Issa dresses are the staple frock for jet-setters around the world. The Brazilian designer Daniella Helayel holds court on her creations.
The future is bright
Daniella Helayel is excited about colour. The 36-year-old Brazilian-born, London-based designer's dress label Issa is only eight years old, but she has few worries about surviving in a difficult economy. In fact, she's launching a whole new line (of which more later), and can boast a good year in sales so far, up 20 per cent from last year. The -secret of her success is, she believes, bright prints. "I think it's so popular here because of the colours," she says. "In all the Middle East we sell quite well. Also in the UK, Italy, -Japan and Brazil: it doesn't make too much sense, unless it's all about the -colours." Helayel has just returned from a holiday in the Maldives and she is thrilled. "I saw the most beautiful sea," she sighs. "It's like so many prints. I did eight dives there - it was amazing. Lots of fish, lots of black and white and yellows. My idea of paradise is exactly that: white sands and beautiful blues and greens and the water is so clear. And then you'd see a baby shark swimming in -water this shallow. Nature totally unspoilt."
Whether the Maldives collection will feature in a couple of seasons' time she cannot predict, but she certainly has no qualms about using the luxury beach lifestyle as inspiration for her label's newest development: "I'm working on a holiday line, Issa Holiday, which should be in the shops in October or November," she chatters away happily. "It's going to be loads of different kaftans, but not boring kaftans that are, like, square, that when you put them on they make you look like a sack. These are quite glamorous," - she uses her hands to indicate a feminine, curvy shape - "that have the feeling that they just leave a trace behind in the air. I'm working on lots of details." It's that relaxed, louche, loungey approach that Helayel wholeheartedly represents in both her fashion and her own lifestyle. "It's about clothes you can wear to receive your friends at home. It's super-relaxed but has that whole glamour effect, and I figure that people like it. We are doing a lot of swimwear like bikinis - I think it's perfect for the Middle East, because the women who love kaftans here will love it. All the shops say, oh, we want more kaftans. I love that lifestyle. I'm very relaxed. Even my house in London is very Moroccan - I have a big tent, and I love to be barefoot..." Certainly, beneath the glossy "done" hair, polished skin and crisp, fresh, white eyelet cotton dress, Helayel is absolutely a free spirit, a giggly creature, combining Latin sultriness with the eccentricity that comes from having lived in London for nine years. Her upbringing was in Rio de Janeiro, followed by a stint in New York working as a buying agent and fashion consultant for Brazilian brands. Eventually, tired of working for other people, she moved to London and decided to start her own label. Not that she even knew how to make clothes, of course."I can't sew - I get lots of ideas, and I love to do the prints and work with colours - I think that's my strongest point. At the time, I was like, oh so many people are wearing black, all those -pretty girls. So when I moved to London, I would buy lots of vintage in New York and bring it to London and my friends loved that. I had an amazing vintage collection. I -started buying lots of jersey from Pucci and other less well-known brands, and this fabric was so fantastic - it's so easy because it wouldn't take any space, and the girls, they would jump in and say, oh, can I borrow your dress? And I was like, you girls are always in jeans and T-shirts, and they kept asking for my clothes." In fact, unlike, say, a tailoring expert such as McQueen or a conceptualist like Rei Kawakubo, Helayel's brand of fashion is pretty much entirely about great ideas, great colours and flattering shapes: it is, she admits, about putting good things together in a good way. And there's a lot to be said for that approach. "I always had a bit of that since I was a kid. I would put on even just a white T-shirt and shorts and people would say, 'Oh, I love that, where did you get it?' When I used to live in Rio I always felt a bit like a fish outside of the tank, because I would go to the beach and I always had lots of sarongs, and I loved fabrics always. I loved colours and I was good at putting things together. It comes naturally; it's funny. The first print I did was from a Chinese candy paper. It was a rabbit print, so I did two prints from a candy paper and it worked. It's something I didn't know I had before. When I started to do it, it just came; it's so weird." Gracious enough to sound genuinely amazed at her own success - though she is not without pride as well - Helayel is also generous with praise for those who help her, one key example being her graphic -designer, who helps with those amazing prints. "I draw but I'm bad at computers, so when I first started this I hired a Chinese designer who had just graduated from Central Saint Martins to come and help me, and he was amazing on computers. He would draw super-well and I would guide him." Perhaps even more essential to the Issa aesthetic, Helayel's pattern cutter is of the old school, a veteran of those late-Sixties designers that she so admires and, to a certain extent, emulates. "I have an amazing pattern cutter," she says. "He is 73 years old and he was a designer with Ossie Clark, who'd ask him to cut his patterns at the same time as Zandra Rhodes, and he's just amazing. He knows everything, he's the best I could get. He started working with me in December 2002 and that's when I made the first dress that was perfect, in the sense of the shape - the cut was really good. I love that era - it's very bohemian, laid back." In other words, relaxed or not, Helayel nevertheless places huge emphasis on cut and fabric - perhaps a result of working in New York, as well as her own admiration for the traditional side of her adopted London. Those icons of Britain play a huge part in her life. She is, for example, the proud owner of one of London's classic black cabs - in spite of the fact that she doesn't drive, having had her licence stolen in 2005 and unable to face the Kafkaesque nightmare of getting a new one in Brazil. She has, instead, a driver who does all her press deliveries. "When I first moved to London my dream was to have a 24-hour taxi with a driver, because London taxis are the best - they can go in the taxi lane, or bus lane, they can do U-turns, they can do everything. And on top of this all the drivers, the black taxis, they knew how to get everywhere. And I love black taxis." For Helayel, the biggest fashion icon is not a Marrakech hippy in the Talitha Getty mould but the unlikely figure of Elizabeth II, Queen of England. "The Queen is an icon I think she's fab. She's amazing! She's an institution." And this is perhaps the key to Issa's success: Helayel is not interested in catching on to a trend or manipulating women's bodies into outlandish shapes: she simply wants to make everyone look as fabulous as they possibly can, whatever their age, lifestyle or background. "My main thing is Issa for all. I want to design things that an 18-year-old girl can wear, and her grandmother suddenly can wear the same piece in a different way but they don't look outdated, and they have that glamour effect. -Everything has to flatter the figure, no matter what is your body shape and your age. We're really fussy with the cut. Sometimes we'll do six prototypes and then still say, 'Let's not do it, let's do another one, we can't fix it.' It's like -clothing -engineering: -really simple and super-well-cut." That's why Helayel, like Coco Chanel herself, is devoted to -jersey. "Jersey is so easy: it doesn't crinkle, it looks beautiful, it's easy to just hang and it's fine, you don't need to iron it, and it can be ready anywhere at any time, and it doesn't take space. I was in Brazil a few weeks ago and I was talking to some women there and one of them was like, 'Yeah, I wear Issa the most- -whenever I travel - I take all my Issa dresses because they don't take any space in my suitcase so I can pack loads of clothes.'" A fashion line that's all about making women feel gorgeous and spend less time ironing? What's not to like?