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LONDON — Up a patchwork staircase, down a striped hallway and inside a kaleidoscope-like living room filled with mannequins’ heads, art books and stacks of 45s, Julie Verhoeven sits quietly in a black dress embroidered with a big peacock.
The London-based illustrator, set designer, trend-spotter, stylist, former assistant to John Galliano and teacher at Central Saint Martins School of Design is about to unveil her first fashion collection.
It’s something that, a year ago, she never imagined she’d be doing.
Verhoeven, whose erotic, sensual drawings have appeared on everything from Louis Vuitton bags to Cacharel fashion show sets to the pages of Dazed & Confused, was plucked from the galaxy of London’s creative stars to design the Italian clothing manufacturer Gibò’s new in-house collection.
The line, which will make its debut on Saturday during London Fashion Week, is known as Gibò by Julie Verhoeven.
“I’m an illustrator, and I never had any aspirations for my own collection,” said Verhoeven, who’s sitting on a patchwork-covered couch in the south London house she decorated with her husband, Brazilian-born abstract artist Fabio Almeida.
“But when Gibò asked me to do the collection, gave me no brief, no guidelines and told me to get on with it, I went ahead. It was really liberating.”
The collection is a first for Gibò, which specializes in turning edgy, young brands into commercial businesses. In the past, it has made clothing for Helmut Lang and Alexander McQueen and today, the company manufactures for designers including Sir Paul Smith, Hussein Chalayan, Viktor & Rolf, Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors and Antonio Berardi.
“For years, we’ve been wanting to put our expertise to use and come out with our own collection, something that would reflect our history as an incubator for young, niche design talent,” said Franco Penè, who controls Gibò with Onward Kashiyama and is the company’s chairman and chief executive.
“Finding the right designer was the hardest part, which is why we continued to postpone the project. I didn’t want someone who already had [his or her] own collection. I wanted to create more of a Tom Ford for Gucci or Nicolas Ghesquière for Balenciaga dynamic,” he said in a telephone interview.
Finding a London-based designer and launching the label here were top priorities for Penè. “I have a deep belief that fashion’s creative home is, and will remain, London. The creative ground is fertile.”
In addition to making and marketing the collection, Gibò plans to open a 2,160- square-foot store on Conduit Street in January. The space is the former Alexander McQueen store, which at the time was operated by Gibò.
Verhoeven, who’s inspired by “the human form and nature, human behavior and pop culture,” said the 70-piece collection has an early-Eighties sportswear feel with parachute silks, bright primary colors and graphic designs.
“It’s a bit ‘Let’s Get Physical,’” the soft-spoken designer giggled. Verhoeven is a big fan of in-your-face color: “Color is so emotive and powerful, and I never see it in isolation. But I love black and white, too. I often need to bring in black as a contrast.”
The collection also features jersey dresses with satin inserts, smock dresses with high drawstring waists, cotton chintz coats and jackets, and dresses with flocking or shell appliqués, embroidery and prints.
“These are dead-easy pieces,” Verhoeven said. “I tried to approach it spontaneously and see what evolved. I was responding to how I felt at the time I was designing.”
Penè said he asked Verhoeven to create the “strongest possible identity” for the new collection.
“It doesn’t matter to me how difficult or easy this collection will be to sell. My priority was not to clip the designer’s wings,” he said.
Penè said he expects the line to generate $9 million to $12 million in wholesale volume during the next three years. He’ll be targeting Gibò’s traditional clients — including Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and Jeffrey — and expects to build up 200 clients by the third season. Retail prices will range from $310 to $490 for a pair of trousers to $600 to $950 for a jacket.
Despite this sudden, golden opportunity from Gibò, Verhoeven said she’s determined to keep her new career in perspective.
“I’m not a real fashion designer, and I don’t want this to take over my life,” she said. “In the end, it’s the drawing I find inspiring.”