PEOPLE IN FASHION: From the needles of knitting duo, Saltwater, Hester Lacey finds softness on a hanger
A YEAR AGO, Laura Watson and Vanessa Doyle took a big gamble on the success of their fledgling company, Saltwater; they both resigned from good jobs with big-name designers. Laura deserted Nicole Farhi while Vanessa left Versace; and this was with no more than a business plan to pin their hopes on. A potential sponsor, publisher Nigel Deering, was prepared to put funding in only if they could produce a rack of clothes to show what they could do. So in a month, working flat out, they put together a tiny collection of around 20 garments, and, with some trepidation, lugged them round to his flat. "It was a lovely, sunny day," recalls Laura, "so we hung the clothes up outside, all round his veranda. We were so nervous, really hoping Nigel wouldn't hate them."

Luckily he didn't hate them, and Saltwater was under way. Although Laura and Vanessa have come via Farhi and Versace, a mix that, to say the least, is hardly obvious, their own designs owe little to either. The emphasis of their knits and weaves is on luxury and minimalism. Their current autumn/winter collection is an earthy mix of greys, soft beiges, subtle greens, browns and aubergines, in cashmere, mohair, silk and chenille, embroidered, dyed, felted and printed. There are feather-light jumpers and tops, simply shaped dresses, coats, draw-string trousers, plus a few coloured accents in pink, blue and jade green: a sweater, cardigan, scarves. "We try to be experimental with knit, and do things the larger houses can't do, like printing on knit," explains Laura. "We wanted to keep quite minimal, to have special things, but things that are not too in-your-face."

"We try and offer details that can't be easily mass-produced, clothes that are understated but special," adds Vanessa.

The two of them met at the Royal College of Art, where Vanessa was studying knitted textiles and Laura was doing fashion knitwear. Laura was the initial driving force behind Saltwater. "I saw Ness's show and was struck with it, it was so beautiful and I could tell we were both interested in certain styles and techniques," she says. "We were both working elsewhere but we started having clandestine evening chats about the future. I started by suggesting that we share studio space, and it started from that, in a cupboard in Kensington." Nigel Deering had also seen Vanessa's show and told her to get in touch should she ever think of starting her own label; the two set out successfully to woo him. They couldn't believe it, says Laura, when Brown's took an order from their tiny initial collection; a Vogue story followed, and then buyers started to take an interest - not only from the UK, but Barneys in New York and Saks in San Francisco. "It was all word-of-mouth, a domino effect," says Laura.

The two of them share the design work equally. "In lots of partnerships there is the creative one and the business one," says Laura. "We're both creative. It's good to be equal, neither of us is in charge." A certain amount of healthy argument goes on, however, they say, and if their designs are softness and subtlety on a hanger, the two of them make a feisty pairing. "The whole point of starting Saltwater was to do our own thing," says Vanessa.

"Never to be dictated to!" adds Laura.

"Working for others you have to conform to their taste, here we can do anything," says Vanessa. "It feels so much better doing our own thing," confirms Laura.

Their philosophy, they say, is quite simply to do whatever they like. "We like the feeling of things being unique," says Laura. "Our clothes look hand-made but not too 'crafty'. There have been a lot of pretty-pretty looks going on, and something about that is very appealing, but at the same time our clothes are not too frou-frou and girly."

"High fashion is changing," suggests Vanessa. "It's not about very slick, mass-produced looks any more. You have to offer clothes with hand-made appeal, good quality that looks and feels amazing."

They are aiming, they say, for ageless appeal. "Our designs are based more on a type than an age group," says Laura. "If they are based on anyone, they're based on us. Neither of us has a model figure and we don't want tight-fitting, revealing clothes. Our customer could be in their twenties or in their fifties, someone who doesn't want to have a label emblazoned across their chest, but someone with a feeling for colour and texture."

"It's about genuinely beautiful things," chimes in Vanessa.

"These are not disposable garments," finishes Laura.

They squirm a little over pricing, however. All their clothes are handmade, by pieceworkers around the country, and this does not come cheap. A Saltwater sweater retails at around pounds 150, a two-piece suit with embroidery detail on pockets and hem at around pounds 500, and their felted kimono coat, made of baby alpaca and merino, quilted and embroidered, is also around the pounds 500 mark. "We have had to be grown-up about costing," says Laura. "There is a lot of work in the clothes and they are a production nightmare. But it does feel strange when our prices are outside the bracket that we would normally shop in."

The Saltwater name was Vanessa's inspiration. "Using our two names together sounded like a pair of private investigators," says Laura. "We wanted something natural, fresh, no-nonsense and unpretentious. Ness just came up with it and it's grown on me since." She would, though, like to develop the theme. "I'm from Cornwall and I'm passionate about the sea, so I want us to have a studio overlooking the sea one day."

Stockists: Browns, 24-27 South Molton Street, London W1; A La Mode, 36 Hans Crescent, London SW1; Matches, 37A High Street, SW19 and 13 Hill Street, Richmond, Surrey; The Cross, 141 Portland Road, London W11; Anna's, 126 Regent's Park Road; Georgia Brown, 73 Parchment Street, Winchester; Eva, 12 High Street, Ipswich.