Lucile, fashion designer: papers

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The archive contains sketchbooks (1890 - ca. 1915); drawings: designs for fashion and theatre (ca. 1907 - 1933); prints from drawings (ca. 1912 - ca. 1919); photographs: fashion, theatrical and fancy dress (1904 - 1919); press cuttings, business literature and inspirational material (ca. 1904 - 1928).

Administrative / Biographical History

Lucy Christiana Sutherland (pseudo. Lucile) (1863-1935), fashion designer, was born in London to civil engineer Douglas Sutherland and his Anglo-French-Canadian wife Elinor Saunders. Following her father's death she was raised in Guelph, Ontario, Canada before moving to Jersey following her mother's remarriage in 1871. Lucile's first experience of fashion was through dressing her dolls and later making clothes for herself and her younger sister - the future romantic novelist Elinor Glyn.

In 1883 she married James Stuart Wallace and a daughter, Esme, was born in 1885. However the marriage ended in separation in 1890 before a divorce was granted in 1893. She started working as a dress maker to support herself and her daughter, naming her company Lucile after herself. Despite being largely self taught her designs were a success and her first premises opened in London's fashionable West End in 1894. As the business expanded a larger shop was needed and a store was opened in Hanover Square in 1897. In 1900 Lucile married Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon but she still kept her business and it became incorporated as 'Lucile Ltd' in 1903. The company continued to expand and grow with shops opening in New York (1911), Paris (1912) and Chicago (1915).

Lucile was one of the most successful business women of her era, employing around 2000 people in Lucile Ltd at the height of its popularity. Apprentices to the firm included the future fashion designers Edward Molyneux and Sir Norman Hartwell. Lucile was most celebrated for her lingerie, tea gowns and evening wear creations. The designs were usually softly draped garments in pastel colours but smart tailored outfits for daywear were also created. Lucile creations were recognisable for their mono bosom, tiny waist and exaggerated behind. Lucile Ltd's clients were wealthy and included aristocracy, royalty and actresses such as Lily Elsie. Lucile also designed the costumes for many theatrical productions both in the West End and on Broadway.

Lucile is often credited as the first fashion designer to use professional models, and she started the tradition of using catwalk shows to show case her work. These would be invitation only tea time presentations, complete with stage lighting, music and programmes. Â In 1912 Lucile and her husband travelled to New York on the Titanic, and escaped on the first life boat to leave the ship, holding only 12 people when there was space for 40. The Duff Gordon's were accused by the tabloid press of bribing the crew not to go back to pick up people in the sea, but were cleared of the charges in court.

There was no sign that this had a detrimental effect on Lucile's business, but by 1918/1919 restructuring within the company meant she had a less active role in it. By 1922 she was no longer designing for the label as her designs did not fit in with the new flapper style which was emerging and Lucile Ltd gradually dissolved following the departure of its founder.

After her career as a fashion designer ended Lucile worked as a fashion columnist and critic, and in 1932 wrote an autobiography 'Discretions and Indiscretions' which became a best seller. Lucile died in 1935 at the age of 71.

Conditions Governing Access

This archive collection is available for consultation in the V&A Blythe House Archive and Library Study Room by appointment only. Full details of access arrangements may be found here: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/archives/.

Access to some of the material may be restricted. These are noted in the catalogue where relevant.

Conditions Governing Use

Information on copying and commercial reproduction may be found here: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/archives/.