Marchioness > Archive > Volume 1 > Katie Hillier: ‘She’s Art and I’m Commerce’ [Published September 2021]
Interview by Jessica Ann Richardson / Edited by Jessica Fynn
‘She’s Art and I’m Commerce’
Marchioness talks BEING YOUR OWN BOSS, NEW YORK VERSUS LONDON FASHION, WESTMINSTER, DAZED & CONFUSED, LUELLA, MARC JACOBS, HILLIER BARTLEY, CONTRARINESS, BUNNY BAGS, POP PARTIES, PURE CREATIVITY and PAPERCLIP EARRINGS with creative director and accessories queen Katie Hillier.
Photograph: © Rankin
Katie Hillier is quite simply, a lovely person. She's also very funny and doesn't take herself too seriously — a rarity in this business. Minutes into our conversation, preconceptions that women at the top of their fashion game are Miranda Priestly cookie-cutouts dissipate — the rules simply do not apply here. But then again, Katie or ‘Hills’ as she's known by those dearest to her, has never been one to conform, preferring to remain a contrarian of both fashion and life into her forties. As stated by longtime BFF and work-wife Luella Bartley, “If Katie can help you, she will. She’s just the most lovely, loyal, supportive person.” She’s not wrong. Not only did Katie clear her busy schedule for this interview — she consults for Marc Jacobs on eyewear, Shinola on leather goods and jewellery, brands Richardson, Aztech Mountain and Ahkah as well as founding Katie Hillier Studio and label Hillier Bartley in cahoots with Luella — she offered to place a paid ad in the printed zine, hook me up with a Hillier Bartley discount and lend off-one samples from her personal archive for Marchioness fashion editorials (heaven). It’s reassuring to know there are established female figures within the industry willing to support the next generation in their quest to find their fashion footing, even those establishing an underground zine. A year prior to this interview, I was chained to the intern desk of a high-brow London publication, knee-deep in designer returns (and borrowed Yang Li), daydreaming of writing interviews and styling shoots. Who could have predicted in less than a year, I would be profiling one of my fashion heroes, for my own mag no less? Ultimately, if you keep rolling the fashion dice, sometimes you'll roll a six. And what a lovely six she is.
A contrarian from the start, Katie opted to study womenswear at the University of Westminster rather than follow the crowd to the ‘uber trendy’ Saint Martins, admitting “truthfully, I was intimidated”. It was at Westminster that she befriended stylist Katie Grand and upon graduating in 1997, joined her at Dazed & Confused to work in the fashion cupboard (aka her car). Katie Grand has gone on to become one of Katie’s closest friends, whom she credits much of where she is now to her kindness and support. After Dazed, Katie went on to work as a photographer's assistant for John Akehurt and the agent Katy Baggott at Z Photographic and in 1999 met Luella Bartley who would become a lifelong friend and creative collaborator: they would work at Luella together, followed by Marc by Marc Jacobs, before settling down to create their own label, Hillier Bartley in 2015. Having worked on several ‘it-bags’, and a beaded belt with ribbon fringing that went on to become a cult Luella accessory, some could say that she’s an accessories queen. However her true love, it seems, is Hillier Bartley: “There is something to be said about being your own boss and being in charge of your own creativity, especially with creative people. Take it from me who has basically had a career of freelancing. The thing I really enjoy is Hillier Bartley. Basically we come up with an idea and we just figure it out from start to finish and there's nobody in the way saying ‘maybe it's not the right time of year for that’. That kind of pure creativity, the creativity you can only get when you're in complete control of it, is rare.” A London-gal born and bred, she has recently relocated to Hudson, New York to live with her sculptor and artist husband, Jeff West, ‘‘A lot of people were trying to work remotely for a long time. Cities have just become too expensive. And a lot of people had the same thought as you did: ‘oh my god, if I move away… if I move out of London to the countryside and I’m getting older, then what am I going to be pigeonholed as? The patchwork blanket girl?! But actually, I don’t care if I was to be honest, because they're really cool! But everyone asks me: ‘aren't you worried that you won't have your finger on the pulse?’ And I say, well, what kind of pulse is there left in London anyway?” Agreed — London is so last season. (Marchioness HQ is Glasgow based).
New York fashion scene versus London?
I’ve been working over here for nineteen years. When I first came to the US, I thought, ‘wow, look at this’ — this is big business, this is how corporate fashion works. I got that experience at Marc [By Marc Jacobs] but not with Marc himself because he was never like that and never has been. He’s off on another planet, he’s just Marc Jacobs — you can’t pigeonhole him into anything.
