Representing the creative future

Louisa Ballou on following your instincts to build a successful business

The designer behind every it girls' favourite label talks about building her brand, her process, and her strategy

There’s something in the water in Charleston, South Carolina. Perhaps it’s the mineral content that irrigates the local flora and fauna to inspire Louisa Ballou’s bold printwork. Or perhaps it’s a somewhat hydrating elixir that fuels the designer, as she runs her brand with an exceptional, quiet confidence.

Louisa Ballou pieces stretch across the body in glorious tropical blooms; some are O’Keefe-ian in appearance, others more abstract, near scientific. What started as a swimwear brand now transcends the limits of the beach with ready-to-wear pieces in mesh and lightweight cotton muslin alongside sarongs, separates and one-pieces. It would be remiss not to mention her celebrity following – Bella Hadid, Dua Lipa and Kylie Jenner have all been seen in the designs – but Ballou’s careful sense of her brand’s positioning promises to keep aware of all her customers.

Despite immediately invoking holiday hedonism, the brand has a much calmer purpose behind it; the chance for its founder to get lost in the pleasures of her reading, research and painting. Speaking from Charleston, Ballou explains how she has always had the business at the forefront of her priorities and that slowly building a team and a network of retailers synchronously helps her maintain the strength of the brand’s identity.

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

1 Granary: What are the actual day-to-day logistics like with that system? You being in Charleston and running your own brand?

Louisa Ballou: Our team is very tightly knit, there’s a lot of trust and I think there has to be, especially as a remote team. The Operations Manager is actually in Sweden, so we’re really all over the place. But it works out for us and we’re all very team-oriented, and we work. We have really good communication among the team, we’re very direct, but respectful. That’s important, because you do have to be able to get to the point, get to the issues and figure it out. We’re all very solution-oriented as well. Day to day, it varies depending on where we are in the cycle. We have a standing team meeting once a week, a full team meeting and then we’ll kind of have a couple other meetings throughout the week. Depending on what’s happening, if it’s market or in the sales cycle, usually there’s a lot more calls, a lot more working together on preparing the assets and getting the digital showroom together and all that. And then, from a production standpoint, when we’re placing orders, it’s a lot of operations and getting the production orders sorted out on time. Usually, Antonia, our Operations Manager, is having to ask me a million times for different [things] to hit the deadlines. So we all kind of hold each other accountable, I guess, is what I’m trying to say. Every day is different.

For me, when I’m working on a collection, I like to try and plan ahead as much as possible, so I don’t have as many interruptions. But also, because I was doing it by myself for so long, I have so much respect for what they do. I understand to a certain extent that 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. I am in awe of what they do, because a lot of these things did not come naturally to me. So it was really challenging at first.

1 Granary: Do you prefer working alone and working within research? Or do you like talking to your team thinking about what worked really well, what felt successful in the last seasons? How do you like to work?

Louisa Ballou: I love doing both. And it just depends on what it is. I love talking to the team at the end of the season to discuss what worked, what didn’t work, where we could explore new ideas, even down to fabrics that weren’t as successful, or problematic in production. To me, design is really problem solving. I know a lot of designers have this thing about being too commercial, but for me, it’s like, no, that’s actually a problem, you don’t have to frame it in this commercial way.

1 Granary: Right, you have to make clothes that people are able to wear.

Louisa Ballou: Right, exactly! So in that sense, I really love working with the team. And then when I’m initially starting on a collection, I like to do my research on my own. And then I work with a consultant, a research and design consultant, who also went to St. Martin’s. That’s interesting because he totally understands how I work and we have good chemistry and a good rapport when we’re talking about research and different ideas. It works out really well for us. But I like to keep it close, he’s the only person I’ll really share my research with in the beginning. Because I know that he’s going to understand where I’m going with it. It’s nice to have somebody else to bounce your ideas off of. And to give a different perspective as well, I think that’s so important.

