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Katie and Luella Were Here

Behind the scenes with the dynamic Brit duo putting their stamp on Marc by Marc Jacobs

Published April 14, 2014
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Luella Bartley lives in London's Bloomsbury with photographer David Sims and their three children. Katie Hillier shares an apartment with Savile Row star Patrick Grant in Marylebone. Nice, solid, bourgeois neighborhoods. "We're not club kids anymore," say the two near-40-somethings. But they have produced a debut collection for Marc by Marc Jacobs that has all the positive energy and perverse kick of the girl-power lingo emblazoned across their clothes: TWISTED! UPRISING! REVOLUTION! Jacobs himself has thrived on audacity his entire career, so the women he and Robert Duffy have chosen to shepherd their biggest business into the future couldn't be more suitable choices. I sat down with the designers in their London studio to learn more about these two blond spitfires.

TIM BLANKS: Where did you meet?

LUELLA BARTLEY: We met through Katie Grand, in 1999, at a pub in Chelsea. Katie said, "She's made this beaded crocodile, and you're really going to love it." That was enough back then.

KATIE HILLIER: And then the week after, I started working for Luella. I was good at paperwork, so when I went to work with her, I took on board the organizing.

LB: Katie is slightly OCD. She did everything—press officer, production, development, and, later, she produced the accessories as well.

TB: Luella, when did you close your business?

LB: Straight after I'd won Designer of the Year in November 2008. I'd made money—from Target, for instance—but I watched it all go down the drain. I was paying for everything, the production, the shows…

TB: Was your relationship ever strained by the pressures of fashion?

KH: No, by music…

LB: Oh, please don't…

KH: Luella is a very free spirit. I love her just-do-it, spur-of-the-moment thing, because I'm more the gotta-plan, gotta-organize type. There was a moment when she was really into going to music festivals. She was living with Justine [Frischmann, ex-Elastica], who'd say, "C'mon, we're doing a gig here." Sometimes we'd go together, but there was one particular weekend when we had to clean the studio before we could move back in. Luella promised, "I'm coming back, and we'll do this," but when we met up, she said, "Actually, they're going to pick me up in an hour, in the coach, and we're going to Leeds." I was just, Aargh!

LB: She's very responsible, and I was very irresponsible. But I'm not anymore. This was pre-children. I had the kids when I still had the business, which was the wrong way round. I was breast-feeding Kip in the Target boardroom in Minneapolis. Then we moved to Cornwall.

TB: Why Cornwall?

LB: I already had a house there. At that time, Dave was always working in New York or L.A. The whole time I'd had the business, I'd been, "I don't want to do this. I really want to move to the country and have a kid." So I was really into the romance of the landscape and the horses for a while. I took two years to write a book [Luella's Guide to English Style]. I've got that work ethic where I feel really guilty if I'm not doing anything, so I started drawing and painting. From leaving school and going to Central Saint Martins and starting the business, I'd never really had time to think, and those two or three years were really valuable. Like a full stop. But then I got bored. And I was ready when we had to move back to London.

TB: And how did you wind up working together again at Marc by Marc?

LB: I feel a bit teary when I talk about it. [She does indeed well up.] I couldn't really find a thing, and Katie has always totally believed in what I do more than anyone. So she said, "I'm not doing this without Luella." That's proper friendship, proper emotion.

TB: Katie, what was your brief from Marc and Robert at this point?

KH: Everything had to change.

TB: It had gotten kind of stale and repetitive.

KH: There wasn't one person in place on a regular basis guiding all product categories, someone who could straddle a management position and a creative position. That's what needed to happen. So what was important when we started was designing something that was one coherent entity, rather than a commercial collection and a show collection.

LB: It's becoming an identity again. I remember the first couple of Marc by Marc collections felt tough and cool, and you wanted to be that person. So we toughened it up with more tailoring and a graphic manga femininity, as opposed to something girly. That's where the bow comes in, not a pussy bow, but a manga bow. And then you put a little cape on it and take it somewhere else. It's a character-driven collection.

KH: One thing Marc wanted to bring back was the quality of the fabric, the quality of the make. Even if it was a T-shirt, he wanted it to feel like it was from the same world as the Marc Jacobs collection. We've tried to bring them closer together, in terms of the sensibility.

LB: I'd be very happy if that was the outcome.

TB: Luella, do you feel like Katie's your protector in a way?

LB: That's very much her personality. That kindness and support and giving people space creates the opportunity to give a lot back.

KH: The one main thing is, you have to engage the whole team. Everyone here has a massive part to play, from the people who work on the Web to the strategy people to the pattern cutters. You have to let them in, make them feel a part of something. It's step-by-step. Once you get the team really invigorated, the other stuff should fall into place.

LB: It was lovely to get good reviews, but one of the nicest things, after the show, was to have the girls in the pattern room saying, "I couldn't wait to get into work this morning." There was a real buzz.

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