I don’t want to be disrespectful to the fashion scene here but it never felt very cool. When I started coming here in the nineties… everything was cool in the nineties, right? And then the early 2000s, still very cool in New York. We used to go to underground drinking bars, places called The Cock and The Hole. There was this place called Max Fish which was really fun. It was kind of grimy, a bit grunge and things opened a lot later here. There was a lot of cool underground stuff going on. It wasn’t really in fashion. It was more art in New York, like Dash Snow, Ryan McGinley, Harmony Korine and all of those guys.
It developed, as fashion has in London, into being more corporate. You imagine Sex and the City and that’s basically what it turned into — very flamboyant and a bit of a parody of fashion. It never felt like it became a parody of fashion in the UK, it just got a bit boring. For example, at the British Fashion Awards people used to do really crazy shit, like Lee McQueen started a fire once. It all just got a bit safe and a bit kind of like this is what fashion is supposed to be. You’ve got some very cool brands happening now and I think everything that has happened with BLM has made it more exciting, with brands like Telfar.
Fun memories of the nineties London fashion scene?
There was one party for the launch of POP Magazine at the Bricklayers pub in East London. At the time, The Bricklayers was run by David Waddington who was one of Katie’s friends. Everything we did revolved around that pub. And our friend David Woddington, he was the manager at that pub. I don’t know how he ended up getting into that because he is actually a fantastic designer. He studied fashion at Saint Martins with Katie and Giles and all those guys but that was our go-to. We would go there all the time and consequently parties would happen there. I’m sure it was POP because that was the first magazine that Katie did independently and it was just a wild party. They put astroturf throughout the pub… I remember thinking ‘Wow, how come there's grass inside here?!’ You really didn’t go to parties because you were going to network, you went to a party to get drunk and have fun. It really was like that. I remember from that one night, I’ve got a bunch of polaroids and that's what we were doing at the time, we were taking polaroids of ourselves. There weren't any party photographers there. We just didn’t work like that I guess. Obviously it was kind of fine for us because we were in that circle, that group of people that had started doing stuff and we were helping each other and maybe we didn’t need to go to parties and network because we were in that little clique but we didn’t really realise it. But at the same time, you just did things for very different reasons. It was very carefree — you’d go to work the next day and you’d have a hangover and you’d still get everything done. It’s a shame it changed so much but I’m glad I was part of that moment.
Talk to us about your time studying at Westminster?
The course at Westminster was run by Nigel Luck. Nigel had been a tutor at Saint Martins and had taught people like Clements Ribeiro, Julie Verhoeven, Antonio Beradi and Katie (Grand). He was friends with John Galliano. He’d obviously moved on from his high flying career at Saint Martins and gone somewhere a little more steady and straight like Westminster but brought all of that talent with him. We had lectures with John Galliano. We had critiques with Clemence Ribeiro. Even though they are not big names now, at the time they were big in the London industry. I used to do drawing classes with Julie Verhoeven and that was amazing. Eventually Katie Grand came to tutor us for a course that lasted a term. I don’t know when it was, probably about a year before I graduated. Maybe I met her in 95 or 96? We became friends and I met Luella through her. When I graduated, I asked Katie if I could come and work at the magazine (Dazed & Confused). I remember her asking me ‘Do you have a car?’ and I was thinking what does that have to do with fashion? [laughs]. And it was basically because I was in charge of doing all the returns from the fashion cupboard in my car. The industry was really small at that point in London. Everybody knew each other and I thought it seemed like a great opportunity to work with Katie Grand at this magazine and to get to be in London. So that was really cool and then after that, all of the different people that I ended up working with… it was a natural progression at that starting point. I don’t know why I stopped working at Dazed. I think I naturally just moved on because I really wanted to work with a photographer, so Katie put me in touch with this one guy — John Akehurst — and I worked with him for about a year and a half. Through John I met his agent Katy Baggott and I ended up working in her agency Z Photographic. One of her biggest photographers at the time was Juergen Teller, so it all fell into place. I was part of the fashion industry but not necessarily the designer part. I actually felt that the photography and styling part was more exciting — the image making part of the industry felt way more creative to me at the time than the clothing. I did end up making trinkets for Katie’s shoots and some of the stylists that we were working with at the time. And then I ended up meeting Luella.
Talk to us about your time at Luella?
