by were utilitarian-chic womenswear designs by former Hermès creative director Christophe Lemaire.
What really stood out, though – even for London’s supremely blasé, seen-it-all coterie of fashion and style editors – was the calibre and singularity of the Alex Eagle collaborations. Those slinky nightclothes? A project with venerable old Jermyn Street cobblerhaberdashers New & Lingwood (and meant, by the way, for daytime wear). That trio of swoon-worthy long silk polka-dot dresses? An Eagle interpretation of Olga Vilshenko, a designer known for her tailored, minimalist takes on the extravagant folkloric shapes and concepts of her native Russia. The impeccably cut women’s velvet and tweed or silk evening jackets were developed with Blazé, a then-nascent Milanese duo who arguably owe their current white-hot fashion status to their early presence here. The Alex Eagle luggage – all old-school corners and buckles, executed in chic navy – was instead a meeting of minds with 250-year-old British artisan leatherworkers Swaine Adeney Brigg.
Established international names and cottage-industry British ones alike found a home in this most unexpected and original of edits, as did interpretations of extreme femininity and adornment-eschewing menswear style. Alex Eagle was a place that, above all, manifestly – invigoratingly, delightfully – refused characterisation.
Cut to 2018, and Alex Eagle – the 34-year-old woman who, like her store, embodies many roles: shopkeeper, art dealer, womenswear designer, curator, aesthete par excellence – is still all about that eclectic mix. But the mix is a far bigger enterprise these days. Eagle now presides over a small retail fiefdom in Britain, comprising Alex Eagle Studio (which in 2017 moved from its Walton Street digs to a massive ground-level space in a former parking garage on Lexington Street, in the heart of Soho); a sparely designed but lushly populated e-commerce website; and two outposts of The Store by Alex Eagle, her retail partnership with Soho House (the first opened in 2014 at Soho House Berlin, the second in 2016 at Soho Farmhouse in Oxfordshire). Eagle is currently rolling out a far larger interpretation of the concept – literally and figuratively – at 180 The Strand, the multi-purpose office/retail/entertainment project that has taken over Arundel Great Court, the landmark Brutalist building above Victoria Embankment. Eagle has been the long-lead tenant and general galvaniser on the initiative, which already boasts a gilded roster of occupants such as David Chipperfield, Dazed Media, and the British Fashion Council. The Store at 180 The Strand will see a wide mix of niche fashion, design, art, events and some lo-fi but inevitably excellent food and drink options and gallery space.
The Alex Eagle retail edit is, overall, still singular, though it includes illustrators, floral artists, eminent early 20th-century furniture designers (mint pieces by Pierre Jeanneret or Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann are known to pop up every so often in the inventory), crystal and leather workers, ceramicists, jewellers, even emerging stars of the visual and recording arts worlds.
And, of course, a lot of fashion. Though in Eagle’s world, that’s a relative, not to mention loaded, term. She started her career as a fashion editor, first at Tank and then UK Bazaar, then leapt the church-state divide to work the public relations side of things at seminal British brand Joseph for a few years before striking out on her own. “I think [my vision] comes from having worked in that world,” she tells me during a long chat in late January, as she prepares to host a glamorous dinner at 180 Strand that’s part of the Minimalist-Maximalist
Ball event series she founded in 2017 with Marie-Louise Sciò, the owner-director of sumptuous Italian hotels Il Pellicano and La Posta Vecchia (who has become a close friend of hers).
“It’s sort of the antithesis of what I did and how I lived then. In fashion there’s always the new season; the cycle was so brief, you’re constantly seeing – wanting – new stuff. By the time I was in my late 20s, I had a real desire to have less to prove that way. I didn’t want to always be wanting more clothes, worrying about whether what I had was still cool. After a point it’s a bit exhausting – ‘Do I really love sheepskin, or am I being swayed because everyone else does?’
