Princess Diana's wedding dress designer Elizabeth Emanuel talks Catch-22s and Richard Branson

 
Harriet Green
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Emanuel wants to build a global brand around much more than dresses
You'd be hard pressed to get one up on Elizabeth Emanuel when it comes to heydays – and the fashion designer hasn’t just had one. At the age of 28, she designed the wedding dress of Lady Diana Spencer – a day she wouldn’t trade for the world, she says. And ten years later, she did the complete range of uniforms and luggage for Virgin Atlantic, and the wedding outfits for Richard Branson and his wife Joan –“oh, that was just the best fun I’ve ever had”. In fact, the customer list feels almost endless, coursing through royalty, celebrities, musicians and brands.
With her ex-husband David Emanuel, who last year featured on I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here, Emanuel opened Emanuel Salon in 1977 – the first of several eminent stores. One of her first clients was Bianca Jagger, who wore a design while riding a white horse (indoors) with a pair of doves on her arms. “That was one of those moments where things just snowball. You just need one person to wear something, and everybody follows. It’s amazing how fast it happens,” says Emanuel.

LEARNING THE HARD WAY

But despite the glory moments, her career has been bittersweet. In 1997, she famously lost the right to use her own name. Having gone into partnership with firm Hamlet International in a bid to grow the business, the latter soon went into administration, with the assets and registered trademark sold on. “As a creative person, you tend to be quite vulnerable. I’ve had quite a hard time. I couldn’t get investment because people wanted to have me under my name.” And along the way, many would-be partners and investors have been attracted to the business “for the wrong reasons – for the glamour and prestige – and that has given me a lot of false starts”.
But over time, Emanuel’s managed to maintain her reputation, minus name – “I could always trade with ‘such and such by Elizabeth Emanuel’” – and work has never been in short supply. But having her own brand has been something she just couldn’t let go. “It’s my passion – it’s really the only thing I know how to do.” An inheritance from her parents gave her a break, and in 2005, she set up a new, small studio in Little Venice. “I knew I had the right DNA – the heritage, the archives, the recognition – and it was also in the belief that I had a lot of people wanting to support me.”
And since 2012, she’s been quietly working on her latest label, Art of Being. But with just Emanuel and her assistant as staff, it’s been treading water, in what she describes as a Catch-22 situation: “Investors always ask me for a business plan, but I haven’t been able to afford to bring someone on board to do one and really drive things forward. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that the creative side isn’t enough. You need a business person, and you need the finance. Over the years, I may have had two of those things, but I’ve never had all three.”

THE PERFECT FIT

Now, she has adopted a do or die approach – making a comeback by launching a funding drive to make Art of Being a global brand. “I want to get out there and start really commercialising. I know this can be a big success, where people buy into a whole experience.”
To get the investment and build a team, Emanuel has turned to crowdfunding. Part of her inspiration was Grand Designs’ Kevin McCloud, who raised £1.9m on a platform last year. “He designed my original shop on Chiltern Street. He’s extraordinary, I was so inspired by him. I’d love for him to do it again – if he’s got the time!”
And Art of Being does already have some impressive supporters and investors. Lady Penny Mountbatten has just signed up as an ambassador, and its chairman is IP barrister Guy Tritton. Chief executive Andrew Marshall has held leadership positions at Links, Gucci, Dunhill and Montblanc.
Six weeks in, and with two to go, Emanuel’s campaign has raised 25 per cent of its £750,000 target. She’s an enormous fan of crowdfunding and of platform Crowdcube. “It’s great for two reasons. Any member of the public can own a bit of your company, and then you’re building a base of cheerleaders – people who will promote what you do. I like that idea; it’s really cool.” But she is understandably nervous: “if you don’t hit your target, you don’t get anything. I don’t even want to think about it.”
But the exposure the campaign has given Emanuel is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, people are getting excited about her designs. On the other, she’s feeling intensely frustrated that she can’t take them up on order requests. “The materials, let alone the core team, all cost. This has got to be about building an exceptional business. I’m asking people to pay a lot of money, so I have to be absolutely certain that I can deliver a beautiful product that’s worth every penny.” And for Emanuel, designing and making a dress really means creating an artwork – something transformative. Her famous hair extensions make her feel like she can do anything – and that’s what she’s after for her clients: “when you put a dress on, you can become a different person”.

GOING FOR GOLD

After years in the industry, Emanuel is certain there’s opportunity to build something impressive – a British luxury brand recognised worldwide. The focus will be on couture and bridal, but there will also be a ready-to-wear range, handbags, jewellery, accessories, fragrances and homeware.
I ask the 61 year-old who she most admires in the fashion world at the moment, and she answers immediately: Victoria Beckham – for growing her revenues 2,900 per cent in the last five years. “She never even studied fashion, but she’s doing so well. She’s had to build her credibility, which is hard.” Emanuel concedes Beckham’s profile was huge before she started, but she’s quick to defend her: “still, the fashion industry can be snotty, but they’ve taken to her – so well done to her. She’s got the formula right – the right team.”
You wouldn’t be wrong if you said Emanuel was free in her praise, but she’ll never leave anything unsubstantiated. Branson, she tells me, for example, is “the most amazing, inspirational, charismatic and approachable person.” She met him by chance, and he personally took copies of her designs for the airline. “Most of these companies would have had a separate team dealing with the process. But with him, it was just him and his cabin crew – and they made the final decision.” She always flies with Virgin, even now. “I still feel like part of the family, really.”
And feeling like that in Art of Being is vital for Emanuel – and she’s not making any concessions. “I’ve always been on the back foot, with investors coming in and doing what they want. But at the end of the day, this is my life in their hands. You need to be able to trust the people you work with, and know they’re going to deliver.”
Next week, she’s hosting a Q&A at the Hippodrome about her work and funding campaign. “I’m really looking forward to the next stage of my career. It’s taken a long time, but I’m going to show what else I can really do. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that you shouldn’t always assume other people know better. Be strong, and fight your corner – even if you’re not that type of person.”

ELIZABETH EMANUEL'S CV

Company name: Art of Being
Founded: 2012
Job title: Creative director
Number of staff: 2
Age: 61
Born: London
Lives : Maida Vale
Studied: Masters in Fashion, Royal College of Art
Drinking: Herbal tea, especially lotus and orange
Eating: Chocolate
Currently reading: Support and Seduction: The History of Corsets and Bras, by Beatrice Fontanel
Favourite business book: I have a library of more than 1,000 fashion books and tend to read those, rather than business ones. But I do get inspired by films and documentaries about businessmen, such as Steve Jobs
Heroes: Will Travers from the Born Free Foundation
First ambition: To be a vet
Motto: “Never give up”
Most likely to say: “There is always a way round, through or over that apparent obstacle”
Least likely to say: “No thanks,” when offered chocolate!