Lulu Kennedy is sitting at her desk in the corner of her Brick Lane office. Open plan and up a flight of perilous wrought-iron spiral stairs – the perfect configuration for trapping a needlepoint skyscraper heel – this modest space is where Fashion East magic happens – the catwalk umbrella that has, for over a decade, catalysed names such as Richard Nicoll, Gareth Pugh, Roksanda Ilinicic, Louise Gray, Marios Schwab and House of Holland. To name a few. The attic is also HQ of Kennedy's recent fashion project Lulu & Co – a label that has the perennial spirit of the August bank holiday weekend: clothes to wear drinking a can of Red Stripe at the Notting Hill Carnival.
Not only has Fashion East grown but those involved have really grown. I think if I had known more about the industry I may have decided not to do it – I would've been worried about whether it'd work. Because on paper it probably shouldn't
"We're sitting where it all started,” Kennedy begins, sitting underneath a lenticular picture of three puppy dogs supervised by their parent (a metaphor for herself and the three Fashion East designers each season, gifted by A/W 12’s Maarten van der Horst). “This is the Old Truman Brewery and I started working here in 1996, a few doors down the road in an art gallery. The brewery was empty and derelict at the time and I got chatting with the guy that had bought the site. He chanced upon me, offering me a job. Which was great because I'd just left college really skint with not a clue what to do!”
Keen to get the brewery up and running, Kennedy was invited not to co-ordinate restorations, but instead turn it into a creative hub for the East London’s visionaries. “I lived locally so it became very easy to tempt friends along with a cheap studio,” she elaborates, sipping on a mug of milky tea. “It was quite fun, these were the days when Shoreditch was quiet, like a ghost town. I've been here ever since.”
I'd come from a backround of doing gigs, working in art galleries and putting on raves – I loved the live element, the fun, the madness, the theatre of it all. I had no fashion training
After a few years of working for the owner of the brewery and managing all its events – Kennedy helped out friends who were doing fashion shows, getting them an empty warehouse for free – the owner recognised her calling was in taking a chance on young designers and helping them realise their potential.
“He said 'why don't we do a proper project?' because, aside from wanting to give something back to the area, he was sick of me always blagging stuff,” Kennedy laughs. As organically as that, the future was written.
“I was hanging out with people like House of Jazz. And I remember Panos came and styled a show here, for Maria Chen-Pascual. I was so inspired. Hussein Chalayan was coming here and doing shows. I just loved it, because I'd come from a backround of doing gigs, working in art galleries and putting on raves – I loved the live element, the fun, the madness, the theatre of it all. I had no fashion training. It was Melanie Rickey who put the first panel of people together to help – Sarah Mower is still on board 12 years later. So not only has Fashion East grown but those involved have really grown. I think if I had known more about the industry I may have decided not to do it – I would've been worried about whether it'd work. Because on paper it probably shouldn't.”
A spark can’t be rationalised, it just is. And that is strangely comforting. Kennedy and co’s non-profit initiative has played a significant part in reconfiguring the landscape of British fashion – on nothing more than passion and gut instinct. Her victory not only banging the drum for British design innovation, but helping create a culture in which new voices are quickly adapted to reality context (many of her talents have hooked up with Topshop since, so it’s not just a London thing).
“This season I’ll go to all my friends’ Autumn/Winter 12 shows and I’m really excited about the Saint Martins show,” Kennedy enthuses. Whilst on Monday we’ll look forward to seeing Maarten van der Horst, James Long and Marques’Almeida’s offerings under the Fashion East banner.
Photo by Paul Wetherell