Unlike many of her peers, Emilia Wickstead doesn’t shy away from the word elegance. “I love it,” she says in her husky, still markedly Kiwi accent. “I’m all about elegance. It’s probably a throwback to growing up in my mother’s workrooms in Auckland.”
Angela Wickstead was a designer (“not a dressmaker,” laughs Emilia. She was quite miffed when a British fashion magazine described her as such. She had catwalk shows during New Zealand Fashion Week). A designer then, but one who could sew and who created bespoke outfits for her clients, fitting them all personally – just as her daughter does today. It’s this insistence on rolling up her sleeves (both literally and metaphorically – she loves a bracelet length) that makes Emilia stand out. She’s really studied what shapes and fabrics work on women. “Fabrics are a huge consideration,” she says. “When I started out they were heavier. But now I know how to get structure from lighter fabrics.”
While she used to avoid patterns, using texture such as cloque and volume to create impact, recently she’s fallen in love with florals. “I think they look fresh when they’re against a white background, and good in the evening because they’re unexpected.” She is testimony that a structured dress that might look formal and serious on the hanger can be a breeze to wear because it requires very little else to make an impact.
Now 38, Emilia has flirted with many looks in her time, from rockabilly and skateboard queen to a spell, when the family moved from her native New Zealand to Milan, as an Italian preppie. “New Zealand is a very casual society – some Kiwis still walk around barefoot,” says Emilia. “But in Auckland, there was also a circle of women who really liked to dress up. So I had all that influence going on too.”
By the time Emilia turned up in London to begin her fashion career at Central Saint Martins, she had landed on a demure, feminine, updated Audrey Hepburn vibe, perfect for her body and strong, beautiful face. She says she’s a pear-shaped size 12-14. But you’d never know about the pear bit from the way she dresses – be it shirt dresses or capri pants, she accentuates her small waist and fine ankles and wrists. In her book, there’s almost nothing you can’t wear, provided you pay attention to the proportions.
Make your own fashion rules
A pencil skirt looks great on the tall, slim Sabine Getty it’s photographed on, in her latest campaign for her new collection (Emilia likes to shoot her clothes on ‘real’ women). But it’s not one for pear or apple shapes, is it? Emilia disagrees.
“I’m living in them at the moment. It depends what you wear them with. The conventional way is to tuck your top in and wear heels, which I do a lot, but I wanted to try it with a longer, looser blouse because women tend to think they must have a fitted waist to look smart, but with the right fabric weights that’s not always the case.”
Emilia wears her pencil skirts with heels and flats – she loves black pointed shoes with just about everything: “A point makes legs look longer and if it’s in satin it looks softer.”
If dressing to suit your body is still viewed as something of a dark art in the UK, it was practically infra dig among her fellow 20-somethings at Saint Martins, which is famous for turning out avant-garde designers such as Alexander McQueen and Christopher Kane. Looking edgy and rebellious was the name of the game. Emilia, who supplemented her studies by working three days a week in fashion boutiques, spotted a gap for a fresh take on femininity. Not long after graduating, she had her first shop on Pont Street, making clothes to order, “partly because I couldn’t afford to produce big collections upfront. Everything I made had to find a customer.” When she phoned Vogue to invite its editors over to see what she was doing, she’d pretend to be her own assistant.
Fifteen years later, pared-back ladylike silhouettes (think Hubert de Givenchy meets 2022) have become an aspiration for thousands of women who admire the way her clothes make the likes of Amal Clooney, Lady Gaga, the Duchess of Sussex, Saoirse Ronan and Alexa Chung look almost regal but still contemporary. Often that comes down to strong silhouettes, minimal embellishment and one dramatic flourish, be it colour, a structured bow or a stand-up collar. But she thinks first and foremost about how to flatter. Consequently, there’s an element of sexiness to her brand of elegance. Her clothes are refined without being retro.
Emilia learnt early on to make neat matching cropped jackets for her bestselling sleeveless dresses but is not keen on cluttering up outfits with accessories – she never carries a bag, for instance, preferring to incorporate pockets into almost everything she designs.
When the Duchess of Cambridge and Countess of Wessex want to look their most polished, they turn to Emilia. She’s too discreet to share their style tricks but one can see that with the Duchess, Emilia opts for slightly raised waists to make her legs look longer and favours coat dresses because, as she says, “they don’t need anything else”.
She’s so good at what she does that Michelle Obama and Melania Trump, two former First Ladies with distinctive style, both trust her to deliver a hit of fashion with unruffled poise.
The Daily Telegraph