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The birth of the designer collaboration: Meet the couturier whose 1916 line for Sears sparked a modern fashion phenomenon
Lady Lucile Duff-Gordon's high-end label Lucile created two collections for Sears, Roebuck & Co
- The designer also staged one of the world’s first runway shows and released a branded perfume
- Lady Duff-Gordon's great, great, great granddaughter, Camilla Blois, 43, has now relaunched the house of Lucile as a lingerie label
Published: 22:53 BST, 17 September 2013 | Updated: 21:55 BST, 18 September 2013
Mother of collaboration: Lady Lucile Duff-Gordon invented collaborations with her 1916 collection for Sears, Roebuck & Co
Phillip Lim sparked a retail frenzy this past weekend with his ode to cheap clothes at Target. But while the collection may have disappeared from store shelves, the concept of design collaborations has deeper roots than fast fashion may imply.
The institution was actually started in London in 1916 by Titanic survivor Lady Lucile Duff-Gordon, whose couture house Lucile changed the landscape of fashion for the modern era.
While little-known outside of fashion historian circles, Lady Duff-Gordon’s contributions to the fashion industry far exceed her limited notoriety.
The house of Lucile, revered for its feminine Edwardian glamour, defined the era’s aesthetic with clothes that overflowed with frills, florals, and sweet colors. It was the go-to label for British aristocracy, as well as gentries in the United States and France.
But Lucile was not simply just a purveyor of hyper feminine clothes. It was a game-changer in the realms of fashion business practices, as well as marketing. Lady Duff-Gordon (who often went by Lucile, professionally) created the first-ever designer collaboration with a two-season run for Sears, Roebuck & Co.
She was also one of the first designers to stage runway shows, release a branded perfume, and issue coupons in magazines as a way to draw customers into her handful of international boutiques.
Lucile was founded in 1893 according to Randy Bryan Bigham, author of the self-published book Lucile- Her Life by Design, as a way to support herself in the aftermath of her first marriage.
Lady Duff-Gordon built Lucile’s name on attention-grabbing antics. She was the first designer to utilize celebrity culture as a method for attracting public recognition. Lady Duff-Gordon’s sister, the novelist and film producer Elinor Glyn, offered the designer an inside track to famous entertainers and the more renowned members of the Ziegfeld Follies, whom she dressed in a time when performers were still considered painted lady-type figures.
Haute couture: Lucile's designs epitomized the Belle Époque era's hyper feminine aesthetic and overflowed with frills, florals, and sweet colors
Lady Duff-Gordon’s many publicity stunts earned her label a certain sense of notoriety—one which was tempered by her lofty social title, which she earned in her second marriage to Scottish landowner and Olympic fencer Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon.
‘How she presented herself went a long way in the business, the whole idea that she was aristocratic allowed her to be so suggestive,’ said Beth Dincuff, a fashion history professor at Parsons, The New School for Design.
It also paved her foray into the lingerie industry—a move that is well marked with cultural transgressions. While Lady Duff-Gordon did not reinvent lingerie garments, she did revolutionize underpinnings by ushering the then-utilitarian objects into the decorative arena.
Her undergarments were sold out of a boudoir in her atelier named The Rose Room, an environment where women were meant to feel comfortable shopping for lingerie with risqué style names like 'Dawn's Gentle Whisper'. She also named her ready-to-wear designs with monikers like ‘Climax’ and ‘The Garden of Love’.
Famous fans: Lucile often created custom designs for performers, including famous members of the Ziegfeld follies, making it the first label to capitalize on celebrity culture
‘She allowed respectable women to shop for lingerie—if Lady Duff-Gordon is saying it’s OK to buy it, then it’s OK,’ Dincuff continued.
Says April Calahan, a research associate in FIT’s special collection archives, ‘In some ways she reminds me of [Imitation of Christ designer] Tara Subkoff, because she has done that collaboration with Easy Spirit and is infamous for pulling publicity tricks.’
'Lucile definitely had a keen mind for publicizing herself. She was really interested in promoting her brand through the force of her own personality'
Lady Duff-Gordon even reportedly used mirrored runways in her shows, allowing front-row patrons an especially premium view—up the models’ skirts.
‘Quite similarly [to Subkoff] Lucile definitely had a keen mind for publicizing herself, she was really interested in promoting her brand through the force of her own personality,’ Calahan added.
