The mood of de­mure sen­su­al­ity cur­rently sweep­ing fash­ion may be new to some, but it’s just play­ing catch-up to what Emilia Wickstead has been do­ing for a decade now. And while she’s not tak­ing any credit for the trend – we’d prob­a­bly have to look at the big­ger pic­ture in these #metoo times for a start – she’s not com­plain­ing. “I don’t know why there’s a mo­ment go­ing on, but I’m just glad I’m part of it,” she tells WISH, set­tled on a couch in the sit­ting area be­neath her store on Lon­don’s Sloane Street. The walls are lined in palest pink wool, and there’s a fem­i­nine min­i­mal­ism at work all around us, which per­fectly off­sets her de­signs.

“As a de­signer, as the years go on you un­der­stand your wo­man and who your cus­tomer is and feel con­fi­dent in what you’re show­ing. And ul­ti­mately I’ve al­ways be­lieved, from the be­gin­ning when start­ing my busi­ness, that what was im­por­tant for me was to sell.”

That un­der­stand­ing of what women want came early, and not just from spend­ing six days a week in her orig­i­nal store for the first five years it was open. Her mother, Angela, had been a de­signer in Auck­land, and she grew up along­side the busi­ness. “It was just my­self and my mother, I didn’t have a dad. When I was a lit­tle baby, when I slept she would work through the night. Af­ter kinder­garten or school I would go to her store or her stu­dio, and I would watch her fit­tings, and fill her pin cush­ions ... that was my life. You didn’t have a com­puter or mo­bile phones, so I just sat there watch­ing, and that’s how you learnt amaz­ing things.”

The cul­ture shock of mov­ing from Auck­land to Italy at 14, fol­low­ing her mother’s mar­riage to an Ital­ian, also brought plenty of lessons. The free­dom of her New Zealand child­hood and early teens, of walk­ing bare­foot to school and wear­ing flow­ers in her hair, or ex­per­i­ment­ing with dif­fer­ent trends with her girl­friends – “from skater chick to gothic girl” – was sud­denly reined in by some­thing more rigid.

“I ar­rived with short hair like a boy and I wore baggy men’s trousers,” the 35-year-old re­calls. “And I ar­rived in a city where there was a huge fem­i­nin­ity, and I was judged quite se­ri­ously at school. All of a sud­den you felt the need to con­form, to be the same as ev­ery­one else. I found that quite tricky as a teenager, but I was so young and naïve I just thought it was re­ally ex­cit­ing.”

And while the fash­ion cap­i­tal of Mi­lan was a 90-minute train ride away, that didn’t stop her mak­ing the jour­ney fre­quently af­ter school to soak up its star at­trac­tions: de­signer bou­tiques. “It was the first time I had seen a de­signer store in my life. My mother was a big de­signer [at home], but this was the Pradas and Miu Mius. That’s when I saw an en­tirely dif­fer­ent world.”

Her artis­tic tal­ent nur­tured by an art teacher at a Bri­tish-speak­ing school, Wickstead would lis­ten to guest speak­ers he brought in from Vogue Italia, or as­sis­tants to Hel­mut New­ton. “I was sit­ting on the edge of my seat, I just re­mem­ber feel­ing so in­cred­i­bly lucky. It was very dif­fer­ent from New Zealand.”

Feel­ing the in­evitable pull to fash­ion, Wickstead stud­ied at Lon­don’s fa­mous Cen­tral Saint Martins fash­ion school for five years, and ar­riv­ing in that city, im­me­di­ately “felt I was home again, be­cause peo­ple felt ex­per­i­men­tal and free and fun”.

But the Mi­lan ef­fect had taken hold. “My time in Mi­lan turned me into the kind of de­signer I am to­day – it was that jux­ta­po­si­tion of be­ing re­ally cre­ative and quite ec­cen­tric in New Zealand to con­form­ing to what women re­ally want, what’s sexy.”

Her An­tipodean up­bring­ing also brought a can-do at­ti­tude that served her well at the be­gin­ning of her ca­reer, when she was cre­at­ing made-to-mea­sure pieces from her liv­ing room. She fa­mously called the ed­i­to­rial team at Vogue in­sist­ing that they look at her web­site while she was on the line – and it re­sulted in her first story in the mag­a­zine. “I def­i­nitely wasn’t the most con­fi­dent per­son, but I just did it be­cause that’s what you do. You have to muck in and do it your­self.”

Some high-pro­file clients soon found their way to her, in­clud­ing Sa­man­tha Cameron, who wore a Wickstead cre­ation the day her hus­band David was elected Bri­tish prime min­is­ter in 2010. The so-called Kate Mid­dle­ton ef­fect has also helped busi­ness, the Duchess of Cam­bridge hav­ing worn her de­signs on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions. On the red car­pet Saoirse Ro­nan, Emma Wat­son, Brie Lar­son, Diane Kruger and Gwyneth Pal­trow have all taken turns.

