When Michelle Obama wore a bright purple Roksanda Ilincic dress to 10 Downing Street last May, followed swiftly by the Duchess of Cornwall, who chose a lavender draped Ilincic number for her Los Angeles debut, it was not just a coup for the London-based designer but for the woman who discovered her: Lulu Kennedy, aka British fashion’s “fairy godmother”.
Kennedy heads up a non-profit company in east London that scouts the most promising new talent and presents it during London Fashion Week as Fashion East. “We serve as a leg-up for designers who have left or are leaving college, or who are setting up their own label,” says Kennedy. “Some move on after just one showing, some need or want a bit longer. Fashion East’s job is to promote them to the industry, and get their careers in motion.”
Judging by some of the names Fashion East has launched in its 11 years – Jonathan Saunders, Gareth Pugh, Richard Nicoll and Henry Holland – they have been successful. “Henry Holland’s Pretty Polly tights sell by the lorry load,” says Kennedy. “Roksanda has stockists all over the world, Richard Nicoll was headhunted by Cerutti and Fred Perry, Gareth Pugh shows in Paris with Rihanna in the front row, and Jonathan Saunders has had hugely successful collaborations with Target and Smythson.”
Next in line for the Fashion East treatment are James Long, Marques Almeida and Maarten van der Horst, all showing at the Truman Brewery this week. Long’s signature is his use of knit, leather and print, while Marques Almeida – a pair of designers who trained at Vivienne Westwood – care more about attitude than about hemlines. Dutch-born Maarten van der Horst is known for his hand-painted prints.
Fashion East began after Kennedy, a 42-year-old Wiltshire-born girl of Hungarian/Irish hippie parents, met Ofer Zeloof, owner of the Truman Brewery. “I didn’t have a ‘plan’ as such,” says Kennedy, who was organising raves and working odd jobs at art galleries at the time.
Zeloof mentioned his idea of turning a dilapidated old brewery into a hub of design and creativity and, says Kennedy, “I knew I wanted to help the talented designers I had encountered, and [Zeloof] was the man who could make it happen … the Truman Brewery provides my salary, office and pay for all those back-end running costs”. Kennedy does everything else: “I love seeking out designers,” she says, “whether at colleges or via the website applications. I’m lucky that the kids want to be chosen by Fashion East because we’ve built a reputation for picking hot talent.”
“I definitely owe my career to Lulu,” says Ilincic. “She has been supportive, not only financially, but in every way. Our first trip in Milan to meet buyers was so intimidating – we were so inexperienced. She was like a helicopter mum, hovering over us, making sure the buyers treated us right. The only thing she doesn’t get involved in is designing. She leaves that to us.”
Saunders adds: “Financially, it is always a struggle for Lulu to keep Fashion East going. But she has an insatiable appetite for finding talent. The continual search for something new is part of her DNA.”
Indeed last year, along with business partner Tania Fares, Kennedy started the fashion line Lulu & Co to celebrate her 10 years in business. The line includes a re-working of Fashion East’s greatest hits, exclusive designs and pieces by “family and friends” from the contemporary art world, such as Tim Noble and Sue Webster, and is sold in stores from Harvey Nichols to Hong Kong’s Joyce.
In January, Kennedy was appointed an MBE. “A letter arrived from the Queen and at first I thought I was in trouble,” she says. “After reading it, I was laughing in disbelief.”