Isla Simpson seems to live in a world bedecked in the beauty of her own creation. The multifaceted designer has adorned stationery, china, mirrors, linens, and candles with her delightfully romantic visions of climbing ivy, budding roses, and silky ribbons, creating a portfolio that is nothing short of a chintzy fairytale. Before she lent her hand to the world of lush interiors and painted papers, Simpson spent a decade and a half working in accessories design, an experience she says informs her work now but also gave her courage to set off on her own away from the world of fashion. To add further to her impressive resume, Simpson is a Documenting Fashion alum of sorts, having studied with Dr. Rebecca Arnold during their time at Central Saint Martins! Below, we caught up with Simpson about the journey she’s taken following the passion that has always tugged at her (surely bow-tied) heartstrings.
I’ve garnered from your social media and your lovely website that you started your career working in fashion (and I’ve also gathered that you might be eager to talk about it! No pressure if you are not, of course). How did you enter into the fashion industry and what did your career in the fashion world entail?
I knew from the moment I arrived at Saint Martin’s that accessories design was for me, so I worked as a weekend shop girl at Anya Hindmarch and went straight into women’s handbag design on graduation. I worked for various brands over 15 years, designing everything from the shape of the bag and purses to the metal componentry and the leathers. It was a niche career, but I’d engineered myself into the ‘It bag’ era, so my skill set was in demand.
What made you decide to depart from the fashion industry to start your independent career as a designer and illustrator?
Longevity in my field has always been important to me. The generation of designers above me all seemed to disappear after 40, so I knew I had a problem on the horizon. I could foresee the industry would only support me if I went into middle management in an age-appropriate brand. The only way to future-proof myself was to set up on my own, and I thought it was scarier not to try…
I should add I was also creatively burnt out, too. When I entered the industry, we designed the traditional two seasons a year. By the time I left, it was nudging eight collections. It took a pandemic to stop those product-churning cogs, even though we all knew it was wrong.
Do you find that your time in fashion informs the way you work now? Have you reshaped your creative process as you work independently?
Absolutely! Fashion training was second to none, I learnt everything I know standing on the factory floor (my factories were amazing), drawing technical drawings, software packages etc. You have to meet the deadline; the buck stops with you.
When that chapter closed, I had to ‘reboot and unplug’ myself from trends, and the merchandising team whispering ‘bestseller’ in my ear. I sought inspiration in the British Library archives and old country houses. I allowed myself to be besotted with everything chintzy and feminine, for no reason other than my enjoyment.
I now only design products that I truly love, in the hope that my followers love them too. Because my designs come from a place of true passion, and respect for chintz patterns, that sustains me through the tough times such as 2020.
You work with such a wide variety of media – gorgeous papers, linens and, of course, the iPad. Do you find that your approach to illustration changes across each?
It definitely keeps things fresh! The uniting aesthetic is that my work is always quite flat, respecting that tradition of graphic, block printing in chintz surface pattern.
Sadly, few new chintz patterns are designed – it’s just no longer commercially viable to pay a designer for weeks to hand paint as they would have done in the old days. I’ve developed techniques that mimic the textures and brushes of old chintzes on the iPad, which means I can design that old-school look faster. All the brands I collaborate with are in a hurry, so there’s no time for scanning in and cleaning up.
Your work seems so steeped in the lush beauty of British history. Are there any particular periods or styles of design history that inform your work?
I used to spend hours at the Museum of Costume in Bath as a teenager which probably tells you everything you need to know about my love for Regency aesthetic. I’m drawn to the sentimentality of Victoriana, but stylistically I’m always trying to return to the 80s/90s – the cosy chapter of my childhood.
Is there a relationship between your personal style and your designs?
The two are now so intertwined, I barely know where one begins and the other starts…I want ruffles on my dresses, bed linen and my linen hand towel designs.
In the fashion years, I had to suppress my own style in favour of whichever accessories brand I was designing for and represented. Now, I just feel unapologetically myself – you could come back in twenty years’ time and the house will still be full of blousey curtains and pie-crust collars. It’s just part of my DNA.
Finally, this might be a bit selfish, but it seems that you have an unbelievable collection of vintage ribbons and textiles and I’m so curious to have a metaphorical peek: is there one ribbon or swatch that has been particularly inspiring or comforting to you during this year spent inside?
I used to feel embarrassed about being a grown woman collecting ribbons, but I am in good company on Instagram, so I’ll happily share.
My Mum studied Italian in Naples as a mature student, and I used to visit her during the holidays. This silky swatch came from the most fantastic vintage ribbon shop – I wish I could remember the address – I’d give my right arm to return to. The woven underside is as beautiful as the top. I’m launching lots of embroidered table linen designs this year, all of which were designed during the pandemic year, when I had to make do and be resourceful with my inspiration. Ribbons make the best colourway and construction research.
Interview by Ruby Redstone