Twenty-five years ago, Victoria Stapleton’s parents bought an interest in a tweed mill in Brora, a small village in the Scottish Highlands with some 1,150 residents. She was asked to establish a Scottish textile shop beside the mill. Looking for classic cashmere knits to complement the tweeds, she accidentally met James Sugden OBE, then-runner of the finest cashmere mill in Scotland. The young Victoria would not have envisioned that 25 years later, her own Brora Cashmere would become one of Britain’s most successful modern cashmere brands, and two weeks ago on 8 February, it would open its 15th stand-alone store on Bell Street.
Two years of learning the trade equipped Ms. Stapleton to spot holes in the cashmere clothing industry. “I felt there was a gap in the market for well-priced, colourful, and interesting designs made from Scottish cashmere,” she said.
Brora had a humble beginning but received generous support. For a new, privately-owned fashion brand, it may be hard to translate ideas into designs, and then designs into concrete products. It was then James Sugden that helped Ms. Stapleton greatly. “He lent me his internal design team to translate my ideas into well-fitting, beautifully crafted designs,” Ms. Stapleton graciously acknowledged.
Although now Brora has its own devoted design team, the brand hasn’t stopped collaborating with innovative designers. The audacity of these partnerships and the inspiring designs that came out of them are worth a detailed mention.
In 2011, Brora collaborated with Scottish designer Louise Gray, who had a playful avant-garde style blended with bold, vibrant mix of colours. The following year, Brora joined forces with London-based designer Michael van der Ham. The Dutch designer, who has designed costumes for Björk as well as for the 2012 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony, blessed Brora with a 12- piece capsule, all brightly coloured.
In 2013, Brora launched a quintessentially British collaboration with Sophie Dahl. The collection, The Lost Weekend, is composed of 13 pieces, inspired by items that the supermodel felt were missing from her personal wardrobe.
“I imagined it as the-morning-after- the-night-before – a woman on an island after a party, walking home with her shoes in her hands,” Ms. Dahl told Vogue.
More recently, in 2015, Brora entered a highly successful collaboration with London-based, Korea-born fashion designer, Eudon Choi. That year, Choi was working on a collection inspired by Japanese architecture of the 1970s. Brora’s collaboration reflects part of that nostalgic style. Brora’s latest collaboration was with Sibling, another knitwear giant founded by Sid Bryan and Cozette McCreery. Sensational colours and bold patterns dominate the collection.
Brora’s founder and creative director Victoria Stapleton told The Saint that collaborating with these designers has been a learning process.
“Usually the designers haven’t worked a tremendous amount with knitwear so their ideas can often be almost impossible technically to create,” she said.
“This means we all have to be a bit more imaginative about how we do things. I love taking someone with artistic flair around the mill, showing them the multiple processes that are needed to make one piece of knitwear. It is very complex and their designs often push the limits; that’s fun.”
It is with this fearlessness in pushing for bigger changes that Brora opened its first international store in New York City.
The store’s only international location sits in the most affluent neighborhood in New York City: the Upper East Side of Manhattan, steps away from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim on Madison Avenue.
Setting up a shop in any foreign city is no small task, not to mention in a city with 8.5 million people where the fashion landscape is incredibly diverse. Land is scarce and the barrier to entry is formidable. Moreover, in a place where the monthly rent for one bedroom with a shared bathroom starts at around £750, it is a huge financial commitment to launch a store. “It isn’t easy setting up a shop in New York; it’s expensive, operationally challenging, and you are newbies!”
But Ms. Stapleton’s choice is a thoughtful, well-informed, and thoroughly researched one. “When New Yorkers discovered Brora in London, through word of mouth usually, they raved about it saying there was nothing like Brora in New York,” she said.
She went as far as going to New York to get a feel for the city herself. Walking the streets of New York for a few days, she found that indeed there was nothing that the Big Apple offered that could be compared to Brora’s exquisitely made luxury cashmere clothing. “We felt from the way people dressed we could bring them something new and exciting that they would soon fall in love with. Also the climate was on our side.”
The careful choice of the location of the shop, perhaps, is one of the many things that equips Brora’s New York branch to attract loyal customers. Given its very high population density and per capita income, the upper east side of Manhattan contains the greatest concentration of individual wealth in New York. As of 2011, the median annual household income for the Upper East Side was $117,903, or roughly £85,214.
But attracting the customers is only a small challenge to setting up a successful shop, bridging the gap between two fashion cultures and adapting to different consumer needs are bigger challenges. “Few people had heard of the brand so it was a process of educating them into why Scottish Cashmere, why wear colour and pattern?” Ms. Stapleton said.
Although the bestselling lines in New York remain the classic designs, the store has attracted many loyal customers. The company now has a US website, which grew 40 per cent in revenue last year.
Despite the international presence of Brora, Ms. Stapleton hopes to keep the brand privately owned. She cites two reasons for this decision.
First, private and family-run businesses are quick at making decisions. Second, with the hard-earned brand reputation over the years, it seems like a waste to sell Brora to corporate giants, a move that will most definitely dilute the brand message. “Of course, you have to have a succession plan which I don’t at present but with plenty of daughters, maybe one of them will show some interest at the right time.”
Now, the 25-year-old Scottish brand has come to St Andrews. Ms. Stapleton was present at the store opening event and said she had great hopes.
“From experience, I have learnt that those shopping in Scotland for cashmere want to buy a locally produced product, not something made in China.”
Indeed, the St Andrews location, despite having opened only two weeks ago, has received much-deserved attention and positive feedback from local residents, tourists, as well as students.
Area Manager Avril Masterson told The Saint that since its opening, the store has welcomed many locals. Ms. Masterson is clearly pleased with the look of the store as well as the sales it has made so far, and this is still before the high tourism season. “The shop is a must to visit, where you will be mesmerised with the array of colours and quality products we have to entice you,” says Ms. Masterson.
With the addition of its St Andrews location, Brora looks forward to the coming year. The priority is still to “grow safely, make much of what we design in the U.K., and look after our employees,” says Ms. Stapleton. “I’d like more people to wear Brora, for the brand to be more exposed and therefore bring even more work to manufacturers in the U.K.”
For a legendary family-run business, Brora is still young. While the brand offers wearable, timeless designs, customers are surprised by the quirky clothes from time to time. “There was one year when we produced cashmere hot pants! And someone bought them!” Ms. Stapleton said.
“I’m as passionate about every area today as I ever was,” says the founder. That passion is certainly evident.