The art of wearing bold print with Rene Macdonald, founder of award-winning fashion label Lisou London
If you’re looking for style and substance, Rene Macdonald is your woman. Recently awarded Fashion Brand of the Year by W magazine, her label Lisou London has skyrocketed since its launch in 2018. The 54-year-old founder and head designer grew up in Africa, moving to the UK at a young age, ‘My school in Ethiopia was closed and turned into a military camp during the war,’ she tells me via email, ‘My parents wanted consistency and a good education for me so they decided to send me to the UK, an education system that they understood as my father had been a scholarship student at Imperial College.’
Graduating from student to teacher, Rene went on to lecture in Swahili language and culture on the post-graduate courses at SOAS (School Of Oriental and African Studies), University of London. ‘I’m a Tanzanian and fluent Swahili speaker with an understanding of both Western and African culture so it was a dream job. I am a linguist qualification-wise and what many people don’t know about me is I speak five languages….a true polyglot! In fact, my original career trajectory was to work for the UN in conflict resolution.’
Regularly travelling back and forth to Africa, to visit family and friends, helped her stay connected, ‘ I was lucky to retain an incredibly close relationship with my parents and my homeland which I still visit annually and am very engaged with a number of projects based there.’
Inspired by her mother, who made all her own clothes, ( ‘I couldn’t wait to grow up to emulate my mother’s style,’) Rene has bold dressing in her genes. Her love of vibrant colour, clashing prints and 1970s vintage led to numerous requests for fashion guidance, ‘I have always been my friends’ go-to for style advice,’ Rene continues, ‘so much so that the fight for my clothes, in my will, has become a thing! Honestly, I have to keep reminding them all that I’m still very much alive!’
Before launching her own business, she made the natural progression from academia to the fashion world, working mainly with celebrities and VIP clients, including: Jamelia, Des’ree, Martina Topley-Bird and Mel C. And now the award-winning clothing label gains regular media coverage across the world (most recently, Suranne Jones wore a snazzy trouser suit while promoting the latest series of Vigil).
Here Rene Macdonald tells us about how Lisou London started and offers her expert advice for wearing pattern and print:
ON DESIGNING LISOU LONDON
‘My first ever design was our Betty shirt which remains one of our bestsellers and rather fittingly is named after my mother, Elizabeth. The brand is really an homage to my mother who gave me the nickname Lisou as a child.
I think the main difference between dressing in Africa and the West is our love of colour, clash and print. I grew up surrounded by beautiful textiles, so it certainly explains my use of bold colour. When you look at African prints it’s not just about pretty colours, all our prints have meaning so this is something that is really important to me. It’s the reason I design all my own prints and of course they all have meaning, though I do love to hear other people’s interpretations.
It’s such an organic process that it’s different every time. Sometimes the print comes to me first and other times it’s the silhouette, or a particular theme, I have in mind. I’m inspired by so many things, from nature, the shape of a leaf for example, to my surroundings – like a wall sconce! To art galleries, travel and books. It comes as it comes, and I always need time to immerse myself entirely in the process. It’s truly my happy place. Mainly it’s a case of always keeping my eyes open and thankfully my mind processes things into ideas. Needless to say I’m a very visual person.’
ON HERITAGE AND SUSTAINABILITY
‘I’m totally obsessed with our current collection and it’s so personal on so many levels. The collection is called “13 Months of Sunshine” and is inspired by my heritage which is part-Tanzanian and part-Ethiopian. As a child I lived in Ethiopia for many years so it was a wonderful moment when my Tanzanian uncle discovered that part of our family’s descent is Ethiopian! The collection is a celebration of both countries which are so culturally rich. I love our velvet embroidered suits, which are covered in metallic lions, the national animal of Ethiopia. I’m also extremely proud of our African interpretation of the quintessentially British houndstooth check, it took hours of work and we’ve called it Lionstooth check.
Slow, considerate fashion is an issue we all have to think about. As a mother, I’d like to leave behind a world that future generations can enjoy and appreciate, so it’s my obligation to consider my impact on the planet. To this end we run several initiatives. The first is reducing waste by using up all our offcuts to make accessories. We’ve made headbands, scrunchies, Christmas baubles and for the first time we’ve made silk ties. We are constantly asked by men when we’ll cater for them and we’ve done a number of custom suits for clients but we’re not yet at a stage to expand into menswear…..I’m sure it will happen in the future, though. We also plant five trees globally for each full price item sold, to offset our carbon footprint.’
RENE MACDONALD’S GUIDE TO WEARING BOLD PATTERN AND PRINT
‘Anyone who knows me knows how much of a magpie I am and that’s all year round not just for Christmas! For me party outfits need an element of glamour and opulence – it’s a time to bring out your inner diva and have fun. If you’re going for clashing prints, it’s all about finding an element that ties the prints together, but the main thing is making sure you love and feel confident with your choices so that the clothes aren’t wearing you but rather enhancing your essence. I’ll be wearing our velvet suiting and dresses, as well as our silver and gold pieces for added glamour. Wear what brings you joy. Then it’s shoulders back, a big smile and best foot forward.’