Let them wear designer cashmere

An ailing Scottish tweed mill began Victoria Stapleton's mission to bring cashmere to the people. Imogen Fox meets the brains behind Brora
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Indy Lifestyle Online
CASHMERE equals luxury. Cashmere is expensive. Ergo, cashmere is not for me. Until recently, these sort of assumptions were not unfounded. Cashmere knits were displayed in glass cabinets and carried a hefty price tag. Now, local high-street department stores stock a good selection at a more democratic price. Victoria Stapleton, owner and founder of Brora, the cashmere mail-order company and King's Road shop in London, sees her business as one of the instigators of this change. With over 40 different styles of woollies in over 30 colours, each costing a little over pounds 100, Stapleton believes Brora gives cashmere "a modern interpretation, without making it ridiculously expensive".

Victoria is not the first member of the Stapleton family to claim luxury as the right of the masses. Her father, a Cumbrian businessman, took smoked salmon from the tables of grand dinner parties to the supermarket shelves in the Seventies - a feat which Victoria carries in the back of her mind as part of her vision for her own cashmere business. It was, in fact, her father's business interests that brought about the birth of Brora.

In 1990, Victoria's father jointly bought a 100-year-old tweed mill in the tiny village of Brora on the east coast of Scotland. "Hunters of Brora was going into liquidation and Dad thought how ridiculous it was that something which produces something so wonderful should go under," she recounts. "Dad said, 'Victoria, we want you to come and set up a mail- order retail operation for Hunters of Brora'." Thus, Victoria, then 23 with some business experience (18 months as an interior designer's assistant and a failed silk nightwear venture behind her), set off for Scotland. Was she nervous? "Only of not being left alone to get on with it," she replies.

Despite such confidence, by March 1993 the retail venture (which Victoria had now extended to include some cashmere pieces alongside the mill's tweeds) proved not to be viable. "The mill needed to be heavily invested in and those who bought the tweed wholesale were getting slightly narked off that Hunters were selling them tweed on the one hand, yet competing with them in the retail market on the other. Dad said, 'You've got three months to wind up the retail side, we'll keep a small shop in Brora village, but no more mail order, that's it.'" Disappointed and feeling that she hadn't fully developed Brora's retail potential, Victoria travelled back to London with Hunters of Brora's blessing to use their name for her own business and a mailing list of 6,000 names.

From her home in London, Victoria produced a three-page spring catalogue ("It was ghastly!" she cringes) of very traditional cashmere jumpers and cardigans. With it was an accompanying letter remarking the new London address. "I wanted people to see that the concept hadn't altered - that we were still going to produce the very best of Scottish woollen goods - and that hasn't changed, actually." Brora's concept might be the same - the very best quality for the most competitive price - but the business has undoubtedly changed. Pressures of growth moved Stapleton to open the Brora shop in the summer of 1995. There is a separate warehouse for the mail order, and the Brora catalogue now boasts over 50 pages of men's and women's designs which no longer make Stapleton squirm. "I always design lots of jumpers in the range that I would wear myself. Three or four years ago I found some skinny-rib polo-necks in my mother's cupboard, so I took them to the factory I use in Scotland and said, 'You've got to copy this.'" It's been a best-seller ever since.

Stapleton is adamant that Brora's customers cannot simply be categorised as young King's Road things who squeeze into tiny cashmere skinny-ribs. As if to illustrate her point, a grandma drags her grandson in and asks where the children's section is. "At the front," says, Stapleton gesticulates wildly. Cashmere for children is something that Stapleton is becoming increasingly interested in since the birth of her daughter, Jesse - there's less cashmere, so the price can be lower (bootees cost pounds 25.)

Despite the business's obvious emphasis on cashmere for everyone, Stapleton sees the recently-opened tweed emporium at the back of the shop as a crucial part of the business. It is, after all, the reason why Victoria became linked with the factory in Brora in the first place. "What we've tried to do with tweed is take traditional designs and give them a quirky interpretation," she says, eyes darting around the back room as she speaks. Customers can find tweed slippers, tweed shopping bags and travel-rugs alongside more traditional country staples such as shooting jackets.

In offering this combination of best-quality Scottish woollens, Brora does attract the specialist and the more obsessive customers, inclined to leaving all sorts of suggestions. "One wonderful customer knows everything about cashmere, she is Cashmere Queen. She's 60 and has been collecting cashmere jumpers all her life and I have the honour of her now having moved on to Brora knits. She keeps a big tub outside her house to collect rainwater in, and she never washes her cashmere jumpers in anything else."

Brora, 344 Kings Road, London SW3. Enquiries and mail order: 0171 736 9944

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