Lucy Duff Gordon (18631935)
The British fashion designer Lucy Duff Gordon was born Lucy Sutherland in 1863. She spent her childhood in Canada and the Channel Islands, and married James Wallace in 1884. Having divorced her husband in 1890, she began dressmaking in her small London home to provide an income with which to raise her only daughter, Esme.
Lucy's first client was her younger sister, Elinor Glyn, famous writer film producer of films such as Beyond the Rocks, 1922 starring Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson. Lucy quickly gained a loyal following of friends and acquaintances which lead to the opening of her first shop, 'Maison Lucile' on Old Burlington Street, London in 1894.
By 1900 business was expanding further. Lucy had developed a skill for designing unique 'personality' dresses for her wealthy clients, finishing the clothes with sprays of her signature handmade flowers. Her designs represented the new interest in psychology, reflecting the personality traits of her clients within the garments themselves techniques that are still widely used in fashion design today. Her reputation spread and her work began to reach a wider audience, as she created costumes for the London stage, most famously the Merry Widow (1907). The hats which she created for the stage production were reproduced for department stores instantly selling out and proving the popularity of Lucy's designs.
Following her second marriage to Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon in 1900 she became Lady Duff Gordon and due to increasing demand with Sir Cosmo's backing founded 'Lucile Ltd' to sell her designs around the world.
Lucile Ltd headquarters and flagship store were situated in Hanover Square, London inside a large C18th town house with an original interior, smart public rooms leading to a garden, workrooms for her staff of 400, and even room under the stairs for the pet dogs that regularly accompanied her. Inspired by the Palace at Versailles, she decorated the house a distinctive grey to enhance the colours of the clothes she was creating, adding antique furniture and paintings to make customers feel like visitors to Lucile's house.
Now that success was hers, Lucy began to develop innovations that set her apart from her competitors in Paris and are still used by every major modern fashion house today. The infamous 'Rose Room', was introduced to the store selling silk lingerie and exotic perfumes. The rooms earned Lucile great notoriety and a cult following by introducing women to sensuous new styles of lingerie in delicate fabrics, freeing them from traditional, restrictive Edwardian dress.
Having spent many hours in theatres creating costumes, Lucy decided to capitalize on the theatrical skills she had learnt by building her own stage at Lucile to preview her creations. She trained models in deportment and style, so that they could wear her clothes artistically in front of a specially invited audience. The catwalk show, as we know it today, was born and the beautiful walking mannequins became an attraction for her female customers, as well as their fathers, husbands, and sons.
Further success followed when she opened a branch of Lucile Ltd in New York (1910), and then Paris (1911). She invaded the capital of Couture with her famous fashion parades whilst charming clients with traditional English afternoon tea and biscuits. Lucy had become an international celebrity renowned for her technique of creating dresses that reflected the wearer's personality through their cut, colour and style.
In 1912, she gained a different kind of fame as a survivor of the Titanic disaster. Accusations of bribery of a life boat crew threatened the Duff Gordon reputation. Despite months of harassment and a hostile public enquiry, the Duff Gordon's were vindicated, but Lucy's husband never fully recovered from the attack. Fortunately her prodigious skills and demand for her creations ensured that Lucile Ltd remained unaffected, and before the year had ended Lucy resumed her career which now included writing newspaper and magazine articles about fashion and culture for prestigious publications such as Harpers Bazaar and her famous 'Dear Dorothy' advice columns for Sketch magazine.
By 1915 Lucy had become a permanent resident of the United States where the income from the New York shop was so great it was supporting the London and Paris branches through the turmoil of the First World War. A fourth branch of Lucile opened in Chicago, and whilst Parisian couturiers struggled, Lucy reached her financial and creative peak. With a staff of over a thousand, including a team of designers such as her protégé Edward Molyneux and models, licensing deals, famous clients from international society, the stage and the newly emerging Hollywood Lucy ensured her place as one of the most successful designers of the C20th and a founder of the modern fashion world.
Not content with such success inside the world of high fashion, Lucy teamed with Sears Roebuck in 1916 to produce a mail order catalogue of ready to wear clothing for the masses the first diffusion line of its kind. The following year Lucy branched out further by designing car interiors and touring America with a Lucile costumed vaudeville production which she created specially to raise money for the war effort.
By 1919, cracks had begun to appear in the Lucile Ltd Empire. The successful catalogue had vanished in a legal dispute and at the age of 56 her boundless energy was beginning to flag. An ill advised business deal with a wholesale manufacturer left Lucy without the demands and responsibility of running Lucile on a day to day basis, but also without creative and financial control. She began to disagree with changes to the New York shop, and left for Paris in an attempt to regain some influence there. Relationships deteriorated further as Lucy's expectations of high quality and bespoke, handmade methods clashed with the cheap production methods being implemented in New York. A series of expensive court cases resulted in personal bankruptcy in 1923. She spent her 'retirement' designing on a personal scale for a number of businesses and individual clients, finally ending her working life with an autobiography, Discretions and Indiscretions, published in 1932.
She died in London in 1935 having left a lasting and undeniable impression upon the fashion world.
Further information about Lucile Ltd
V&A Museum London, Permanent Fashion Exhibition
The 'IT' Girls, Meredith Etherington-Smith and Jeremy Pilcher (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1986)
Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon