Rene Macdonald: The designer making happy clothes cool again

With a roll call of celebrity fans, upbeat label Lisou is a cheery antidote to our times. Designer Rene Macdonald tells Laura Craik why her clothes have the ultimate feelgood factor

Rene wearing her own design, the Alina silk shirtdress

With winter drawing ever closer, few of us would disagree that we could do with a fresh new injection of colour into our lives. If you are stuck for inspiration, look no further than Lisou. The upcoming British brand is one of those under-the-radar labels well-loved by a coterie of celebrities from London to Los Angeles, including Dame Helen Mirren, Gwyneth Paltrow and Hilary Duff.

Launched in 2018, Lisou is rapidly gaining a cult following for its elegant silk shirts, skirts and blouses, each in a vibrant print dreamt up by its founder Rene Macdonald. ‘I doodle a lot,’ she tells me from her studio in West London. ‘My house is full of scraps of paper, and so are my pockets.’

Like so many designers, Rene created Lisou because she couldn’t find the items she wanted to wear – undeterred by the small matter of not having any fashion training.

Dame Helen Mirren lets her blouse do the talking

Dame Helen Mirren lets her blouse do the talking

‘I began by designing a shirt, which is actually our bestseller now,’ she says. ‘I drew it up, quite badly, then found a local pattern cutter, a woman I still work with now.

‘It was a steep learning curve. I knew what I liked, but I didn’t know about the business. It was overwhelming, but ignorance is bliss, right? I thought, “I’m going to learn this. How hard can it be?” And the learning continues.’

Rene’s foray into the fashion world was even more unlikely when you consider nobody in her family has a fashion background. In fact, her parents worked for the United Nations, moving from Tanzania to Ethiopia during her childhood, before settling in the UK.

But she describes her mother as having been ‘a big fashionista’, despite her serious day job. ‘We always lived in what the UN calls “hardship areas”. There were wars and other awful things happening. And, of course, there were no fashion shops. So my mum made everything we wore from scratch. We’d draw things together, or I’d show her a picture in a magazine.’

Thanks to her ferocious work ethic, Rene was less fazed than most by the effects of a pandemic on her nascent business and was already accustomed to selling to customers through word of mouth and social media.

Hilary Duff clashes cutely with daughter Banks

Hilary Duff clashes cutely with daughter Banks

Lockdown was spent in London with her husband Andy, currently taking a sabbatical from the music industry to work as Lisou’s CEO, and their two sons. Rene says she has missed visiting Tanzania, a trip she makes every year to reconnect with her family. ‘It’s grounding. In the West, we’ve won the lottery: we have medical care and education. It reminds you that not everyone is as lucky.’

Rene’s wish to give back is what makes Lisou more compelling than the average start-up. By teaming up with environmental organisation One Tree Planted, Lisou will plant five trees (in Africa, North America, Latin America, Asia or Australia) for every purchase. Closer to home, Lisou has also been supporting the Royal College of Nursing, funding a hardship grant as well as donating 20 per cent of profits to its Covid-19 Support Fund. ‘The core of me is not just about making money; it’s about doing things that matter.’

Win matchy points with a cool co-ord

Get the party started in the glam Riva and Dianne dresses

Win matchy points with a cool co-ord;  Get the party started in the glam Riva and Dianne dresses

It’s impressive for a label just two years old to have given back so much. Rene also helps fund educational courses for young people in Tanzania. ‘One student has just finished his MA, and another has completed her degree. But the recipient also has to pledge to help within their community. So the young man is tutoring schoolchildren for free. By giving something back, it keeps the circle going.’

Gwyneth at a Goop event last year in Lisou’s lip print

Charity Wakefield snapped at  the women of the year lunch, 2019

Gwyneth at a Goop event last year in Lisou’s lip print; Charity Wakefield snapped at the women of the year lunch, 2019

With so much on the go, it’s a wonder Rene has time to design, yet somehow she does. Her favourite items from Lisou’s autumn collection are a green and red striped Afro-print shirtdress and a metallic frock with dramatic sleeves. ‘I’m gutted Christmas might be cancelled,’ she says. ‘If I don’t have anywhere to go in this dress, I will cry. Or I’ll just cook a festive dinner in it.’

Asked where she wants Lisou to be in ten years’ time, Rene says she tries not to think too far ahead. ‘If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we don’t know what will happen. I’d like to grow the business, but it’s not enough to be a fashion brand. That’s lovely and I adore it, but there are so many issues we could be doing things about. I just try to be as authentic as I can be.’

Pick ’n’ mix pro Rene clashes with confidence

Pick ’n’ mix pro Rene clashes with confidence

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