Lulu Guinness: ‘I am basically a recluse who likes people’

I’ve had 30 years of trying to do lots of things at once. Now I want to stand and stare a bit more,” says Lulu Guinness from the splendid isolation of her gothic folly in deepest Gloucestershire. “Lockdown also taught me how much you can get done from your phone.” It was during the pandemic that Guinness, 61, with two grown-up daughters, swapped her London terrace for life in the countryside. She recently put the house she bought with her ex-husband Valentine Guinness, from the Irish brewing dynasty, on the market. “At first I saw this place as a getaway. But I’ve moved on.”

Guinness, best known for her glossy lip-shaped clutch and vintage-infused handbags, has found the move transformative. Lulu’s Folly, a hexagonal, three-up-three-down perched on the rim of a sheep-dotted valley, is where she now lives and works.

Freed from the office commute, she’s had time to go back to her roots and be more creative again. Sketching, painting and embroidering tiny flowers, the ideas have been flowing thick and fast. “After decades of working hard this all feels like a bit of reward. Doing things by hand is good for the soul,” she says, somehow pulling off a mix of Mad Men-in-the-shires glamour in Hunter wellies, a 50s-ish dress and trademark red lipstick.

‘I want to stand and stare a bit more’: Lulu Guinness at her Gloucestershire retreat. Photograph: Rachael Smith/The Observer

The folly, which she’s stealthily “Lulu-fied” with her vintage bits and bobs, became her haven during a bleak time. In December 2019 her younger brother, Simon Rivett-Carnac, a financier, killed himself at the age of 53. Her mother died shortly afterwards on Christmas Day, a consequence, Guinness maintains, of the shock and trauma of losing her son.

“My brother didn’t start suffering from depression until he was in his 40s. He tried to cope with it – he was good at hiding it – but I think he found it baffling. He was successful and generous; he lived for life and friends. That is why people were so shocked.”

To promote awareness of male suicide, the family has set up the Riv Trust. “My brother’s death showed that you don’t have to have difficult circumstances – or a bad childhood – to suffer from mental illness,” says Guinness. “That’s why we decided to establish the charity. It helps small projects working in the field of mental health. We want to make people aware that it can affect anyone.”

Guinness can discuss the family’s loss with equanimity because she has always talked openly about her own depression. “I was diagnosed after the birth of my first child. Of course, I have bad days, but I’ve become better at dealing with it. Those who know me will tell you that I am good at acting up. I’m more resilient.”

And she has always worked. “There was a point when my family questioned whether I should carry on. There were discussions.” But she says her manic depression is part of her creativity. “The only time I’ve ever been a problem for my family was when I tried to come off medication. I’d feel fine and stop taking the pills. And that was terrible. I applaud people who can do things naturally, but it’s not for everyone.”

‘I was very urban, but I’ve started appreciating nature.’ Inside Lulu Guinness’s Gloucestershire house.
‘I was very urban, but I’ve started appreciating nature.’ Inside Lulu Guinness’s Gloucestershire house. Photograph: Rachael Smith/The Observer

Charities have praised her contribution to lifting the taboos surrounding mental illness. “At first I’d have to warn my parents every time an article came out; they believed that birth and marriage were the only reasons you should appear in the papers.” It was never “about poor me”. What she wanted to do was to reveal the truth behind her polished public image. She produces an old magazine shoot: the designer perching on a chair in her “perfect” Notting Hill house. “The reality is that I probably read that article in a clinic. That’s what I wanted to show. The gulf between reality and an unattainable image.”

Country life supplies its own nature cure. “I don’t want to sound whimsical, but flowers are my main love. I’ve always used them to change my mood. Flowers have become my therapy, growing them, arranging them in vases. I’m not a gardener, but my landlady has been very kind. She has taught me a lot,” gesturing to the tulips cascading from vases on stone sills.

She’s become a fan of sheep, too. “I’d never given them 30 seconds’ thought before. But in spring I’d chat to the shepherd about the lambs.” Bemused colleagues received daily updates. “Sheep stop you from thinking about anything else. If I’m feeling stressed or sad, I’ll go and see the sheep. It helps me to get out of my head. I was very urban, but I’ve started appreciating nature.”

While the rest of us binged on Netflix she listened to books. The wryly dry David Sedaris “got me through a lot; the way he describes family life is so acute that it sometimes makes me wince. You can learn so much from fiction,” she continues, citing Elena Ferrante and Elizabeth Day as recent reads. “What I love is writers who capture the human condition. Who get inside the heads of others. That’s what I am really interested in. It puts things in perspective.”

