Emilia Wickstead has made a name for herself dressing some of the most high-profile women in Britain, including HRH, the Duchess of Cambridge and Samantha Cameron, wife of British Prime Minister, David Cameron.
Her beautifully appointed flagship boutique on London’s prestigious Sloane Street is a couple of doors down from iconic French fashion house Chloé and thousands of miles from Auckland, where Emilia was born and spent her formative years.
Emilia's mother, fashion designer Angela Wickstead, ran a successful made-to-measure business in New Zealand before moving herself and her daughter to Milan when Emilia was 14 years old. Growing up around fashion, Emilia remembers sitting in on her mother’s fittings with clients in her school uniform. Although she personally wasn’t all that fussed about fashion at that stage, being absorbed in the culture of Italy’s most stylish city changed her perspective.
"Milan was all about women dressing for men and it was all about being feminine," says Emilia. "As opposed to Auckland where the girls would wear board shorts over bikinis. It went from a very masculine way of dressing to all of a sudden everything was super feminine."
At the insistence of her mother, who wanted Emilia to learn the business side of the industry, as well as the design side, Emilia applied to Central Saint Martins in London and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Fashion Design and Marketing with honours in 2007. During Emilia’s studies she completed internships in New York in the workrooms of Proenza Schouler and Narciso Rodriguez, before she interned in the fashion department at Vogue where she learned about photo-shoots and styling.
After graduation Emilia moved back to Milan where she worked at Giorgio Armani for some months, learning how to design commercially and putting the ideas in place for her own label. Returning to London in 2008, her boyfriend at the time (now husband) Daniel Gargiulo, gave Emilia a £5,000 loan to start her label from the sitting room of their West London flat. The business began as a bespoke service with Emilia, then aged 23, convincing her friends and family to come, be measured and to buy her contemporary feminine designs. The idea was to do made-to-measure in a fresh way, cutting down the traditional long waiting time to just 40 days. 20 days from the first measurements and consultation to the fitting and then another 20 days to perfect the garment. It was a model that worked and saw Emilia noted on Italian Vogue's website as a "posh young talent".
In her early days she now sheepishly admits to cold-calling British Vogue and pretending to be her own assistant called Leila asking "Have you heard of the designer Emilia Wickstead? I would really like to show you her collection online." The phone call was to fashion features editor Sarah Harris, who has since become a good friend of Emilia’s and the result was a half-page feature in the magazine, which helped get her garments noticed by readers who appreciated her ladylike aesthetic.
Emilia’s style can be described as a modern twist on old-world couture, with her creative flair paired with exacting craftsmanship delivering impeccably finished pieces in elegant silhouettes. "I always look to old world fashion and couture for inspiration," says Emilia. "I’ll come across something that I have never seen before, which then triggers so many other ideas. I visualise how I can take all of what influences me from another time and place and I imagine it in today’s lifestyle."
Working several jobs to support her growing business, Emilia’s name began to be recognised amongst London’s society women for her beautiful tailoring and eye for vintage-inspired looks with a timeless appeal. As luck would have it, while interning in New York Emilia had befriended Lohralee Strutz, sister-in-law of David Cameron, who introduced Emilia to Samantha Cameron, her first high-profile client. When the First Lady and her husband arrived at number 10 Downing Street on his first day as British Prime Minister in 2010, Samantha was wearing a sapphire-blue Emilia Wickstead dress which instantly got fashion commentators talking and was all over the magazine and newspaper covers the next day. It was a huge boost to her fledgling label and taught Emilia a lot about the power of the press. "The minute that a celebrity wears your clothing, that gives you international exposure and the best advertising you can get," says Emilia.
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, was another early adopter of Emilia’s label and chose to dress in Emilia Wickstead for her first public solo appearance on St Patrick’s Day in 2012. Many subsequent appearances in Emilia's designs have cemented her place as one of the Duchess’ favourite designers.
In February 2011, Emilia felt ready to show on the runway at London Fashion Week with her debut appearance showcasing her autumn/winter 2011/12 collection which was well-received and she has continued to show on the London runway every season since then to positive reviews. Her shows are now some of the hottest tickets each Fashion Week season with the supportive presence in the front row of her good friend, early brand adopter and British It-girl, Alexa Chung.
From the beginning, Emilia’s fashion career has received recognition and accolades starting with an Arts Foundation Award for Patronage Donation from Gus and Irene Fisher in 2010. She was shortlisted for the British Fashion Council/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 as well as being a BFC Fashion Trust recipient in 2014 and 2015. Emilia also won the British Fashion Award for New Establishment Designer in 2014, ELLE magazine’s Style Award for Red Carpet Designer of the Year 2014 and was the winner of the WALPOLE Award for Brands of Tomorrow 2015. She has been shortlisted for the Dorchester Collection Fashion Prize in 2013 and the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman Award 2015.
In 2015 Emilia began working with a PR and sales representative based in Los Angeles and through that relationship she has developed her red carpet clientele, with actresses Kate Bosworth, Diane Kruger, Gwyneth Paltrow and Brie Larson among others, photographed at high-profile events and awards shows wearing her designs. The celebrity side of her business has rapidly increased and Emilia works with many clients personally and does fittings herself, crediting her mother for her exacting standards and extensive knowledge of fabrics and construction.
While she still visits New Zealand every year and considers herself a kiwi girl at heart, March 2016 saw Emilia return to her home country with a business agenda rather than a holiday one, as the international judge at Dunedin’s iD Fashion Week. Emilia greatly enjoyed being on the judging panel of the International Emerging Designer Award and was so impressed by the craftsmanship and exceptional fabric technology of third place winner, Stephanie Frig, that she awarded the young designer a design internship with her in London. Emilia’s spring/summer 2016 collection graced the runway at the celebrated iD Dunedin Fashion Week Show and she hosted a well-received trunk show for private clients in Auckland before returning to her home in London.
Although her business has gone from strength to strength, the young mother of two still designs all her label’s clothing and fills many roles within the business herself including managing her brand’s Instagram account, which is her preferred form of social media. In early 2016 Emilia announced the appointment of Karl Monge, former head of international business at Oscar de la Renta, as CEO of her company.
Aside from her flagship boutique in London, Emilia Wickstead is stocked in high-end retailers globally including Net-A-Porter, Selfridges, Matches, Harvey Nichols and Moda Operandi.
Text by Evelyn Ebrey. Banner photo of Emilia Wickstead at iD Dunedin Fashion Week, 2016. Photo © Chris Sullivan.
Last published June 2016.