Features: Fashion Feature


Lulus Got a Brand New Bag

Sunglass: Lulu Guinness 416

Photo by Margaret Gibbons

She won’t go out without red lipstick. In fact, a tag line on her web site admonishes: “Be a Glamour girl. Put on your Lipstick.” She adores high heels. And she cherishes the time she spends with her two young daughters, Tara, 13, and Maddie, 7, and their dog Woffle—she proudly shows photos of her girls without being asked. The glamorous and stylishly retro Lulu Guinness, one of Britain’s leading accessory designers, began her business in 1989 when she discovered a void in the bag market. Her first design was a feminine briefcase created to carry all her papers. Based on a filofax, the briefcase opened flat and sported a bright red or purple suede interior. And because she lives in London, it also had a place to hold an umbrella.

Joseph Ettedgui, the man behind the famous London fashion brand and designer shopping hot spot, Joseph, saw her briefcase and asked her to create a collection to be sold in his store. The collection was then picked up by such upscale London department stores as Liberty and Harvey Nichols. In 1990, she left her job in video production to start her bag business from the basement of her West London home.

Although she had no formal training in fashion design, Guinness says she was bit early by the fashion bug. “I spent a lot of time with creative types and received much of my fashion training by osmosis.” She modeled in Paris and Milan, did graphic design and worked on film production in Paris. “Handbags seemed like a natural for me. From lipstick to high heels, I’m all about accessories,” the designer notes. “And in 1990, the bag market wasn’t what it is today. Women would buy one handbag and keep it until it fell apart. Also with bags, I didn’t have to worry about fit or technical knowledge. I could actually make a bag myself by hand.”

From that original handbag, her business continues to expand. Besides handbags, including laminated totes and collectibles (the first collectible bag introduced in 1996 was called the Original House Bag and was embroidered in black satin with a red suede roof), her line now consists of shoes, scarves, gloves, umbrellas, socks, stationery, fragrances and, of course, eyewear and sunglasses. She also designs room-sized rugs and will be doing a bedding collection in the UK. In 2000, Guinness opened a showroom/design studio in New York to manage the increasing demand for bags in the U. S. and now has two shops in London and one each in New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo. Her collections are also sold in such high-end stores as Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Henri Bendel, Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s. Guinness accessories have adorned the characters in the popular HBO series “Sex and the City” (Carrie toted a Lulu Guinness fishnet ballet bag in one episode). In Tim Burton’s movie “Big Fish,” a Guinness bag in the shape of a fish is featured. Her bags are also on display in the renowned Victoria & Albert Museum in London and in museums in Hove and Brighton in England and at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas.

As of this year, Lulu Guinness has a brand new bag—eyewear and sunwear, available to the optical market, under a licensing agreement with Great Neck, N.Y.-based Tura. A sunglass collection was introduced earlier to department stores and Lulu Guinness shops. Eyewear was a logical extension for Guinness. “Lipstick and sunglasses are a signature look for me,” she explains. “I could never find sunglasses that suited me except for vintage styles. I’ve long felt the whole eyewear idea could be developed much further. I noticed in my shops, the sunglasses are always placed in a highly visible spot in the front of the store.”

The entire attitude toward eyewear has evolved enormously in the past decades, Guinness feels. “Wearing glasses is no longer viewed as a negative,” she says. “The wardrobing of glasses has become a norm. We can have different glasses and sunglasses for different moods. It’s the same with handbags. Just as people used to keep a bag until it fell apart, they used to replace glasses only if they lost them or if the glasses fell to pieces. Eyewear and bags are something you can now buy for the pleasure of it. Bags and eyewear suit me.”

Her relationship with Tura also suits her. “It has been a happy collaboration. I realized there are things I can’t do myself. The people at Tura know the technique of making eyewear and together we can get the style and quality I want. The quality of their design and expertise make them a joy to work with,” Guinness notes. “The products they produce for me are even better than I could image. With other products lines, I’m usually chasing after quality. With Tura the quality is there.”

In all her designs, Guinness’s own strong personal style has played a large role. She loves fun, whimsical, modern pieces with a good dose of retro. Her advice: “Never take fashion too seriously. Much in life is serious. Fashion shouldn’t have to be one of them. Create a signature style for yourself. And understand it’s not necessary to make yourself up in the current fashion trends. Stick to what suits you and make it your own. Long ago I decided I don’t look good in jeans so I don’t wear them,” the designer says. “My sense of style, though, has evolved over the years. I think of it as feminine and would like to be thought of as elegant. I also think there should always be an element of surprise in personal style.”

For example, she thoroughly enjoys having tea at Claridges (a grand London hotel). “It’s the ultimate indulgence,” she says. But she is seldom seen without her Diet Coke. Her favorite designers are Marc Jacobs, Moschino and Anna Sui. Her style icon is Diana Vreeland, the legendary editor of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue magazines. “I love women who are stylish, but independent thinkers,” she notes. “I respect a mix of glamour and power.”

Guinness says she gets inspiration everywhere, but especially likes the glamour of Old Hollywood—the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, French films of that era and other vintage sources, such as antique markets. She also gets ideas from working on her own collections. “One collection leads to ideas for the next collection. Coming up with ideas is the favorite part of my job,” notes Guinness.

Whatever the source of inspiration, she feels successful designs have to be innovative, while still maintaining commercial value. “I think my customers go to Lulu Guinness for something different.” Indeed she likes to encourage this characteristic in her clientele. Lest they forget, she has stitched “Dare To Be Different” on one her bags.

And if the younger generation has its say, Lulu Guinness will continue to rock the world of accessories. In fact, she has such an enormous following among teenage girls in both Britain and the U.S., she has crowned herself “Teen Queen.”