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Rumours of a new label by two of Britain’s best-known and most affectionately held designers, Katie Hillier and Luella Bartley, started circulating in February. Something was afoot at Marc Jacobs; Marc by Marc Jacobs, the house’s contemporary line headed by the pair, was about to be shuttered. Confirmation followed in March: the label the two women had overseen for only three seasons was no more.
Fashion dinners buzzed with the news, each editor bringing their own insights. Were the friends finally launching their own label? Had anyone seen it? When would it launch? Finally, Ruth Chapman, co-founder of Matches Fashion, cracked. “I’ve seen it,” she admitted: “And it’s amay-zing!”
“There can be quite a lot of hype surrounding things that we do and I think both Katie and I were nervous about that,” says Bartley, the 41-year-old designer best known for her eponymous label, Luella, which ceased treading in 2009 when a major backer pulled out. “We really wanted the clothes to speak for themselves. And because we had to wait until Marc announced, I think people thought we were being a bit coy and elusive, and it created this mystery.”
Blonde, petite and wearing high-waisted jeans and white Reeboks, Bartley is speaking to me at Rochelle Studios in Shoreditch, east London, from where Hillier Bartley operates. Hillier, 41, who shuttles between a home in Marylebone and the creative studios at Marc Jacobs in New York, where she remains creative director for contemporary lines, speaks to me later by phone.
Their collection launches next week. Very broadly speaking, Bartley did the clothes and Hillier the accessories. Bartley has also taken a more controlling role in steering the label, while Hillier brings a business nous learnt consulting for brands such as Victoria Beckham and Stella McCartney. “But I’m not saying I’m the business mind of it at all. Luella’s probably more switched on about money than I will ever be,” she says. Hillier Bartley, then, is very much a double act — a shared enterprise.
At the moment, though, it’s a very small one. “There are two people on design, two people on accessories, a tailor and pattern-cutter, and a machinist,” says Bartley. They are self-funding the label, and it’s a lean operation: to begin, there will be no runway shows and no campaigns. “It’s daunting,” says Hillier, “you’re constantly analysing where you’re spending. Luella counts out the buttons so we only order the minimum of materials.” But the designers are well aware of the value of this independence. “The most satisfying part of this is that it’s been done without compromise,” says Hillier. “I’m glad it’s a small collection,” adds Bartley. “We can say happily and succinctly what we want to say. I think sometimes with British labels, success runs away from [you] and you lose control of what you’re trying to do. One thing Katie and I have learnt is to hold back and not to lose your identity.”
No wonder they’re cautious. Their work at Marc by Marc Jacobs was conducted under a blaze of media scrutiny — “it was a bit nuts,” says Bartley — and they’re wary of attracting too much attention. Nevertheless, theirs is an appealing story. Introduced by Love magazine editor Katie Grand in 1998, they first worked together at Luella, where Hillier did the bags. When the company closed, Bartley spent four “wilderness years” in Cornwall with her husband, photographer David Sims, and children, while Hillier continued as a consultant. Their three joyful collections for Marc by Marc Jacobs captured the spirit of 1990s rave culture, skater-girl chic and a renegade, reggae-flavoured feminism. (Accounting for 70 per cent of Marc Jacobs’ sales, the line was also commercial.)
Hillier Bartley is a very different creature: just 60 pieces — including pussy-bow blouses (£795), tie-bottomed tuxedo trousers (£595) and a great coat worthy of Withnail and I (£1,800) — it is an elegant hybrid of traditional English and old-Hollywood chic. These are clothes for grown-ups and, with prices that tip towards the upper end of the market, a fairly wealthy grown-up, too.
“We wanted to do something very pure,” says Bartley. “When I’d done Luella or Marc, it was about the narrative, the girl behind the collection, and so I was fitting her out for a lifestyle. I wanted to get deeper into the idea of the cut and the fabric and create some really beautiful clothes.” She pauses. “There’s no irony in this collection. There was so much irony in Luella, everything had double meaning and it was all . . . a bit exhausting. This is quite sincere.”
They join a generation of designers, such as Céline’s Phoebe Philo, Chloé’s Clare Waight Keller and Stella McCartney, for whom womanly style is of personal and professional fascination. The collection was partly inspired by Bartley’s own frustrations with her changing style. “When I started thinking about it, it was quite an existential question,” she says. “It was a personal question: who are you now? What do you want to be? I felt this need, when I hit 40, to be more womanly. I wanted to be sophisticated. I wanted to look sexier.”
Her thinking will ring true for women struggling to inhabit a more evolved style but unwilling to say goodbye to their sneakers. “I’m still an indie kid at heart,” agrees Bartley. “But I wanted to explore my femininity. That’s when I started to think about the heroes of the brand: a mix of Ian McCulloch [of Echo & the Bunnymen] and Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn had always eluded me, but now I felt like I wanted to be that elegant, louche woman.”
The collection was planned around tailoring. “It was to be about hero pieces — the great coat, the pea coat, the parka — and how to get those exactly right,” says Bartley. But as time went on, the pair found themselves returning to the idea of a dress. Hillier claims to “wear a dress every day”; Bartley never does. She set herself the task of designing something “rakish, eccentric, grand and fundamentally elegant” that she might actually wear. They came up with two: a halter-neck in khaki velvet (£1,800); and a full-length gown in salmon crêpe or burgundy silk (£2,200). “It’s floor-length, high-neck, with a big wrap scarf. There’s not an inch of flesh showing — and it’s really sexy,” says Bartley. “They are pretty covered-up,” agrees Hillier. “They fall down to the floor but you can wear them with flat shoes and bomb around town so you’re not trussed up.”
The dresses are among the designers’ favourites and gowns (for these are surely gowns) will be a feature of future collections. They’re also the measure of a range that plays with masculine tailoring and feminine shapes; fluidity and form; function and frivolity. The clothes, which aside from the Italian silks were produced in heritage fabrics and manufactured in England, are sophisticated while having a youthful appeal, and fashionable — with a small “f”.
“The main thing for me was that it’s not silly fashion,” says Bartley. “But neither is it boring essentials.” “They’re not ‘basic pieces’,” adds Hillier, “but they’re designed around things you always want to have in your wardrobe or things that feel like you’ve had for a long time but have rediscovered. We wanted to make clothes that would make you stand up straight, give you confidence and make you feel a bit empowered.”
Matches Fashion’s Chapman has been a close collaborator since the sketch stage. “I literally wanted everything,” she says of her initial reaction. “The whole collection has a sense of belonging to you already. It speaks of a woman who has been around the block and has nothing to prove. She’s effortlessly artless and cool, a woman who can throw together old favourites, vintage, men’s things, because getting dressed is beyond referencing fashion mags — it’s instinctive.” Matches Fashion will be the sole British stockist for the first collection when it goes in-store on Wednesday; items will then go into Colette in Paris and Biotop in Japan and they plan to roll out into other stores in future.
Much rides on this next chapter in the designers’ careers. Despite their best efforts, there will be hype — and media scrutiny. At least they’re in it together. Both appreciate the power of a partnership. “It’s not easy coming up with an idea or being creative — and being confident about it,” says Hillier. “You might not see it through. With two, you’re partners in crime.” And they’re quietly confident. “I think creating something that makes women feel good about themselves is a good thing,” says Hillier.
In the meantime I’ve been poring over their lookbook, adding items to my wish list. Will it be the mum jeans in jumbo cord, the salmon mohair sweater or the fringed jacket? Or might I be persuaded to wear a dress? “You’re going to wear a gown, and you’re going to like it,” insists Hillier. Somehow, I believe her.