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Interview: Life's Rosy for Rachel London

I can trace my love of fashion to one moment in my life. I was around 5 years old looking at my sister's Rachel London jacket. It was denim and covered in pink roses. I don’t think I had ever seen anything more beautiful and I couldn’t wait for the day it was passed down to me.

Designer Rachel London founded her eponymous label essentially in high school. Standing in the bathroom of Flipper’s roller disco in one of her own creations, girls swarmed her asking where she got her frock. Next thing she knew she was designing her schoolmates prom gowns. After graduation, London wanted to hit the ground running. Bypassing the strict confines of a formal design education at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) where she was admitted freshman year, she booked it to New York City instead. After a series of jobs, London serendipitously met key players like editor André Leon-Talley and stylist Elizabeth Saltzman. Soon, she stood in-front of Polly Mellen at Vogue pitching her rose-covered line.

Her rose-covered ensembles graced the most glamorous of women like Madonna, Rihanna, supermodels in the pages of Vogue, and most recently, Miley Cyrus. Due to her hard-work, grit, and undying creativity, London remains an enduring icon of glamor. She shares about her early career as an up-and-coming designer in the late-80’s here.

JJ: Can you introduce yourself?

RL: I grew up as a fashion designer. I grew up with rich people in Brentwood. My parents got divorced when I was 10. All the other girls had money for outfits off the runway in Paris, but I didn’t. So I made my outfits for myself. When I realized I could sell my designs, I was in the bathroom of Flipper's, a roller disco, and a group of girls said “where did you get that?” I said I made it. They said we want to buy it.

I made everybody's prom dresses in high school. They let me into RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), but I didn’t really love the confines of college. I wound up leaving after half of a semester. I moved to New York when I was 19 and that is how I started being a designer.

JJ: Did you work for a brand in New York or did you decide to go out on your own?

RL: One of the good things about school was one of the people in my classes was this girl Amy Lumet, her grandmother was Lena Horne. I called her and she told me that she had this job at Norma Kamali and made $250 a week. I was like OMG that sounds amazing. So I moved to New York. They let me have a job at Norma Kamali because I knew Amy. Working there was totally fun. It wasn’t fun working retail because we weren’t allowed to sit down, but Cher would come shop. When Cher would come it was like the second coming, it was very exciting.

It was probably 1984. I worked there for 6 months, but I didn’t love retail. I answered an ad and I got an assistant designer job in the garment district. The ad said they didn’t care about experience, just a good approach. It was a junior sportswear company where they manufactured all their own stuff. The owners were a woman and her husband. They were really young, like 27. They would go to Capri and come back with all these wild pieces that I would have to copy. I would take them apart and make patterns and samples. That's how I learned a lot about construction.

JJ: When you were working in the garment district were you continuing to make your own clothes?

RL: Yes. I was dreaming of making my own line, and the couple from the sportswear line said if I stayed with them long enough they would do a line with me. But their company went bankrupt.

I got this really killer coat check job at Cipriani in New York. They had just opened their first location at the Sherry-Netherland. I got to check coats at lunch and it was like Dynasty. I met André Leon-Talley there and he would always tip me really well to put his hat on the top shelf. And there were the high society ladies who lunch who would all get dressed up everyday and drink their lunch.

During that time I was making my own pieces and would keep them in the coat room and show them to people. I showed them to André Leon Talley and the guy who owned Neiman Marcus. I showed them to Polly Bergen and she got me an appointment with a manufacturer. When the summer came we couldn’t do coat check anymore so I took my line around downtown.

JJ: How did you come up with the roses, your signature motif?

RL: When I was young and dreaming about going to New York to be a designer I was thinking about high fashion, like Lacroix, Valentino, Yves Saint Laurent. I loved that kind of stuff. I was in New York and it was around the time when I was peddling my line that I started thinking to do things with flowers. I made a red dress with red roses on wire around the shoulder and hem. Then I made jeans with flowers on them. Then a bikini. I realized you could do stuff with flowers forever.

JJ: Can you point to one defining moment in your career that took you from the coat check to Vogue?

RL: Elizabeth Saltzman (a stylist) was working for Polly Mellen at Vogue and gave me my first appointment. I got into Vogue–two pages with Emily Lloyd. And at the same time I got into Barney’s Co-Op. Simon Doonan gave me two different holiday windows. I did a trunk show there and Cher and Michelle Pfeiffer came, it was such a scene. Cher bought a dress.

Then, during that time, Madonna was in a play on Broadway called Speed the Plow by David Mamet. I knew the Tony Awards were coming so I made an outfit for her. A rose bolero and a black halter gown with pink roses all over it. I got on my bike and rode to that theater during the day. I got backstage with it by saying “This is wardrobe for Madonna.” I put a note on it that said “I don’t know what you’re wearing for the Tony awards but I think you should wear this.” They called me and left a message saying they had been in Barney’s that day looking for some of my things already and that Madonna was going to wear the dress. That was really big for me.

JJ: Now that you had made it, what was your goal with the line?

RL: My goal was to flower the world, to make every product with flowers and make a charity for the children of the world and call it the Flower Child Foundation. I still haven’t done it yet but that was my goal.

JJ: What is glamor to you? RL: Glamor is not having to try too hard. If you see people with makeup all over or following trends, that is not elegant, that is not glamor. Glamor is being really comfortable in your skin, not giving a s**t, and looking great at the same time.

JJ: What is one item of clothing from the 80s/90s that you think should come back?

RL: One that shouldn’t is grunge. I hated heroin chic, which there is nothing chic about.

What should come back is happy, glamorous, high-end. Like old Vogue, Avedon, and the supermodels.

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