High50 Entrepreneur Lulu Guinness on 25 years in the fashion industry, and her strong brand image

Lulu Guinness talks about 25 years running her own business, her biggest mistakes, celebrity clients, the women who inspire her, and how her personal style became the brand

Lulu tells me in advance that whether she can be interviewed or not entirely depends on how she feels on the day. Having suffered on and off from depression for years she is now careful about her schedule.

Luckily it’s a good day, and when High50 arrives in her showroom in the recently revamped Café Royal in Regent Street, she is excited to show us her new collection and ready to chat about the handbag brand she has run for 25 years.

Shoulder bags, handbags, clutches, rucksacks, purses in the shape of lipsticks and bags in the shape of lips sit on the shelves all in black, red and gold leather. Lulu is suitably colour co-ordinated in her black dress, signature red lipstick and gold necklace.

Each bag looks like it is made with her in mind, which in a way it is: she is known not only for her unique products but her distinctive personal style. It means that after 25 years in business she remains at the top of the fashion industry and has a roll-call of celebrities who love her bags.

The idea that started the business

Lulu started her business in the basement of her house with the idea of designing a briefcase for women. It was an elegant briefcase version of a Filofax, with a black leather exterior and suede lining in purple or red and was considered quite outrageous at the time.

Lulu soon moved on to her idea for vintage-style rose-basket bags. Her Florist Basket bag is now in the permanent fashion collection at the V&A.

To start with, all that required funding was the cost of the leather and the first prototype. After that she got a grant from the Department of Trade and Industry, which paid for her first three bags to be made.

A small inheritance from her grandmother followed and that was the only investment she has ever put into the company.

Lulu says the brand is probably worth about £10 million now and has often thought of selling if the right person came along.

But she also admits that she has been thinking that for the past 25 years and always ends up saying “maybe in two years’ time”.

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Lulu on becoming the brand

“I never thought that my image would be a brand but in retrospect I can see why. I had a very particular look, which came from looking crap in jeans.

“When I first put red lipstick on it suited me. It just looked right. The red lipstick became my signature and what I know now is that a brand needs a strong image and to stick to it. I was doing that without realising it.

“The vintage clothes and the lipstick was my personal style and now I am known as a personality brand.”

Lulu’s personal style tips

“I keep my hair short, which acts as a kind of facelift. I have also started tinting my eyebrows. As I am very small, clothes have to have a waist. And I always wear heels, make-up and long sleeves.

“My mother always said wear something bright around your face and I can see that she is right; I just can’t bring myself to do it.

“One of the joys of being in my fifties is that I don’t care what other people think any more. Always buy what you like and don’t worry about what other people say.”

Her fashion industry inspirations

“Some of the most successful women in fashion are 20 years older than me and still designing: Barbara Hulanicki, Celia Birtwell, Diana von Furstenburg and Vivienne Westwood.

“Two books I recommend to older women interested in fashion are The Vivienne Westwood biography and The Woman I Wanted To Be by Diane von Furstenberg.”

Which celebrities buy your bags?

“Helena Bonham Carter, Florence Welch, Katy Perry, Dita von Teese, Alexa Chung, Christina Aguilera.”

Who would you like to wear your bags?

“My favourite celebrity who I’ve met is Christina Hendricks (Joan from Mad Men). She wears all my stuff. I had tea with her that went on for two and half hours as we got on so well.”

Lulu’s biggest business mistake

“My biggest mistake was opening an office in America with eight people and the wrong managing director.

“They wanted expansion but things always go wrong when you get greedy. It is when you’re tempted by dollar or pound signs that things go wrong and you always regret it.”

The most exciting moment in her career

“I got an OBE in 2006 and the Queen was wearing a lilac coat – especially for me, obviously – and I got an Honorary Doctorate last year from The University of the Arts London for the work I do with students.

“As I was always expelled from the schools I went to, this has given me a personal smile.”

If she were to start a business again tomorrow, it would be…

“It would definitely be web-orientated with no physical shops. I like communicating on camera when I do QVC so maybe just web and TV.

“I think it would be in design, as the problem with fashion is that you are only selling at full price for a couple of months on any item. Since Black Friday everything is on offer all the time.

“I would like to design objects that didn’t have only a few months at full price. You could give more thought and time to things.”

Lulu Guinness’ top tips for starting a business in your fifties

“Your top advantages in running a business in your fifties are that you have tolerance, professionalism, and you are wiser about money.

“Make sure that someone other than you can represent your brand. It’s a nightmare because [of my look] no one can fill in for me doing QVC, doing a promotion or travelling to China. When opening up shops there it always has to be me. This is something to take into consideration when starting up. “