She’s keen to show me the view from the bedroom where pointy, arched windows open on to peaceful views. “I heard Ruby Wax talking about the importance of silence, recently. Here, I have silence – and time to think. Sometimes people assume I’m tired because I’m not talking. It’s not that. I’m basically a recluse, who likes people.”

In the early days, she was inevitably asked how she managed to combine bringing up a family with running a business. “The answer was that I didn’t socialise much. Like many of us, I enjoy my own company – and I need time to process my ideas.”

I had expected Guinness, with her high-profile following (Bella Hadid and presenter Clare Amfo have been spotted carrying her witty, clutch-able creations) to be rather grand. “Lots of people think that.” Instead, she is funny and direct, if prone to disappear on the odd creative tangent. “I talk – I don’t edit.”

Her “grounded-ness” comes from her maternal family, who ran department stores in the northeast. They were Jewish and had lived in Liverpool before moving to Shropshire, where they “became thoroughly countryfied. Being Jewish wasn’t really talked about, you know,” says Guinness, speculating that their reticence was an overhang from the Second World War, when people lived under the threat of invasion. “Many were genuinely frightened; so they didn’t discuss religion. I think that after that it almost became a habit.”

Her couture-wearing grandmother introduced Guinness to her love of “old-fashioned, silver-screen elegance… I would spend hours going through her wardrobe: the coats, the handbags, the matching shoes,” she says, smoothing her Elnetted coiffure. “That’s where it all started.”

Guinness’s “talented, sporting father” was a commander in the Royal Navy and she had a peripatetic childhood: stints abroad combined with living in the country. “I was brought up to be a Sloane Ranger. Now I’ve gone back to my shopkeeping roots, which is excellent.”

Clutch one if you can… a trademark Lulu Guinness bag.
Clutch one if you can… a trademark Lulu Guinness bag

It began with a briefcase in 1989. “I wanted to design something for the new power-shouldered female executive – with handy pockets.” But the buyers at Browns and Joseph encouraged her to design something that expressed her colourful, vintage style. Her “life changed” in 1993 when she produced her rose-festooned vase-shaped bag. “It caught everyone’s imagination.” At first she resisted using her married name and called her label Lulu. But she soon found she was fighting a losing battle. “Besides, I had to earn a living.”

Like her forbearers, she is a grafter. “People used to assume that because I was marred to a Guinness there was loads of money. That has never been the case.” Her Guinness (they divorced 20 years ago) is a playwright. “I didn’t marry into the royal family you know. I’ve had to work hard.”

She has put her name to shoes, jewellery, a Mini. “I’ve done it all. I’m my own worst self-flagellator.” High-street partnerships brought her wares to a wide audience: “I’ve never been interested in the top tier of the market. I don’t have rules. I can’t stand snobbishness,” says Guinness, who has a cult following in Asia where “they appreciate things that are a bit different. We’ve always been the alternative to the It bag.”

A turning point came in 1993 when the Victoria & Albert Museum acquired the Florist’s Basket bag. “I felt I could call myself a designer. But in this business, you’re only as good as your latest idea,” she reflects. “Perhaps that’s why I went into fashion without a big plan. It has always suited me to be on to the next thing. I’m terribly inquisitive about what’s now: the zeitgeist, call it what you will. What people want now.”

Her most constructive critic is her partner, John Ingledew, a writer and art teacher. “He’s a collector and a collagist, like me. We love being surrounded by ideas. What first struck me about him was his enthusiasm for teaching. He’s an inspirer. I like people who have a mission,” she says summing up her “soulmate” of 16 years.

So much has changed since the “pile-it-high” noughties. “It’s no longer about being tied to collections. Now it’s all about small drops. Technology means we can be nimble.” This suits Guinness’s fertile, highly visual imagination: “I can put my ideas into production much more quickly.”

She’s a canny networker, using social media – “my creative factory” – to unearth new talent for collaborations. One of her earliest influences was the Surrealist French designer Elsa Schiaparelli. “She worked with emerging talents, like Picasso and Cocteau. I’m not comparing myself with her, but partnerships are the way forward. Not just with young people – someone I’m working with is in their 70s. I’m drawn to makers who can talk about their influences and ideas.”

Guinness shows me her latest bag design. The Folly is a portable version of home complete with an “in joke” image of the designer, the red-lipped, contented chatelaine of all she surveys. “A friend came to see me recently. She asked, ‘Are you happy here, because you deserve it. You work so damn hard.’ And I said, ‘Yes, I am.’”

The Riv Trust can be contacted at therivtrust.org.uk. If you or anyone you know have been affected by these issues, call the Samaritans on 116 123

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