1 Granary: So, you were on the cover of the second issue of 1 Granary! And now you’re being interviewed about your own line.
Louisa Ballou: Crazy…
“There are many facets to the debate, whether sensuality and sexuality and garments and current clothes can be inclusive to different body types, can be “appropriate” in a world in which women’s bodies are more regularly being policed and restricted.” – Louisa Ballou
1 Granary: What do you think Saint Martins taught you that was unique to the school itself?
Louisa Ballou: Coming from South Carolina, there was a lot I had to learn – or I got to learn, I guess I should say. Coming from an American schooling system, it was so different, but there’s a few main things about St. Martins [CSM] that I still think about: how you research, trusting your instincts, and taking criticism. I think they really push you to do your best work. I didn’t really figure out what I was doing until my final year, after the pre-collection time. It wasn’t until the very end. But that’s kind of the point; they want you to try different things and they want you to explore and this is your opportunity to do that. It’s an incredible school and I would not be where I am today without having gone there.
1 Granary: What type of work were you working on when you were at Saint Martin’s? Were the designs similar to the garments you’re making now?
Louisa Ballou: It was very different. I started out in print, but I thought I wanted to do Menswear and by my third year I was like, I’m really forcing this, this is not coming naturally to me. I felt like I had so many more ideas. My research was leaning more [towards] Womenswear. I felt more like, oh, I want to actually put this on myself. It became more personal. And that’s what I was missing. I’m so sensitive to clothes and how things feel, I felt like I had something to say about Womenswear.
And so I was working on a pre-collection in the Men’s category in my final year that was surf-inspired. And I was just bored! There was no sensuality to it! I just couldn’t! And I remember one of my tutors, saying, there’s no sex in this. It’s just blah. And that was right before the holiday break. I went away and I was like, he’s right! So I started from scratch and went into my research again, and got so excited and inspired by it. I came back and was like, this is what I’m doing.
“Something I learned throughout my time at CSM: just let it happen. Don’t force an idea if it’s not working. There’s an element of playfulness to it that is important to my process.” – Louisa Ballou
1 Granary: Is there a difference between what you were researching at university and how you approach research now, as the founder of an incredibly popular brand?
Louisa Ballou: My research always starts with print and I think that that’s become much richer, and much more intellectual. I’ve been much more interested in having multi-layered research. When I first started, I was having so much fun, I wasn’t overthinking it. I was doing all these paintings, but I was always doing research, whether it was photographers or flowers that my mom would show me or artworks that I found in the St. Martins libraries. And part of that, in the beginning, was painting. And it still is. All my prints were my paintings, and they still are, for the most part. Unless it’s a photograph.
Recently, I’ve been looking at a lot of Man Ray. A lot of Bryce Marden. Francis Picabia. And a lot of Michelangelo’s sculptures – his whole mentality was interesting. Over the last few seasons, I’ve been looking at all these rare orchids. And photographs of flowers photographed against a black background, so you get these really rich shapes and colours. I’ve been painting those or painting from life, because here in Charleston, there are all these amazing tropical plants and flowers that I can find. It’s very humid and tropical and hot, on the beach. My mom is also a gardener, so her knowledge of flowers is extensive.
Research should be approached in a way that is more about discovery, rather than already having this kind of preconceived idea about what you want to do. For me, that’s really important. It helps me not overthink things. That was another thing I learned throughout my time at CSM: just let it happen. Don’t force an idea if it’s not working. There’s an element of playfulness to it that is important to my process. It makes it more exciting. Even if that’s not necessarily coming across in the final product. It doesn’t make it richer, whether people know it or not. The point is not to show through a product, my research was X, Y, and Z. It’s more, is this an interesting, beautiful, wonderful thing to wear? That’s what I want [for the wearer], but for me, the research is what gives it meaning.
1 Granary: I’m interested in where you feel the Louisa Ballou brand sits within the current conversation within the industry about the celebration of sensuality. There are many facets to the debate, whether sensuality and sexuality and garments and current clothes can be inclusive to different body types, can be “appropriate” in a world in which women’s bodies are more regularly being policed and restricted, or whether, in a hedonistic manner, garments that are sensual are a response to austerity or a pushback on pandemic restrictions. Naturally, within current fashion writing, people are going to situate your garments within parameters of those conversations. But, as the designer, to what extent do you feel involved in those issues?
Louisa Ballou: My approach is always about a celebration of the body. It starts with the individual. It’s not really about other people, although… if the person wearing the clothes feels good and feels beautiful, then I’m doing what I set out to do. Because inevitably, other people are going to see that. On an unconscious level, I’m reacting to that, but I wouldn’t say it really informs what I do. I don’t approach it from a political standpoint, it’s truly about being inspired by the human form and art. The brand is more personal, rather than what you’re saying about politicising bodies. It is something that I’m aware of – it doesn’t escape me – but it’s more about a celebration of the body and sensuality. I also don’t think that sexy and sensual have to be vulgar – and of course, that includes all bodies. It should not be limited to one body type ever. I’m a firm believer in that and that’s something that’s really important to me.
1 Granary: How do your beliefs about body inclusivity come through in your designs?
Louisa Ballou: The comfort of the pieces plays into that. These pieces need to feel good, in order for them to look good. I always say, if it’s not comfortable, it’s not going to look good. You’re gonna be fidgeting or it’s just not quite right. And that goes to the materials, the fit, and the placement of the hardware on the body. There are so many different things that can be tweaked and refined.
1 Granary: How did you come to understand those problems, particularly on different sizes and shaped bodies?
Louisa Ballou: I think it started with me. Growing up, everything bugged me. I would cut things up to make them feel like I could tolerate them. I’ve always been hypersensitive to how things feel. Building on that and really embracing that as a designer was a lightbulb moment for me because it was always a problem. And then I realised, if it bugs me, it’s gonna bug somebody else. As we build the brand, it’s trying things on different bodies, and getting feedback is so important! I like to engage with the customer on that level, if they’re DMing me or emailing, I love to have those conversations. Like, how did it feel? What do you think? I think that those are really important people to ask, especially if you’re investing in your brand. They’re paying for a piece that you’ve created. You want to want to hear what they have to say.
1 Granary: Tell me a bit about running the brand. Are you based in Charleston full-time?
Louisa Ballou: Yes, although I travel a lot more these days. My team is mostly in London and we produce in New York. We’re starting to produce in Europe in the next few seasons. All the fabrics have been printed in Italy for a while now, but we’re kind of outgrowing our factory in New York, so we want to expand to Europe.
1 Granary: Have you found that production in Europe has been difficult since Brexit?
Louisa Ballou: It doesn’t necessarily affect me because I’m American. I’ve been pretty much-managing production on my own, up until recently. We are five people now.
1 Granary: Five full-time people?
Louisa Ballou: Pretty much, yes. We just hired a production manager this summer who hasn’t started yet. She is based in London, but she’ll go back and forth and travel around. We wanted someone who could be mobile. It just made more sense.
1 Granary: And how did you build your team? How did that process first start?
Louisa Ballou: It’s funny… our Head of Sales, I met her on Instagram. It was one of those serendipitous moments, but we met and got on so well from the jump. And it’s been great ever since. She brought on a Logistics and Operations Manager and a Wholesale Admin Assistant and we all got together to manage production. But now we actually have a Production Manager, which is huge, because it’s such a big job, especially as we’re starting to expand and do new things. We really need somebody who has that expertise and can focus solely on production.
“If the factory is calling you about something that they’re cutting right now, you need to answer right now. Otherwise, it’s gonna go to the back of the line, and they’re not going to cut it until tomorrow.” – Louisa Ballou