Wrapped in thought: How an architecture professor become the hot new thing on Liberty's books
Richard Weston turned his hobby of scanning rocks into a unique range of vibrant scarves
Sunday 20 March 2011
Walk through the main entrance of Liberty and the first sight to greet you is yards of fashionable silk. Waves of scarves, pashminas and pochettes drape from the walls, lounge on tables and affix themselves, just so, around the neck and shoulders of style-conscious customers with a few hundred quid to spare on a billowy accessory.
On the trading floor of the 136-year-old central London department store, scarves occupy the number-one piece of retail real estate. They're fundamental to Liberty's Arts & Craft-flavoured ethos. At the till you can buy a reproduction of She Bought a Liberty Scarf, an illustrated 1930s "social skit" booklet by Joyce Dennys portraying "the versatile fashion uses of Liberty's scarves".
"They are a big piece of our profit," says the company's managing director, Ed Burstell. "And it's a category that in London, if not the world, we own." Accordingly, for a designer, "It's probably the most difficult area to get into."
Not surprisingly, Alexander McQueen and Christopher Kane are prominently displayed. But equally prominent are scarves by a hot new British designer: Richard Weston. Or, to give him his full title: Richard Weston, professor of architecture at Cardiff University and respected author of Alvar Aalto – a monograph on the leading Finnish modernist, which won 1995's Sir Banister Fletcher Prize as the architecture book of the year. Professor Weston may be new, but he's not young – he's 57.
His scarves' aesthetic DNA is entirely, literally natural: the designs are based on the high-resolution scans of minerals, fossils and stones that he makes in the converted garage of his home in the village of Dinas Powys near Cardiff. The resulting images are colourful, vibrant and entirely unique. "You can't beat nature at doing certain kinds of things," he explains with an enthusiasm that, it soon becomes apparent, is his default setting. "If you want subtlety of colour and intricacy of pattern and variation, nature is it."
In the six months since launching his collection last June, Liberty sold 500 scarves featuring images of agate blue (£150 each), fossil silk (£125) and agate brown (£210). For 2011, the store envisages the turnover on Weston lines reaching £170,000 – a 161 per cent growth. No one's more shocked than the prof. Well, his neighbours, maybe.
"People in Cardiff's jaws dropped when they heard about these prices – 150 quid for a scarf!" he laughs. "When I met the Liberty sales staff for the first time, several came up to me saying, 'Oh, we do love them, Professor Weston – and they're so competitively priced!'"
This disconnect between his home life, his day job and his newfound London modishness will be further amplified later this month. Professor Weston is the break-out star of Britain's Next Big Thing, a reality TV show from the makers of Embarrassing Bodies and The Model Agency. The seven-part series, hosted by Dragons' Den alumnus Theo Paphitis, follows a clutch of amateur designers as they try to impress the buyers at three high-street stores – Boots, Habitat and Liberty – with their homespun creations.
Will the country's largest chemist agree to develop and stock an eczema cream made in the kitchen by a mum desperate to help her afflicted daughter?
Should one of the UK's most discerning furniture chains take a punt on a new type of light invented by a pair of talented if chaotic twentysomething creatives?
And, of the 750 people who turned up for Liberty's Best of British Design Open Call, were the cameras right to focus on, among others, a brainiac but slightly bumbling bachelor professor?
The answer, to the latter at least – in both televisual and fashion-market-friendly terms – is yes. In Richard Weston, a middle-aged star is born.
"I did say to someone the other day, 'I think this is the rest of my life beginning,'" he says with a chuckle. "In terms of my professional career, I've spent nearly 30 years in academia. And as an architect, I still want to build, I still want to design. But now I've got this whole other thing starting in scarves – and even in fashion, heaven help me!"
An academic at Cardiff since 1999, Weston lives with his cat Molly in a quiet cul de sac. It's a chaotic bachelor pad. Piles of architecture and art books fight for space with artefacts bearing his designs: cushions, curtains, prints, laser-cut shapes on the windows and, on tailor's dummies, a pair of ladies' silk shirts.
Born, bred and educated in Leicester (at the same school as the Attenborough brothers), Weston then studied at Manchester University, though he says his interest in nature's patterns, "from galaxies to whatever", is lifelong. He bought his first, cheap scanner in 2000, "mainly to digitise my lectures". In 2003, just for fun, he scanned a leaf. The results were "quite nice".
Then, one day, he passed a Cardiff crystals shop and his eye was taken by a hunk of ammonite. The initial scan of the mineral was disappointing – "muddy brown". So he bought a better scanner. "And I was completely blown away."