It felt like we were on the cusp of doing the coolest stuff. It was a brilliant environment. There was so much energy and people gave so much energy because they really loved it. The rail would always be empty because everything would be out at press. We would conduct sales in our showroom on Talbot Road so we would meet all the buyers personally, do press previews and have all the stylists over to pick pieces. It felt very free.
I remember Barneys coming and that was the first ‘oh!’ moment. We had made these shirts and jeans all in the same colours: black, fuschia, yellow and turquoise. They were the colours that we had chosen and the shirts were just really nice cotton shirts. Beautiful fabric. We had dyed all of the denim to match the shirts. I remember them coming in and saying ‘these are great but could you do them in pastel colours?’ and we replied back saying ‘‘wait, pastels?! Why would you do them in pastel colours? They would look completely different!’ And I remember thinking that's what big stores do. They like what you do but it needs to fit in with their brand. At that moment, I remember thinking this seems like the other side of fashion that I don’t know about, this is the commerce side versus the art. I guess that's a good way to put me and Luella - she’s art and I’m commerce.
I don’t want to badmouth her investors because they did do a lot at the time, it was great for a while and she was able to do some really fab shows and I don’t think it changed too much. But in the end, that was the thing that closed it down because it wasn’t purely Luella. It wasn’t us making frilly knickers downstairs, saying ‘ooh let's add some more ribbon to it’. It just wasn’t that anymore. When she stopped, I think it was the best time to stop because it's not like it had stopped selling.
Where does the contrariness to everything yourself and Luella design stem from?
I want to say that it's the references, but it isn’t. It’s us. I think it comes from being a bit rebellious in London, being able to be like that at that point and it kind of working. Maybe Luella would have a different point of view now that we are a bit older, but I don’t even think that getting older has changed the rebelliousness. I don’t want to always be so conformist. But it's definitely our personalities, and that in turn feeds into the references that we use.
Advice for young fashion graduates?
If you really truly want to be the next Martine Rose, then you need to knuckle down and start creating your own world and your own clothing. I think if you’ve got an idea about something and you want to make it, you should just make it and not think about it too much. It could just be one thing that you do and you just do that one thing really, really well. And you just make it at home on your machine. My experience at the beginning with photographers and agencies was so valuable to me in my career as a freelancer and a consultant. I think because I managed to gain experience in all those different places, it served me really well and you can’t get that kind of experience by just being at college. Once you graduate, if you’re really not sure, and it’s totally fine to not be sure, you should try a bunch of different things and see what works.
Plans for Hillier Bartley?
Before the pandemic we realised that we needed to reassess the business and figure out how we could proceed with the brand whilst keeping ourselves afloat financially. When we started out we were doing exactly what we wanted to do, being rebellious and contrary: making the coat, using the fabrics that we wanted, and we didn’t want to compromise. That was the whole point of Hillier Bartley — we didn’t want to compromise on the fabrics or the make. We wanted to produce something that we felt proud of, but suited us for who we were at the time. Obviously a bit more grown up, but still not taking it too seriously and making a bunny rabbit bag! It was fine at the beginning because we carried on doing that and it seemed everybody liked it, but the problem was the prices were too high and then wholesaling it was expensive. I think the thing is with us, even though we've gotten older, we still have people who love our stuff (like you) who are younger. And there’s always that younger, more fashion-focused customer that we have, the boys and girls that just can’t afford it.
After a few seasons, we ended up having to ask: if this isn't selling, what can we do to make it work better? So we compromised on some of the make. It was fine and it didn’t seem to matter that much, but then we started losing sales, getting returns and getting into financial problems. And we were thinking: wait, what is happening here? Why is this happening?
So it was around the time that Luella stopped working with Calvin, that we decided to stop doing it the way that we were doing it, and began to re-focus on how we could just build the brand up again. So over the pandemic year, we have had to find new factories. We have completely overhauled our fabrics. We have been looking at organic cotton equivalents and that's really hard with shirting! It's not so hard with t-shirts but it's really tough, when you want to add an element of sustainability into the collection because that's what everybody should be doing. It is really tough and it takes a long time. We have been working on our packaging. We found a new factory for our jewellery. We have been doing all this boring, under-the-radar stuff. We put money into our website and worked with our developers to get that working the right way. We are slowly building up and we will be doing a new collection at the end of this year which we will be selling through a showroom. That's what we are trying to do at the moment: build up the direct business, get everything priced appropriately, get some of the specialness back into the pieces. It’s a constant readjustment process but I think being able to do one thing and focusing on that one thing and growing it slowly, is a really good way of doing things.