LISOU’S RENE MACDONALD
By Contributing Editor Juliet Herd
When Rene Macdonald, founder of luxury womenswear brand Lisou, was emailed by customers during lockdown to compliment her on the beautiful packaging, she allowed herself a pat on the back. “It was full on; I was literally doing everything. It kept me sane,” she reflects with a smile. She also launched an Instagram Live video series of interviews with a squadron of inspirational women, ranging from artist and sculptor Kate Vine to British Fashion Council chair Stephanie Phair. So successful has the series proved with her growing band of followers and fans that she’s about to do her 31st chat, despite admitting that live interviewing was “not in my comfort zone”.
There’s no doubt Macdonald has oodles of oomph; an innate ability to draw people to her with her natural charm, sunny disposition and fearless, can-do attitude. In just a few years, she’s managed to carve herself an impressive niche with her exquisite silks and exuberant prints, inspired by her African heritage, attracting a roll call of famous customers, including Cate Blanchett, Charlize Theron, Helen Mirren, Jodie Comer and Priyanka Chopra. For a small brand, Lisou certainly packs a punch. Radio and TV presenter Clara Amfo, a contestant on the new Strictly Come Dancing series, appeared like a burst of sunshine on the October cover of Cosmopolitan in a signature mango heart print jacquard jacket and mini-skirt. Super-influencer Liza Koshy posted a picture to her 18.7 million (yes, that’s right!) Insta followers, wearing head-to-toe Lisou and being hugged by none other than Michelle Obama, as part of their documentary for the Obama Foundation’s Girls Opportunity Alliance.
For down-to-earth Macdonald, these are still exciting ‘pinch-me’ moments. “As a small brand, when someone buys something, there’s literally an office of people dancing,” she laughs. “It really means a lot. I would love to dress Michelle Obama. If that happened, I would need to have a long lie down. I massively admire her as a human being.”
A former stylist and academic, Macdonald had long harboured an ambition to start her own label as a way of giving expression to her love of vintage fashion and bold colour. She decided to take the plunge three years ago, opening up shop in Notting Hill. “There were things out there but I thought that I could bring something to the party that was different,” recalls the designer, who was born in Tanzania but has lived in the UK since the age of eight. “I sat down with my family [she and her businessman husband Andy have two grown-up sons] and everyone said, ‘Absolutely, go for it.’ My husband later came on board as CEO.”
With no formal training – she studied modern languages at University College London – she relied on the dressmaker skills acquired from her mother, who taught her how to cut patterns and use a sewing machine from a young age. “She made everything from curtains to clothes,” Macdonald explains. “I remember being a little girl and saying, ‘I’m going to a party and this is what I want to wear,’ and she’d make it. When I was about seven, my mother said, ‘You’ve got to learn [how to sew].’ African children are usually very independent. It was lovely to spend that time with her.”
It never occurred to Macdonald not to design her own prints for the sumptuous silks she sources in India, Japan and China. “When I started, I didn’t realise that most people didn’t do their own prints,” she admits. “I used to doodle on my text books at school and now I think it’s hilarious that it’s my job.”
While her design silhouettes are classic European with a modern twist, her prints conjure the exotic architecture of Zanzibar, the clashing colours of the spice markets of Addis Ababa and the grasslands and forests of the Serengeti National Park.
Travel has always inspired her – “it’s when your eyes are really open and there’s space in your mind to drink everything up” – but she also sees beauty in the simplest things, like autumn leaves spotted on her regular morning run in London’s royal parks, which led to the ‘Falling Leaves’ print in her AW20 collection. “I was looking at all these leaves on the ground and the different colours – red, yellow, orange and brown – and the next thing I knew I was stuffing them in my bum bag,” she says.
As a self-confessed maximalist, colour is at the heart of Macdonald’s design. It’s what connects her to her precious African homeland and sets her brand apart from all the beige and black that tends to swamp the British high street in winter. “In Tanzania you walk down the street and everyone is dressed in full colour, men included,” enthuses the woman dubbed the
“happy clothes” impresario by Forbes magazine.
“People aren’t afraid to wear pink trousers with a patterned orange top. It’s really joyous when you see a lot of colour. Slowly people are learning about the psychology of colour and how it really lifts your mood. All I’m trying to do is inject the world with a little bit of happiness and love.”
Although she returns often to Tanzania to visit relatives (2020 being the exception, thanks to
Covid-19!), Macdonald’s early years were nomadic, largely spent travelling throughout eastern and southern Africa with her UN diplomat parents. Her late father was a geologist and mining engineer, who advised governments on their mineral resources, and her late mother worked for the International Labour Organisation. The family settled in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, when she was four, but the 1977 military coup and resulting civil war turned her home into a war zone. “The schools closed when I was six and were turned into military camps, so I had to be home schooled,” she says. “Mum would set my homework in the morning and mark it at lunchtime, but at the end of the day, I had to be really disciplined and do it myself. I couldn’t play with other children and it got to the stage where it wasn’t normal; I was this mini adult.”
“When you grow up with war, it shapes you
in a whole different way,” continues
Macdonald, an only child until her brother
was born when she was ten. “Sirens would
go off across the city [at curfew] and
everyone would have to go home. I remember
lying underneath my parents’ bed in
darkness with my mum and doing Lego
with a torch. We had to close all the shutters
because of the tanks going past outside. As a
child, you don’t fear things in the same
way, and on one level, it seemed quite
exciting. You’re not aware you could
Her parents decided to send her to boarding school in England for her own safety. “They waved a pin around on a map and sent me to boarding school in the middle of the Gloucestershire countryside,” she laughs, marvelling now at the randomness of their choice. “It was a real culture shock – I’d never experienced cold like it.”
