Home » Inside Blenheim’s ‘Icons of British Fashion’ exhibition with Lulu Guinness

Inside Blenheim’s ‘Icons of British Fashion’ exhibition with Lulu Guinness

“It was the most magical night in every element – I absolutely adored it, honestly.” Following the opening of the Icons of British Fashion exhibition at Blenheim Palace, the designer Lulu Guinness has found time for a catch-up (no mean feat, given her busy schedule).

Featuring a line-up of world-class names and labels – among them Vivienne Westwood, Zandra Rhodes, Stella McCartney and Guinness herself – Blenheim’s latest exhibition is one of the biggest and most extravagant ever put on at the stately home. Starting with the Great Hall, each of the significant rooms in the 300-year-old palace has been overtaken by a stalwart of British fashion: cue ruffled Bruce Oldfield collars rubbing up against priceless statues; sequin-bedecked Temperley mannequins having a tea party against a backdrop of gilt-framed oil paintings; and whole corridors taken over by Terry de Havilland’s pop-art posters.

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lulu guinness at blenheim palace

Courtesy of Lulu Guinness and Blenheim Palace

Guinness pictured surrounded by her display at the opening night of the exhibition, carrying the one-of-a-kind lily of the valley basket

For her own display, Guinness chose a room hung with a portrait of the Countess of Marlborough, Consuelo Vanderbilt, a Gilded Age New York heiress who lived at Blenheim following her marriage in 1895. “It was said that she had such a long neck, she could wear 19 rows of pearls at once,” Guinness tells me. “My one and only book is called Put On Your Pearls, Girls, so it seemed fitting. Pearls are very important to me in their Englishness, and they’re also immensely flattering. I’ve always worn mine, like my mother did and my grandmother before her. It’s kind of a signature thing for me – like red lipstick.”

Those signatures are present in every aspect of Guinness’ exhibit, which showcases all 35 years of her illustrious career. The display pays homage to her most famous creations: a runway of her classic, lips-shaped clutches snakes through the room, while rose basket bags (so well-known, that one sits in the V&A) hang from the branches of coral-coloured trees, grown on the estate, which reach up to the ceiling.

lulu guinness icons of british fashion

Courtesy of Lulu Guinness and Blenheim Palace

the lulu guinness icons of british fashion exhibition

Courtesy of Lulu Guinness and Blenheim Palace

lulu guinness icons of british fashion

Courtesy of Lulu Guinness and Blenheim Palace

“I always wanted to make those,” Guinness says. “I wanted the bags to look as if they were almost floating, and that’s how I came up with the idea of hanging them from branches.” There are newer creations, too, from the pearl-adorned lily of the valley bag, to the birds’ nest basket (with its own tiny egg hidden inside). Every piece is classic Guinness – not least because they are all modelled in the photographs for the exhibition by her daughter, Maddy.

maddy guinness with her mother's famous union jack lips clutch, pictured outside blenheim 

Courtesy of Lulu Guinness and Blenheim Palace

Maddy Guinness with her mother’s famous Union Jack lips clutch, pictured outside Blenheim

“This whole thing is the brainchild of the head of collections here, Kate Ballenger,” says Guinness. “When she does it, she really does it! The vision for an exhibition or collection evolves over time. You know, it’s forwards and backwards, isn’t it? Always is. But this was my vision from beginning to end.” From the giant flower baskets created by florist Tattie Rose, to the one-of-a-kind brass lily of the valley bag, handmade by artist Jess Wheeler, everything on display plays into Guinness’ unique blend of charm, wit and glamour, and the hallmark fantasy of her designs.

“I make a bag and if it’s practical as well, that’s great. That’s an added bonus!” she says, laughing. “Our bags are conversation pieces. You don’t forget those.” Those eye-catching bags – in the shape of fans, or castles, or dogs, or lips – are what’s made Guinness a household name in British fashion since she started her brand in 1989. Her rose basket bag (a black, silk-satin bucket with a lid adorned with red velvet roses) was an instant hit when it was created in 1993, and is still perhaps her most famous design today.

lulu guinness icons of british fashion

Courtesy of Lulu Guinness and Blenheim Palace

Is it her favourite, I ask? “Oh, my favourite bag is whichever one I’m working on,” she says, easily. “I like things when I’m using a totally different technique. I think I became a handbag designer – through total chance – because I wanted a vehicle for my ideas. My original passion was form, but also embellishment.”

It feels unusual that Guinness does not have a secret preference for a particular design, when most other people can remember their first lips clutch, or fan-shaped bag, and the delight with which they used it for years to come. “People always tell me stories like that, I love it,” she smiles. “The brand has been called iconic, but I feel like the word gets overused now. Not everything can be iconic, you know?”

On this point, many would disagree. If any British bag brand has earned the right to be called iconic, it’s Lulu Guinness.

Lily of the valley bag in white

Lily of the valley bag in white

‘Icons of British Fashion’ is at Blenheim Palace until 30 June 2024