Lily Allen and Sarah Owen, in Dubai to launch their new clothing line at Boutique 1, talk to The National about fame, fashion and Bridget Jones The Musical.
Lily Allen and sister Sarah Owen launch new fashion line
Can you be too honest? Lily Allen may feel so. The singer is known for being, let's say, extremely open about her feelings. She made her name through that honesty, with songs whose lyrics are often unflinching, slightly melancholy explorations of either her own perceived inadequacies or those of other people. They're funny and powerful enough to have won three Ivor Novello awards in 2010, two of which recognised her song The Fear for its musings on the vacuous world of celebrity-chasing that has been at once her making and her breaking.
It is a virtue, certainly, but honesty is also a double-edged sword. Growing up and finding fame through social-networking - MySpace was the key to her initial success - she has used Twitter and the like to keep in touch with her fans, but it has also been the source of so many of the scandals featured in the British tabloids, who reported on her painfully open posts about her weight, her distress and her feuds with other pop stars and journalists, and picked at the scabs until she closed down all her social networking sites. She returned to Twitter a few months later, and remains as outspoken as ever, with her most recent feud exploding over comments made by the controversial British journalist Julie Burchill in a column in The Sun.
She is, she admitted to the same newspaper a few years ago (one of the very papers she mentions in The Fear as being a driver behind the celeb-baiting), "gobby". Five years later, when we meet at the Jumeirah Beach Residence branch of Boutique 1, in Dubai, where she and her half-sister Sarah Owen are launching their new fashion line Lucy In Disguise, she appears to have mellowed somewhat, but is still willing to admit, with a rueful laugh, that "I'm just not very good at keeping my mouth closed".
For many, that is an admirable quality, but Owen, 31, may be less inclined to agree: moments later, asked if her famously vocal approach to political or social issues and support of the green movement had informed her fashion range, Allen says: "No, I wouldn't say, necessarily. Our clothes are made in China and then shipped from there, so I wouldn't call that particularly green, and then get shipped direct from China to..." She looks to Owen, who obligingly fills in the details - "all the different hubs around the world" - and then goes on to smooth over a potential "Chinagate" by explaining how the ethos of second-hand fashion (the original Lucy In Disguise boutique is a vintage store, and the collection is based on retro styles) is "all about reusing stuff and encouraging other people to do the same".
The collection, green or not, is full of pretty, flattering pieces, modelled on some of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s styles, shapes and fabrics that have come through the sisters' hands during the course of launching their vintage store in London's Covent Garden.
"When we were just collecting stuff for the shop in London we would buy things that we knew weren't necessarily going to work on the shop floor but we were drawn to for some reason," says Allen, "and when we'd accumulated a massive pile of this stuff that we couldn't sell we thought, well, we've got to do something with it, and we used them as our inspiration pieces for this collection, and for future collections as well."
They're not direct copies, insist the sisters: "They're little bits, whether it be a collar or a button or a bit of appliqué, a cut or whatever." While Allen admits to being a little bored with the nitty-gritty of the manufacturing process, Owen scatters her conversation with the jargon of the industry - manufacturers, supply chains and so on - and throughout the chat is busy on her smartphone, making sure stock is arriving as expected.
"I'm excited to go out and meet the factories, and see it," she says. "I mean that's the last piece of the jigsaw."
"Yeah, I think the reality of the manufacturing is interesting," adds Allen, reluctantly. "Just on paper it's not particularly gripping."
It's an interesting dynamic: Allen and Owen are different in many ways - Allen perhaps a little more plummy of accent and, at 26, considerably more confident, talking over Owen sometimes, but often deferring to her for concrete information or detail. Physically, too, the family resemblance is there, even if where Owen is tall and angular, with cheekbones that could cut through steak, Allen is a wholesome, curved creature, with bright eyes and, when she smiles, a genuine radiance.
She doesn't always smile though: she's been through thousands of interviews, and her strongly lidded brown eyes offer a disconcertingly direct, slightly bored gaze, with barely a flicker even when she is being facetious, which is not infrequently. Anyone who has seen her father Keith Allen on screen would recognise it as a sweeter version of his trademark challenging stare, unmitigated by the slightest twinkle of eye.