“So what I wanted to design for myself, to edit for myself, was almost the antithesis of that fashion of my 20s. I wanted Alex Eagle Studio to be about what you really need: that one dressing gown, that one perfect shirt, that one cashmere throw. I know – who really needs a cashmere throw on their sofa? But if it’s one that works perfectly there, and that you can stuff in your carryon and travel with, and you can wrap up in when you’re not feeling well: that’s an ideal, desirable thing.”
Eagle’s collaborations with designers, makers, and artisans have likewise all been shaped by this filter. “It’s always about longevity and quality. And it doesn’t have to be super-expensive. The people I collaborate with, or have in the past, are the ones who have just nailed something; they’re doing it and doing it amazingly. The Blazé Milano girls did it with the blazer; Giberto did it with his Venetian crystal.” Eagle’s own hexagonalrimmed crystal tumbler design, produced with Arrivabene’s Venice-based brand, Giberto, is a regular sellout in the shop and online.
“And not just with the collaborations but also with pieces I designed, I wanted items that would be always in production; things that you can always come back and buy.” She notes how even brands that ostensibly embody consistency of style and message, like Céline under Phoebe Philo, don’t always deliver on this: “You know, the [Céline] trousers are invariably amazing – always more or less the same silhouette – but you kind of want the actual exact piece again, don’t you? Having it in, I don’t know, a stripe or a different wool is good, but the building block, the shape, you don’t want to change. Men have always had this available to them, it’s the nature of haberdashery: the same shirt fit in different cottons, the same v-neck in different colours. It’s been far easier for them to have that reliable uniform.”
Menswear’s ease of use and perennial relevance are what Eagle propounds, beautifully, in her own womenswear collection: a handful of understated and impeccably crafted pieces whose fundamental nature doesn’t change over time. She has described it as a combination of “those components [of my own wardrobe] I live in until they’re threadbare, and those pieces that lived in my imagination because I couldn’t find them anywhere.” The palettes may evolve, the finishes too; but the genius of, for instance, her scarfneck blouse – cut from sumptuous cady silk, in which the near-architectural elegance of the heavy wrap neck (which can be draped, tied, or simply thrown back over
“Fashion is a bit exhausting – ‘Do I really love sheepskin, or am I being swayed because everyone else does?’”
one’s shoulders) contrasts beautifully with the fluid movement of the body – is actually that it stays the same. Likewise the Alex Eagle signature pants suit, its doublebreasted jacket and Hepburn-esque pleated trousers cut in summer-sky blue, cream, or stone linen, which reliably delivers elegant fit and faultless drape.
There are, very much by design, no seasons or cycles to the Alex Eagle line; new colours and the (very) occasional new style are introduced intermittently throughout the year, independent of the constraints of any fashion calendar. “I didn’t want things that you wouldn’t be able to come back and find a year, or two, or three later. And I also didn’t want to design things that would then go on sale – I don’t want to ask a woman to pay £950 ($1700) for one of my blazers and then she comes in a few months later and it’s £600. The quality should make it always worth its price.” I can attest firsthand to the merits of an Alex Eagle investment: the sleeveless scarf blouse may retail at a not inconsequential £395, but I probably amortised my initial outlay in the first three months I owned it, so valuable and versatile a role did it immediately assume in my wardrobe. (And if if I had a pound for every ‘Where did you buy that?’, I’d be reinvesting my profits by now.)
The Alex Eagle collection has been so well received that Eagle has just launched a bespoke tailoring service. “They’re all our own shapes, all without unnecessary trim. It’s entirely made-to-measure; my clients choose the fabric, the lining, everything. But there will be an off-the-peg version of everything as well.” In lieu of professional models Eagle recruited friends to feature in the photo shoot for her new line, which she runs on the website, on her Instagram feed, and along the exterior walls of the Studio on Lexington Street. It’s resulted in one of the more successful, and convincingly chic, instances of a designer using “women from real life” to illustrate the broad appeal of fine tailoring. Among them are artists Indre SerpytyteRoberts and Cassie Machado, interior designer Fran Hickman, and pre-eminent London solicitor (and Eagle’s aunt) Oonagh Alen-Buckley – and her own mother, who is also her studio director.
