Sunday sit down with…Saint Belle
We meet Isabella Dryden, the North East designer looking to save the world of fashion through sustainable fashion
By Becky Hardy
Saint Belle stands at the dawn of a new decade as a female-owned and operated company, pioneering sustainable fashion through innovative design and manufacture in the North East of England.
Those aren’t our words, but they’re pretty impressive, right?
We thought we’d introduce you to Saint Belle with the words of its creator: North East fashion designer Isabella Dryden. After all, it is her baby. But more than that, Saint Belle promises to be a brand we can really, honestly, be proud of here in the North East – and not one that’s going to leave us for more exotic shores any time soon, either.
‘The three things that are really important to the concept of Saint Belle are sustainability, wearability, and traceability,’ explains Isabella. ‘Our core value is to make beautiful styles in the kindest way possible. So Saint Belle are going to take those three concepts and champion them in every way that we can.
‘Our range has been designed – literally from the earliest stages – so that you can swap and wear different combinations. Sustainable brands at the moment are so Australian-focused. I love so many of them, but they all stock floaty-white linen, and, unfortunately, the North East isn’t a tropical paradise! So I can never justify buying any of their pieces because they’re then not sustainable for me; I’m only ever going to wear them as a one-off, and I’m probably going to have to buy a big, chunky knit to go over the top of them to keep warm! So that was something that was at the forefront of my mind when starting Saint Belle: wearability for women here in the North East. We’ve designed shirt-dresses in the collection, for example, made in handwoven, beautiful black fabric, and you’ll be able to wear them with tights, a Doc Marten boot, and a leather jacket and be good to go.’
We’re more than happy to take her word for it. After all, since moving back from London after working with Ready to Wear designers Jonathan Saunders and Erdem in 2016, Isabella has thrown herself wholeheartedly into the Northern fashion world – joining a number of high-flying brands such as Pink Boutique and Forever Unique, (in high-flying roles, we may add), before making the leap to start her own label when we were all plunged into lockdown last March.
‘I’d worked for a mix of ready-to-wear, then went onto quite fast fashion brands, that supplied at boutiques level, so I had a real variety of experience in those areas,’ she tells us. ‘But somehow I felt like I still wasn’t settling. I really enjoyed my work. Especially at Forever Unique, that was an absolute dream of a role. They stock really feminine, beautiful designs all over Europe and I had an amazing level of responsibility. But I was based in Manchester and I was always flying around Europe. While that was fun, I was really missing a slice of home. I started to think to myself: I can’t keep doing this.
‘Then, of course, COVID hit. I always knew I’d wanted to have a bit of my own destiny in my hands, to go out and make something that was all my own. And I already had all of these ideas about not agreeing with the industry being as dirty as it is floating around my head. So when lockdown happened, I took a step back and enrolled on a business course with High Potential Startups. Well, my friend actually put me forward for it! I did it on a bit of a whim, but it was so great! The first question the guys there asked me was: “what is your why?” And I was just like: oh my word, that is such a huge question! But it was perfect because I then went away and figured out all my many answers to that one question. Then, almost secondary to that, came the style of Saint Belle. A lot of people, when they’re starting a business, start with their product first: they know they can buy it wholesale, for example, and can hit the market with a nice logo. But it totally happened the other way round for me. It was almost a back-to-front way of how you’d expect to start a fashion business!’
Isabella started that course last March; by August, the first shoots of Saint Belle had begun to grow. Now we’re into 2021 and Isabella has her sights set firmly on springtime to officially launch the business. Now that’s the way to lockdown!
In fact, spring really is the perfect time to launch for Saint Belle. Focused by Isabella’s passion for natural textiles and soft tonal palettes, the brand’s clothing and styles celebrate femininity, nature and nostalgia at their very core, and when do we reflect more on the past than when we’re at the brink of a new beginning? But while her designs have been created with the hope of conjuring pockets of memory within her wearers – the Marcella blouse, for example, was named after Isabella’s Mam, because its styling instantly took her back to old family photographs of summers in France – this element of nostalgia also refers to looking at past ways of making to protect the future of our planet.
‘I’ve just finished a really good book – have you heard of Kassia St Clair?’ Isabella asks. ‘She’s a fantastic writer. She’s got this book called The Golden Thread, which talks about how fabric was made and used throughout history. My husband always laughs at me whenever I mention this, because he doesn’t think anything could sound more boring! But I loved it. Anyway, one of the examples Kassia gave in this book was how interesting it was that archaeologists ran into Tutankhamun’s tomb and grabbed all of the gold and jewellery they could find, but actually what the Ancient Egyptians valued most – which is what they wrapped their bodies in – was fabric. It’s always those things that disintegrate over time that never really get recorded.