“I was the only black girl, so it was a steep learning curve,” she adds with understatement. “There were definite moments that were uncomfortable, but they were all life lessons. I met my best friend Lucy Creed at school and her whole family were incredible; I had a bedroom in their house and we’re still friends to this day.
“At the same time, when I went home to Tanzania, my family all thought I was incredibly lucky to be getting an education in the UK. My cousins would have chewed their arms off to change places with me.”
The experience taught her resilience, independence and, crucially, how to assimilate, which included picking up a British accent in double-quick time. “I will talk to anyone and make friends in half an hour,” she jokes. More seriously, she says: “It gave me that ability to want to meet people and not be afraid to approach someone and start a conversation, which is useful in this industry.” After finishing her degree at University College London, Macdonald worked in marketing for an advertising agency before a chance encounter with a TV stylist led to her assisting on a magazine photoshoot. “I loved it and went from there,” she says, listing clients ranging from Noughties’ pop group Here’Say to Mel B.
It was after returning to academia as a university lecturer when her children were small that she began to explore her own history and embarked on a Master’s in African politics and history at the prestigious SOAS University of London. “I felt I had a lot of gaps in my knowledge,” she says. “I knew about Henry VIII and Mary Queen of Scots but it was all British history. The library at SOAS gave me palpitations. I wanted to be able to read everything; it was an overwhelming experience and I drank it up.”
Her awareness of society’s racial and socio-economic inequalities was also shaped by her mother’s work with the African National Congress (ANC) in southern Africa, where she supported victims of letter bombs and other apartheid atrocities. “If she couldn’t arrange for them to get a workplace grant, she would bring them home,” says Macdonald fondly.
We couldn’t really complain, because if we did, mum would say, ‘There’s a one-legged man in the room next door.’ We were lucky and privileged
and politically aware.”
She credits her parents with instilling in her “this really wonderful gift” of wanting to give back, so it was a no brainer that philanthropy also formed a big part of her vision for Lisou. The brand currently donates all proceeds from one style per collection to charitable projects. Inspired by her parents’ community work, Macdonald set up the LIFE Trust in Tanzania, which offers grants to young Africans unable to afford education and medical costs. The aim is that those students helped financially through school and university by Lisou, will ultimately be willing to put something back into their own communities.
Closer to home in West London, the brand runs an annual textile competition in partnership with local schools supporting creative arts in the community. Last year’s winners had their designs made into silk scarves with profits going to their schools. Macdonald says she’s on a mission to inspire other young black people to follow careers in the creative arts.
“For a lot of traditional, first generation immigrant families there isn’t really an acceptance of the creative fields; they want their children to get secure jobs, such as becoming a doctor or accountant,” she explains. “It’s amazing how overwhelmed the [competition] winners were. One secondary school girl said, ‘I always thought I was thick’. It was her first time winning something in front of her peers.”
“I’ve always felt strongly that fashion can do lots of good,” she adds. “It’s not enough to be a brand anymore, you have a duty to be doing other things.” As part of Lisou’s slow fashion ethos, it has teamed up with non-profit organisation One Tree Planted to plant five trees across four continents – Africa, North America, Latin America, Asia and Australia – for every full-priced clothing item sold. A life-long vintage collector, Macdonald is also a firm believer in quality over quantity. “We’re not in the business of saying to people, ‘Buy loads.’ A really good quality, beautiful shirt is something you can wear for a long time. I love the fact that you’re not going to see our prints anywhere else; if you live in California and you wear one of our dresses, the chances of bumping into anyone else [in the same dress] are very slim.”
A trans-seasonal brand, Lisou has expanded its repertoire to include heavenly Mongolian lambswool jackets in a rainbow palette, jewel-coloured jacquard skirts, luxurious velvet pant suits, striking metallic pleated dresses and wool trousers. The AW20 collection was inspired by the feature film Hidden Figures, which highlighted the crucial work done by black female mathematicians, who worked at NASA during the Space Race in the 1960s and remained unrecognised until 2015.
“I commissioned my friend Kate Viner to draw a ‘flying lady’ for me to represent a woman’s strength,” explains Macdonald, who works from her West London studio. “After I saw Hidden Figures, I started researching all the women who had gone unrecognised in history for doing something extraordinary, and thought, ‘I’m going to take flying ladies and dot them all over my prints,’ including hiding them in the ‘Falling Leaves’ print. You can’t see it’s a woman until you get closer. “As a woman it’s important to me to recognise other women; we are in this together.”
It was Macdonald’s mother who taught her that as a black woman embarking on a professional career, she would have to work 110 percent harder than her white counterparts.
“I understood what mum was telling me –already as a woman you have to work harder, but being black meant it was going to be even tougher,’ she reflects. ” “That served me well; I never expected anything to be easy. I’ve definitely had jobs where things have been said that weren’t appropriate or people’s behaviour has been very obviously about my race. Because my parents talked to me about it and my dad went to uni here, I never took these things personally. With the whole BLM movement, you see the younger generation getting a lot angrier but you can’t spend your life being angry. It’s more about killing people with kindness and being polite.
“You’ve got to be willing to take little steps towards changing attitudes – and the key is not forgetting about it [the BLM movement] and saying, ‘Well, that’s fixed now,’ because it’s not, by any stretch of the imagination.”
Macdonald feels proud to stand alongside other black-owned brands. “By promoting black businesses, it makes people aware of what’s out there. If I manage to inspire someone else, my job is done.”