And while she never sought out that cal­i­bre of client, she is grate­ful to have them. “It’s amaz­ing to dress any­body that’s in the spot­light, but at the be­gin­ning when build­ing my busi­ness, they very organically came to the brand, and that was very, very spe­cial. That def­i­nitely put the brand’s name out into the world.”

An­other nudge came via Bri­tish on­line re­tailer Matchesfashion.com, whose founders Ruth and Tom Chap­man gave the de­signer her first whole­sale ac­count in 2013. “I was over­come by her de­signs and unique sil­hou­ettes, which have that nod to old-fash­ioned cou­ture,” Ruth Chap­man tells WISH. “It was so re­fresh­ing at the time – lux­ury con­tem­po­rary styles, flat­ter­ing cuts that are ex­tremely wear­able with so­phis­ti­cated, mod­ern colours.”

Wickstead didn’t do the usual fash­ion week route at the be­gin­ning, although she is now one of the stars of the Lon­don Fash­ion Week sched­ule. In­stead, once she grad­u­ated to her first store and ate­lier around the corner from her cur­rent ad­dress, she would hold sa­lon-style

“I was over­come by her de­signs and sil­hou­ettes, which have that nod to old-fash­ioned cou­ture.”

shows for clients. “I think maybe I’m a lit­tle bit of an old soul. Dur­ing my times at Cen­tral Saint Martins, even though we would be very ex­per­i­men­tal, I would al­ways go into the li­brary and the ar­chives and play the old Dior sa­lon shows, and I just al­ways be­lieved that I was go­ing to have sa­lon shows. And I could never un­der­stand why shows were just for press and not for clients, when clients were ac­tu­ally the peo­ple buy­ing the col­lec­tion.”

Ev­ery la­bel must evolve with those clients and cater to var­i­ous as­pects of their lives – some­thing she can re­late to, now hav­ing two small chil­dren, Mercedes Amalia and Gil­berto, with her Brazil­ian hus­band Daniel Gargiulo. Three sea­sons ago she added jeans to her col­lec­tion. “I just started liv­ing in jeans and I couldn’t wear any­one else’s,” she says with a laugh, wear­ing a pair as we speak to­day. “They’re straight cut, high-waisted, flat­ter­ing but also very fash­ion for­ward as a cut, I think, and the denim has that per­fect amount of stretch and per­fect amount of stiff­ness, so it’s very com­fort­able but feels a lit­tle bit vin­tage.”

In March, she col­lab­o­rated on an ac­tivewear line with Body­ism, fea­tur­ing flo­ral Ly­cra pieces and hood­ies.

This month she will bring the next evo­lu­tion of her brand to Mercedes-Benz Fash­ion Week Aus­tralia for the first time, pre­sented by Matchesfashion.com.

Wickstead will show her first Re­sort col­lec­tion in Syd­ney, a nos­tal­gic take on the orig­i­nal con­cept of pieces to take you from morn­ing to night while on hol­i­day. It in­cludes her first-ever swim and beach­wear pieces, in­spired by her own “old world” lean­ings and the pho­to­graphs of Slim Aarons, fea­tur­ing high so­ci­ety en­joy­ing life on va­ca­tion.

The 17-piece col­lec­tion is based around “chintzy and whim­si­cal” prints taken from du­vets and cur­tains (“I’m not jok­ing,” she says), and in­cludes turtle­neck swim­suits, vin­tage-in­spired short sets, “and a linen over­skirt that matches your bathing suit”.

Natalie King­ham, buy­ing direc­tor of Matchesfashion. com, thinks peo­ple will re­spond well to the col­lec­tion, that skirt-and-swim­suit combo con­jur­ing vi­sions of Grace Kelly on a yacht on the Riviera. “There’s def­i­nitely noth­ing else like it,” she says. “I also re­ally love the short cock­tail dresses, they’re re­ally cute with a 60s feel­ing. And they’re in nice thick padded silk, so they’re re­ally for­giv­ing as well.”

King­ham be­lieves that Wickstead is her own best cus­tomer, giv­ing that fem­i­nine at­ten­tion to de­tail that male de­sign­ers some­times don’t con­sider when de­sign­ing for women. “She does think about things. She re­veals the flesh in a very flat­ter­ing way, or she might cut a sleeve to hide that bit of ‘pad­ding’. You know she’s think­ing about how you would feel con­fi­dent, fem­i­nine and sexy all at the same time.”

In ad­di­tion to her Re­sort col­lec­tion, Wickstead says she’ll show some pieces in Syd­ney that are suit­able for the races. “I hear that’s a big thing in Aus­tralia,” she says with that easy laugh. Given she hasn’t vis­ited our shores since she was 19, Wickstead says she’s very ex­cited to be com­ing back with a show. “Aus­tralia is a great client base, and I think it’s re­ally im­por­tant to be Down Un­der, close to where I’m from. It’s an ab­so­lute priv­i­lege to be asked.”

“You know she’s think­ing about how you would feel con­fi­dent, fem­i­nine and sexy all at the same time.”


Win­ter 2018 be­hind the scenes

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