Lisa Levis – the artist formerly known as Lisa Stickley (BTW it’s Levis as in Nevis, not Levis as in jeans…let’s clear that up right now) sits at her white-painted 1950s desk in a stylish studio on the first floor of London’s renovated Leather Market, SE1. All around her are colourful moodboards, swatches, proto-types – tantalising glimpses of new patterns and designs. Her vintage kitchen cupboards (“painted by my dad!”) have old suitcases stacked on top of them, while pretty teapots and vases of dried hydrangeas make the space feel homely. It’s as though she’s been there for years. But in fact, she’s just moved in, having left behind the screen-printing company she founded in her dad’s garage back in 1999 – Lisa Stickley London – after a stressful period of board room negotiations and an attempted buy-out. So, what happened? And what’s next?
“It all went belly up. Bananas. Whatever. To be honest, I’m a designer, not a business woman,” admits Lisa, sipping tea from an antique mug and glancing at the rising Shard building, which is framed perfectly by her high window. “To cut a long story short, we needed money for expansion and I took the wrong strategic advice. The people who got involved wanted to go in one direction and I felt that the integrity of what I was doing was being lost. So, I chose to step away from the brand. I’d lost control of what was happening.”
It wasn’t an easy decision to leave her homegrown empire and lose her name. “When I left, I had to dust myself off and pull myself together,” she explains, tears welling. “It was a long, testing period – and I was so stressed that I wasn’t very well. It took eighteen months to sort it all out. I don’t regret the decision to leave because I knew I couldn’t make it work. You have to change direction sometimes.”
Lisa says she feels like a very different person after such a stressful episode. “I don’t want to turn in to a cynical, evil, hard-nosed business woman because I am a creative person. I’m sensitive and I’m naïve – but hopefully I’m a bit less naïve now. When you want help and people compliment you, you take it as flattery and think you’re doing the right thing. But that’s not always the case…”
Lisa changed her name anyway, when she married designer Richard Levis last September. “I spent a long time shopping on eBay for our wedding, buying stick-on moustaches and vintage candlesticks. I screen-printed napkins in my parents’ garden – going back to basics. It was quite funny, because that’s where I had started all those years ago – washing off my screens round the back of my dad’s shed. It was like I’d gone full circle, which was nice, but a bit odd at the same time!”
After a fabulous honeymoon – “hanging out and pottering” on Italy’s Amalfi coast, Lisa returned to her Clapham flat – above her old shop – and came down to earth with a thump. “I cried. Mid-October until Christmas was the hardest time. Everybody was going out for Christmas parties. I kept thinking: last year, there were eleven of us at our party and I was at the head of the table. But suddenly, it was just me.”
Not one to be defeated, Lisa went out in Soho with her new husband and had her own party anyway. “I realised I had to move forward. Either I could lock myself in a cupboard and never do any work again, or I could take the plunge and go it alone! I decided to take the second option.” Faced with a blank page, Lisa confesses it was “daunting as hell”, but also: “really exciting.”
Her positivity in the face of adversity is inspirational; Her energy and enthusiasm admirable. She’s already created a new company: Hillside Way, with two new brands up her sleeve. “I’ve just signed a license with a rather large UK retailer,” reveals Lisa. “It’s a range of gifts and home accessories, set to launch this autumn. I’m also launching a new brand next year (spring 2013) which is higher-end; Ladylike fashion and lifestyle products to be sold online through my website and in selected stockists.”
Lisa is older, wiser, and looking forward to the future. “When you have a big jolt in your life, it’s a good time to reassess and take stock,” she says. “My time was taken up with board meetings and financial stuff. I feel so lucky to be in the position I’m in now. I have amazing backers, who have helped me to get a great studio away from home (and my old shop), so I can escape and make a fresh start. I love it here. I can see the Gherkin and I’m watching the Shard being built. I’m relishing the creative freedom – and I’ve had huge amounts of support from everybody in the industry.”
Her new label – Hillside Way – is named after the road in Welwyn Garden City where she was born, while the (still secret) names of her two new brands are inspired by her great grandmothers and her husband’s late grandmother.
“I’ve lost my name, but I’m still me! I love what I do. I can’t stop what I do, even if I wanted to. I get bored when I’m not working and designing. It doesn’t really matter what name is on it; I’m doing what I’m doing and hopefully it will work!”
As I leaf through the two new top secret Hillside Way collections, salivating over new prints and patterns, ogling elegant handbags and chic laptop cases – I have a sneaking suspicion that it will.
Meanwhile, the emporium of polka dots, whimsical home accessories and vintage-inspired handbags that she founded all those years ago seems to be missing a certain something these days. Good luck to them, I say. They’re going to need it.