They say one never forgets their first love. I know I haven't. Apparently, this is the case for talented London-based designer Allegra Hicks as well. Hicks made a name for herself designing textiles and building a successful, high-end homeware collection including beautiful textiles, carpets and wallpapers done in subtle shades and incorporating her trademark nature-inspired prints. Later came home fragrances, candles and eventually beautiful, elegant kaftans. For you see, even though she had built a successful housewares collection and developed a strong brand identity in the world of interiors, she had never really forgotten her very first love - fashion. So, as is often the case with multi-talented individuals, she decided that kaftans would be merely a first step on the road to becoming a full-fledged women's wear designer.
Hicks' beautiful designs have now blossomed into a full clothing collection. She has a flagship store in London, a store on Madison Avenue in New York City and her designs are carried by luxury department stores throughout the U.S. as well as online fashion sites such as Net-A-Porter and Vivre. Hicks graciously agreed to sit down with The Luxe Chronicles for a lovely chat during which I was able to pick her brain about fashion, her creative inspirations and her plans for the future. Enjoy!
1. Your training is as a textiles designer. How did you first get started? What drew you to this metier in the first place?
I've always been interested in fine arts, especially painting. I went to design school in Milan and textile design was the nearest thing to painting. That's where I developed my style and technique which consists in conceiving of and using textiles in what I would call a painterly way. For me, the textile is like a canvas and I approach it as a painter would do.
2. You already have a very successful homeware and textile business - why take on yet another challenge (designing women's apparel)?
In many ways, designing clothing is my first love. I come from a very intellectual family for whom designing clothing would not have been an acceptable pursuit. I chose textile designing because it was the nearest thing and while I love that too, my first love remains designing clothing. I had always designed clothing for myself and find getting dressed in the morning a great deal of fun. I admire the practicality of clothing - a dress is exactly that, a dress. It has no pretense to any form of intellectualism. Even though the process of making the dress may be intellectual, in the end, it is still a dress. I love that about it.
3. Textiles and women's apparel, although connected are very different worlds. How did you make the shift from designing textiles to designing clothing?
I don't think the two are so separate. Textiles and especially prints are a very important part of clothing design. Also, historically, textiles were directly integrated to the clothing. During the Renaissance for instance, garments were first and foremost about textiles, the shape or cut were secondary. When I design any garment, the fabric and print I have in mind will have a direct impact on the shape I choose to give the garment. I really don't think of one without thinking of the other.
4. Is there a particular fashion designer, either historical or contemporary, that inspires you or to whom you look up to?
I am a great admirer of Paul Poiret. I especially love how he combined rich embroideries together with plain textiles and his talent for using unusual color combinations to create contrasts. The shapes he created but also all the wonderful details in his clothing were very influential. I also admire Madeleine Vionnet a great deal - the elegant draping and gathering are very feminine and still feel very modern even today.
5. What attracted you to this area of fashion design? Did you see a gap in the market?
Not really. I never approached it as a business but rather as a way of doing what I liked. When I started making kaftans, no one else was really doing high-end beachwear and I suppose that was in a way a gap in the market but I did it because that's what I wanted to do. When I started, no one was really doing prints any more but I used them because I love them. For me, it was always more about creative decisions than business decisions.
6. Do you have a reference point when you design (either a specific type of woman in mind or a specific lifestyle)?
I don't have one specific woman in mind. Instead, I design keeping in mind that women are expected to be many things all at once - a professional, a mother, a wife, a friend. Unlike men, women are expected to be all these things and still look good throughout the day. Women need flexibility and I try to design my clothing with this in mind. I suppose you might say that I design for 30 plus women yet, I have a 16 year old daughter who wears my dresses because she finds them cool. That's very flattering to me. It's a huge compliment!
7. Women's apparel is an extremely crowded field - how do you go about building an identity for yourself as a designer and for your brand?
I think my fabrics and my patterns are my identity. When you work in a creative field, what you produce comes from who you are as a person. My fabrics and patterns come from me. I imagined them and they come from my own 'creative vocabulary', my very own 'creative ABC's' so-to-speak. I've been copied sometimes which is to some extent flattering but what they are copying is my design identity.
8. In reviewing your Spring 2008 collection and your current Fall/Winter 2008-09, one senses that you've taken a significant step forward both in terms of the range of your collection and the level of complexity of the clothing. What is propelling this shift forward?
I think I've become more confident. Fall/Winter 2008-09 was my 6th season as a designer. I'm enjoying what I'm doing and I feel I've found my path both as a person and as a designer. When you work in a creative business such as this one, you must have a strong sense of yourself in order to grow. I think I've grown into my role as a woman's designer and that's coming through in my collections.
9. What were your design inspirations for the Fall/Winter 2008-09 collection?
Many things. I wanted to design a women's collection that was modern but still sensual and slightly cheeky. I also wanted to design pieces that are stylish but without being trendy - I want to be able to wear my clothing in two or three years from now and not look dated. I also believe that style and elegance have a great deal to do with comfort. If you're uncomfortable in a dress or other garment, you can't be stylish or elegant. That's why I tend to use natural fabrics. They feel good and look luxurious which makes a big difference in how a garment falls and how it makes you feel.
10. You've opened a store on Madison Avenue in NYC and your designs are available in a good number of high-end department stores as well as via Vivre.com. You seem to be broadening your sights to include a greater segment of the U.S. market. Clearly, the U.S. market is a priority for you. Why?
I think Americans understand me and understand what I do. In America, they tend to embrace talent easily and are always open to new things whereas Europeans can sometimes be a bit jaded. They have a very fresh attitude towards things and that appeals to me. I lived in the U.S. when I first began working and I've never really felt all that foreign there. I feel very at home in New York for instance and I love the attitude.
While I will always be based in London, I would love to expand my business in the U.S. although I want to do so organically. I think my collection is well-priced within the luxury segment of the market and I think my cruise collection will do well there - cruise is so big in the U.S.
11. The luxury industry is currently very focused on Asia and other emerging markets. Do you have plans to move into those markets as well?
Absolutely. We haven't started yet but it's definitely something we want to do.
12. You're Italian by birth but have lived in England for a number of years - do you consider your aesthetic sensibilities to be more Italian or have they become more British over time?
I came to London when I was very young and what appealed to me was the sense of freedom and the eccentricity of Londoners. Italians are very chic but safe. British style is unique and very inventive. I love that.
13. There was a time when London, Paris, New York and other large cities had distinct fashion identities - women in London dressed very differently than women in NYC or Paris. Do you find that distinctiveness eroding with the influence of the internet, increased travel, etc?
Because most brands are now available virtually everywhere, I sense that people are yearning for something different, something that is not available where they come from. I do the same. When I go to L.A. or New York, I tend to go to vintage shops to find something unique. I also love to buy denim in the U.S., especially brands not yet widely available in the U.K. I think, in the end, people are yearning for a personal style that is different from anyone else's. That's hard to do when the same things are available everywhere.
Thank you - it was a pleasure.
For more information about Allegra's housewares and fashion collections and points of sale, please visit her website.