“I like to think that my job as a designer is to remind people to dress up, I feel so passionate about it,” says Emilia Wickstead, who is sat at her impeccably organised desk in her West London studio on a murky Wednesday morning, a vision of swannish elegance in a belted floral shirt dress of her own design.
If you’ve ever felt a tinge at sadness at the rise of trainers-and-leggings as everyday attire, then Wickstead is your woman. Hers is a world of refinement, where an outfit can transport you from the quotidian to a more sophisticated realm - or if that realm is your reality, make you the best-dressed person in it. Her look today, finished with a clutch of gold bangles and a pair of flat black leather sandals, may look afternoon-tea-at-Claridges-ready but it got her through her 45-minute commute on the bus this morning too. “I was sitting on the bus and this woman was like ‘I love your dress, where’s it from?’ and I replied, ‘Oh, it’s from Emilia Wickstead’ she laughs.
Ever since she began her bespoke made-to-measure studio in 2008, Wickstead has made it her mission to transform ladylike dressing into a modern art form. You may know her as a favourite of the royal family - the Duchess of Sussex loves Wickstead’s LBDs and the Duchess of Cambridge’s style upgrade over the past few months has included a reimagining of some of her old favourite Wickstead wool dresses, the simple addition of a new styling twist- like a box bag by Aspinal in a tonal shade of lavender- emphasising their timeless versatility.
Lately, Wickstead has also been making forays into power dressing, perhaps not a concept one would immediately associate with her ladies-who-lunch aesthetic. But that would be to mistake the look’s, well, power. Her spring/summer 2019 collection riffed on Eighties’ wide shouldered dynamic tailoring tropes after Wickstead became obsessed with films like Sixteen Candles and American Psycho. She also became part of a royal fashion first when Sophie, Countess of Wessex, became the first royal to wear a jumpsuit to Royal Ascot last June and she has celebrated the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in her native New Zealand (it was the first country to allow votes for women) by designing a capsule collection of staple pieces in collaboration with The Woolmark Company - “I feel like there are so many different things in here that a woman can just feel confident in, the blazer, the trench, a great easy dress,” she notes, gesturing to the rail where the collection hangs, like a haute Marie Kondo fantasy capsule wardrobe.
To model the collection, she has eschewed models in favour of a group of ‘ordinary yet extraordinary women’ from New Zealand. “I’m ultimately known for being quite a dressed-up brand so I thought about what is quintessentially Emilia Wickstead but in a fabric like shirting, made from Australian merino wool, which for me feels a bit more robust. We’re all on the go in this day and age and we’re all busy doing things - these are women doing remarkable things.”
She calls the collection her “passion project” and the beam on her face is testament to her enthusiasm as she leafs through the images of the women she worked with, who range in age from 13 to 80-something: Ngahuia Te Awekotuku - the first Maori woman to gain a doctorate, become a professor and a Maori Emeritus - wears a cream cable knit jumper, its polo neck peaking up to touch the kauai mojo tattoo on her chin, a sacred rite of Maori women. Then there’s Dame Valerie Adams, the champion Tongan shot putter, who wears a powder-blue dress with a similar shawl-detail to a jumpsuit which Wickstead recently dressed the supermodel Gigi Hadid in, Dr Selina Tusitala Marsh, the country’s Samoan poet laureate, whose navy and cream outfit co-ordinates beautifully with her fabulous mallen streak and Lesina Letufuga, Teresa Heather and Hope Crockett, whose high school dance group won a competition with their interpretation of the Samoan culture’s protective brother-sister bond.
Another New Zealander whom Wickstead has been delighted to dress is prime minister Jacinda Ardern. At the UN last September, Ardern armed herself for a speech at which she declared ‘MeToo must become WeToo’ by wearing the black and white ‘Blueberry’ dress, a full-skirted, midi-length design which epitomises Wickstead’s talents for combining immaculate tailoring with an unashamed sense of femininity. “She’s the most powerful and perfect representation of what a modern leader in today’s world should be,” says Wickstead. “To have the privilege of dressing someone like that- a woman from the country where I’m from- it was amazing. I felt very fortunate and very proud.”
Wickstead wanted to focus on New Zealand because she wasn’t sure if people really knew that aspect of her background - after all, she’s shown at London Fashion Week since 2011 and her two children were born here. “I’m part Polynesian and on my father’s side, my uncle married a Maori woman so my cousins are Polynesian and Maori so I have a little bit of that. On my mother’s side I’m part Italian, so really a mixed bag. That’s why it was a really heartfelt project, I lost my father when I was four so it’s also a part of my heritage and my roots,” she explains.
One very British tradition which Wickstead has been instrumental in giving a contemporary edge is Royal Ascot, where her designs are in high demand amongst VIP attendees. The simplicity of her approach has undoubtedly helped to show that a dress with a sublime silhouette in an exquisite, offbeat hue can cut through the noise of more classic race day attire. “I’ve never actually been, isn’t that terrible?” Wickstead confesses. “It’s always a very busy season for us, we’re putting out collections around about that time but I really would love to go.” She doesn’t miss out on the thrill of the build-up, however, which many might say is the best part. “I love dressing women and making them feel excited. Sometimes, they’ll come to the store and we have an amazing team there and we’ll do the dress and also their hats and shoes and put the whole look together. That’s something we love to do as a brand. It’s always a really busy season for us, but it’s lots of fun.”
Whether it’s seeing Michelle Obama (who chose her white jumpsuit during the London leg of her ‘Becoming’ book tour in December) or Olivia Colman (who wore a bespoke black and white gown to the BAFTAs) photographed in her designs or spying a woman donning one of the giant bow clips she’s made to accompany her current collection on the street at the weekend, 35 year-old Wickstead still feels the thrill of seeing the dreams she conjures from her nostalgic inspirations come to life. “Everybody in the studio runs up and down the corridors. It’s such a nice pat on the back, we have such a long way to go but it’s always an amazing achievement to dress someone in the public eye because you feel like so many people have access to seeing that.”
She’s adamant too that her personal brand of chic- she cites Diana Vreeland and Lauren Bacall as favourite muses- shouldn’t be a time-consuming endeavour. “My definition of dressing up is that you might wear that dress with the bow on the back but you might have it with a really simple pair of court shoes and your hair just pulled back with a parting down the middle and very minimal make-up. That’s my world and how I look at dressing up and making it achievable so that it’s not just an illusion. But also I think it’s so important, it’s what makes us all feel special and excited. I think it’s important to keep it alive.”