PHOTO COURTESY OF SEAN THOMAS
One might not expect a former nomad-cum-rave queen to become the Patron Saint of British Fashion. But this is precisely the tale of London's Lulu Kennedy. The founder of Fashion East, a non-profit organization that gives up-and-coming designers funding, publicity, and a runway show, Kennedy launched the likes of Gareth Pugh, Richard Nicoll, Marios Schwab, and Jonathan Saunders out of their East End London studios and into the mainstream. "I never intended to work in fashion," says Kennedy, sitting at the desk of her shabby-chic Shoreditch headquarters. She pushes her mane of tousled brown locks off the shoulder of her multicolored Jonathan Saunders dress. "I just kind of fell into it." Considering that she's completely transformed the face of young British fashion, it would seem that she fell hard.
Born in Newcastle to what she lovingly describes as "hippie" parents, Kennedy spent her childhood in a caravan, constantly moving from Devon to Ibiza to Sicily and beyond. "That's definitely influenced my style," says Kennedy, whose look is the epitome of quirky London cool. "The whole [hippie] ethos has a lot to do with who I am. I'm pretty scruffy." Her wardrobe, overflowing with tokens of gratitude from her protégées, begs to differ.
Before settling down in London, Kennedy spent three years studying in Naples, where she adopted a rather unorthodox extracurricular activity. Clad in flea-market ballgowns, workman's boots and a bleached-blonde wig, she organized raves in castles and warehouses, importing DJ's from around the globe, like London's Princess Julia and New York's Masters at Work, to play at her parties. "I've calmed down a bit since then," she says. "But I think even a great fashion show can have a rave element and energy to it. In my mind, the two things go together quite well. Nice loud music, a happy attitude front of house and then a drink and a dance at the after-party."
Kennedy eventually traded her raver ways for work at a contemporary art gallery, but in 1996, a chance encounter with über-eccentric London art world fixture and former boyfriend Ofer Zeloof would kick Fashion East into action. Zeloof hired Kennedy on the spot to help him convert the Old Truman Brewery, an 11-acre block of buildings on Brick Lane, into studios and warehouse spaces for artists and fashion designers. "It happened quite organically," Kennedy recalls. "Somebody like Giles (Deacon) would come up to me, he knew me from the local pub, and ask to rent a studio. And then we started to do fashion shows in the big empty warehouse. That's how it began." The brewery became a veritable fashion commune, with everyone from Hussein Chalayan to Preen to House of Jazz either working or showing within its walls. And now, almost 11 years after the project officially began in 2000, Fashion East has helped over 35 designers, rising stars Meadham Kirchhoff and Michael Van der Ham among them, set their careers into motion.
"It's quite simple in that we go looking for them and they find us," says Kennedy about how she discovers her runway talents. "If someone's really good, it'll come across in a very simple way; through a photo, from a lookbook, et cetera. If they have that real aesthetic refinement, it will show through in everything." This season's aesthetically inclined include newcomer Elliot Atkinson, James Long, a menswear designer who will launch his first womenswear collection, and Simone Rocha, who was featured last season. The trio will show on February 22nd at the Topshop venue, as the high-street retailer has sponsored Kennedy's initiative for the past seven years.
In addition to prepping for her show, which is always among the hottest tickets at London Fashion Week, Kennedy is working on her second collection for Lulu and Co., a line of slightly-tweaked Fashion East looks from seasons past. "We launched it last year in celebration of our 10th anniversary. Everyone's sort of attached to [the Fashion East] designers, so we got a great reaction and decided to carry it on." This season, you can expect everything from a revamped dice-print House of Jazz shift to a series of vintage looks Lulu has reworked herself, as well as hits from Michael van der Ham and the other East designers. Unfortunately, it's only available on Kennedy's side of the pond at the moment, but she has expressed interest to infiltrate the New York market, not only for the sake of the line itself, but to spread the word about the Fashion East initiative. "Get me over to New York! I'd love to be in Opening Ceremony. I love that shop." Fingers crossed for next season.