He gives me a tour of his garage-cum-studio. On his cluttered desktops are tubs of minerals and various pieces of hardware. He does most of his initial work on an Epson Perfection V750 Pro A4 scanner.
"The way the colour works in these minerals is partly pigment and partly optical effects," he enthuses as he fingers a piece of hypersthene ("very optical"). "So the absorption and reflection patterns are very different. So you can get two scans from the same stone and you wouldn't believe they were from the same mineral."
After "cleaning" his images in Photoshop – "It's a bit like what they do to models on Vogue covers," he says animatedly – Professor Weston labels and stores the images. "And I've got thousands because," he grins his toothy grin, "I was completely mad! I spent two years of my spare time doing almost nothing else because I thought they were so fascinating. And I had no point in mind other than that I thought they were beautiful and they'd probably have some use eventually – maybe as pictures."
In 2005, a friend told him that new technology meant his images could be printed on to fabrics. Weston had metres of silk made using his images and sponsored fashion students at Newport Art College to use the material in their end-of-year shows. "But I virtually sold nothing on the dress front," he says. He shrugs. He was "too old and too fascinated by architecture" to be overly bothered.
But then in early 2010 he heard Ed Burstell talking on Radio 4's Today programme. The New Yorker, a recent appointee at Liberty, was reviving the American tradition of customers using an "open day" to present their homespun products to the all-powerful department-store buyers. This, Burstell tells me, was how Ralph Lauren (with "a few ties") and Calvin Klein ("a rail of raincoats") got their start.
So, one cold February morning last year, Weston, 749 other hopefuls and the TV cameras from programme-makers Maverick turned up at Liberty. In the first episode of Britain's Next Big Thing we see the eager academic spilling a pile of fabrics and products on to the desk of an initially alarmed Burstell. But the managing director is intrigued. He tells the professor to forget the ties, shirts and jacket linings and to focus on his scarves. Over the next six episodes and several months we follow the cheery, chirpy, chunky prof as he ramps up his garage business, meets new Italian manufacturers, and immerses himself in the world of high fashion.
"It was something I hadn't seen before, plain and simple," reflects Burstell on his decision to back Weston. "And he had the personal story to back it up. He certainly had enthusiasm." For this successful academic, respected in his field, "it was a want, not a need. You can tell he's the kind of person who, once he puts his mind to something, keeps going. He is," chuckles Burstell, "some character."
Back at home, Weston insists he won't be giving up the day job, although he may scale back his teaching hours. Has he thought through what the TV show might do to his start-up – he calls it Weston Naturally Exclusive – and to his personal life? He shakes his head vigorously.
"In terms of the business, is there somebody out there who'll see the show and is going to want 10,000 scarves?" He is tickled by the prospect, but cheerfully admits that he'd find the ramifications of such an investment somewhat alarming. Business is not his bag. Beautiful things and creativity – "that's what I love".
One year on from his first encounter with Liberty, does he feel comfortable in the fashion world? "In my own curious way, yes! I don't feel overawed. I've been close to the real posturing. But with the people at Liberty, I feel perfectly happy. But you know," he smiles, "I buy most of my clothes from M&S."
And will his students be taking the mickey out of their telly star prof?
"Ooh, maybe, yes! I think my colleagues are slightly bemused by it all. Because I am the least likely person to be involved in fashion."
'Britain's Next Big Thing' begins on BBC2 in April
Tips from the top: How to sell a design to the major stores
Liberty is hosting another Best of British Design Open Call on 2 April. It has already had 1,000 applicants and has closed the registration list. But for those lucky enough to be seen by the store's specialists, company MD Ed Burstell has some tips. "The first thing I ask them," says the New Yorker, "is, 'Have you walked around the store to see what else we do?'" Other tips include...
Understand Your Environment
"Don't show up with a TV and say, 'But it's perfect for Liberty.' When was the last time you took a stroll around Liberty and saw TVs?"
Have An Emotional Investment
"That's important. There is a lot to be said for enthusiasm around a product, and a lot of times that can sell it."
Research The Market
"Is their product one of many things already out there and are they just going to add to that? Or is there really a void in the marketplace? The professor's scarves – that was a different way of doing something."
Understand Your Cost Base
"They have to come with a little idea in their head of their business. We sell products, we can facilitate them getting made, we can give ideas on costing, we can put you in front of the right PR. But if you come with a dollar and a dream and expect us to do everything for you, that's not gonna happen."
No glue guns!
"When there's 1,000 people in the queue, you're bound to see some use of a glue gun. It usually signifies that the product is less finished. But if you're going to be sitting next to world-class merchandise, it has to be finished."
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