That Eagle cast her own relations in a campaign is typical of her idiosyncratic lens on how fashion should work in our lives; her family in fact played a seminal role in the formation of her polymath’s view of the world. Her parents travelled widely with her when she was young; her mother and father both worked in television, and her father as a sometime art dealer and scout, patrolling Portobello Road in its heyday for promising inventory. “He fell a bit out of love with TV journalism at a certain point, and then assumed responsibility for the estate of a British artist, and was tasked with building up his reputation. And he eventually expanded that and became a dealer, specialising in 19th and 20th-century British art.” Robert Eagle Fine Art occasionally participates in life at Alex Eagle Studio. “He’ll do a show on the lower ground floor, or I might borrow something to display in the store. I’m more about contemporary, living artists, often female; my dad’s stuff isn’t the work I’m necessarily buying or sourcing, but I do like having it in the mix sometimes.
“I didn’t want things that you wouldn’t be able to come back and find a year, or two, or three later.”
And he’s great at knowing what might appreciate [in value], without being at all about status collecting.”
“Status” isn’t a signifier that seems to have goldenring appeal for Eagle in her retail pursuits. While the skills of curation in play at both the Studio and in The Stories in London and Berlin are clearly formidable, nothing about those environments feels clubby, exclusive or remotely unwelcoming. “For Berlin, the first Store, I had the idea of a big space that was more hangout than shop. I designed some furniture and mixed it with some early 20th-century stuff; we put in a juice bar and a bit of healthy food. We include more of those fun, fashion-y brands in the mix – Vetements, OffWhite, Junya [Watanabe] – so it’s a bit more of a seasonal offering there. But there are the books and some art, and my designs, too. The idea was for that mix to be interactive, and unpretentious.”
Part of the reason art, and books, and limitededition housewares and one-off early 20th-century antiques meet in such a convincing encounter in the Eagle realms, whether at Studio or one of The Stories, is because that’s the way she lives at home. Her husband, property investor-developer Mark Wadhwa, founded The Vinyl Factory, the independent record pressing company that has expanded into an influential music-arts enterprise whose collaborators over the years have ranged from Massive Attack and Daft Punk to the visual artists Martin Creed and Jake and Dinos Chapman. (The Vinyl Factory’s latest initiative, VF Commissions, works with artists both major and emerging on site-specific works; and the Vinyl Factory has recently put on shows at venues including 180 The Strand, where it is now a tenant.) The loft-like Soho home Eagle shares with Wadhwa and their one-yearold son, Jack, radiates the same eclectic creativity, inclusive aesthetic, and collaborative inclination her clients find in her retail environments.
We finish our long January chat discussing possibilities for international expansion. Eagle occasionally toys with the idea of Paris; pays homage to the deep craft and heritage traditions of Japan (“They get it all there, and they care so much about the finish, which is my own obsession”); and genuinely sees potential in an expansion to LA (“Mark always tells me you’ve got to want to really be where you’re going to do things creatively; and I can absolutely see spending part of each year there”). And what does she think of Australian style? A smile down the phone line, a surge of enthusiasm. “They love all the artists’ collaborations; and they’re not snobs at all. There’s no pretence – they’re all about the charm.” She name-checks a few Australians she admires, among them Sydney-based interior designer Tamsin Johnson: “Incredible style, a great eye – she’s really inspired by the whole globe, but never pretentious. She’s also not trying to do anything that’s not Australian.
“I think she’s very much like me, actually,” Eagle concludes – which I take to mean, true to her own wide aesthetic, her own reliable sense of what works together. “You know: ‘Is it ‘taste’, or is it terrible?’ Who gives a shit, because it’s such fun.”
Eagle toys with the idea of Paris, pays homage to the deep craft of Japan, and sees potential in LA.
Clockwise from left: the studio; the event space; the Berlin store; and a suit and coat from the Alex Eagle bespoke division