I had the wonderful opportunity of sitting next to Issa designer Daniella Helayel at dinner last Saturday night at the China Club in Hong Kong. The small and intimate sit-down dinner was organized by the tireless Hong Kong PR and Event doyennes Shirley Hiranand and Reyna Harilela of Bonvivant and Bellavita.
Over dinner of classic Chinese fare such as Peking duck, shrimp dumplings, fried rice and sautéed tofu, Daniella shared with us stories of when she started her business and of her life in Brazil and London. According to Daniella, the name Issa was born out of a desire to come up with a name that was easy, short and could be said the same way no matter where you are in the world. It is also what surfers in Brazil say after riding a good wave. Think of it as the Brazilian equivalent of "awesome."
Daniella also shared with us her own tsunami experience in Thailand, as talked turned to the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. She said she was lucky to have been spared the worst of the 2004 tsunami that hit Thailand and Indonesia.
When asked about the blue dress Kate Middleton wore when announcing her engagement to Prince William, Daniella revealed to us that she wasn't aware that her design was going to be worn by the royal bride.
After dinner, we checked out two of the hottest nightspots in Hong Kong, Tazmanian Ballroom and Dragon-i.
Below is my conversation with Daniella on fashion, her refusal to talk more about Middleton and what inspires her.
Your refusal to talk about Kate Middleton is admirable. Is that out of your own volition or were you advised to do so by the Royal Family?
It's my own and it's the same for all my private clients.
How have you handled the worldwide attention that's been bestowed on you and the brand? Do you get recognized on the street now?
I have tried to be as accommodating as possible to everyone, but of course it's been a big change with the huge demand for interviews and the spotlight so firmly on my brand. As a designer I strongly believe that you're only as good as your last collection, so I put my AW11 collection first and did everything I could to make it Issa's greatest show as it felt like the world was watching.
How do you feel about the copies of that famous navy dress?
Imitation is the highest form of flattery!
What's the spirit and philosophy behind the label?
I take a lot of inspiration from my childhood in Brazil surrounded by nature. I have tried to translate all the unexpected color combinations, natural shapes and the thrill of carnivals into my prints, fabrics and designs. I keep the Brazilian vibe in my mind when designing. The relaxed, laid back atmosphere you get from spending time out there is reflected onto my easy-to-wear designs. Issa is all about effortless glamour and making women feel confident, comfortable and cool in their own skin and a great dress; all women should look and feel fantastic! It doesn't have an age or size limit! "ISSA FOR ALL" is our concept!
Given this new spotlight that's been cast on the brand, have your goals changed? Has your business plan changed?
Yes definitely! I feel like the time is right for us to open the first Issa store, whereas in the past I've only ever wanted to sell wholesale I am now starting to hire business directors and managers to help realize my dream of reaching as many women across the world with Issa. We are working on a major, global expansion -- this really is Issa's moment!
Is there a fashion business model you wish to emulate?
Part of the reason people love Issa is our unique combination of chilled out Brazilian vibe meets London heritage. I think we have always had a distinct business plan and I don't see that changing, of course there are people and businesses I respect, but I like to learn from them not imitate.
What do you think the modern woman wants from fashion today?
I think modern women want fashion which works around their lives and helps make their day a little easier.
Who are the other designers you admire?
From the other designers working today Karl Lagerfeld has been, and I think always will be, an idol to me. His dedication to fashion and the house of Chanel is remarkable and the way he understands women's bodies and exactly what we're looking for is unbelievable. A real genius who even the meekest, mildest girls wish would recruit him to his Chanel army!
What makes a woman stylish?
I have quite a timeless approach to fashion, I like looking back at what has been done before and seeing how I can update it. I believe it's very important for women to understand their bodies and what works for them, once we know that then we can have fun with fashion and the trends which come and go whilst still looking and feeling our best. But I will say that you always need a pair of big Jackie O sunglasses in your bag and a scarf is the most versatile, chic accessory; a silk one tied round your neck, hair, wrist or handbag.
What's a typical day like for you?
I love what I do so work is mostly fun for me. I wake up around 7AM to work out with my trainer in Battersea Park and then take a massage. Breakfast at 8AM and I then read the day's papers on my iPad and go through my emails received over the night from our offices in LA, New York and Tokyo with my beautiful dogs Monster and Snowball by my side. Then I'll either walk to the office or hold a meeting at home with my press team to brainstorm ideas for future projects and collaborations, finding new and fun ways of spreading the love of Issa. Followed by a lunch with my sales team to update me on sales globally, they are just wrapping up the AW11 sales in London over the next week or so and then we'll have a much clearer idea of exactly how much Issa's grown.
Afternoons are spent with my design team, working on the Cruise collection at the moment, which can I say is going to be rocking! We've only been researching it for a few weeks, but already there is such a strong direction and I can't wait to see how it turns out, I'm so excited -- I love designing for Cruise. The evenings I'm either jetting off to an exhibition, I adore art and try and visit as many galleries and museums I can, or to a work event or I'm relaxing at home with friends.
How do you unwind?
I try and keep a healthy work/life balance. I never properly switch off from work though as I am always looking for inspiration wherever I am and thinking of new ideas to take the business one step further each day.
Have you always known that you would be in the fashion industry? What were your dreams when you were a child?
When I was much younger I dreamt of becoming an astronaut, a doctor, a vet and a psychologist. But I've always had an interest in fashion throughout, I loved dressing up as a child and trying on all my mother's clothes and make-up, from around the age of 17 I've known this is where I should work.
Is there a right and wrong way to wear Issa?
Definitely not -- Issa means freedom! Wear it however it makes you feel the best.
What advice would you give designers who are just starting out?
Get a good factory and a good production facility. I know it sounds a little boring and it can be overlooked at first when you're so caught up in the design process, but trust me it makes all the difference.
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