NEW YORK, United States — “It was almost like an experiment,” says Victoria Bartlett, of starting her much-loved underwear-as-outerwear line VPL in 2003. “I felt like a scientist going in and I really didn’t know how it was going to go.” Seven years on, with a CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund nomination (2007) under her belt and a recently opened retail presence in New York’s SoHo, we can fairly say that the experiment has been a success.
The road that got her there is paved in equal parts with Bartlett’s adventurousness and the shrewd discipline that has proved a boon for her line. Fresh from the London College of Fashion, in the late ‘80s the British-born Bartlett launched a line called BC, which, as she says, “failed because I was too green and too young.” So the young designer went in search of other avenues to pursue her love of fashion. “I took a sabbatical and decided to take a venture into styling,” she says, “which wasn’t as prevalent as it is now."
She still speaks passionately about the tools she learned working as a stylist, and the way they inform her life and work now. “You learn how to create clothes," she says. “A lot of designers (I know from consulting for them for years) get very tunnel-visioned — they start with a skirt or they start items and they don’t know how it all goes together.”
Throughout the ’90s, Bartlett was a star stylist, in fact, shaping fashion editorials for some of the most cutting-edge magazines in the business, before being tapped as the fashion editor for Allure, and then, famously, as the fashion director at Interview.
But having editorial connections wasn’t just peaches and cream when she launched her own line. “It’s a double-edged sword,” she says. “In some ways it’s great because you know all those people and it is exciting and you get a lot of press. On the other hand, not everyone likes it when you change over — they think, alright, you’ve made the jump, now prove it."
Indeed, having dressed Madonna made no difference when it came to writing a business plan. Bartlett is coolly cavalier about having had little idea about the brass tacks of business. “I think in life, often you are not prepared and the best way is to just amble in to things. I hate to say it, but sometimes it works. And I kind of did amble into this.”
But she didn’t come in totally unarmed. She was full of passion and decisiveness, driven by a clear vision. “I didn’t start with a full collection, I started with this concept,” she explains. “I was sort of obsessed with creating this new arena between lingerie and sportswear, which hadn’t been bridged. I love gym, I love the body and anatomy, the whole geography of it. I’m also in love with the whole architecture of it, looking at old vintage stuff, and I wanted the idea that you were accessorising, like putting on jewellery or a necklace, that you don’t feel it is this naughty sort of under-secret like lingerie for the bedroom. I wanted to take it almost into liberation of women, you know, burn your bra. And we did the breaker tank, which was almost my answer to burning your bra, that you could wear this bra tank on its own or under things and you weren’t exposing yourself. So it was really about creating this new arena that was really exciting for me.” Ergo VPL — Visible Panty Line.
Bartlett speaks of the celebration of the human form with the fervour of a visionary and about Paul Poiret, her fashion idol, with the passion of an undergraduate. Poiret called himself the “King of Fashion,” but we don’t really get a sense of how he ran his company. “I think that’s true,” says Bartlett. “I actually think that’s why the world is divided — right brain, left brain — and I think that’s why creatives are creatives. I think back in the day, way back, it didn’t matter because people revered the artist and the business would just sort of organically happen. In the last ten years though, the business of fashion has changed. It’s really became an industry and that was the death of a lot of creatives. At some point you have to manage and it requires a lot of strategizing.”
While recognizing this, Bartlett happened on a bit of wonderful synchronicity that would ultimately put VPL on it’s present, sure track. While consulting for Theory, Bartlett met Kikka Hanazawa who was doing business strategy for the company. “She’d actually been following my collection and we met and got on really well and we started talking about things and she started getting involved in my collection. We were talking about projects, but she really wanted to be involved fully in creating something.” And so a creative-business partnership was born.
“I’ve learned a lot through Kikka,” says Bartlett. “It’s definitely important to have someone who understands the building blocks of business.” The two seem to really jive together, sharing the same ethos for the growth and disposition of the business. They both have clear ambitions for online retail and a flowering of VPL stores, but also maintain a rigorous sobriety when expanding. “You know what I think’s been great,” Bartlett explains, “we’ve never rushed anything. I think one of the important things is never to take a giant leap, but to take small steps at a time and be cautious in terms of growth.”
Chris Wallace is a contributing editor at The Business of Fashion.