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Lulu Guinness

The handbag designer who has no time for ‘It’ bags is celebrating 20 years in business in her own inimitable style, with a scholarship scheme, a revamped store and a handbag that sings like a bird

Lulu Guinness knows what she wants and how to get it. “Can we have a shade that has a bit more pink in it, more like that?” she asks the make-up artist, pointing to a particular shade of lipstick. “And are we having reflectors?” she checks with the photographer, as she art directs her own photo shoot for her interview with Drapers. “You know, when you get to a certain age you just regret it if you don’t ask for it in a certain way,” Guinness explains.

This year, Guinness is celebrating 20 years in business with her eponymous handbag brand and sales are better than ever. The company turned over almost £3.5 million last year and sales are up 50% on a like-for-like basis against 2008, with online revenue set to reach £500,000 in 2009.

“The ‘It’ bag is a big yawn for me, my least favourite thing in the world,” she says, agreeing with anecdotal evidence that consumers are opting for individual handbag styles over the ubiquitous, in-your-face designs of the past few seasons. “We always do well in a recession because we’re a feelgood brand with witty designs. Shoppers have big-brand fatigue now. They know they’re paying for these brands’ advertising campaigns so they’re turning to more niche products.”

And you can’t get more niche than an automated, singing Birdcage Bag. Guinness unveiled the unique bag this month at the V&A Museum in London to launch Guinness’s scholarship for the MA in Artefact Design at Cordwainers at the London College of Fashion.

The bag is based on an existing design that is part of Guinness’s collectibles range, available in the Ellis Street store in Kensington, west London. This original design sits with other quirky styles, including a castle-shaped bag complete with Rapunzel plaits, in a “talking” cabinet, one of the new design features of the store’s recent refurbishment by design consultancy HMKM.
Guinness has recorded her own voice to describe each collectible and the inspirations behind them, which customers can listen to via an iPod-like device. Of the bag that plays birdsong, Guinness’s recorded voice says: “So, if the conversation is lagging, you can always say: ‘this is what my bag can do’.

“I’m not very high-tech and can’t even use a computer,” Guinness laughs, “but I do like to be the first to do things, to push boundaries. And I think it’s our duty to give our customers something to do in store, to entertain them.”

Give something back

Guinness also wants to give something back to the industry, and is nurturing emerging talent via her scholarship. She will offer one student a place on the MA Artefact Design course run by Dai Rees, the former - and infamous - London Fashion Week designer whose last catwalk show featured slogans like ‘Vogue is the Devil’ as a political stance against the fashion industry.
“I want to make people aware of how important it is to support colleges,” says Guinness. “It’s not as expensive as you think to give one student a scholarship. I chose this course because it pushes the boundaries of design in accessories - it’s stunning what they can do.”

But she also stresses the importance of commerciality. “Accessories design is very strong in this country and I’m a great admirer of all our colleges, but we need a balance between pushing creativity and being commercial,” she says. “It’s up to the industry to get involved too, and give students other skills, like Photoshop, and teach them about working in an office.”
She praises fellow designer Zandra Rhodes for her “commercial”, collaborative collection with Marks & Spencer. “In the past, people were quite snobbish about who to collaborate with. I prefer it now, how you can sell a collection to [premium independent] Browns and also do a tie-up with H&M.

I remember when I did a range for Debenhams and I was so proud when I saw people on the street with my bags. Maybe that is why designers like Zandra and I are still in business,”
she laughs.

The roots of Guinness’s own success lie predominantly in Japan, where she has two stores, and a strong licensing business that accounts for 21% of total sales and brings in more than £10m each year. In 2007, she ended her footwear licence with Concept LH after parent company Lambert Howarth went into administration. But Guinness has no plans to re-enter the “crowded” footwear market. “I can see myself doing knitwear, but I’m not a couturier,” she says.

“We’ve always had a global business; the UK came afterwards,” she continues. “I have a strong Japanese following because they like to dress up there, so that’s why my designs do well.”
But today the UK arm accounts for 65% of the brand’s wholesaling activities and Lulu Guinness has 85 doors in the UK, including Harrods, John Lewis, Selfridges, House of Fraser and a number of indies.

Hayley Wilmington, handbag buyer at John Lewis, says: “The Lulu Guinness brand has performed incredibly well this season at John Lewis. [Lulu’s] use of colour and clean shapes have, as ever, made a strong impact and her quirky take on British heritage really resonates with our customers. Autumn 09 will see Lulu celebrating her 20th anniversary, for which she has created an extra special collection - there are some star items that I’m really looking forward to seeing in store and that will positively fly off the shelves.”

Despite the brand’s UK success, Guinness maintains that growth will continue to come from Japan and the Far East, where she is currently developing different partnerships. She has also joined trade association UK Fashion Exports this year to help boost her international business. “Italy has Moschino, France has Sonya Rykiel,” she pauses, before adding: “Maybe the Far East could have me.”

CV

  • 2009 Celebrates 20 years in business; launches scholarship at London College of Fashion
  • 2008 Launches gloves, towels and belts for autumn 08
  • 2007 Launches jewellery
  • 2006 Awarded OBE for services to fashion; launches a glasses range in collaboration with Vision Express
  • 2005 Opens store in Osaka, Japan
  • 2003 Opens store in Tokyo, Japan
  • 1998 Opens Ellis Street store in west London
  • 1989 Sets up Lulu Guinness brand

Q&A

Who in fashion do you most admire? [French couturier] Elsa Schiaparelli for being the first person to bring wit and humour to fashion, and [milliner] Stephen Jones is pretty cool.
He has a thorough love and understanding of fashion and glamour. I also worship [journalist] Suzy Menkes. She was a great supporter of ours at the beginning. They are also all so intelligent.
What is the best-selling product you have ever worked on? The Rose Basket bag - it still sells really well today. The lip-shaped clutches are doing very well now.

What is your favourite shop? Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street in London. I also love museum shops.

What has been the proudest moment of your career? Getting my OBE for services to fashion from the Queen. She was really chatty and asked me if I travelled much
in my business.

What would be your dream job (apart from your current position)? I’d like to work at the V&A Museum in London, in the fashion department or as a researcher. I did want to be an actress too.

What could you see yourself doing in the next 20 years? I do like doing television work. I’m not going to be the next Brix Smith-Start [co-owner of designer independent Start Boutique]. I would like to be a vintage correspondent, doing more serious, specialised shows. I like live television. I also have some collaborations in the pipeline, but I can’t say any more at this stage. I hope that I will still be being challenged in 20 years’ time.

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