I started it in 2006 and launched in 2007. I was becoming rather horrified at the ethics and practice of the fast fashion industry and globalisation in particular. At the same time I was increasingly wanting to integrate my growing concerns about the environment and my business was a response to this. I kept having images of making again and discovered these beautiful organic Scottish tweeds from Ardalanish Farm on the Isle of Mull. Maybe it was also a response to some of my happiest times, in Scotland, where I spend my childhood holidays visiting my grandparents, and later at university, where I travelled more widely in the country.
What have I learnt? I’ve learnt that it’s hard to have the detachment you need to create a financially sustainable business. I felt too emotionally close to the creative concept and the ethical and human choices I wanted to make. Despite all my corporate experience, I think I’m really a conceptual person and these absorb my energy, rather than constantly worrying about costs, sales and those aspects that you need to be focused on in order to make a business financially buoyant. Had the economic crash not happened, I might have had enough sales to keep it going but it’s hard to speculate. I also saw that fast fashion was driving down prices and mine were only going up as I persisted in producing in the UK. It wouldn’t have interested me to produce differently – it just wasn’t worth the bother. I also learned that the quality of the relationships in the whole supply and sales chain were very satisfying and important to its success. However, I also learned that the people who bought were either people who connected to me personally or who bought because of my ethics. The volume of both those groups is small – research tells us that ethics aren’t enough for anything other than a minority to spend more on products. They might in a time of excess, where concepts are a luxury extra, but not when the economy crashes. I am hugely grateful for the support I’ve been given by those faithful minorities.
Despite the fact that I haven’t ever made this business financially sustainable, there were many successes. I won an international design competition in my first year; I got some amazing press and fans – people seemed to love my work. I found a home amongst the highest quality of craft makers and designers and this seemed to be where I found sympathetic customers who could relate to my craft. I also did London Fashion Week – which was great for press and my name – but had I continued that route I’d have not been able to afford to produce new collections every 6 months. I didn’t feel too comfortable about the ethics of that to be honest. You need to create new work regularly but it shouldn’t become a treadmill.
A few of my favourite things: having a cup of tea and a rollie with my tailor in Enfield then looking at the beautiful coats freshly made before loading up my car with them; setting up my stands at various shows (especially at The Hepsibah Gallery); meeting and talking to customers face to face or by email on the other side of the world; visiting the Isle of Mull Weavers and being inspired by their ambitions; feeling part of an ethical community and it does feel good when sales come in. Also, I still don my coats – I have one from my first collection, which is my dog-walking coat – I wear it every day in winter.
So what’s next? I’m buying a house here in Aberdeenshire, having been here for 18 months (that’s two winters so I should be fully aware of what I’m letting myself in for). I love this place of my forefathers. I do like the winters as I do my hunkering down reflection in that time. Then I love the summers with the long long days. The light always mesmerises me. I want to write a book but I’m thinking of starting a PhD in Scottish history first. I’m immersing myself more and more in this world, the 18th century in particular. I’ve just spent a year going through the archives of my family papers, 70 boxes in all, at the Special Collections Centre at the University of Aberdeen. And I’ve decided to go into depth on the life of one of my ancestors, George Ogilvie whose father was a Jacobite rebel of the ’45. He went to South Carolina and got caught up in the American Revolution. A child of rebellion but really all he wanted to do was to be an upstanding member of society, publish his poetry and do well for his family. We’ll see where it takes me. I feel I’ve only just begun on that one.