TWEEDS, HAND KNITS, duffel coats, chunky sweaters. Velvet hats, neat court shoes, printed blouses for ladies; waistcoats and big pullovers for men; pinafore dresses and gingham frocks for little girls: all so quintessentially British it comes as a surprise to find they are designed in a towering Antwerp townhouse, all wooden floors and lofty ceilings. You may not have heard of the Scapa label yet, though it is huge in Europe and Japan. This year, however, Scapa will be returning to its roots, taking coals to Newcastle, and attempting to break into the British market.
Brian Redding is the designer who started Scapa back in the Sixties, when London was swinging and Scapa's tight little trousers worn with no knickers were seen as very avant-garde. Carnaby Street, though, he says, was "a very tough look - it was one look for one season, and the quality was cheap. Meanwhile, the good-quality companies were making the wrong clothes, in the wrong colours and the wrong styles." He made it his mission to combine London's creativity with quality that could hold its own anywhere in the world.
Fashion, however, was something of a surprise career move for him. Born in the Orkneys, he moved to London as a student of civil engineering at Imperial College, where he sampled Sixties hedonism to the full ("I remember one party that lasted three days. Every time I wanted to go to bed there was someone else in it already"). He then studied as a post-graduate in Italy, where he specialised in, erm, pre-stressed concrete, and worked all over Europe, including the design of 150 bridges on the motorway between Lille and Antwerp. "I was lucky: I made some very beautiful bridges," he says.
He was disillusioned with the engineering business when a company he worked for in Canada closed down after backing the wrong party in a local election, and he started a new venture that he thought of as a hobby - bringing hand-knitted sailing sweaters from his native Orkney across to Europe. "An old girlfriend worked for some magazine called Elle - I knew nothing about fashion in those days - and one of my sweaters ended up on the cover." And from this came the label Scapa, named after Scapa Flow where he was born - and the Italian word "scapa", which means "escape".
Scapa started up in Belgium in 1967, where Brian Redding had settled with his then wife, Arlette van Oost, who is still a partner in the business. Their first shop sold Scapa knitwear, produced by Orkney knitters, with pieces by other designers. By 1969, they had designed their own little collection: one ladies' jacket, one pair of trousers and two skirts in half a dozen colours. "Our first women's jacket was designed like a man's, which was very new then," recalls Arlette. These days their collections have around 25 variations of ladies' jackets alone.
But, says Brian, though they have also branched out into men's and children's clothes, sportswear and scent, bedlinens and houseware, some themes have remained constant from the very beginning. "Tweeds and velvets, British colonial and riding themes - we sell incredible quantities of riding jackets in Italy. This cavalry jacket has been in the collection for years; the military twist is always there somewhere. Indian is a summer theme for us; there are variations every year but the influences are the same." Their hand-knits are still made in Orkney, where they still employ 80 knitters, and they are still using the same labels that have been sewn into their garments for the past three decades.
A Scapa suit costs around pounds 350; but, says Brian, their clothes are high quality fabric, well-made, and "value for money. These are things people can wear after the end of the season without feeling out of place." They are currently seeing tight, cropped little jumpers they designed 20 years ago reappearing on the daughters of their original customers.
Although limited ranges of Scapa clothes have been picked up by store buyers and made available in Britain, they have never attempted a full- scale launch in this country. "We always thought we were too British to sell in Britain, because what we do they already have," says Arlette. But now, as Belgium establishes itself more and more firmly on the international fashion scene, they have decided to take the plunge. And, explains Brian Redding, as Britain becomes more and more open to European influence, the more there is a niche for British-with-a-European-twist. "Look at Soho, with its new cafe society. You could think you were in Paris. In Europe Scapa has often had to tone down its perceived eccentricity in its approach to wearing quality clothing - but of course the way we choose to wear our clothes is a truly personal and individual expression. Generally, much of Europe chooses to wear its clothing in a fairly uniform fashion. I am looking forward to working again in Britain, seeing Scapa worn in the unique way the British feel free to express themselves."
Certainly, stepping into any one of the three separate Scapa stores in Antwerp's main shopping street (women's and home, children's and men's) is like stepping into a British emporium. For women, there are pale knits and floaty dresses, full-skirted linen suits, navy and white nautical stripes; for men, casually layered shirts, waistcoats and jackets, heaps of jumpers, umbrellas and braces (they sell 20 jumpers a day, adorned with Scapa's embroidered thistle logo). Only the occasional eye-popping lime-green sweater in the men's store (or the rather-too-bright yellow tweed suit) suggests that this is the other side of the Channel. In the home department there is even a three-tiered cake stand and you can't get much more British than that. It seems that we're about to be invaded - by ourselves.
Scapa is available at Mensroom, 834 Greenlanes, London, N22 and Cadogan, 30-31 The Square, Winchester. Enquiries: 0171 637 1450