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5 Lessons from Lulu Kennedy

For nearly 15 years, Lulu Kennedy has helped to guide young British designers like Roksanda Ilincic and JW Anderson through the critical early stages of building their labels. Kennedy shares five lessons for emerging designers.
Lulu Kennedy MBE | Photo: Paul Wetherell
  • Lisa Wang

LONDON, United Kingdom — Fifteen years ago, cheap rents and large warehouse spaces in East London attracted a wave of young creatives who helped to transform the area into a true cultural hub and hotbed of design talent. Near the centre of the transformation was Lulu Kennedy, whose non-profit incubator Fashion East played a pivotal role in nurturing some of the area's most promising young fashion designers.

The initiative attracted sponsorship from Topshop and the Greater London Authority to provide selected talents with mentoring and a stipend, as well as a venue and production resources to stage a catwalk show at London Fashion Week. Indeed, by supporting young British designers like JW Anderson, Roksanda Ilincic and Jonathan Saunders, Kennedy — often dubbed 'fashion's fairy godmother' — has helped to establish East London's reputation as a global centre for raw fashion talent with growing commercial viability.

Today, the area is rapidly gentrifying and plays host to an Ace Hotel, where Kennedy — who is set to show her own label, Lulu & Co, on schedule at London Fashion Week for the first time — sat down with BoF to offer five pieces of advice for fledgling fashion designers.

Learn to multitask

“It’s one thing to design a collection and, with the help of an organisation like Fashion East, put on a show. But it’s quite another to really take that forward as a business, which means having many hats to wear. You’re often the face of the brand as well as working behind the scenes on the business side, looking at financial statements and making business plans for investors — the kind of stuff that you are not necessarily taught to do in design college. On top of all this, you also have to make sure you are inspired and creative. And you are possibly leading a small team, so you need to have people management skills. It’s a lot for one person to do.”

Embrace ‘DIY’

“We tell our designers it’s probably a good idea to do PR themselves for a few seasons until they see what it entails and understand the language and how magazines work. Because they won’t appreciate what a PR does until they’ve done it themselves. Also, there are few PRs that young designers can afford. It’s one of those things where we tell them to bide their time and wait until they have the right opportunity with the right PR. In the meantime, managing all that stuff is great training. I think that this generation is super on it; they’re already having a friend build a cheap website and possibly putting product on it. Some of them are really ‘DIY’ in being their own stockists. They can just cater to their own fan base and culture and really nourish and grow that.”

Get a dose of ‘retail reality’

“I encourage designers to go to stores to see where their products might sit. As a young designer, you might think, ‘How can my jacket cost more than a big designer label? I have to really look at my pricing,’ or ‘It’s really such a shit-hot jacket that people will spend £1,000 for it.’ It’s up to individual designers how they want to position themselves, but a dose of retail reality is always good.

Part of that is research, looking at shops and online stores. But part of it will just happen through selling, through going to Paris and being in showrooms. Nothing can really spell it out more clearly than a buyer sitting down with you and looking through your rail [of clothes] and saying, ‘That’s good, that I want to buy, but I can’t because of the price.’”

Think long-term

“When it comes to distribution, take a long-term approach. Where do you see your brand sitting in the next few years? It’s a great problem to have, but you may have stores arguing over you. You may get a lot of attention and have great product, so you’re in a position where you are approached by competitive stores and have to be strategic about who you want to work with. ‘Do I want to be in this store? Because if I do, then I’ll never be in this store’ — it’s not an uncommon dilemma. You have to have a strategy and a wish list of the stores you want to be in.”

Don’t be afraid to change direction

“Keep your mind open, feet on the floor and your options open. I think it’s totally fine for people to go through a few evolutions and find out what works best for them. Some designers may be actually happier being stylists or teachers; I can think of people who have come through our system who have really diversified but are still enjoying what they do creatively, without the stress of running their own label.

I don’t think change is a bad thing. You want to be enjoying what you’re doing and if you’re finding it’s not for you, then either accept it and build up the team around you that can support you, or get out and do something else. It’s probably better to do that sooner rather than making yourself miserable. Even if you’re having a great time in the press and your shows are a critical success, you might be finding the other side of it — the behind the scenes of actually producing the clothing — a total drag.”

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Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.
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