The soft power of Emilia Wickstead
Emilia Wickstead is growing up. Since launching her fashion brand in 2008, the designer has fostered and found success with an aesthetic that fuses traditional prim-and-proper styles with a certain juvenilia: fit-and-flare silhouettes with matching opera gloves realised in sherbet colours or sweet florals, cast against a backdrop befitting a Hitchcock film.
As she settles into her second decade of business, though, Wickstead is ready to embrace a more mature feel, marked by a new London flagship that opens this month. “Our brand before was quite pink and feminine, but I feel like this store is all-encompassing,” says Wickstead. “I think we’ve changed so much over the years… it’s like an evolution coming into this space. I always like to think that we’re growing and moving and trying out different things, but that it’s always got our stamp on it.”
Wickstead is not deviating from Sloane Street, home of her existing store and of the affluent residents she’s dressed now for more than a decade, but is moving a few doors down to an address twice the size. Where her previous fit-out could have mimicked a millennial’s Pinterest board – all rose-tinted furnishings, minimal cubes and curved stairs – Wickstead’s new store is what she describes as “handsome”, with ivory silk moiré walls, mahogany doors, rust-coloured carpet, polished chrome and checkerboard floors. For the design, which Wickstead created with architecture and interiors studio Nenmar, she drew inspiration from Piero Portaluppi, who designed Villa Necchi Campiglio in Milan, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, who designed New York’s Seagram building. “I’m inspired by this old-world feel – men getting dressed up in suits, women getting dressed up effortlessly. You have your power suit, your power lunch, your power life,” she says.
The new store marks not only a maturation of Wickstead’s visual identity but an expansion of Emilia Wickstead from dressmaker to fully fledged lifestyle brand. The downstairs area will house a new homeware line encompassing linens, glassware, china and cutlery, and an entertaining area with a big table and Brno chairs by Knoll, as well as vacationwear and sleepwear. Upstairs is a bar, an accessories section and a “luxury hospitality” suite, from which Wickstead will operate her bespoke, made-to-measure and bridal services. “We have never had a room for VIPs,” she says of the small customer base that’s becoming increasingly lucrative. “This is important for us as we grow, that everything comes back to the customer. Whether it’s bridal, making a made-to-order garment, or creating a bespoke dress, the journey should bring her into our narrative. We want her to be part of our world.”
Wickstead’s narrative is certainly fantastical – and aspirational. The 39-year-old spent her childhood in the lush surrounds of New Zealand; her father was an artist and her mother, Angela Wickstead, owned a fashion boutique in Auckland’s Parnell. “Emilia would come to my store every day after school and sit at my desk and watch me fit and sell to clients,” says Angela of her daughter’s formative years. “From nursery age she was very headstrong about dressing and wanted to be in as many layers, frills and fuss as she could.”
At 14, when her mother married an Italian, they uprooted and moved to a town outside Milan, where Wickstead became “infatuated with this city of culture and fashion”, adds Angela. “She had never seen Italian culture or a designer store before. I remember Emilia was very masculine in her look when we arrived in Italy. She really became quite feminine and groomed.”
From Milan, Emilia went to London to study fashion design and marketing at Central Saint Martins and then to New York, where she interned at Proenza Schouler, Narciso Rodriguez and Vogue. In 2008, at the age of 23 and with £5,000 from her then boyfriend (now husband), Brazilian banker Daniel Gargiulo, she launched a tiny made-to-measure collection from her sitting room in London’s Chelsea. Word quickly spread, and Wickstead soon found a strong customer base among London society who took well to her demure occasionwear. Early clients were Samantha Cameron, who wore Wickstead for a Downing Street photo op in 2010, and the Duchess of Cambridge, who first wore one of her designs in 2012 – and was prominent in an Emilia Wickstead primrose-yellow coat dress when attending a service at St Paul’s last month for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.
“Emilia was straight out of the gate with precise size and fit – something that many other young designers have yet to master – and this has allowed her to grow a loyal fanbase,” says Lauren Santo Domingo, co-founder of fashion retailer Moda Operandi. “She is capable of accentuating the best part of a woman’s body, hiding flaws and showing off assets in a way that others haven’t even dared to try.” Santo Domingo first met Wickstead in 2014 and wears her designs regularly – she wore a black satin dress and opera gloves to the Acquisitions Gala at the Metropolitan Museum last year. “I think Emilia mixes a traditional and somewhat buttoned-up primness… with a modern or unexpected element: be it the neckline or a flash of midriff,” she says. “Her signature femininity separates her from other dressmakers.”
Wickstead’s reputation as an occasionwear designer has sometimes been hard to shake. “I think that is the perceived value of the brand,” says Wickstead. “I would say traditionally, through the store location and positioning, we were drawing a neighbourhood crowd who we still have shopping with us today. But I think that as a brand it’s expanded into many different worlds and territories and different ages.” Her denim and knitwear are some of her biggest-selling collections, as well as wool shirts and casual trousers. But, she admits slightly sheepishly, her top category is still occasionwear. Dresses. “Whether that’s more of a pared-down day dress or a cocktail dress. But it’s definitely dresses.”
Geographically, Wickstead’s fastest-growing market is the United States, where online sales currently outperform those in the UK. She’s also collaborating with other brands – recent tie-ups include jeweller Jessica McCormack and Emporio Sirenuse on a resortwear collection.
“Seeing people walking down the street [wearing Emilia Wickstead] for me is as exhilarating as seeing someone on the red carpet. That’s what we get up for in the morning,” the designer adds. “I love to think that I’m extending our world by dragging more and more people in.” Surely, when it comes to Wickstead’s customers, it’s less “dragging”, more graceful promenading? Either way, the Wickstead world is about to become a whole lot bigger.