Elizabeth Emanuel: Everything about fashion has changed

Elizabeth Emanuel talks about her latest collection “1902”, as well as establishing a new brand, tendencies in the fashion world, her memories on working on Lady Diana’s wedding dress and other interesting things

Since her designs first set the fashion world alight in the eighties, Elizabeth Emanuel has been firmly established as one of the leading British Couturiers of our time. This spring, Elizabeth launched her much anticipated new couture collection with Atelier Elizabeth (which have already been worn by iconic celebrities like Madonna and Cher), once again becoming the designer name on everyone’s lips.

Elizabeth’s highly individual and instantly recognizable style appeals to a wide range of clients of all ages and backgrounds. Over the years, Elizabeth has had the pleasure of dressing members of the royal family as well as many of the world’s most well-known celebrities including Bianca Jagger, Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Hurley, Charlize Theron, Barbara and Ringo Starr, Billy and Pamela Connolly, Paula Abdul, Sharon Osbourne, Joan Collins, Richard and Joan Branson. Most recently, the launch of her new collection has attracted a new generation to her creations, including Rita Ora, Christina Aguilera, Priyanka Chopra and Raye.

Born and raised in London, Elizabeth and her ex-husband David Emanuel were the first married couple to be accepted at the Royal College of Art.

In 1981, Lady Diana Spencer chose Elizabeth to create her gown for her forthcoming marriage to Prince Charles. 700 million television viewers around the world watched the royal wedding and Princess Diana’s wedding gown became the most iconic wedding dress of the century. This led to a long relationship with Princess Diana, with the Emanuel’s repeatedly dressing her for various public appearances. This put Elizabeth into the spotlight and led to many interesting projects all over her meteoric career in the fashion business like designing airline uniforms for Virgin Atlantic, theater costumes for La Scala, working in the movie industry, making dresses for many famous people in the ‘80s (TV presenters, rock and pop stars, world-famous actors), and many other exciting affairs.

Elizabeth never stops and is always full of creative ideas and she says she is always ready to take on as many challenges as she can. At the moment, she is working on establishing her new brand, Atelier Elizabeth, and the just created, new fantastic couture collection “1902”. We had a chance to chat with this powerful and talented woman about working on her new brand and her latest collection, the latest tendencies in the fashion world, her memorable stories about working with different famous people and other interesting things.

Interview: Dmitry Tolkunov

Hi Elizabeth! You have just made a collection called “1902”. Doing collections was not a regular thing for you for a while. Can you please tell us a bit about its mood, concept and style?

This is a couture collection, which means it is made to order. It is inspired by Virginia Woolf’s book “Orlando”. I find the main character Orlando who was half a man and half a woman and lived for 400 years very interesting. I like the feel of being androgynous. My designs could be worn by a man or a woman, it does not matter anymore. It is a very relevant approach. Orlando is also an interesting character for me, as the one who accumulated in her style aspects of modernity as well as the past. My collections have always got a lot of history and a story behind them as well.

“1902” is special for me because I really have not done collections for a long time. I used very environmentally friendly fabrics for them. For instance, for evening wear I used a lot of cotton. I tried to explore new fabrics, textures and techniques that are extracted from the past but applied to new styles and designs.

Besides your new collection, you are also known as a designer that has made a lot of stage costumes for big artists. Are we likely to see anything new and impressive in this field soon?

Yes, I had a lot of this kind of work during the last year and a half. In fact, I have just done costumes for Madonna’s last Madame X tour. It was a great and very exciting job.

Also, I have created a stage costume for Christina Aguilera for her performance in Las Vegas, as well as some dresses for going out for Cher and Rita Ora. Collaborations with these kinds of people are always really exciting as they lead to many new ideas.

So it seems like you are having a really busy period?

Yes, I was working nonstop. My first investor helped me to get to this stage, to get all these wonderful collaborations and create the “1902” collection. Now we are looking for a second stage investment to commercialize all of that and expand it. We have already established a new brand, got people aware of it, promoted it via social media and now comes the really hard work with bringing in the management and the structure, forming a commercial company and a global brand.

Will it be a totally new brand or will it still be under the name Elizabeth Emanuel?

Many years ago I lost my name so had to think of a new brand name. My new brand is called Atelier Elizabeth. We just designed a wonderful logo for it and made a website.

What will be the new brand’s commercial strategy? Are you planning to do some ready-to-wear collections or it is more focused on couture?

At the moment, it will mostly be couture. We do not want to do big ready-to-wear collections. We might do a very limited edition, for example, an elite ready-to-wear collection that will be available only in very special places. Also, we are going to develop e-commerce from our site, as I think it is a very powerful way of selling luxury products. We plan to sell limited edition silk scarves from our site in the first instance followed by beautiful accessories.

Then, the next step will be thinking about our own shops and doing perfumes and accessories, it will all follow on. The most important thing now is to bring in the right management to the brand so I can focus on what I do really well which is the creative side of the business. We will need to bring in people with experience to run the operation, to make a road map and to help us to achieve all the goals that we want. There is a lot of work to be done.

As a designer, you were involved in different kinds of things – designing dresses for famous people, airline uniforms, theatre and movie costumes, wedding dresses… Are there some fields in which you enjoy working most of all that brings you the biggest self-satisfaction?

