Meet Sue Whiteley, the founder of luxury resortwear brand, On The Island. But, before all of that, her illustrious career has seen her work for the best of the best — and importantly, she’s made them better.
Having launched her career at Harvey Nichols, she was intrumental in it’s brand overhaul, turning it into a fashion and lifestyle mecca. From there, she went onto join Alexander McQueen as President and CEO in 2001, where she worked alongside Lee to grow his label into a global luxury fashion house. Three years later came her appointment at Louis Vuitton, and here she opened the Bond Street Flagship store, while securing artists associations with the likes of Anish Kapoor and Tracey Emin; and most recently, she’s served as president of Givenchy during Riccardo Tisci’s reign. A formidable career path. Now comes her most personal project to date, in the form of On The Island — an amalgamation of hot colors, prints, luxury fabrics, sun, travel, and art, all translated into a line of resort wear that calls to the sun. From kaftans to dresses and swimsuits, expect refined silhouettes designed with the modern wanderluster in mind.
Whiteley discusses luxuy, resort wear, and her ambitions for On The Island.
Felicity Carter: What is your first memory of fashion?
Sue Whiteley: I have been immersed in the world of style from an early age. My grandmother was a Buyer at Harrods and I remember always being transfixed by her attention to detail when dressing; her shoes were always beautifully polished. This interest was reaffirmed later when I was given the opportunity to attend the early John Galliano shows in Paris whilst I was an assistant buyer at Harvey Nichols. I have never forgotten the show invitation which was a child’s ballet shoe in red with a scroll hand-rolled inside, and from the minute the show began I was totally immersed – living the inspiration and story that had influenced John Galliano that season.
FC: What is luxury to you?
SW: I had the opportunity to really comprehend the word ‘luxury’ when I started working for Louis Vuitton in 2004 as Managing Director of its UK, Ireland and Scandinavia business. Their attention to detail is exemplary across every aspect of a brand’s communication – from the housekeeping of the stores to the unparalleled training of their sales staff. They ensured that the Sales Manager of every store totally understood the word ‘luxury’ and held an international annual conference for all their store managers they would present the brand strategy for the following year and impart an understanding of the world that their customer lived in.
Luxury spans every facet of Louis Vuitton and I was able to apply everything I absorbed when I led the opening of the Bond Street Flagship store, which was described as “the most luxurious Louis Vuitton store in the world”. For this, we collaborated with a relatively unknown (at that time) theatre production company called Punch Drunk, which transformed an old Post Office off Oxford Street into a space that allowed guests to experience a totally immersive ‘journey’. From the journey of the collector, the journey of emotions and the journey of knowledge. The evening led to comments from guests such as Elle Macpherson saying she hadn’t seen anything like it in a very long time. It was a truly exceptional evening and the pinnacle of ‘luxury’ in its attention to detail, from planning to uniqueness and execution.
FC: Tell us about the relaunch and what we can expect moving forward?
SW: It made sense to pause On the Island during the first years of Covid as travel was either non-existent or in a state of uncertainty. This allowed us to look at areas of the brand we could enhance or improve. Swimwear was a key area of focus, and we have introduced a new French swimwear fabric that sculpts the wearer to give them more support. We also had the opportunity to re-look at our continuity styles in swimwear and started working with a highly skilled couture designer who now fits all the swimwear five times (as opposed to the industry standard three) to get the perfect fit and ensure the styles looked good on a variety of body shapes.
From a color/print point of view, we had a chance to rethink where we could take On the Island beyond our very successful hand-painted watercolor animal prints. Whilst still being able to identify these nuances, moving forward the palette is predominantly derived from the work of contemporary artists. Bold painterly stokes lead to a bleeding of forms, which allow us to experiment with a wider range of colors.
FC: Who is your customer and how does the brand tap into the resort trend?
SW: On the Island offers a complete wardrobe for the contemporary traveler – from swimwear and elevated coverups to silk dresses for dinner. Our customer is self-assured, dynamic, at ease, and in search of discovery and the unexpected. For her, fashion is at its best when it feels specific and personal, and has a story to tell. On the Island is a London-based brand with European sophistication. Our relaunch is particularly timely as a number of the big fashion houses are focusing on the resort wear market this year, investing in pop-ups in wealthy European hot spots such as Capri and Portofino, which shows the potential for category growth as international travel is fully back on the agenda.
FC: What’s the process?
SW: Our inspiration is the concept or theme of the season. For Resort 23 our Print Designer spent three days a careful curation of museums in Milan researching the art world for ideas and images that we could use as inspiration for the season fabrics, colour and patterns. From there there is the formation of our colour stories for the season, and then the process of creating our hand drawn painterly patterns and prints. Then the Collection Designer works from our range plan, looking at which styles could be considered continuity and which areas we want to add to. For example, new styles could be an extension of our successful Kaftans or introduce cover-ups for a younger customer who might want a shorter length. After the print designer and collection designer have completed their creative processes and the fabric is ordered we go into production. All On the Island’s ready to wear is hand made in England in small artisanal factories, and the swimwear is made in the best factories in Italy.
FC: What are your short and long-term ambitions for the brand?
SW: Short term we are looking to expand On the Island’s client base through partnerships with luxury hotel groups which we sell very well in. A key example being the concept store in the Bulgari Hotel in Dubai who have been a customer of ours since day one. They bought 25 styles from our newly relaunched Resort collection and have seen 100% sell through.
Longer term I would like to further expand the brand’s lifestyle offer, bringing our exquisite hand painted designs to life in an On the Island homeware collection featuring china, glass, cushions and table linen.
On the Island will be available at leading retailers including Harvey Nichols, Beymen and Bergdorf Goodman.