Lady Duff-Gordon’s influence hit its peak in the Belle Époque era, a time when ruffled extravagance was de rigeuer among the world’s wealthy. But when the First World War hit, a need for simplified elegance suddenly arose.
Catwalk ready: Lucile was one of the first brands to stage runway shows for its clients, as shown in this photo where models present themselves in the brand's newest designs
Tasked with maintaining her relevance, Lucile decided to expand her potential reach to the everyday person.
In 1916, two years after the war began, Lady Duff-Gordon teamed up with then mail order-only business Sears, Roebuck & Co. on a small co-opted collection. The designs--which included daywear, special occasion items, outerwear, and even suits--were ‘very close to her couture aesthetic, super feminine with lots of ribbons, lots of layers, lots of lace, and sumptuous material like velvets, chiffon, and silks,’ said Calahan.
With inflation, the garments (priced from to ), would cost between 0 and 0, which Calahan says is ‘very comparable to the cost of high-end ready-to-wear today.’
The designs, which were still custom-tailored (customers had to fill out forms with their full-body measurements), were remarkably less expensive than Lucile’s couture pieces that, with inflation, would run in the ballpark of ,000.
Self-promotion: Lady Duff-Gordon was a trailblazer for fashion marketing, as seen in this early advertisement which promotes one of her standalone stores
Influential: Lucile's couture, seen in an advertisement (left) and on a model (right) was favored by aristocratic women who enjoyed her plush outlook on feminine attire
The collaboration lasted two seasons. There is very little documentation that charts its financial success.
Dincuff says that the collection likely received ‘an even stronger reaction to the one we had in this age to Karl Lagerfeld for H&M.’
'Maybe she did lose a few high-end customers. The Newport person wasn’t reading Sears & Roebuck - that was for the staff'
Elaborating, she said: ‘Maybe she did lose a few high-end customers. The Newport person wasn’t reading Sears & Roebuck, that was for the staff.’
While Lucile’s attempt at widening her audience likely worked, her label ultimately did not manage to adapt itself to the vast cultural changes of the early 20th century.
‘Once you have Chanel and Vionnet on the scene you just have a different idea about what fashion could be,’ Dincuff said. ‘Lucile is not about simplicity and I really stress that the First World War started modernity, it’s simpler.’
Reinvented: Lucile's great-great-great granddaughter Camilla Blois has restarted the brand, using its feminine archives as inspiration
The new Lucile look: The designs, which are handmade in England, retail between 0 and 0
Lucile continued to design into the Twenties, but ‘she didn’t groom a successor, at that time once a designer would pass away the whole business would close. Those who had diversified later on, like Chanel, made sure there was someone to take over the business,’ Dincuff added.
The house of Lucile entirely dissolved by 1933, and lay dormant until 2005 when her great-great granddaughter decided to reinvigorate the house for the modern era.
Camilla Blois, 43, now oversees the house of Lucile, which operates as a lingerie-only label. She grew up playing dress up in the label’s archive of relics, ‘cutting them up and remaking them for our dolls and our dogs,’ she told MailOnline.
Along with two other employees, Blois has re-established Lucile, pulling inspiration from her great great great grandmother’s original designs and sketchbooks. ‘The fashion has changed but the color ways and the essence has not,’ she said of the new Lucile.
While Blois would not release sales figures, she stressed that the label has found success in specialty boutiques. The designs, which are hand cut and hand sewn in England, retail between 0 and 0.
Fashion frenzy: Target's recent collaboration with 3.1 Philip Lim sparked a retail storm and racks in store were cleared by eager customers nationwide
Can't get enough: H&M's designer collections have been equally popular, with young fashionistas grabbing armfuls of designs from last year's Marni collaboration at a London store
‘I think the ultimate goal is to have boutiques in London, Paris, New York, and Chicago and to reinstate the brand as it was 100 years ago,’ Blois said of her aspirations for the label.
In the meantime, fashion historians are eager to bring Lady Duff-Gordon’s original legacy into the public spotlight. In the last decade her work has been commemorated with retrospectives at the Victoria & Albert Museum as well as the Museum at FIT.
‘I think when historians look back on today, one of the hallmarks of this period will be all of the high-low collaborations,’ said Dincuff. ‘When they look for the precedent and see that it is Lucile, I think that is what she will be remembered for.’
Says Calahan, ‘She deserves a more thorough investigation for her contributions, she was a line-crosser and there are definitely people who would be interested in her story.’