SALES of Issa’s frocks have rocketed thanks to the Middleton effect. Designer Daniella Issa Helayel reflects on the enduring appeal of timeless glamour
When Kate Middleton stepped out in front of the world’s media to announce her engagement in November 2010, her husband-to-be on her arm, all eyes were on both the stonker of a sapphire she wore on the ring finger of her left hand and the blue dress she had chosen to complement it. Whether she liked it or not, a style icon was born that day.
Her engagement ring may have once belonged to Princess Diana, but the dress, a classic long-sleeved number in silk jersey by Issa, retailing at £385, garnered almost as many column inches.
The label has been a favourite with society women and fans of low-key, wearable fashion for years, but it was the Middleton effect which propelled it into the mainstream.
Brazil-born Daniella Issa Helayel, the vivacious designer behind the brand, will today present her AW12 collection at London Fashion Week and it has become one of the most hotly-anticipated shows of the season, thanks to the unofficial patronage of the Duchess of Cambridge (known as the Countess of Strathearn in Scotland).
“The day Kate Middleton and Prince William announced their engagement, she had the eyes of the world upon her,” says Helayel from her London studio, where she is busy putting the finishing touches to her collection. “You couldn’t create that kind of media frenzy if you tried.”
The dress sold out within minutes online and soon the high street was clamouring to copy it, with Tesco creating a £16 replica, which sold out in an hour. Kate’s sister Pippa is also a fan of Issa, as are Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie and celebrities including Beyoncé and Scarlett Johansson have been spotted in the label.
Those in the fashion know have had it on their radar for quite some time now, but the royal seal of approval has made it hot property, and sales have rocketed over the last 18 months. After all, Issa designs have been hanging in the Duchess of Cambridge’s wardrobe for years, making them the dresses which helped her woo a prince, undoubtedly a selling point.
When she first launched her label, Helayel’s ambitions for it were a little less lofty. She studied law in Rio de Janeiro before training as a fashion designer in New York. She launched Issa in London in 2000 and staged her first catwalk show in 2003.
“It was after I’d been living in London for a few years that I decided to start designing my own clothes,” she says. “I was spending time with a lot of beautiful girls but they were always dressed down, very casual, and I wanted to give them equally beautiful dresses to wear. My wardrobe was filled with vintage and there was nothing new I wanted to buy so that’s when I started designing for myself and friends, and Issa was born.”
She does not strive for edgy high-fashion. Instead, she focuses on the kind of wearable classics women can reach for season after season. It’s perhaps this “style before fashion” approach that earned her the Middleton endorsement. The Duchess of Cambridge’s sense of style, she says, “remains incredibly classic and effortless; never over-thought. She understands what works for her and epitomises true timeless elegance.” Such a description might sum up the Issa shopper.
Helayel has certain figure-flattering formulae which she adheres to every season, but she toes the line between coquettish flirtation and full-blown sex kitten. In short, her designs are pretty enough for a princess, but demure enough for a member of The Firm. There’s undoubtedly something of the British upper crust about her work, but its injection of colour has its roots in her Brazilian heritage.
“My attitude to dressing has always been quite Brazilian,” she says. “It’s about effortless chic and timeless glamour. Women in Brazil aren’t afraid to dress up and embrace their bodies. I feel sometimes we’re living in a grey-ish toned world and my prints inject a bit of Brazilian sunshine, colour and brightness into it. I’m continually drawing from my upbringing just outside Rio. It was such a luxury to be surrounded by so much colour, nature, sunshine and beautiful women. Similarly, the architecture and heritage of London was overwhelmingly beautiful when I first arrived and still blows me away today. I like riding around in the back of a taxi trying to see as much as possible.”
Fashion insiders might be forgiven for feeling a little smug that they discovered this gem of a label long ago. Helayel is famously something of a social butterfly and as such, socialites and celebrities alike have had her on speed dial for a decade.
Naomi Campbell is a fan. Helayel designed dresses for Kate Moss after meeting her while on holiday in the Maldives. However, she has also created capes for her grandmother, and making pieces for less starry customers is high on the agenda for a woman who has said that she designs for people like herself, “people who think they’re fat.”
She waxes lyrical about making women feel good about their bodies, and acknowledges that to do so can “compromise one’s ability to be at the front of every trend.” However, ticking certain trend boxes is of little interest to her.
“I design with the aim of making women feel comfortable and confident, no matter what their shape or size and that’s very important to me,” she says. “It’s about being comfortable in your own skin because you know the dress is making you look fabulous.”
She describes both the royal engagement dress and the first time she dressed Madonna as career highlights. However, seeing women walking down the street in her clothes gives her just as big a thrill. “I still get butterflies seeing women in the street, in a restaurant, at a party wearing one of my designs,” she says. “That’s also a huge compliment, it means I’m doing something right and I love seeing how relaxed they all look in my dresses.”
Right now, naturally, all her focus is on her new collection, which she is decidedly animated about. “I think it will have real impact on the catwalk,” she says. “It’s a continuation of the story from pre-fall which saw the Issa woman head out on the Trans-Siberian journey from Moscow to China. There’s some beautifully elegant eveningwear, incredible beading and embroidery, military-inspired outerwear and very chic knitwear.”
Does she know something we don’t about an upcoming royal tour from Moscow to China perhaps? Probably not, but regardless, it seems likely that the designs paraded on the Issa catwalk at London Fashion Week today will be spotted on the back of a certain royal before long.
• Visit www.issalondon.com for details.
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