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01-05-2005
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kit
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Calling all Lulu Guinness fans .
'I think I'm Positive Energy'

She married into a glamorous dynasty and her handbags have made millions for her design business. But for Lulu Guinness creativity and success have come at a high price

Rachel Cooke
Sunday May 1, 2005
The Observer

Lulu Guinness lives in a big, white wedding cake of a house in - where else? - Notting Hill. Her upstairs drawing room is a delight to behold: Diana Cooper meets Girls' World is the best way I can describe it. Alone for a moment, I snoop around. It is decorated in the sort of style to which I secretly aspire but, were I to attempt it myself - because I lack the requisite posh gene - the result would look more like an explosion down at Steptoe & Son than this debutante heaven. Pale floorboards, purple chaise longue, darling vintage glassware arranged higgledy-piggledy along the mantelpiece; nothing seems to match and yet it all looks so perfect. The most adorable touch, however, is the pair of side tables which display - beneath glass - a collection of old enamel powder compacts. I am captivated. The only side table I own displays a used mug, a half-empty bottle of Evian and a small tin of lip balm.



Guinness, who has turned her inimitable sense of style into a multi-million-pound global business (she began in handbags and has ended up designing everything from spectacles to shoes to cushion covers), used to feel under a lot of pressure to be seen to be perfect. But lately she finds she couldn't give a stuff. 'The more human I am, the more flaws I have, the more videotapes there are lying around... well, the more people like me and identify with me.' She lights up a cigarette. 'I've relaxed. The truth in life is that once you are honest with yourself - and that took me years to learn - you're happier, and people like you more. This morning, I had to talk to my daughter's headmistress; I had to open all my bills to make sure I wasn't about to be evicted. Before, I'd have run out and got flowers knowing that you were coming.' She pulls her pink cardigan over her bosom. 'But I have had my make-up done.'

Guinness is just back from America, where she has been promoting her new book, Put On Your Pearls, Girls! It's a picture book, really, featuring pop-up handbags and lots of Diana Vreeland-style fashion aphorisms (along with the great designer Elsa Schiaparelli, Vreeland, editor-in-chief of Vogue, is one of Guinness's heroines), but she hopes it will come to be seen as her manifesto. The good news: a girl can be too rich and too thin and, while less is often more, sometimes more is more. The tour - nine personal appearances in 11 days - was a huge success, but then in the US she is feted like Elizabeth Taylor. 'It's exhausting, but they're so enthusiastic, you're loving it.' What do the people who turn up expect from her? 'Forgive me if I sound American,' she says. 'But I think I'm Positive Energy. In San Francisco, a lady told me that the buzz was that I'd left a trail of positive energy in my wake. My bags tend to cheer people up; they put a smile on people's faces.

'It's surreal. When I do these appearances, I have total out-of-body experiences. I had an exhibition at Sotheby's in New York. More than 800 people were allowed in and then they had to turn people away. I have a very strong fanbase, as they say, among college kids and teenagers. I'm doing a talk at the V&A soon, and a lot of it is filled up with people from schools.' She emits a bewildered giggle. Still, on some level, she must be deeply serious, as driven as anyone on The Apprentice (though with a plummier voice, and far better manners); her company turns an annual profit of $8m, and she sold 100,000 handbags last year in over 500 stores worldwide. Is it stressful, keeping an eye on such a sprawling octopus? 'It has its moments. You're seeing me on a good day. Some things have happened recently that have made me feel more free - though I'm not about to sell my business or anything exciting like that.' Would she like to sell up? 'Oh, yes. Because they would still want me.'

Lulu Guinness was born Lucinda Rivett-Carnac. Her father was a commander in the Royal Navy and her mother was a housewife who was part of the family who owned Lewis's department stores. In 1977, just as she was about to start a theatre design degree at Central St Martin's School of Art, her parents moved to South Africa; she was not allowed to stay behind because she would 'get into trouble'. So she did an art foundation course in Capetown, then moved to Paris, where she learned to cook at La Varenne and shacked up with a photographer 10 years her senior. 'We were very serious,' she says. 'Well, he was.' But at 21 she came back to London where she fell in love with Valentine Guinness, the son of Jonathan Guinness, Lord Moyne, one of the more eccentric members of the Guinness dynasty (he was once declared bankrupt, and had three children by his mistress, a Sixties flower child called Shoe). Valentine's paternal grandmother was Diana Mitford.

Lulu was a backing singer in Valentine's band - he was then still at Oxford - and together they went to an awful lot of parties. There is a photograph of her from this period, by Dafydd Jones, in which she can be seen at the 1983 Piers Gaveston ball wearing a particularly outré head-dress: Ottoline Morrell does Carmen Miranda. To her right is Hugh Grant, who appears to be wearing only a leopardskin tunic and a laurel wreath. 'I guess it was wild,' she says. 'We were on the town. We didn't go to bed very early. But everyone was the same. And I worked. That probably kept me on the straight and narrow. I had to get up in the morning, unlike a lot of people. At that stage, I wanted to be a documentary film-maker, so I worked in corporate video. But then I got married [the ceremony was held in Winchester Cathedral]. I thought: I don't want to be getting up at 4am to shoot. I want to be at home arranging flowers.'

