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Exclusive interview: Lulu Guinness

Lulu Guinness, known for her iconic Lips clutch bag, is celebrating 25 years in the fashion industry. Frances Wasem meets the mischievous, humorous, quintessentially British designer

Frances Wasem portrait
Frances Wasem,

This year, Lulu Guinness celebrated a landmark 25 years in British fashion. It’s an achievement in an industry where young designers often struggle to survive. It’s an even bigger achievement when you discover that her eponymous luxury line started as nothing more than a spark of an idea and the ambition to ‘do something different and make a million.’

It was the end of the 1980s, when big shoulder pads ruled, women were finally forcing open the door into the boardroom and Melanie Griffith in Working Girl was to become a role model for a generation of women. Lulu Guinness’s ‘something different’ was a briefcase for that very woman. ‘It was an idea, not a brand,’ explains the petite, scarlet-lipped designer (she is wearing Mac’s Ruby Woo lipstick, of course). ‘No one was designing work accessories for women. The Filofax was the equivalent of a mobile and computer all rolled into one. I was obsessed with my Filofax and the briefcase was an extension of that idea.’

Guinness was also newly married and was looking for a way to move from film editing into a role that allowed her to work from home. ‘As well as to make a million, which is what you said in those days. Now’s it’s a billion,’ she laughs, exuding an energy and warmth that’s infectious. Her coup was to anticipate a trend before it began. Her briefcase was the first of its kind – a bag for businesswomen that was functional but beautiful. ‘I used the most expensive leather. It had sections for umbrellas and keys. The lining was red or purple suede,’ Guinness recalls. The bag turned out to be ‘the biggest fashion statement anyone had ever made!’

This brainwave led to a grant from the British Fashion Council. Guinness vividly remembers her first London Fashion Week show in 1991. ‘I was eight months pregnant and Anya Hindmarch walked over to welcome me.’ Guinness is known for her sense of mischief and weaves myriad design references (Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dalí are ongoing influences) from many artistic disciplines, including illustration, architecture and furniture design, into her collections.

‘I am a designer with an opinion, not someone who does trends,’ she emphasises. ‘I will never put a fringe on a bag, just because it’s in fashion.’ The DNA of the brand reflects the designer’s personality – she is sophisticated, witty and effortlessly feminine. ‘Quality is also important to me,’ she continues. ‘I use luxury leathers and finishes. I want people to think my bag cost £600, when it actually cost £300. When you buy one of my bags you’re buying the leather, the workmanship – and not an advertising campaign for 27 stores globally.’

That said, Guinness’s bags do sell worldwide, particularly in Asia and Italy, as well as the UK. The company’s global turnover is now a healthy £10 million. Guinness established her business in the basement of the house she still lives and designs in. ‘In the beginning I did it all, filled out forms, boxed up product,’ she recalls. The designer got her big break when London’s Victoria and Albert Museum featured one of her rose basket designs on the posters for its 50 Years of Fashion exhibition. ‘My rose basket was the size of buildings. It was a game changer because it caught the public’s imagination,’ says Guinness. Within weeks ‘there were chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royces queuing outside my house. Models and celebrities, like Jerry Hall, came to west London to find me.’

Fast-forward 25 years and the celebrity faces may have changed but the design ideology hasn’t. Kate Moss, Alexa Chung, Paloma Faith and Helena Bonham Carter are all fans of Guinness’s clutches (particularly those Lips designs). The designer married into a name that resonated in class-conscious 1980s Britain: did it open any doors? ‘When I first started out I used “Lulu” as the logo,’ the designer reveals. ‘In interviews I asked to them to take Guinness off. I wanted to know if I could design, in my own right.’ Clearly, she can. Guinness is now a proud member of the British fashion establishment. ‘There’s a sensitivity and a vulnerability to British designers; now that our commercial side is catching up with our creative side, no one can touch us.’

Guinness’s autumn/winter 2015/16 collection brims with British wit and energy. ‘A little lipstick never hurts’ is embossed across a black sequined clutch while faces, in different variations, have been an inspiration for several seasons. ‘The “tape” face really interests me,’ says Guinness. ‘They were inspired by the work of Donald Drawbertson, the creative director of Bobbi Brown.’

How, after all these years, does she remain so relevant? ‘It’s about being observant; I’m fascinated by sociological trends. You also need a lot of resilience and touch of madness. On a bad day I think, “What am I doing? I’m too old for this” and on a good day, “Oh my god, there are 40 people working in an office because I have ideas in my head.” I feel so privileged.’



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