I thought it would be nice to share some of my experiences of Eloise Grey Ethical Fashion as I close my business next month.
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.
I have a bit of catching up to do with my readers. I'll probably share more detail in the next few months as I ease into the luxury of more time. But, the headline news is that six weeks ago I moved to rural Aberdeenshire, and 10 days ago my London publishing job expired. As I moved to London a few years ago, I found myself gradually working more and more, away from my business, partly because of the opportunities but mostly in order to afford London. It was a step out of the swirl of London careers, but I've done it before and it was much more obviously the right thing to do.
Why Scotland? I nearly moved to a beautiful part of West Wales. I frequently stayed at Pen Pynfarch as my escape of choice from London. A settling wooded valley, with warm-hearted and creative hosts, it became my rural home from home. Now, however, I find myself a lot further away.
I spent part of my childhood here, as my grandfather was from near Fraserburgh. Then, as a young adult at Edinburgh University independence gave me the taste for rural escape and I would visit him in these parts whenever I felt that need. I missed it terribly when I first went to Italy after graduating but it slowly got buried as the rest of life came to the fore.
I never dreamt of moving back but I also began feverishly unpicking some strands of family history in the last few years. I discovered a large archive of family papers that are carefully housed in the The University of Aberdeen Library Special Collections Centre and it seemed to make perfect sense to base myself here a hour away from Aberdeen. I found a farmhouse to rent in the Deveron valley, not far from the coast.
I'll be spending more time working out where my fashion business needs to go next. I'm unsure right now, as it's early days. It's so hard to have that clarity when you're dragged in so many directions, as I was in London. The dark winter, which is beginning to gather round, will be my time to contemplate and plan.
It's a beautiful region of Scotland, and is delighting me as I return here, with its landscapes and coastline. Austere at times but I find this both enthralling and comforting.
Here are a few images Hipstamatic has offered up:
The Deveron Valley, from where I live
Sandend village and beach, with appreciative dog.
Findlater castle; a dramatic cliff-top ruin
Quiet corners of Old Aberdeen, near Aberdeen University
Breakfast treat in Huntly, £1.65 all in; tea and home-bake buttery from an unmodernised caff. Buttery (aka rowie or morning roll) is a delicous lardy croissant-type bake.
I'm moving back to London in a few weeks. It's quite exciting but I leave the countryside with much fondness, for it has been a rediscovery. I have been living in my grandmother's old house for the last few years and for various reasons, not least because she passed away in the summer, we are selling it. I spent days getting the place ready for the estate agent's photo session and rather fixated onto styling the place. As he was touring the house to take the right pictures, it seemed to me rather sad that the details would be missed. I thought it rather nice to present an alternative view. I have no doubt the owner will modernise it so I wanted to have a few pictures to document this end of an era.
My house-dressing started with me eliminating any bottles I didn't like, the brushes I thought rather nice.
and in the kitchen:
The new owner will obviously replace these apricot basins. White and green objects and bottles seemed to work, anything not matching was duly dispensed behind the cupboard door.
And Dr Hauschka only by the bath:
I made these curtains myself from aged linen pillowcases my grandmother had given me. I repaired the pillowcases until the holes were too big, but I liked the holes and raggedy frayed edges as bathroom curtains, a little uneven but I liked them. And Penhaligon bottles sat nicely next to this silk-like linen.
I shall be editing down my stuff as I move into a 1960s flat and embrace modernism. I shall keep this set of linen towels - they must have been initialled with PG (my grandfather's initials) in the 1930s. You can see the Art-Deco shapes. I never got to ask why they embroidered the man's rather than the woman's initials.
I shall keep my books, of course, and in particular my collection of Persephone Books, to which I have added three more since this photo. The furniture will find a new home. I was very proud of the patchwork curtains I made from off-cuts. The room was so cold I used a heavy blanket to interline it.
I loved using things like bedsteads that we don't really use any more. It reminds me always of staying with my grandmother as a child.
in particular this bamboo one is nice, with matching chair:
I shan't miss the Aga. Maybe it's a generational thing. I'm sure the new owner will remove the tiles, which is a shame, but I do understand. They are from Cole and Son, though I'm not sure they do tiles anymore, just wallpaper.
Some things have travelled with me, from when I lived in Ecuador more than 15 years ago. Though I think it's time for them to move on too.
There is a grand fireplace in the house, but I rather like this simple one in the study. I like the brick and wooden mantlepiece.
The house was built in the 1980s using old brick. My grandparents built it with an Arts & Crafts style - though thankfully it has more light than many real Arts & Crafts houses. It's sweet that there are some motifs of the Arts & Crafts era, like this heart motif in wrought iron.
They had a very fine joiner who made beautiful doors from oak, which are all over the house
and oak skirting and shelves. It's this kind of detail that gives a place a nice finish. I think I shall do something like this, in a more modernist style with my new flat.
And the lightshades, these I think my brother will have.
I am not sure if anyone has reserved these fabulous 1950s pineapple lamps. I went to Capri once and found a hotel full of all this type of stuff. I think it must have been frightfully chic in that era, and they were probably from Italy as my grandmother loved the Amalfi coast. There are photos of her swimming with gloriously ornate swimming caps in the sea at Positano. These lampshades and highly-decorated swimming caps seem to me to be from the same slice of design.