She didn't really, though - and, before long, she had a Great Idea. It was the era of the Filofax, and Guinness thought it would be worth designing a briefcase along the same lines so that people could more easily lay their hands on their kit. She sold it to places such as Browns and Joseph. The buyers, though, thought she should design something that was more like her - something more colourful, more whimsical. So that is what she did. But, desperate not to be seen to be cashing in on her married name, she called her label only 'Lulu'. 'In any case, I needed to earn money,' she says. Her Guinness is not, it seems, a super-wealthy Guinness. 'When I first started, we lived in the basement here. The rest was a boarding house. We couldn't afford to renovate it. Anyway, I soon realised I was fighting a losing battle with my name.'

Absence of large bequests aside, her husband's family must be a glamorous lot. I tell her that I used to be Mitford mad. 'So was I. I married one so my daughters [she has two, aged 13 and eight] could read Nancy and say she was their great-great-aunt. But Valentine... it's quite annoying for him. He is never in the papers without the word 'Hitler' associated with him [his grandmother's second husband was the British fascist Oswald Mosley; the pair of them were rather keen on the Führer]. He thought it was a great burden, a disadvantage. People do assume... especially in England. It's so unmodern, so boring.' She and Valentine, a playwright, are now separated, but they are good friends. 'He lives a few doors along. He usually turns up in the middle of my interviews.' Is she looking for someone new? 'No. I haven't got enough headspace at the moment. I do have girlfriends who are in the same situation, and it's their main driving force. For me, it isn't yet. But it will be, I'm sure.'

If all this sounds impossibly just so - even her separation is deeply civilised - well, it is, outwardly. But Guinness suffers from manic depression. It started after she had her children, and was first diagnosed as severe postnatal depression. 'There I was in magazines looking perfect in my lovely house with my lovely children. But I was probably being brought that magazine in a psychiatric ward.' It was, she says, a relief to be finally diagnosed and to find a psychiatrist who could help her. 'I do still take pills, but not very high doses at the moment. You're never better. You might be better for a few years, then it hits you again. It's not like someone has died - all the externals are identical - but you can't see that. It all seems black. You just have to put one foot in front of the other, keep going. It can be anxiety-driven, not sleeping. That's the worst side. Then there's a sort of deadness where nothing matters. You feel the world would be a better place without you, that if you weren't around, it would be easier for everyone. That's really bad. It makes me shiver to think of it.'

Through it all, she continued to run her business. 'My family questioned whether I should carry on. There were discussions. They wondered whether they should just whip it away from me.' But her manic depression is, she thinks, of a piece with her creativity. The two cannot be separated. The ideas just come - so fast, sometimes, that it can be burdensome. 'I notice every single detail about everything, always. I have a photographic memory of what a Chinese lady was wearing 10 years ago, or what the print on her scarf was, or whatever.' Her bags, which are still the thing for which she is best known (five of them are in the dress collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum), are pretty but fantastical, almost like absurdist art: flower baskets and chocolate boxes, turreted castles and seashells. Big enough to hold a lipstick and an acceptance speech; small enough to form a charming centrepiece at the dinner table. 'You have to cull your possessions accordingly,' as Liz Hurley puts it. This is, of course, the age of the handbag, with women spending more than ever before on the glorious receptacles that house their tired mascaras, dirty tissues and fluffy Polo mints. Is Guinness one of the architects of this trend, or is she merely riding it, cannily, until the cash is in, say, socks or tiaras? Hard to say. Serendipity must have played a part in her success, but there is also something rather magical about her: the Betty Boop face, the floral tea dresses, the gracious warmth of her manner. In her presence, you feel you would be mad not to buy into her world, for all that you might find the idea of humping around the season's flamingo basket just a little bit silly. 'It's interesting, isn't it?' she says. 'When I started, women bought a new bag once every five years. They had an evening bag that belonged to Granny, and that was for life, and they had something hard-wearing, and that was until it fell apart.' Yes, and now - if they are anything like me - they buy about five a month (though not all from Marc Jacobs, obviously). 'Well, a bag doesn't have to fit, and a bag doesn't have to be comfortable.' She yanks her flesh-coloured fishnets, and ponders a while longer. Then, she pronounces: 'But it's more than that. I think, really, that you carry a bag as a badge of who you are.'



Last edited by kit; 01-05-2005 at 08:25 AM.
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01-05-2005
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what a fantastic story... thank you for posting this, kit!

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01-05-2005
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to much too read all at once id be hear 4 ages but ive skimmed thro it and it seems like a greast story. Ill save it until im bored or no one is on and read it then

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01-05-2005
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Fascinating read, kit! Thanks for the article!

And I'll agree with her.. "I think, really, that you carry a bag as a badge of who you are."

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02-05-2005
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I heard business is not doing so well for her.

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02-05-2005
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scenester
 
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Her collectables are fantastic though - I have the silver castle and bordello ones and whenever i use them people just love them, they always start a conversation. Plus i have just never seen anything like them from other modern bags, though there are parallels in vintage.

I do have some of the non collectable bags and the ones from a few years ago are also great ( the choclate shop one in particular) but the last few collections have been a little average and I cant say I have been tempted by any of them.

I still feel she is a bit of an original though!

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02-05-2005
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her stuff is.. i donno. too cute and preppy looking...
and i went to prep school

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22-06-2005
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scenester
 
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I totally disagree though as I am not from the US it may be that my understanding of preppy isnt complete. To me her pieces are very eccentric in a quintissentially english way and ver unique. Here I am talking about her collectables cos as I said above some of her general line is a bit bland and i suppose could therefore be seen as preppy?!

Would a "preppy" carry a bag shaped like a silver castle, flower pot or spider web?

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