MOVING AS A TEEN FROM THE FREEDOM AND ECCENTRICITY OF AUCKLAND TO THE STYLISTIC STRICTURES AND FEMININITY OF MILAN, EMILIA WICKSTEAD LEARNED A WEALTH OF EARLY LESSONS ABOUT DESIGNING FOR WOMEN.
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