With the concept of clothing that can be worn from “beach to black tie” in mind, Ala von Auersperg (née Princess Annie Laurie “Ala” von Auersperg) launched her eponymous collection in 2015. Happily married to Ralph Isham and the mother of four grown children, Ala Isham had painted and drawn for over a decade before entering the world of fashion. She has also been an outspoken philanthropist and a tireless advocate for victims’ rights from an early age, founding the nonprofit National Center for Victims of Crime in 1985, and the Brain Trauma Foundation (then the Sunny Von Bülow Coma and Head Trauma Research Institute) in 1986. To create her namesake clothing line, Isham simply lifted her whimsical paintings of tropical flowers and delicate sea coral straight from her canvases and digitally printed them onto lightweight, easy-to-wear silk, linen, and mesh. The daughter of Prince Alfred von Auersperg and Sunny Crawford von Bülow, Isham talks with us here about the lessons she has learned from her beautiful and impeccably dressed mother, as well as her own understanding of the needs of the modern woman.
Q: Congratulations on building such a beautiful and successful brand in only three years! What initially inspired you to launch your collection back in 2015?
A: It all started with painting and drawing lessons that I was taking from a fabulous artist and teacher from the NY Studio School. At the time, I was making dresses with my talented friend, Antonio Gual, for myself and for my daughters—looks that were travel-friendly and lightweight—perfect for Antigua, where we spend the winter. The fabrics that I use are so light and breathable that I began playing with the idea of layering them, allowing for the drawings to move with the movement of the woman wearing them. Layering not only looks amazing, but it also quietly conceals parts of our bodies that we might not always feel comfortable showing off. Within a few months, friends were calling to tell me how at ease and chic they felt in my clothes, and I was thrilled. My hope is for every woman who wears my apparel to feel so good about themselves that self-consciousness totally vanishes when they look in the mirror.
Q: I know that your grandmother, Annie Laurie Aitken, and undoubtedly your mother, Sunny Crawford von Bülow—both women of tremendous style and beauty—have helped mold your design aesthetic. What are some of the ways in which they have influenced you, your style, your art, and your creations?
A: Both my mother and my grandmother had an innate sense of what was beautiful, and each unassumingly surrounded themselves with things of great quality. Whether they were decorating a room or getting dressed for an evening out, everything was always absolutely exquisite. Of course, it was never belabored or contrived; it was just who they were as women and how they lived. I suppose that my appreciation for art comes from my grandmother. She was a sculptress in her own right, a student of French architecture, and a collector of 18th-century French and English furniture. And my mother was really one of the most stylish women of her time, on top of being the greatest mother I could ever imagine. She adored Givenchy and YSL and had fittings with them every few years in Paris. In the early 1970s, she made the first big donation of haute couture to the Met Costume Institute, which kind of put the institute on the map. I’d like to think that I absorbed some of their aesthetic and I certainly try to channel both my mother and my grandmother in my designs, but through a 21st-century lens.
Q: After three years, are you still having fun with all of this?
A: It should be illegal to have this much fun! I really do love what I do.
Q: Your daughter, Sunny, leads the creative and brand direction for Ala von Auersperg. What’s it been like working with your daughter? Have you enjoyed keeping it all in the family (I can relate!)?
A: Working with my daughter Sunny is truly astounding. Mothers and their daughters don’t typically work together, so when they do, and when they witness each other not as mother and daughter but as legitimate businesswomen, it’s impossible not to be impressed.
Q: Daisy Prince wrote a lovely article about your line when it first launched, mentioning that your aunt, Hetti Von Bohlen, used to host fabulous dinner parties—attended by everyone from the Gettys to Yves Saint Laurent and the Rolling Stones—to which your mother and grandmother would wear fantastic kaftans. Any chance you might be willing to share an anecdote from one of those dinners? Our minds are exploding with “über-chic”-ness just envisioning what one of those evenings must have been like!
A: Hetti and my mother were very close friends but their paths separated somewhat when Hetti married Arndt and started her incredible life in Marrakesh and Salzburg. Sadly, I was too young to hang out with her crowd in Morocco in the heyday of her fabulous parties. However, I did get to meet the ultimate kaftan king, Adolfo de Velasco, with Hetti a few years after the parties calmed down. He made the most beautiful bejeweled kaftans I have ever seen. Everyone passing through Marrakesh at that time had one. And although we never met the Stones in Marrakesh (I did eventually meet them in New York), I do remember Richard Gere passing through. Hetti had never seen any of his movies so she was able to keep her cool when he showed up. I, on the other hand, was so star-struck that I could hardly speak when he walked through the front door. Hetti was wonderful about trailing us around to all of her glamorous parties. I borrowed all of her de Velasco kaftans, which inspired many of the kaftans in my current collection—they are truly the easiest way to look chic in warm climates.
Q: I love that idea that your clothing was born from the concept of “beach to black tie.” What are some of the most memorable moments you’ve had wearing your own designs? Any surprising or unforgettable moments you’ve experienced seeing (or hearing about) someone else wearing your creations?
A: Since I started designing, I have always worn my clothes in Antigua, but now I wear them all over the place. My husband and I just got back from Capri, where I packed a small suitcase with all of my clothes rolled up inside (most of my clothes don’t wrinkle). One day I wore one of our signature designs—the blue Sea Rope poncho—over my bathing suit on the beach in the afternoon, and then dressed it up with the Sea Rope tank top and pants for dinner that same evening. I love the simplicity of adding a layer and totally changing the look.
A dear friend, who was also one of my first customers, wore one of my designs for her last dinner in Palm Beach before heading back north for the summer. At the end of the dinner, she jumped in the pool with it on. A month later, she wore the same outfit to an IYRS benefit in Newport, Rhode Island, which she co-chaired. Now that’s beach to black tie!
Q: At a young age, you and your brother, Alexander Auersperg, co-founded the National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC) in honor of your mother, Sunny von Bülow. Over the years, the organization that the two of you founded has become a cornerstone in securing rights, resources, and protection for victims of crime in America. I recently read that you pledged to take a part of the proceeds from sales of your designs to support programs that fight crimes against women. Is this a policy that you are still currently pursuing? How else have your endeavors on behalf of victims’ rights played a role in your career as a studio artist and clothing designer?
A: I have always been passionate about putting an end to crimes against women, particularly now; I have two daughters and two granddaughters. When a woman suffers from a crime like domestic violence, sexual harassment, or rape, they lose their strength, confidence, beauty—really everything—in one fell swoop. Through the National Center for Victims of Crime, we work to get these women (and men) back on their feet through financial support and counseling and by offering a wide variety of resources including DNA resources, legal representation to fight for restitution, and training programs for those who work in the field of victims rights. When we launched, rights for victims of crime were nonexistent—so we went to court, we campaigned, we lobbied, and we managed to get legislation passed in all 50 states to protect those who have been victimized.
Ala von Auersperg donates an annual percentage of sales to the NCVC in order to help with the center’s incredible work. Additionally, when we host trunk shows around the country, we always donate a percentage to a local charity in need. In Houston, we donated to the Houston Area Women’s Shelter after Hurricane Harvey. In Minneapolis, we donated to the Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. In Florida we donated to the Wayside House Treatment Center for Women. And this past April, we were honored by the Madison Square Boys & Girls Club at their annual Salute to Style for the work that we have done in supporting children in the five boroughs of New York.
Q: What’s left on the horizon?
A: I’d love to expand into the lifestyle market. I see so many clients wearing my clothes at home while entertaining friends and family. It seems like a natural progression to use my artwork in ways that bring family and friends together while entertaining.