‘The fact that the fabric I’m using in Saint Belle is entirely handwoven using entirely natural resources – I use 100% cotton, and 30% of it has been recycled – I feel like some of those amazing historical elements come back into play. They were using hand-looms way back in Ancient Egypt! And the thing about the hand-loom is, it takes no electricity to run; the process actually reduces the amount of water that is needed to chemically clean fabrics, and it’s real people working in the same way that they could have done hundreds of years ago. I just find that beautiful. Hopefully, that will mean that Saint Belle can keep going for many years to come.’
A self-confessed David Attenborough super-fan and, in her own words, ‘such a tree-bather’, Isabella credits the beginnings of her devotion to protecting the planet in any way she can to two things: her love of nature and the early professional experience she gained working at cruelty-free cosmetics pioneer Lush while she was a student at Northumbria University. And while it’s nature that she credits as her main source of inspiration for her designs, Isabella’s early exposure to the socially- and environmentally-conscious business has influenced every layer of how Saint Belle operates.
‘Sustainability is really resonating with people at the moment,’ she acknowledges. ‘It’s really taken off – dare I say – as a trend. And while I like that, I am worried that people are going to start to become disillusioned by the idea of sustainability going forward. That’s why I think it’s important that we work sustainably through every stage of our processes at Saint Belle. Yes, our clothing is sustainable, but it doesn’t end there – yesterday, for example, I went out to buy recycled paper to sketch on. I’ve sought recycled packaging for our products. It even comes down to thinking about how much CO2 we’re using even to go out and sample these kind of things – that’s why I’m not going back and forth to overseas factories, I’m literally going down the road. It does all take a lot of thinking about, but it’s so worth it.’
We couldn’t agree more. In fact, here at HLN, we couldn’t really agree more with everything Saint Belle is and stands for. We all love our clothes, but we also love our planet and having a brand to represent us and our identities that is fundamentally rooted in a consciousness and protection of the environment is certainly a set of stylish sleeves we want to wear our hearts on.
But perhaps what resonates even more with us is the fact that Saint Belle hasn’t even launched yet, and already Isabella is killing the game as a female boss, (or, as we like to refer to them here at HLN, a boss). Championing her fellow women wherever she goes, Isabella has deliberately sought female-led manufacturers, pattern cutters and packagers to work with at every stage of the production process – making the traceability of Saint Belle not only crystal-clear and squeaky-clean, but also female-driven.
‘I don’t just see the brand as a beacon of fashion – it’s a lot more of a co-operative, and that’s something that I’ve had to realise and almost learn to enjoy,’ Isabella reveals. ‘Saint Belle can really give a platform where artisan makers can come together under one name in fashion, which I’m hoping is going to become something really special for the brand. So we can explain the provenance of a fabric, a button, a basket bag or t-shirt. In almost the same way that we now have an understanding about where our food has come from – which farm our food has come from, which farmer it was managed by, potentially even what type of grass the animal ate – I want to bring that same understanding into the fashion industry and celebrate it. If I can do that, I’ll be happy.
‘I also think women really deserve a slice of the fashion pie. We’re the ones that are marketed to all the time, we’re the ones that are told: “you need this look, you need that look”. But actually, those high-flying fashion companies are often headed up by men. And even if their CEO is female, the actual company still tends to be male-owned. That really gets to me. At Saint Belle, our fabric is hand-loomed by female-led manufacturers out in India, and their European agent is also a woman who’s working with other women across the continent to make sure we get the right contacts in place. Our swing tickets are hand-pressed and gilded by a female-led studio in Devon; our graphic designer is a woman; our pattern-cutters are women-led and based right here in the North East. Everything just aligned.’
About time, we say! But has her girl-powered fashion engine presented Isabella with more challenges as a woman in the driving seat?
‘I feel very fortunate that the people I’ve worked with so far have been so supportive and can see the value in what I’m going to do,’ she tells us. ‘But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had push-backs from people. Some have accused the brand of being “too frivolous” or “too girly” and I’ve been expected to tone it down. But it’s not in my nature to tone things down! If I want to go to an important business meeting and make notes with my fluffy Elle Woods pen, then I’m going to do it!
‘There’s a bit of a running joke around where I live because I always walk my dog in dresses. I’ll head out in a frilly summer dress, I’ll probably take a straw bag with me and I’ll go out and walk my dog, and what I love is that I’ll walk past guys who are fully kitted out head-to-toe in Berghaus! But I just think: nope, I can actually walk my dog in a frilly dress and I’ll still be fine! I don’t know if that’s any kind of symbolism or not, but I do feel like that’s how it’s been for me in business. I’m not going to change who I am to fit into a male-dominated industry, because I believe that you can bring so many lovely characteristics as a woman: approachability and being sensitive are two that I think really make a big difference in the best way. So I’m never going to suppress my version of femininity!’