I enjoy all of these things. It is really fun when you see how it starts with a sketch and then comes to reality. I have been in this industry for a long time and think my way in the fashion world is a very interesting story. I was very lucky to have a chance to work with many amazing people. It all started with Bianca Jagger, she got the whole thing rolling when she wore one of the dresses that I had made when I just graduated from the Royal College of Art. She was in my dress in Studio 54 in New York at her birthday party and photos of her in this dress appeared on the front covers of all the big magazines of that time. After it, I immediately got a lot of people interested in my designs as Bianca was very influential which was a great start. I worked with my ex-husband at that moment and our tailoring shop was only a hundred yards away from Vogue magazine’s office. We started to work a lot with them, were giving our things for photo sessions and developed a really great relationship with them. It put us into the spotlight which led to designing a wedding dress for Princess Diana.

From this period onwards I never stopped. I dressed so many amazing people – pop-stars, actors, and celebrities, almost everybody who was well known in the ‘80s. I still have an amazing collection of sketches of all these dresses that I have done, I don’t throw anything away.

Things like working with Richard Branson designing uniforms for Virgin Airlines was very interesting work, I learned so much from it. I also had an experience doing stage costumes for La Scala ballet and really loved it too. I find that everything that I have done was very exciting as you learn so much from each project and it’s always a challenge and I will take as many challenges as I can. I really love it.

Probably working with people from different social circles like pop-starts, royal families, celebrities and businessmen – brought together a great knowledge and understanding of life?

Yes, it is so. It’s incredible that I had a chance to meet such a wide range of different amazing people. Also working on different kinds of projects gave me great professional experience with working with different fabrics and techniques and I bring it all into my collections.

You have such a fantastic life story and meteoric career and probably have many interesting, memorable stories to share. Have you ever thought of writing memoirs about it all?

I will definitely do it but I’m waiting for a happy end for the book with my return to the fashion world with a new brand that I’m working on at the moment. And I think in the last 18 months we have built a solid foundation for the new brand and managed to show people that we can do a lot of different things in fashion design, and it all went very well. I’m very excited about what we have achieved.

As the book is still under construction, maybe you can share some funny and impressive stories regarding your working and meetings with world-famous clients during your career?

Of course, the story with Princess Diana was one of the memorable ones. After doing a wedding dress me and my ex-husband with whom we started the Emanuel brand, got recognized all over the world. It was so incredible when she approached us because we were so young, and had not been at that point in fashion business even for a year. When she made an appointment I wrote her name down wrong in the diary, so where she turned up it was a big surprise for us. She was very lovely, a normal young girl, just a bit younger than us. We got on very well. Fashion was not her thing at that moment. She was very new to all of that.

There was a really memorable story with Elizabeth Taylor too. I went to Paris for a meeting with her. Elizabeth always had the reputation of being a person who kept people waiting for her for a long time. I was waiting for her for a long time in the hotel in a little room. There was a really charming man with me all the time but I didn’t know who he was and only sometime after I figured out that he was the famous Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli. When I finally got to see Elizabeth all her room was covered with shopping bags. At that time she lost a lot a weight and had a lot of fun going shopping and buying new things. I noticed an amazing diamond ring on her dressing table and Elizabeth said – you should try it, put it on. And I put it on my finger, it was on me for 10 seconds but it was fun. It was so beautiful; it was the biggest diamond in the world that I had seen. I think Richard Burton presented it to Elizabeth…

Actually, I really have so many interesting stories to share about my experience of working with different incredible people. I’m trying to write all them down in order not to forget them.

Are there some fashion designers that you are following and are really fond of?

I don’t really follow other designers but I admire Galliano, especially his work for Dior. Also, I am a big fan of the Russian designer Slava Zaitsev, he is really creative and I also like the production of his shows and his models are fantastic too. A few years ago, he was in my studio in London and we even considered maybe doing something together at some point.

You have been in the fashion business for a long time, starting from the beginning of the ‘80s until now. Do you think the fashion world and its main principles have changed much over this period?

I think everything about fashion has changed. When I was starting in the ‘80s everything had a description and a title – there were cocktail dresses, evening dresses, over-40s styles and stuff like that. Now anybody can wear anything. I have people from 13 to 80 years old that wear my clothes and they all look fantastic in them. Age is not a factor anymore. Everybody can wear anything in which they feel comfortable and happy. Because of that, there is enormous freedom for fashion designers and for their experiments now.

Clothes have become really androgynous at the moment as well, that’s a big thing now. Following this androgynous approach in one of the photo sessions for my latest collection we made a picture of a beautiful boy dressed in a gorgeous gold silk duchess satin ballgown.

There are no more rules anymore; people wear anything their personal style dictates to them, it is not as it used to be when there were certain clothes for certain ages. People are mixing things around. It’s common now to put on a jacket with crystals and jeans. I hope people can take some things from my collection, mix them with their own clothes and come up with their personal, completely unique style. Using the things from my new collection means you can have a very simple look – plain, all dressed in black; or you can go crazy and look like a rock star.

The other big thing about fashion today is that things have to be environmentally friendly. I’m following this path too as I don’t use fur or feathers and things like that and I don’t think I really need to with the things that are available now. Designers are doing a lot of experiments with different fabrics at the moment. In this line, for example, I’ve made a collection from old jeans that have been torn up. I’ve made a collection of corsets from them that I have decorated with old crystal that I found. This bringing old things to life or using some amazing new fabrics from pineapple or bamboo is a really relevant approach now.

We wish you as much as you can take experiments and freedom in self-expression and good luck with the new brand. And thank you very much for this interesting talk, Elizabeth!

Thank you!

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