Meet The Ex-Fashion Editor Who's Making Funeral Homes A More Stylish Place

There is no taboo more prevalent than death (you know — since everyone does it). For many, it’s an uncomfortable subject to broach, an incredibly difficult event to navigate, and an impossible reality to confront. To bring up the subject of style, then, as it has to do with death, seems almost like a punchline. But according to fashion-student-cum-funeral-planner Louise de Winter, there’s no reason that death has to be so ugly.

“We’re all dying — that’s the one truth we can not avoid, and yet, so many of us spend our lives trying to escape it,” says de Winter. “We were all born to die, after all.” But while the other milestones in a person’s life have become more personal and uniquely stylized to be most representative of their life, the last marker —death — is still standard-issue. “Everything looks the same. The style of the flowers, the design of the service programs, the heavy wooden coffins. The options available seem so tick-box. If we die the same way we lived, the clothes we choose to wear to funerals should reflect that.”

But that doesn’t necessarily mean not wearing black, or wearing an outfit that’s disrespectful of the service being performed — and de Winter is sensitive of that. However, what you wear, along with a funeral's presentation, can contribute to a positive, lovely memory, that honors a person’s life. “I want to provide funerals that families can look back to and think ‘Wow, that was such a beautiful and special experience.’” We spoke with de Winter about her quest to “disrupt the death industry.”
Photo: Courtesy of Louise de Winter.
You graduated from the London College of Fashion and worked within the fashion industry. But then you became a funeral planner. How did that happen?
“I reached a point where the work I was doing was creating a great deal of noise that I just didn’t feel the world needed to hear. I wanted to do something meaningful and beautiful. I’ve always been fascinated by death. Death is absolutely an industry that needs to be reinvented. With my background as a very visual/aesthetic person, I couldn’t understand why it had to be SO ugly. Have you seen traditional funeral homes? They look like a hotel I’d never ever want to stay in.

Has it been difficult to reconcile your love of fashion with your professional career?
“[With] fashion, I can be as outrageous as I like. Death is too sensitive of a subject for me to be that brazen. So, much of what I’m doing is about providing a service, which is going to help the family process the death of their loved one, so I have to be sensitive about that. It’s not actually about me at all. I am there to facilitate a process. The clothes I wear need to be respectful of how they’re feeling, but also represent my own attitude towards death. If I show up at someone’s house on a suffocating hot day wearing a black suit I feel uncomfortable in, that’s not right. I need to feel comfortable in order to make people feel comfortable around me. I have to be able to get a sense of the clients I’m working with to work out how I need to dress. It can be a minefield, and the last thing I’d want to do is cause any offense. A relative may be horrified that the funeral planner has turned up wearing white linen, and I have to be sensitive towards that.

“[For example,] one summer, I was observing funerals at a crematorium. It was the hottest day of the year, and I was wearing a draped grey dress from COS and a pair of beautiful gold minimalistic sandals from Zara. Everyone who worked at the crematorium was wearing office formal wear and court shoes, and the mourners were in their traditional black shift dresses and suits. It wasn’t that anybody said anything, it was just that I felt out of place with my open-toed shoes in an environment that was so rigid and formal. I felt that I’d misjudged it a little. Challenging convention is fine, but it has to be done respectfully. I won’t foster trust if my appearance is too obtrusive.”

Challenging convention is fine, but it has to be done respectfully.

Photo: Courtesy of Louise de Winter.
Do you think about death differently than most people?
“I’ve really had to question what a funeral is exactly. What purpose does it serve? At the moment, I’m settled on it being a ritual that allows the family and friends of the deceased to acknowledge and process their loss. I enable that process, and make people aware that there are so many options out there, which aren’t just the traditional services offered by funeral homes.

“I don’t think most people give too much thought to what to wear to a funeral. Grief is so overwhelming, and I guess most people have a standard outfit they pull out of their wardrobe whenever it’s time to attend a funeral. I’ve seen so many black shift dresses and standard suits. For me, what I wear has always been a way of expressing myself. I see it as an art form. When my granddad died, my choice of outfit was really important to me. I wore a draped black velvet dress to deliver his obituary. The choice of color had the gravitas needed to reflect my family’s grief, but the drapery introduced a softness into it that made it less austere. The dress was unusual enough for me to feel comfortable, without making too much of a statement.

“What you choose to wear to a funeral is dictated by your own attitude towards death and for most people, that's [reliant on] society’s expectations. It's much easier to just wear the aforementioned standard black shift dress that's not going to offend anyone.”

Have you had any formative funeral experiences that've changed how you thought about how funerals should be?
“I have spent this summer sitting quietly at the back of a crematorium in London watching funerals, up to 10 per day! I’ve seen everything from traditional Catholic services to Buddhist celebrations and life-centred services hosted by a civil celebrant. The most moving funeral I ever attended had only two attendees — the wife and the daughter of the deceased. There was no service, just a willow coffin sitting on the catafalque. They sat in the front pew in silence, holding each other, as "Moon River" played on repeat for 25 minutes. His wife then got up and pressed the button to close the curtains around the catafalque. The quietness and depth of the grief was overwhelming. It was such a simple and beautiful way to go, that was obviously very healing for both of them. Not everyone’s grief is hysterical.”

A photo posted by Louise de Winter (@l_de_w) on

Photo: Courtesy of Louise de Winter.
What have been your go-to outfits for funerals right now?
“COS and & Other Stories have been my saviors. I've built a capsule wardrobe of interestingly yet subtle dresses, which I can adapt depending on the situation. Cashmere sweaters by London-based knitwear designer Gharani Strok also work really well, as does jewelry from Primark. I want to come across as gentle and approachable, not rigid, morbid and Victorian.“

What outfit would you want to be buried in?
“I have so many adored pieces in my wardrobe — my Granny's '50s cocktail dress, a vintage astrakhan coat that I wore every day during my first winter in New York, a sea blue Grecian summer dress that I would live in if I could… Yet, I wouldn't want to be buried in any of them. They're such treasured pieces, I'd want them to be passed on to people who I know would appreciate them as much as I did. Hopefully, my future children!

“Bury me in an English wildflower meadow, in a simple white organic cotton nightdress with a subtle lace detail around the collar, and I'll be happy.”

What are little things that people can keep in mind to make someone’s death a more beautiful reflection of their life?
“[Funerals] can be whatever you want it to be. Don't allow a funeral home to sell you a package you don't want. The Natural Death Centre in the U.K. has been brilliant at enlightening people about other options. I'm hopeful that there will be a similar movement in the U.S. soon.

“Do whatever you want. It's your ending after all. You only get one go at it!”

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