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Person to Know: The Designer Reinvigorating the Traditions of Dressmaking

By Osman Ahmed

The designer Emilia Wickstead, photographed at her studio in London ahead of her spring 2020 show.
 
Edd Horder
The designer Emilia Wickstead, photographed at her studio in London ahead of her spring 2020 show.

Seventy-two hours before her show at London Fashion Week, Emilia Wickstead’s studio, on the fourth floor of a converted warehouse overlooking Ladbroke Grove, is a flurry of activity — seamstresses are sewing together puffed sleeves; tables of gingham gloves and shoes await models for fittings; a digital pattern-cutting machine is shuddering away — and yet Wickstead herself is unusually serene. Ella Fitzgerald plays softly in the background of her small fitting room, and the designer looks composed in a charcoal wool blouse and high-waist trousers. “It’s actually from my work-wear collection,” she says of the outfit. “I always come to the office in this.” That is no surprise, considering Wickstead has built a business on what she calls “the art of dressing up.” Her label proposes the kind of polished, put-together elegance that may seem like a bygone sensibility at times but has in fact found a loyal following that includes, most famously, the Duchess of Cambridge, who regularly wears Wickstead’s designs while she performs her royal duties.

Edd HorderA dress from Wickstead’s spring 2020 collection, which is inspired by the lives of the four March sisters in Louisa May Alcott’s 19th-century novel “Little Women.”
A dress from Wickstead’s spring 2020 collection, which is inspired by the lives of the four March sisters in Louisa May Alcott’s 19th-century novel “Little Women.”

Born in New Zealand, Wickstead moved to Milan at 14 with her mother, also a fashion designer, who now runs a business selling Italian-made linens. It was in Italy that Wickstead developed an appreciation for a more formal way of dressing. “You never saw anyone in a pair of flip flops or shorts,” she recalls. Her own youthful style swiftly shifted to a more classic kind of elegance. “Everyone was so polished and put together, and I became immersed in it. My hair became long and that’s when my feminine side came about.” Femininity — the old-school, cinched-waist kind — is now a pillar of Wickstead’s aesthetic. Although she makes fitted denim and trousers, her business is built on flattering dresses, often with high necks and nipped-in silhouettes. “We can be powerful while being feminine,” she says, and a well-cut dress can be just as commanding as a suit.

Her spring 2020 collection is inspired by “Little Women,” both the beloved late 19th-century novel by Louisa May Alcott and the various 20th-century screen adaptations of it, including the 1933 film starring Katharine Hepburn and the 1949 version with Elizabeth Taylor. “I love all the different characters, personalities, storylines,” the designer explains of the narrative, in which the four March sisters come of age in New England in the 1860s. “Throughout the collection, you see that in the different silhouettes, in the different architectural shapes, in the different bibs. There’s a really masculine storyline there that plays on the male characters — but also the male characters that the sisters would dress up as when they recite plays.”

Edd HorderWickstead makes adjustments to a puffed-sleeve blouse. She describes watching her mother, who is also a designer, as the foundation of her own knowledge of dressmaking.
Wickstead makes adjustments to a puffed-sleeve blouse. She describes watching her mother, who is also a designer, as the foundation of her own knowledge of dressmaking.
Edd HorderThe collection’s lace-up gingham shoes are a nod to boots worn in the 1860s.
The collection’s lace-up gingham shoes are a nod to boots worn in the 1860s.
Edd HorderOver a decade after staring her brand, Wickstead and her team still make each garment in the designer’s London studio.
Over a decade after staring her brand, Wickstead and her team still make each garment in the designer’s London studio.

The colour palette takes its cue from ’70s pastels, and there are softly hued checks and tablecloth florals that evoke the domestic lives of the March sisters. Many of the dresses are cut from cloqué — a textured jacquard-like fabric that is one of Wickstead’s signatures — with puffed sleeves and abbreviated capelets. There are also plenty of ladylike accoutrements, such as gingham opera gloves and woven cotton sun hats, designed in collaboration with the milliner Stephen Jones. “It’s the charming accents of fashion,” says Wickstead of the accessories. “It’s the lockets, the art of wearing a hat and also, the gesture of borrowing a pair of gloves. We really played on that in this collection. It’s our modern take — our version of it.”

Wickstead started her business as a bespoke and made-to-measure service in 2008 and didn’t show her collections to the press or sell wholesale until five years ago. Instead, she opened a salon-style boutique in London’s Chelsea neighbourhood in 2009, with blush pink interiors and terrazzo floors inspired by the geometric buildings of the architect Richard Meier and the opulent sitting rooms of the 20th-century American interior designer Dorothy Draper. “I think that’s why, when I first started, I didn’t even think about London Fashion Week,” she explains. “I thought about shows for clients. Being in the store six days a week, fitting women and selling to women, it was really educating me on understanding what women really wanted.”

Edd HorderFor finishing touches, Wickstead created gingham gloves and exaggerated sun hats in collaboration with the milliner Stephen Jones.
For finishing touches, Wickstead created gingham gloves and exaggerated sun hats in collaboration with the milliner Stephen Jones.

Though she studied fashion design at Central Saint Martins in London, which is known for its irreverent ethos, in her spare time, she watched footage of Christian Dior’s intimate midcentury salon shows and worked at the Ralph Lauren boutique on Bond Street. When it came to establishing her own brand, she eschewed the madcap creativity of her classmates and sought to build something commercially viable, which she attributes to watching her mother set up a fashion business. “She taught me how to fit, about the quality of the inside of the garments and different techniques for designs and pattern-making — things that I hadn’t necessarily picked up at Central Saint Martins,” she says.

In the last three years, Wickstead’s company has grown from five people to 35. Every garment is made in her lively open-plan studio, and each pattern is designed digitally and printed here before becoming toiles that the designer then perfects herself. Bespoke garments are still a substantial part of her business, and so, in addition to flattering cocktail dresses and wide-leg jumpsuits, her collection also has grand showpieces that demonstrate her ability to create statement-making evening wear, such as a sweeping marshmallow-pink cloqué opera cape or a lemon-hued bustier ball gown in the same fabric with a flowing train. “We go through it and we make sure that you are stepping into this unknown and exciting world when you come to the show, because there has to be a bit of drama to it,” she enthuses. “After all, that’s what’s exciting about fashion — it keeps us all alive and moving!”