England does ‘eccentric’ better than any other country. From Edith Sitwell and Vivienne Westwood to the Marquis of Bath, our country is full of heroes defined by extreme creativity – and more often, just silliness. A few weeks ago, I had scheduled a meeting with handbag designer Lulu Guinness at her revamped boutique off Sloane Square. Upon arriving, I was surprised to see the famously quirky actress Helena Bonham Carter, all wild bee-hive hair and peculiar dress sense, deep in conversation with Guinness. It was a pairing of two unconventional minds. I watched on intrigued; the anarchist of fashion is bosom buddies with the surreal fashion legend.
‘Helena is just wonderful,’ cooed Lulu Guinness pouting those signature berry red lips. So wonderful, in fact, that she wrote the foreword to Guinness’ book ‘Put on your pearls girls’. ‘She’s a great friend and huge fan of my designs. She was in the shop on Saturday as well.’
Both are heralded as quintessentially English and eccentric yet neither is away with the fairies. Behind Guinness’ frivolous nature lies shrewd business acumen. She shot to the limelight after designing surreal handbags fashioned like flower baskets, castles and lips. Twenty years on, her arm candy, which celebrates a cheerful 1950’s era of British style, still features prominently on the best dressed pages of glossy magazines. With shops spread wide across the globe in London, New York and Japan, the brand Lulu Guinness is a force to reckon with.
Girlish wit has been a money spinner for Guinness. She showed me a creamy oyster-shaped handbag. Sewn into the lining is an oversized pearl and the embroidered words ‘The world is your oyster’. Idiosyncratic phrases such as these are her trademark. Years ago, my husband gave me a Lulu Guinness handbag in the shape of a Parisian house with hand-embroidered doors and windows. He thought it ‘fun’, I thought it ‘cool’. The newest version of her whimsical house collection features a seafood restaurant. By appealing to a wide market (the Japanese can’t get enough of her) Guinness built a strong business model.
Having nailed the fashion market, Guinness has since veered towards home furnishings; Kelly Brook and Bonham Carter are fans of her bedroom collections. Why the jump from fashion to bedding? ‘The reason I went from handbags to bed linen is because the surface of a handbag can be constricting,’ explains Guinness. Besides, fashion names from Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan to Armani has crossed the threshold into the interior market. Guinness defends her decision; ‘I love pattern, embellishment, embroidery and print. To design the large area of a duvet cover is exciting for me.’ Her bedroom creations are suitably wild in their imagination; the limited edition hand-embroidered throw Birds of Paradise is inventive and intricate. As a wall hanging or bed quilt, it is a guaranteed talking point – much like her handbags. The cliché Life is a bed of roses is embroidered on the underneath of her roses duvet cover.
She believes that a lack of funding of British designers has prompted the fashion crowd to shift into homewares – it is a logical financial decision for businesses to spread their wings. With this in mind, she is launching the Lulu Guinness Scholarship for an MA Artefact Design at Cordwainers, London College of Fashion.
The homes of the eccentric are usually havens of unconventional creativity. Bonham Carter famously lives separately from her husband Tim Burton; they share two houses with interconnecting doors. Guinness’ Notting Hill home, which she has renovated over 20 years, is a temple to English eccentricity. The pagoda-like wardrobes, artificial magnolia branches and Chinoiserie wallpaper in her bedroom imitate a theatre set. Rarities in her home include a Union Jack embroidered with flowers and butterflies (handmade by Lucinda Chambers, fashion director of Vogue), an 80’s Memphis dining table and a Fornasetti desk. Guinness’ eccentricity’ permeates every corner of her life.
It’s a blessing that the Brits do eccentric better than any other nation. The likes of Guinness make our world a more interesting place.