“I really wanted to keep sales in-house and work closely with whoever was doing the sales. And I know that a lot of brands start with showrooms, but I just felt like… I need that person to be really close and to really be able to trust that person. ” – Louisa Ballou

1 Granary: How many stockists do you currently have?

Louisa Ballou: We have about 50 now. That’s including the small, physical retail spaces. We’ve grown a lot in the last year. We’re in North America, Europe, Middle East and then we’re kind of starting to explore Australia and Asia a little bit. We sell to Net-A-Porter, who have a Hong Kong distribution centre, but that’s as far as we’ve gotten in Asia. It’s exciting!

1 Granary: I’m just trying to imagine that process of 50 stockists, and then the communications with buyers within market season must be really quite strenuous.

Louisa Ballou: It is. Well, a fair amount of those stores, like the boutiques, are in Italy, and we work with an agency just for Italy. And that was something that came much later because I really wanted to keep sales in-house and work closely with whoever was doing the sales. And I know that a lot of brands start with showrooms, but I just felt like… I need that person to be really close and to really be able to trust that person. Not that you can’t trust the showroom! But I think for me, being in Charleston, I just wanted somebody that would be there and help me build a brand as well. My Head of Sales right now, she’s been instrumental in brand development, HR and strategy – it’s gone way beyond sales.

1 Granary: Was that sense of control important for you, to maintain the brand identity? And I wonder, were you conscious also of who the customer was? Are you very aware of that?

Louisa Ballou: Yeah, it’s a bit of that. Well, first of all, from the beginning, I didn’t really know if it was gonna work or not! So I was like, okay let’s take this slowly. But then it got to a point where it was starting to work, and I realised I don’t want to be everywhere overnight. At that time, I felt like I needed to do this a different way for this to work. I was already kind of coming at it from a different angle: we started as swimwear, which is its own niche thing. So it was easy enough to do our sales on our own because there’s only a few products. Yeah, in terms of understanding the customer, that’s also an element to it as well.

I really believed Ssense was the right first online retailer to work. I felt like their customer really understood the product and the versatility of it. They were so supportive of the brand and so I’m really glad that’s how we started. We started working with Matches last year, but I think that was the right timing – it’s a slightly different customer. They all have slightly different customers, they all make slightly different buys. It’s really interesting to see how they don’t end up buying the same thing. It can look like a completely different collection, which is great because you don’t want it to be the same. Two different prints can read as two very different customers. For me, that’s something that’s nice about print, you can make something look very different, even on the same silhouette.

“In the beginning, it served me well to really focus on one thing and do it well. ” – Louisa Ballou

1 Granary: How do you define the brand now? It’s often touted as beachwear or swimwear. But is this how you think of the garments that you design and you create?

Louisa Ballou: It’s definitely how I thought of it at first. I wouldn’t define us as a swimwear or resortwear brand now. But in the beginning, it served me well to really focus on one thing and do it well. And that goes from the design, from the fit to the production to selling the product, and having that concise, clear [message]. The product as swimwear was good as a branding exercise.

1 Granary: Is that advice you would give younger designers?

Louisa Ballou: I feel like one piece of advice is to always take advice with a grain of salt. You should look at your own situation and use your gut, your own judgement to determine if that’s something that would be beneficial to you. I think that was something that I learned along the way. Someone’s advice isn’t always the best thing for you to do. You really have to learn how to trust your instincts and look and observe and do your research. Look at what makes sense for your brand and your company.

1 Granary: Ironically, that’s a great piece of advice.

Louisa Ballou: It’s hard sometimes because you’re around all these different brands, and they’re doing things a certain way and it’s hard not to turn your head and look at what they’re doing. It’s great to just see what they’re doing, but you have to have a certain distance from it, I think to make good decisions for your own brand.

1 Granary: We’ve talked about considering different retailers’ customers, but ultimately, is there a customer who you think is the Louisa Ballou woman? What do you think her characteristics might be?

Louisa Ballou: This is something that we talk about a lot because this woman is so many different women. She’s defined more by an attitude, rather than a demographic. A mystery, an allure, lower, a curiosity. This woman is curious. You know, she is asking questions, and creative and has a passion for life and for culture and art. There’s this spirit about her, a playfulness, but a maturity and sophistication, as well. I don’t think that you can put this person in a box. And we see that – our customers are all over the world. They’re different ages. Different sizes. It’s been really cool to see. You can say it all day, but then, if you also have the data to see it, you know that actually this is true.