I will be taking these two, which I rather like.
they are more in keeping with my 1960s era
This area had piles of teabag boxes, herbs and all sorts. Amazingly, it is still quite clear and tidy a week on.
Finally, the wonderful pelmets. My mother wants these as they were a gift from her.
Update.. you can view the proper property listing here: Holmwood For Sale
My next, and final, review of memoirs in this series is Diana Athill's Instead of a Letter. Athill has written a number of memoirs but this is her first - and it's so pleasing to read that I can see why there was so much more material. She really came into focus for me when she guest edited The Today programme on BBC Radio 4. I was fascinated that this remarkable lady was 90, living in an old people's home and still working, writing, contributing.
She wrote Instead of a Letter age 43 when her career in publishing and her writing appeared to be flourishing. It is the same age I am now, and I felt in good company. She shares her delightful childhood and the development of her passion for reading only for this to turn dark as her heart was broken in her early twenties. Seemingly unable to recover, she spent the next twenty years letting life drive her from pillar to post, never very happy. Her openness was so moving with no high drama or fraught hyperbole - it just seemed so approachable and reasonable.
Despite this, she surprised herself and everyone by finding herself at the centre of the publishing world - now known to be one of the finest editors of her generation. I felt so much for her revealing that at a certain point she was labelled as a 'career girl'; somewhat as an explanation for her not having a family. All she'd ever wanted was to do just that, to get married and have the family, but it wasn't to be; she hadn't really wanted to be successful in the way she eventually was. It makes me wonder if the success we are supposed to strive for these days has always been so applauded.
The journey was so real and intimate and I finished the book with a contentment that she'd come, not exactly full circle, but she'd accepted her experiences. She was finally happy, even if her desires hadn't been met. I felt lifted in a way that was not transcendent or in the least sentimental. I'm not sure how she communicated that, but writers could probably decipher her expert prose. Just as well, I only wanted to read and enjoy it, which I really did. I look forward to reading her other work this year.
My next book of memoirs is the harrowingly beautiful, What To Look For In Winter, A Memoir in Blindness, by Candia McWilliam. It kept coming up as a recommendation on Amazon, not that I ever take notice, this time it seemed to haunt me each of the many times it appeared. A 'writer's book' about 'loss, blindness, depression' and so on was not what I needed at a time when I wasn't doing too good myself. Yet something drew me to order it.
Her prose is astonishingly beautiful, perceptive and brutally self-deprecating. She recounts her neglectful Scottish childhood with delight and charm yet piercing honesty about her state of mind. I too spent many summers in the Scottish Highlands and I felt the warmth of her experience on Colonsay (an island not far by water from my weavers on Mull). I loved her episode where she went to work at Vogue after coming down from Oxford. She just couldn't cope with the kind of person that she had to be in that office, despite considerable leeway given to her by today's cut-throat standards. She couldn't face it and seemingly stayed in bed until she came clean that she wasn't coming back. It showed remarkable self-awareness, though such awareness can't make it any easier. Most people would battle through and change to fit the environment, but the beauty of her is that she simply coudn't and that must have been a hard hand to be dealt.
Despite the misery and the ordeals she went through, her prose and honesty seem to shine through with such spirit that I felt lifted by this work. Despite pain and suffering, the ability to see the humour and, dare I say, beauty in it, and move forwards is how you get through.
So I have found myself drawn to memoirs and contemporary writers. As I was launching my business I found mid and early twentieth century writers conveniently approachable in that they have a category and historical context. I find myself somewhat at sea with contemporary writers. Maybe I shouldn't worry, but just follow my nose. What is it that makes you pick up a book and read it? I know that the first writer in this series of memoirs, Jeanette Winterson, has beckoned for some time. I read and loved Oranges are not the Only Fruit when it first came out and then had trouble with Sexing the Cherry, but regretfully so and wanted to return to her work some day, often reading features on her or reviews in the books section of the papers.
Finally, listening Winterson read extracts on Radio Four's Book of the Week prompted me to buy Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?. The bit they didn't cover in the radio version, which particularly intrigued me, was the chapter on her depression, which I really wanted to read. You could view it as a gory confessional, which in many ways it was due to the astonishing cruelty of her adopted mother. However, she had that humour and detatchment that a writer gives you. Her language opens up the door to her world and experience it a way that feels as though you're one of her friends, but doesn't detract from the impact of the events.
I loved that she could see the humanity in her mother, despite everything, that she always yearned for closeness. I loved her working her way through the fiction section of the library starting from A and getting to Z. I loved reading about how she she got to Oxford her tutor told her she was the token working class girl and proceeded to ignore all the women who were left to fend for themselves, but they came together and worked it out for themselves.
I've always thought Winterson would look great in my Toklas jacket. Maybe I should write to her and suggest this. I shall keep you posted.
I read three outstanding memoirs last year, Jeanette Winterson, Candia McWilliam and Diana Athill, worthy of their own separate posts but part of a series. Naturally, I should share something of my own memories, as I don't have memoirs written, nor should I expect anyone to want to read them. Maybe a paragraph or two is enough. The writers, whose memoirs I've been reading, have all spoken with such love of their childhood reading lives that it made me think about my childhood and books.
