Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Short Story of Lovely Luella

This is the story of Luella Bartley, a very talented young girl with an intense love for fashion that could have lead to the construction of an empire but instead ended up in a Christmas window display.

Born in England, Luella started her journey as fashion editor for the Canadian Evening Standard newspaper, British Vogue and Dazed & Confused. 

Not bad for a starter. 

The once student of Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design then decided to switch places: In 1999 she launched an eponymous label that would rapidly taste the sweet nectar of fame. Her first collection, “Daddy, I Want a Pony”, presented clothes as playful as its title, which featured a girly-punk mix of Brit chic with a trashy spirit.

Just a year after this first show, Luella was named Young Designer of the Year in Elle Style Awards. From then on, Bartley presented her highly anticipated collections to enthusiastic critics during London Fashion Weeks and later, also in Milan. Anna Wintour, editor in chief of American Vogue, occupied the first row in her show just last year.

The intrepid designer described her creations as “the kind of clothes you can get drunk and fall over in”, and as me, millions of girls wanted to get drunk but try not to fall over those adorable dresses with quirky notes. Alexa Chung, Kate Moss, Chloë Sevigny, Pixie Geldof and Lily Allen: Everybody loved Luella.

And Luella loved everybody, even the until then comatose Mulberry. With her collaboration in 2002 she showed the world that the old English brand still had a young heart. Her bags turned into it items instantly. But she didn’t stop there. In 2006 the brand gave us girls with small wallets the opportunity to actually own a piece of Luella with her collaboration for Target.

She did good and good things happened. 
She met Club 21. The Singapore-based retail group owned by the millionaire businesswoman Christina Ong, fell in love with her and invested in a global licensing agreement. Things were going so well by then that in 2007 she opened her first store in Mayfair’s Brook Street.

But the best was yet to come. 

She started 2008 with “Friends of Luella”, a bag collection specially made for her Hong Kong lovers. By the end of the year the British Fashion Council named her the “Designer of the Year” and by January 2009 Elle Sweden acknowledged her as the “International Designer of the Year”. 

A promising young talent had now a catchy name and the face of Sissy Spacek.

Then came tragedy. Even though 2009 had a good start, at the end the results were surprisingly dreadful. The recession that hit the world turned hard on Luella: Carla Carini--her Italian manufacturer--ended operations and was not able to produce the label’s Spring/Summer Collection. VSQ, a division of Club 21 and Luella’s distributor, announced that they had decided to withdraw their backing. A logical move considering the wealth of Mrs. Ong had dropped from £100 million in 2008 to £69 million in 2009 and Luella’s Mayfair shop was costing her around £200,000 a year, leaving aside the rumors about her planned acquisition of Mulberry, which had been affected less violently by the crisis; something they could partially thank Luella for, paradoxically.

If her debut show asked “Daddy, Who Were The Clash?Luella’s current question could adapt to “Daddy, Where’s The Cash?” 

In the middle of the global economic instability, like the majority of the battling young brands, Luella had to search for another godfather without much luck. The few offers that were made seemed unfavorable to her eyes so she turned them down, waiting for the one. 

Throughout the blogosphere, thousands of supporters joined the “Save Luella” movement via Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and in their own blogs. Everybody hoped for a miracle.

But the miracle didn’t happen.

Astonished, fans, colleagues and critics saw the falling of London’s favorite new girl. 

Suzy Menkes, fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune, shared the pain: “It’s a sad anniversary for 25 years of London Fashion Week that Luella, who has developed such a lively and vibrant brand can’t stay afloat.” On November 10, 2009 it was official: The brand had ceased trading. One minute of silence for ten years of ephemeral success.

At her last venture, the designing of London’s Liberty Christmas decor, a resigned Luella confessed: “I have had an incredible team around me…it is upsetting not to be able to protect jobs in this difficult economic climate.” Then she added: “I hope that the Luella girl can have an exciting future ahead of her, whichever incarnation she takes on next.” We sincerely hope for your revival, dear Luella.

As for today, Luella Bartley lives in Cornwall with her partner, fashion photographer David Sims, and their three children.

And that was the story of Luella Bartley, which may have reminded you of that of Christian Lacroix, or the one of Yohji Yamamoto, or that of Phi; a collection of 2009 stories that left us wishing for the same ending: “To be continued…”/ Kari Estrada