Rene Macdonald is all about empowerment. When she founded her luxury fashion label Lisou, there was no question that giving back would be incorporated into the business from the get-go. We loved speaking to Rene about how travel and Africa, in particular, inspires her designs, the incredible giving back initiatives that the company runs, female empowerment and the women she admires most.
I believe your childhood was essentially split between Tanzania and the UK, is that right? What was that like? Did you feel more ‘at home’ in one place or the other?
Yes, that is right. It was a bit of a culture shock when I arrived in the UK – the cold was like nothing I’d ever experienced! I feel very fortunate to have grown up between two such diverse continents. I couldn’t choose between them, but I see myself as a Tanzanian Londoner.
Do you travel back to Tanzania much still, or any other countries in Africa? Any favourite places?
I usually go every year but of course, with the pandemic I’ve missed this year. I also spent many years living in Ethiopia and I love the people and the food . . . I’m a chilli lover which comes from years spent there!
I love Northern Tanzania. We have so many microclimates, from mountains to tropics and plains as far as the eye can see. Lalibela, in Ethiopia, has extraordinary historic architecture, it’s like going back in time.
Tell us about your career path – what was the journey to Lisou like, how did you find your start in fashion?
I’d always wanted to have my own brand but it was just a case of the right time. I couldn’t have dedicated myself to my career (and been the mother I wanted to be) in quite the same way when my children were little.
I began my fashion career as a stylist for celebrities and private clients as well as working in academia. It was a healthy mix of the frivolous and the serious.
I am very fortunate to have been raised by a fashionista mother who taught me all I know about fashion and design. That said, it’s been quite the steep learning curve but I enjoy every minute!
And how did Lisou come about?
Once I had decided to follow my dream, I threw myself in the deep end! I spent a year testing production, manufacturing, printing and lots more besides. Having done my research and made sure the business idea was viable, I got started in earnest.
I really felt there was a gap in the market for bold, playful prints and luxury fabrics at a realistic price point.
“The more you travel the more you realise that everyone’s worries are the same: family wellbeing, a roof over your head and food on the table.”
Where do you find your inspiration for your designs?
I’m massively inspired by the colours of Africa. You will never walk down any street in sub-Saharan Africa that isn’t a kaleidoscope of colour and print! I find travel incredibly inspiring as well as grounding. The more you travel the more you realise that everyone’s worries are the same: family wellbeing, a roof over your head and food on the table.
I think Lisou represents the colours African with a Western aesthetic.
Lisou has a really strong ethos behind it. Was that important from the start? What goes into deciding what causes to support?
I come from a family that believes very strongly in giving back and helping those in need. It was crucial for me to keep that legacy alive.
The causes we support are things we feel closely connected to or moved by. We currently have four charitable initiatives running as well as a mentorship scheme.
We’d love to hear any stories you have there about your connections, or perhaps any experiences visiting people to see the work that you help support.
I certainly do. We launched an initiative last year which we intend to make annual with state (public) primary and secondary schools. I noticed that children who come from privileged backgrounds had more exposure to creative lessons and careers within the private school system.
The majority of children in state school are lucky if they get an hour a week of music or art which is why private school children were excluded from the competition. I believe that the creative arts are a marker of our history, they tell the story of the culture within which we live. It seemed unbalanced to only show the privileged version of our world as it is now. Every demographic should play a part in shaping cultural history and so we set up the project. We asked the children to draw something with a sentence below explaining where their inspiration came from. It was extraordinary, we were inundated with hundreds of applications! The winning drawings were then made into silk scarves which are sold by Lisou with all profits going back into the winning school’s art and music departments. Last year we began with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (where our shop and studio are based), this year we added Hammersmith and Fulham. The dream would be all of London and beyond!
I experienced some beautiful moments when I went to visit each school. The children had so many questions about creative careers. One of our secondary school winners burst into tears when I announced in the school assembly that she’d won. When she came up to collect her prize she told me “I’ve never been good at anything and I thought I was thick but now I know there’s something I’m good at”. Frankly, what could be better than that!
“It’s extremely important to me to support all women, especially those within the BAME community who don’t always get the chance to enter the industry or who don’t think they can successfully run a business.”
We love your Women of Influence features. As a female business owner, celebrating women is presumably important to you!
It’s extremely important to me to support all women, especially those within the BAME community who don’t always get the chance to enter the industry or who don’t think they can successfully run a business.
Since lockdown, we actually moved our inspiring women onto IGTV and that’s worked really well. All women are inspired by high achievers.
How did this feature come about?
It was all very organic as it is on IGTV. I just approached people and asked. Thankfully no one has said no yet!
Some of Lisou’s Women of Influence from left to right: Candice Fragis (fashion director of DREST), Tamara Beckwith Veroni (co-founder of The Lady Garden Foundation), Precious Lunga (CEO & co-founder of Baobab Circle), Claire Miles (Head of The Shop at Bluebird)
Who are the women who you admire most?
My mother is my biggest hero. I’m drawn to women who are strong and intelligent but full of love and who manage to navigate being career women as well as family women. My mother was all those things so I have quite a lot to live up to. I also love women who support each other and share their knowledge. If I can help you it makes no sense not to.
I’m a huge admirer of Princess Elizabeth of Toro. She was Ugandan and a real pioneer of her time. She was smart, beautiful and the first female East African to be admitted to the English Bar.
“My mother is my biggest hero. I’m drawn to women who are strong and intelligent but full of love and who manage to navigate being career women as well as family women. My mother was all those things so I have quite a lot to live up to. I also love women who support each other and share their knowledge. If I can help you it makes no sense not to.”
When you’re not working, what keeps you busy these days?
It’s rare that I’m not working! Where possible I try to make Sundays a family day. Of late, I’ve been spending my evenings trying to learn Arabic.
I am also always busy with my Tanzanian family for whom I share responsibility with my Uncle and cousin.
Any favourite travel memories or places you love to visit?
At the beginning of this year, pre-Covid, my husband took me on a surprise trip to the Seychelles. I’d always wanted to go and it didn’t disappoint. I could never have imagined the enormous prehistoric granite boulders that are all over the islands. We went on incredible hikes and bike rides around the island, it was truly magical.
I’ve got tentative plans to visit New Orleans and Cuba with my younger son which should be especially inspirational for a designer and a musician.
What destination is next on the bucket list?
I’d love to visit India. All that colour, spices and architecture, I’d feel right at home. Vietnam is also on my list as well as China.
Looking for more amazing businesses that give back?
Lisou was featured in our Feel-Good Conscious Christmas Gift Guide. For more socially-conscious companies, check out the piece here.