As a lover of books it may be a surprise to hear that I had trouble reading - only getting into my book-reading stride in my early twenties, having properly started when I decided to improve myself at 16. I think reading wasn't a priority in my large family, nor was being read to if there had been time. It was a duty rather than a delight. Hearing all this stuff about August babies makes me wonder if my starting school in the summer term and being a June baby meant I missed out on something critical. I was good at maths and my poor reading managed to disguise itself. I did, however, love English literature lessons when I got to O-level the teachers were inspiring. By good fortune our Head of English used to regularly arrange buses to the Royal Shakespeare company, then at the Barbican in its heyday and so my love of theatre was born.
So unlike Winterson, McWilliams and Athill, I didn't while away my childhood reading, I spent it sewing, sometimes furiously. I spent many hours in the third floor haberdashery department of Army & Navy Stores in Guildford (now House of Fraser) selecting patterns that I would adapt and chosing fabric. I'd lay out my patterns on the floor of my bedroom and make make make. I got quick and could make things in a day or, a skirt, in an evening. In those days we did Needlework at school for a double period a week and I was seemed to excel. I even did O-level 'Needlework & Dress'. I spent hours shopping too: looking at clothes and generally I couldn't afford them so I had to make them. They weren't cheap in those days (the 80's). I knitted a little but, as my grandmother used to say, you were either a knitter or a sewer, and I was a sewer. She was a great knitter and incidentally, a great reader.
My reading started in earnest in my early twenties. I studied Italian and went to live in Italy and had fallen in love with literature. It was a curious experience pushing oneself to read in a foreign language: to read when you only undestand 50% of the vocabulary but I would still get the feel for the book, the narrative and the characters. Over time my vocabulary developed and I was a fluent reader. I think all this reading gave me a deep vocabulary - and a love of Italian writers such as: Daca Maraini, Guseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Alberto Moravia, Primo Levi, Natalia Ginzburg and many others. At the same time, I was reading more and more in my own language, and enjoying the escape. Maybe as I was now in my itinerant 20s, and without a TV, reading took over from the sewing which required space, time and equipment.
It's always interesting to look at what a child does in those hours of boredom between 8 and 15 before hormones and socialising become the primary concern. I think it offers an insight into the future and what makes one feel satisfied. I was quite academic and so not at all encouraged to follow the fashion route, but in that way I did develop intellectually by doing an arts degree and for this I am very grateful. It led me to spend five years in Italy and this has had a big impact on my work, my approach to quality and 'finezza' as they say, fine-ness - which is so Italian in food, clothing, design. It took me ten more years to synthesise these things and start making again. This time designing my own work I could draw on all that experience: a visual experience from travel and art but also an internal and imaginative one which can only come from books. Maybe it's no surprise, then, that I find writers such an inspiration for my work.
Inspired by Edmund de Waal's masterful work, The Hare With Amber Eyes, I found myself wanting to explore a collection that had been in my grandmother's family. As I had a visit scheduled to her north of Liverpool, I thought I'd try and find an hour to visit the Walker Art Gallery. My favourite piece was this beautiful pot: (I'm sure a more gracious term exists)
The Walker hosts the 'modern' collection, which dates from the Renaissance onwards, including this piece. Mostly, the work is figurative, but this pot inspired me the most. I loved the simplicity and movement of the figures which mirrored the flowing lines of the base and lid.
The rest of the collection, which is of original Greek and Roman marbles, is apparently in the Museum of Liverpool. I shall have to visit this next time. But for the simple fact of my grandmother being born a girl, this collection went to distant cousins and eventually to the town of Liverpool, close to Ince Blundell. It doesn't compare to the tragedy recounted in de Waal's book, but I reflect on this with sadness. I am glad, though, that it is more or less in tact and is in public hands, even if not much of it is on display. I admire this rather parochial but ambitious collector and distant ancestor, Henry Blundell, who built a scaled-down replica of the Pantheon in Rome, to house his spectacular collection:
Maybe he should have created an Act of Parliament, like Sir John Soane, to ensure his house and collection would remain in tact. A curious, though not surprising, use of Parliament in the 19th century.
You may suspect me of being a horse-riding type, being from rural Surrey. I developed a chip on my shoulder about horses at a young age. I went to the type of school where lots of girls had ponies. However, I was sent to that school because it was hoped that the nuns would be a worthy investment in my after-life. I got over my horsey non-affiliation when I heard that a nice lady called Karen made dog collars and leads at Farnham Sadlers on West Street. It's a lovely old-fashioned shop that sells leather wear: handbags, suitcases, belts, wallets, riding clothes, posh wellies that sort of thing.
So imagine my joy when I heard that I could chose the leather, width, fittings and so on. Also, they were delighted to meet Juno and kindly shut the door so their shop dog and Juno could have some fun. Here is Karen and the dogs in a calmer state after 100 laps of the central display:
Also, when Ms J ate through her lead in the pub one night, they repaired it for nothing. What service.