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Essay: Luella

by Ana Kinsella on 10 September 2014

Fashion writer and feminist Ana Kinsella offers an ode to Luella, exploring her vision of femininity and celebrating her influence.

Fashion writer and feminist Ana Kinsella offers an ode to Luella, exploring her vision of femininity and celebrating her influence.

Luella Spring/Summer 2010

F Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there are no second acts in American lives, but luckily, English girls have never had that problem. At least, not according to Luella Bartley, who has posited seven – seven! – ages of the English girl, from 'school daze' to 'recessionista' and finally 'granny nirvana'. She’s a living embodiment of that school of thought, too. In her own career she hopped from St Martins kid to Evening Standard fashion assistant through to the glory days of her eponymous label and sadly, its liquidation in 2009. Girls and women of many different stripes wailed in despair at the news. While Luella's English Girl might be an idiosyncratic character, straight from the wardrobe of Withnail and I by way of the King’s Road, her wares appealed to a myriad of types.

What was the secret behind her success? Bartley brought worlds together, weaving together various components of classic English imagery – the tea dress, the hacking jacket, the twinset. Then she exaggerated it. In an era that followed on from nineties minimalism, the runways in the early 2000s often seemed almost ashamed of their references. But not Luella. The shows, with their catchy names (Daddy, Who Were the Clash?), made explicit references to royalty or garden parties or rock and roll that you could see writ large in the clothes themselves, too. Luella's self-awareness became gleeful, of its time and impossibly cool.

There was a blatant wearability there, too, which shows now in the healthy trade in Luella stock on eBay. A boyish undercurrent runs through everything Bartley does. She describes herself as 'a diligent tomboy' - you can see that in the low-slung jeans or borrowed-from-the-boys jackets. In a post-Alexa Chung age, of course, we take that boy-meets-lady style for granted as stylish, but try to remember a time when style was more straight-forward, and such little contradictions didn’t seem so simple. Like a private-school girl with a nose ring, Luella’s boyishness seemed rebellious and unexpected and still very English. Bartley believes that boyishness is ingrained deep in the English girl’s style – think Barbour jackets over ballgowns and you’re almost there.

Because that's the contrary duality of the Luella girl. She is many things at once – she wears cocktail dresses but also Wellington boots. She is prim and cheeky at the same time, and she can sit next to anyone at a dinner party and still have a hoot. Bartley made a world based around this girl, and we wanted in. She said it herself, to Style.com in February 2008, that her girls are 'cute but always a little sick.' In England it would be almost abhorrent for a cool girl, whether from a Jilly Cooper novel or down the East End, to go out at night looking Kardashian-perfect. The look is always undone (which always suggests that we could look better, if we really wanted to), even when we're trying hard – imagine a purple lip or a backcombed beehive. Bartley did this better than any other designer, capturing the essence of the teenager playing dress-up in her room and capitalising on it.

That essence has become prized in the fashion world. We could wonder why all day. Frivolous fashion gets a bad rep sometimes - a certain mind could picture the Luella girl as a frothy thing, born and bred on the Portobello Road and without a care in the world other than her pink cowboy boots and her playful stripes.

How others perceive you becomes so immensely, embarrassingly crucial at puberty, and yet it’s combined with another un-self-aware freedom that is hard to maintain in adulthood.

But while old-school radfems might tell us that we put on pink lipstick and miniskirts to pander to the patriarchy, today’s modern young women see it a little differently. The Rookie school of thought, to which Luella’s collections were a powerful precursor, reveres teenagedom for another reason: the infinite potential of those years, the space and time they give you for experimentation and private mythology. All that important figuring-out of the kind of person you will eventually be. How others perceive you becomes so immensely, embarrassingly crucial at puberty, and yet it’s combined with another un-self-aware freedom that is hard to maintain in adulthood. There are now many designers who dedicate themselves to trying to preserve that freedom in London and beyond. None have been successful at it as Luella was. That showed not only in her front rows and celebrity fans (not just Alexa Chung, but the Williams sisters, for example – strong women who mightn’t be the most natural fit for such a whimsical aesthetic), but also in magazines like Lula, launched in 2005 by stylist Leith Clark. Lula’s dreamy aesthetic fell in line with Luella’s, as whimsy in pop culture reached its Zooey Deschanel zenith.

Epitomising the style of playful girls who didn’t step in line with the dictates of mainstream fashion, both Lula and Luella were niche in their tastes, But those early issues of Lula, like Luella itself, had influence far greater than the sum of their parts. For one thing, they embodied a mood that was already in the air, and by giving it a form, gave a new generation a taste of girlishness that they wouldn’t outgrow. We’re still feeling the aftershocks, whether it’s in Carven’s Gallic charm or in the subversive, almost aggressive take on gender offered by the likes of London designers Ashley Williams and Ryan Lo now.

Could Luella happen today? One might say that it is happening, under Bartley’s control at Marc by Marc Jacobs where a certain youthful rebelliousness is still undoubtedly reigning supreme. But in terms of sheer girly appeal, things are different now. Maybe many fans have outgrown their miniskirts and prefer to embrace the current conservatism of a more lady-like fashion. Maybe our tendency towards tongue-in-cheek cynicism and internet snark means we’re a little too jaded to swallow Luella’s syrupy goodness straight – hence why the hope and romance of Williams and Lo can seem fantastical and unreal at times.

But that doesn’t mean it’s gone for good. A stroll up the Kingsland Road will reveal any number of followers, dressed in mohair or pale patent leather, with pastel hair or pink nails. It’s playful, it’s fun and it still feels real, in particular to people like me who enthusiastically stalk eBay auctions for those patent leather minidresses or metallic silver winklepickers. Maybe some girls just aren’t quite ready to grow up yet.

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