LONDON — When it comes to first impressions, Petra Ecclestone certainly fits the mold of a 22-year-old heiress. The youngest daughter of Bernie Ecclestone — the billionaire chief executive of Formula 1 racing — is possessed of tanned, Bambi-like limbs, tumbling blonde locks and doe eyes that she’s accentuated with sooty mascara. When she arrives at the sleek Knightsbridge showroom where her new accessories line, Stark, is on display, she’s wearing a form-fitting, printed Mary Katrantzou mini-dress and totters on peep-toe ankle boots.
If any further proof were needed of her “It” girl status, Ecclestone made a major splash in the U.S. earlier this summer when she bought the late Aaron Spelling’s 100-room mansion for a reported $85 million. The move somewhat scuppered Ecclestone’s mission to remain low key when she launches Stark during New York Fashion Week this month.
This story first appeared in the September 2, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“I wasn’t [well known in the U.S.] before the house but, yeah, my plan’s kind of gone down the drain,” says Ecclestone, who chuckles gamely at the new-found interest in her for buying one of America’s most expensive properties. Before the deal, she was best known in Europe for popping up at London events with her 27-year-old sister, Tamara.
Despite having all the trappings of what she acknowledges is a “very fortunate and privileged background,” Ecclestone is adamant that she’s taking her foray into accessories as seriously as if she were a complete unknown. “[My background] doesn’t change that I’m trying to be a successful designer,” says Ecclestone, her tones hinting at her education at the Francis Holland School, a posh London girls school. “Obviously people are going to have preconceived ideas that it’s not me working, that I don’t come to the office, like I do — I don’t think you can ever change that. Hopefully we’ll have a good reaction and [the collection] will speak for itself.”
The collection in question is a line of evening handbags made from ultraluxurious materials such as python skin, alligator skin and nappa leather, many adorned with gold studs or Swarovski crystals and designed to appeal to the jet-setting types of Ecclestone’s ilk. “They’re just really kind of fun, glitzy pieces,” she says, adding that the collection is aimed at women “my age and a bit older, obviously because of the price points.”
Stark starts at $495 and runs up to $4,795 for a boxy, alligator skin clutch with a metal clasp molded into a roaring panther motif. Ecclestone makes frequent trips to factories in Italy to source the materials, picking out the different skins and crystals. The bold pink, orange and green leathers and skins she’s used in the first collection are inspired by Tracey Emin’s works (the artist is a favorite of Ecclestone’s.) And a portion of the sales of the bags with the panther clasp will go toward Britain’s Meningitis Trust, which Ecclestone has worked with since she contracted viral meningitis as a teenager.
Before launching Stark, Ecclestone had a men’s wear collection, Form, which won major stockists including Harrods and Matches in London, before she shuttered it late last year. Ecclestone, who turned down a place at London’s Central Saint Martins to start Form, decided to wind down the collection because, she says, it was “the wrong timing” to launch a new men’s label at “the peak of the recession.”
She’s confident about the launch of Stark, even with the gyrations of global stock markets. “I think the world is still all over the place and the economy is really not great. I think it’s picked itself up but who knows what’s next in the next few months,” she allows. “But then again, it’s women’s accessories and I think that’s where women spend a great deal of money, is [on] their handbags and their shoes.”
The collection will get its debut with a presentation at the Gramercy Park Hotel, and will mark the culmination of a busy few months for Ecclestone.
After purchasing the aforementioned Spelling mansion, she plans to move into the property in late September, along with her new husband James Stunt — whom she married in Italy last month — and the couple’s five dogs, ranging from a Rottweiler to a Maltipoo.
“I’ve always wanted to move [to Los Angeles] but I’ve just talked my fiancé into it,” she admits with a grin. “’Cause he’s very English and he loves London, but we went to L.A. like a few months ago, and…we both felt we were sad to leave. I got my way in the end,” she smiles.
Stunt, who’s a private investor, will run his business from their new West Coast home, while Ecclestone will also make it her design base, with trips back to Europe to visit factories and see her family. And does she imagine she’ll become a fixture of Los Angeles’ much documented social scene? “I’ll be married when I get there, so it’s not like I’ll be a single girl out on the town,” she laughs. Instead, she and Stunt “really enjoy staying in and watching TV or watching movies.”
Indeed, Ecclestone is keen to downplay her own celebrity, and insists the interest in her acquiring the Spelling mansion is down to its former owners rather than her own profile. “I guess ’cause it’s such an important house in L.A., and obviously because it’s a huge family, it’s like a dynasty and probably that’s why it was such a big deal,” she says, before hastily adding: “Obviously it is a big deal and I don’t want to say it happens on a daily basis.”
Ecclestone plans to stamp her own aesthetic on the sprawling property. “We’ve changed the majority, everything,” she says. “It’s [in] my taste, which is quite masculine and quite dark actually…and it’s livable. I like things that are cozy, not kind of modern and very minimalistic and you can’t really sit down on a chair if it’s uncomfortable.” Endearingly, she notes that she picked out the storied mansion as it’s in “a good residential area,” with “a huge garden,” making it sound more like a country cottage than a prime piece of real estate.
She also took a hands-on approach to her wedding, which took place at the fairy-tale Odescalchi Castle, near Rome. “Even though I’ve got an amazing company to organize the majority of it, when it’s your wedding, you’ve got so many expectations and it’s the thing that you dream about your whole life, so I really wanted it to be perfect,” she says, speaking before the wedding.
Ecclestone wore what she described as “a real princess dress” by Vera Wang for the ceremony, while Andrea Bocelli, the Black Eyed Peas and Eric Clapton were among the artists reported to have performed at the reception.
Now that the extravaganza is over, she and Stunt are foregoing a honeymoon and getting straight back to work. Ecclestone has plans for a footwear collection in the future, and hopes to eventually open her own store in Los Angeles. But while she’s determined that Stark will expand “worldwide,” she maintains that her own growing celebrity will take a back seat.
“It’s not about me — it’s not a Petra Ecclestone handbag, it’s a Stark handbag. There’s a huge difference,” she says. “I’m not trying to push my brand as the Petra Ecclestone brand. It’s two separate things.”