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Hillier Bartley – summer 2017
Lena wears all clothes and accessories Hillier BartleyPhotography Joyce NG, styling Elizabeth Fraser-Bell

Hillier Bartley: pair of aces

‘We’ve been emerging designers for 20 years!’ — fashion’s favourite double act reflect on two decades of spellbinding collaboration

You can buy a copy of our latest issue here. Taken from the summer issue of Dazed

“We’ve been emerging designers for 20 years!” laughs Katie Hillier, which makes Luella Bartley grin. If you walk past the windows of the Rochelle School, east London, on any given afternoon, you might hear the warm cackles of fashion’s most established best friends – distinctive peals that ring out as evidence of a creative bond that’s injected fashion with instinctive irreverence at Luella, Marc by Marc Jacobs and, now, namesake label Hillier Bartley.

It’s an unusually hot and heavy Wednesday in March, and Hillier and Bartley are nestled on sofas in the sun-drenched Victorian school hall that is home to their label’s studio space. The pair are on chatty form, admitting they don’t see each other as often as they would like these days (Hillier recently relocated to New York “for love”, which Bartley cites as the only, and best, reason she could possibly allow her friend to do that). Bartley is first and foremost a womenswear designer, Hillier a sought-after accessories visionary – but they’ve always been in each other’s pockets, in more ways than one. After being introduced at a pub in 1999 by Katie Grand, Bartley recruited Hillier to work on her upstart label Luella: the rest is fashion history, right through to the badass motocross chicks and rural ravers of their widely-stanned but shortlived tenure at Marc by Marc Jacobs.

Founded in 2015, Hillier Bartley signals a change of pace for the two friends, but not of attitude. Championing the philosophy of the cool-woman – not the cool-girl – these are clothes that demand fixation and refuse pigeonholing: glam-rock cropped pants, silky kimonos, crushed-velvet men’s suits and more tassles and feathers than you can shake a collarbox bag at. Most important is that the Hillier Bartley muse is many and varied. David Bowie, Patrick Procktor and Oscar Wilde; Ed, their assistant who has just made it back to the shoot after a ‘delayed flight’ from Berlin (“We’re not sure if he got stuck in the nightclub or the airport,” quips Bartley); Lera, the crop-haired model you’ll see swinging her bag over her shoulder in the leafy, David Sims-shot campaign; and probably, realistically, each other most of all.

In Hillier Bartley’s world, women get to be spontaneous and frivolous without being written off as unfocused. But how could they know any different? That so much is made of the pair’s carefree nature suggests that they ought to be stressed out; as if we should be surprised that a woman of any age be at her absolute ease. “A lot of people say, ‘They’re so down to earth,’” says Hillier. “But then what is everyone else like when we’re down to earth? Do you know what I mean?”

What were your very first impressions of each other?

Both: Oh, God!

Luella Bartley: I can’t remember; I think we were both drunk quite quickly.

Katie Hillier: I don’t think I’d met anybody who spoke with a nicer accent than me. I thought, ‘She’s this creature who’s been to posh school and reads books.’

LB: I didn’t go to a posh school!

KH: I know! Obviously, my imagination just went wild…

LB: There are a few people in my life (with whom) it was like love at first sight. I met Katie Grand and then moved into her flat two days later; I met Justine (Frischmann, artist and former Elastica frontwoman) and moved into her house two days later. I met you and you started working at Luella a week later.

“It isn’t anything to do with world domination or foisting a massive agenda – fashion! – and all that. It’s to do with something personal, something that feels like a true depiction of us” – Luella Bartley 

KH: Yeah, because I had to give a few days’ notice! (laughs)

LB: There are just certain people, certain women – mind you, I did the same with Dave (Sims, Bartley’s partner)… I met him, then had a baby three days later. (laughs) But back then it was much more emotional. Nothing was calculated, ever. It was, ‘I like her, I’m going to work with her’ or ‘I like that, how am I going to do this?’

Did you ever feel like you were living through a particularly cool time?

KH: Oh, I thought it was pretty cool. I was enjoying where I had landed.

LB: Yeah, but with us it’s interwoven with nostalgia, because that’s when we were 20. When you’re 20, (things) feel better than when you’re 40. Although, actually, I prefer being 40… It’s a hard one.

KH: I think I do, too! I prefer it.

LB: It’s about life-acquiring in your 20s, isn’t it? Everything feels out of control – or maybe that was just me? I was quite out of control…

Did you have lots of confidence then? Or did that come later?

LB: Oh, definitely later. You’d never do a collection like this in your 20s. I think (Hillier Bartley is) really confident. Some people do complicated collections in their 20s and some people are very confident in their 20s. I wasn’t. I know I wasn’t. You were more confident, I think. You’ve never really changed.

KH: Neither have you!

LB: You were always sure of who you were.

KH: D’you think? It’s funny, how other people see you.

Do you think the confidence of these clothes comes from being inspired by men, with real characters, rather than menswear?

LB: I suppose we started off with a very clear idea of gender-fluidity, but not in the same way Shoreditch talks about that. We had a picture of Katherine Hepburn who, you know, always wore a man’s suit, which I think is the most feminine, sexy thing. But also looking at people like David Bowie or Brian Eno, who were very glam-rock. It’s the mix that works: between someone like Ed, or a 50-year-old friend of mine wearing it. It’s that attitude which is quite a British thing, the whole peacock-y… (Princess Julia walks by carrying a velvet bag. Everyone chats.)

Where were we? Men. Dudes!

LB: Ah, yes. It’s this idea of wolves in women’s clothing, and how you can switch that for women to feel the same way. Obviously, (actual) women are very important, but (it’s about) playing with it a bit more so it becomes dandyish and peacock-y, and about women showing off. Do you agree?

KH: (looking up from her iPhone Notes) I’ve just had an idea, that’s why I was doing that.

LB: Because what I said was so inspiring?

KH: No, I liked Julia’s bag. (laughs)

LB: Of course. That’s so Katie.

“It’s much cooler to behave badly” – Katie Hillier

KH: Sorry, that’s quite basic – but I am! I’m very basic. (laughs) I’m totally fine with that. I see an idea there.

LB: I always overtalk!

KH: No, I like listening to it! I don’t articulate things like that. I like the bag, that is what has inspired me, now I know what I need to do for the rest of the day.

LB: You’re the cool one and I’m the pretentious one, that’s how it comes across. I don’t care.

KH: Who put that in your head? (laughs)

LB: I’m paranoid… I don’t know. I’ll stop talking. (laughs)

Having worked together in fashion all these years, you could easily become cynical. What keeps you excited?

KH: I think you can get jaded. One does. But then, the minute you see someone wearing your thing or somebody sends you a nice comment, it all changes again. Then you realise this is great.

LB: Or just seeing a good image! I still love making good images. You know when you’re just a visual person and you go, ‘That’s wonderful.’ It just makes you happy. Yeah, the world around the clothes.

LB: I mean, it is the clothes, you know. At our age it isn’t anything to do with world domination or foisting a massive agenda – fashion! – and all that. It’s to do with something personal, something that feels like a true depiction of us and our personalities.

To finish: a philosophical question. Should one dress well to behave badly?

KH: Yes! For sure!

LB: It’s quite Hillier Bartley. I’m just wondering if it works the other way around? Dressing badly to behave well?

KH: It’s not half as cool. Anyway, it’s much cooler to behave badly. 

Hair Shiori Takahashi and Natsumi Ebiko using Oribe Hair Care, make-up Athena Paginton using 3INA, models Lera Abova at Select, Edward Curtis, photographic assistant Dexter Lander, styling assistant Raul Castilla, casting Svea Greichgauer