Still, for all their differences, they seem to have an easy rapport and claim that working together has entailed only the challenges of any family company.
"It's definitely had its ups and downs," says Allen. "It's the same with any family business, and any partnership, so you know, it hasn't been the easiest thing ever, but starting off a business is not going to be easy."
Certainly it is less likely to be easy when one half of the partnership already has a wildly successful career, without which the project might have been little more than a kooky second-hand shop in London.
Allen is very aware of her own fame. "Suppliers know I'm around looking for stuff now, and their prices increase accordingly, so I'm not the best person to source stuff to make a profit on, put it that way," she points out, and Owen says that they have "trusted suppliers" to help them stock the shop. "We don't go around wearing a big Lucy In Disguise badge," says Allen -sarcastically.
What is evident is that they both remain thrilled by vintage fashion. Owen loves to hang out on the shop floor, she says, though Allen remains mute on this point, and they both wait eagerly for their next shipments of clothes, with Allen messing around a little on eBay too.
"It's difficult though - if you're really drawn to a piece, there's definitely a bit of an emotional attachment to it, and then to kind of put it on a rail with a price tag, it's hard…" Allen droops sadly, then laughs, and Owen finishes her sentence. "If something gets sold when I'm not there, I find it really hard that I haven't had a chance to say goodbye..."
Allen jumps in: "I have to have a full description of who bought it: 'What do you mean? What were they like? What kind of accent did they have?'"
A good deal of this mutual obsession is down to their mother, the film producer Alison Owen.
"Yah, our mother's a fashion victim," declaims Allen theatrically, before returning to her normal voice. "No, she's not, but she definitely hung around quite a sort of fashiony group of people, and there were lots of parties that we went to as kids, and saw lots of very glamorous people, you know, walking around our house, and I think that it rubbed off."
Owen joins in: "She herself had very much an evolution of style, you know; she started off as a punk, and then she did the whole 80s body-con thing, then a 50s floral tea dress phase, a prom dress phase... So yes I think that watching her evolve has allowed us to not be pigeonholed."
Being pigeonholed is something that Allen continues to rail against, in fashion and music. Anyone looking back at the early videos, all prom dresses with brightly coloured trainers, would find it hard to reconcile her with the Chanel-clad girl of the past few years or the calm, bucolically dressed 26-year-old here today, wearing a Lucy In Disguise dress over leggings and soaring nude shoes.
"Mm-hmm," she sighs impatiently, when I point this out, clearly tired of the comparison.
"I think, you know, my style has changed because I've grown older. I was 19, 18, when I started doing photoshoots and music videos and I'm 26 now. I mean are you wearing the same things you were wearing when you were a teenager?" (She looks me up and down and smirks. Ouch.) "It's that, you know, you change, and you grow up, and your body changes as well, you know, you change accordingly."
Another way she has changed? She has entirely given up touring with her own music, preferring to stay in her Cotswolds mansion, and about to marry Sam Cooper on June 11. Although she is rarely to be seen falling out of London pubs these days, the fame won't go away: she is reportedly having to pay towards a police presence to keep press and intruders away from the wedding in Gloucestershire, after the date of the event was leaked in March, and she is very pointed on her refusal to discuss the dress, other than to say that she's on her way to Paris to look at frocks.
Nevertheless, she remains, she says, someone who seems to "always have a million things going on at once. Yes, it's exciting that I'm getting married, but I'm not one of those people that's like, my wedding's the only thing."
It's a big thing, though, and part of her reason for not touring - and for having no desire to be on stage when her musical version of Bridget Jones's Diary is staged, for which she has delivered about 15 songs.
"You know what, it's more like a time thing, and it's the same reason that I don't want to go on tour with my own music: it's that I've found a partner who I'd like to spend more time with, and you know I don't think that I really wanna be away from him every night of the week...
"It's difficult to commit to spending a year and a half, two years away from home, that's a really big commitment. I feel like I've achieved what I wanted to achieve, and I don't need to push it forever; I'm not that kind of person. I'm enjoying not getting up at 5 o'clock in the morning to check into a flight, get off the flight, get on the stage, get on a flight, get off the flight, get on the stage." She laughs wearily. "You know, I don't really think that the fame aspect has changed necessarily; I think people are still just as interested as they were."