Making Herts a fashion HQ
PUBLISHED: 10:13 05 November 2013 | UPDATED: 10:31 05 November 2013
Victoria Stapleton, founder and owner of cashmere fashion label Brora which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, tells Sandra Deeble why she chose Hertfordshire for her headquarters
Gunnels Wood Road, Stevenage. A world-renowned base for space exploration, bioscience, defence – and cashmere. Alongside satellite, medical and military firms, the science corridor is also home to Brora, the luxury cashmere brand created by Victoria Stapleton, finalist in the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year Awards and lauded for her stylish, socially responsible business with a made in Britain commitment.
Formerly based in London, Victoria (pictured left) says moving the heart of the business to Hertfordshire was a fantastic move. ‘I took my daughter to a bowling party in the Hollywood Bowl. I’d never been to Stevenage so I thought I’d have a look around. I soon realised it was distribution centre city. At the time, John Lewis was there, and I thought, “If it’s good enough for John Lewis, it’s good enough for me. I knew this was the spot. It was like, Hallelujah!”’
Victoria was living in Hertfordshire, just outside Hertford with her husband, photographer Johnnie Pilkington and their three daughters, Jesse, Nancy and Lola. They had moved from London to the house previously lived in by Johnnie’s parents. At that time, Brora was based in Fulham and Victoria was commuting from Hertford every day. ‘With three very young children it was onerous. I was getting back at 8pm and eating at 10. It was this awful vicious circle.’
When the offices in London became too small for her growing company, Victoria’s senior management team started talking about the need to look for bigger premises. ‘When I mentioned Stevenage, their jaws dropped open,’ remembers Victoria.
‘I found this building and it was like walking into a huge squash court. There was no floor, no windows, just a concrete square.’ With the help of Design Team Consultants, an architectural practice in Letchworth, Victoria was able to design her dream headquarters. ‘I knew that I wanted a pattern cutting room and a buying and merchandising department. I regret not buying the unit next door because then I would have my own cut and trim factory. We could do mending there. It would be heaven to do that.’
The company move took place between 2008 and 2010 and some of the Brora team relocated to Hertfordshire in that period. ‘It was quite an emotional time,’ says Victoria. While this was happening, Brora continued to grow, with a flagship store opening near Sloane Square and other shops opening in Bath, Edinburgh, Harrogate and Richmond. For parts of the business, such as customer service, Victoria focused on recruiting in Herts. ‘We knew that we were going to find really good people around here. It’s great that people can have a job here without having to think about going into London.’
Victoria founded Brora as a mail order business in 1993, a few years after her family bought Hunters of Brora, a 100-year-old tweed mill on the east coast of Scotland. She opened her first shop on the King’s Road in 1995. She studied interior design at the Inchbald School of Design and then read art history at the University of East Anglia. This immersion in art and design continues to imbue the Brora brand, and is driven by Victoria’s positive spirit.
Fans include Nigella Lawson (you may have admired her cropped cashmere cardigans in sumptuous colours, worn while whipping up something delectable involving mascarpone), and Sophie Dahl loves the clothes so much she worked with Victoria to create her own collection, The Lost Weekend.
Ethical to her core, Victoria is an ambassador for British manufacturing. When I mention what Mary Portas did for knickers, she says, ‘After that we approached the factory and asked them to make our Liberty print knickers.’
On Victoria’s desk I notice the book Story Teller by fashion photographer Tim Walker. Successful brands are all about storytelling, I suggest, and remark on how the Brora blog is a really good read – full of stories about Mongolian goats and sustainability and weaving.
‘And you realise the more you dig, the more stories there are,’ Victoria says. ‘It has been an extraordinary journey – finding gems and people who are still alive to work with. We have 50 people who hand knit in their homes all around Scotland, so it’s keeping that skill going.’
The company also uses tweed mills in Yorkshire and Scotland and works with two factories near Walthamstow. ‘One does particularly tailored things,’ Victoria explains. ‘We have a lovely British tailoring label. The other factory does more silks and fine gauge vintage prints on silk. Very few people do their sewing in the UK and these factories are very small, perhaps seven or eight ladies, but we’re keeping them busy all year round.’
I ask Victoria whether she would open a shop in the county. At the moment Cambridge, Islington and Covent Garden are the nearest stores. ‘We have 14 shops now. It’s a huge commitment. If I had a list of another 10 places in the UK, then I would go to St Albans.’ What about John Lewis? ‘It’s a possibility.’
For the moment she is concentrating on building the online business, meeting high demand in the States and a growing market in Australia.
‘We have many extremely loyal customers. We sit between the high street and designer.’ Her customers, she adds, are a cultured crowd. ‘They like food, gardening, theatre and art exhibitions. We don’t do bling and we don’t do corporate.’
Her daughters are also ‘passionate about drama, theatre, art and cooking,’ and she says that while she’s not living in hope, she would be delighted if one or more of them came into the business. Her eldest, Jesse, is ‘quirky’ and could make a good head of marketing. ‘Nancy loves a vintage shop as much as I do. She would be good at design.’ Lola, her youngest, ‘is very arty and visual’ and could take care of window dressing and styling.
While her husband grew up in Hertfordshire and went to school in Much Hadham, Victoria was brought up ‘somewhere very wild and woolly’ – in Cumbria. She admits that she has had to get used to living south and would love a few more junk and antique shops in the area.
‘But now I really appreciate all the advantages of living in Hertfordshire,’ she says. ‘I’ve always been a great believer in trying to make life as simple as possible.’ She adds that she is now happy with her work-life balance and it’s brilliant to be close to her daughters’ school and able to get there easily for plays and sports events.
The table in Victoria’s office is covered with new designs for the autumn – drawings and swatches and scribbles of colour. She explains that she creates characters and stories for each collection. A recent inspiration was David Hockney’s A Bigger Picture exhibition. ‘Really vibrant colours – zingy moss green, kingfisher and a peaty brown.’ You could be talking about food I say. She laughs and admits that as a family they are quite greedy. ‘My husband is an excellent cook,’ and she is proud of ‘their really big kitchen’ at the Gunnels Wood Road HQ.
‘We’ve got everything we want here and I really love coming in to work.’