For me, clothing is more than something we just wear to keep warm, but part of our identity and the personality we present to the world. A huge part of my love of vintage is the stories these clothes tell, the narratives woven into every thread of each garment: a unique piece of social, as well as design, history. For me the allure of independent clothing companies is also this uniqueness, the stories behind the clothes and the people who make them. Brora is one such company that has been on my radar for a while, and whose story I was lucky enough to learn more about recently – I couldn’t wait to share it with you.
Companies are far more aware of things North of the Border these days, and more and more are switched on to the digital communities thriving here. At few events I’ve been to though has the founder and managing director kindly greeted me at the door and warmly welcomed me into their Edinburgh store, or spoken with such enthusiasm about their business, bringing the story to life so well. If I get across even a modicum of Victoria’s passion for Scottish knitwear then I’ll have done what I set out to achieve!
First, we were invited to browse the collections; the colour palette immediately struck me, evoking the colours of the landscape so unique to our country. Complemented by sumptuous textures, Caledonia is woven into each and every garment, made from the finest Scottish cashmere and transformed by the finest craftsmanship of Brora’s artisan makers. Lovely knitwear designer Gillian talked me through the inspirations behind each collection, which you can see in the mood boards I photographed. We also shared a love of Scottish children’s literature – but more on that soon, when you see my purchase…
After sampling the delicious tablet, washed down with fiery ginger beer, we settled into our seats to hear the Brora story. Victoria was brought up in an entrepreneurial family; her parents bought failing 100-year-old tweed mill Hunters of Brora, and tasked Victoria with running the retail venture in Brora village, selling the famous tweed and clothing sourced from Scottish suppliers. This first taste of mill life sowed the seeds for the future founding of Brora in 1993. Victoria had no ambitions to be a fashion designer, but was inspired by the people she met, who believed in and loved the craft.
At the time, the industry was a little fusty in terms of its style credentials – all dull colours and gold buttons – and Victoria’s attitude breathed life into a more contemporary take on tradition. The beautiful knitwear designs are the produce of a mill in Hawick that’s been going since 1797. Their beautiful knits are created alongside pieces for Chanel, Hermès and Burberry from the best possible cashmere, making up 50% of the mill’s production and employing 300 people. Victoria remarked on an increasing, rather than reported decreasing, sense of pride in this craftsmanship, with traineeships at the mills constantly being filled, often by relatives of several generations’ worth of mill workers.
As it still is now, at the beginning it was very much a family affair: friends were roped in to be models, her now husband took the photos for their brochures, and Victoria could be found daily at the post office, sending parcels around the world. The company was launched before the Internet, now both asset and challenge for the entrepreneur, shouting to be heard in a digital marketplace. Word of mouth was what saw Brora’s star ascend; the right people heard and a wee feature in the FT saw Victoria roping in a friend to take thousands of orders via the phone, customers unaware that their calls were reaching her home landline.
Things evolved and Brora opened its first shop on the King’s Road, a space improvised on a shoestring with minimal décor and tables piled with knitwear. At first, the offering was knitwear alone and Victoria styled pieces with vintage finds from Portobello Road for the catalogue. They had so many requests for these, that they decided to expand into other clothing, working with a growing team. All the seamstresses do piecework and need paid on Friday afternoon; Victoria was very aware of her responsibilities to her expanding core of employees.
Brora now has seven shops in London, and seven up and down the country. It’s depressingly ironic how rare it is to find real Scottish cashmere in Edinburgh, but Brora is very much the real deal. In an age of mass-production and ethically dubious practices, Brora’s unwavering commitment to British manufacturing sets them apart: there is no other company that makes classic and contemporary knitwear in Scotland, in one of the oldest mills.
Last week saw Brora launch their third designer collaboration with Eudon Choi, the first being with Holly Fulton and second with Michael van der Ham. The pieces are ‘70s après ski inspired; tongue firmly in cheek, this is knitwear with a sense of fun. While it still has its finger on the fashion pulse, in a fast-paced world of disposable fashion, there’s something so refreshing about Victoria’s insistance that they don’t produce more than 200 coats a week – with quality craftsmanship this simply can’t be done. Victoria is adamant too that she works with only British tailors, passionately flying the flag for UK manufacturing.
Brora won’t succumb to the pressure of mega advertising campaigns, preferring to keep things simpler and thus prices more reasonable for the customer. You’ll find a team of five on a Brora shoot: her husband to shoot pictures, a model, hair and make-up artist, one assistant to help steam the clothes and Victoria herself – refreshingly pared-back when fashion shoots usually involve a minimum of two dozen people! The value Victoria ascribes to the customer is testament to her understanding of how clothes work; that word of mouth, intimate relationship between company, clothes and customer, is what made them after all.
What’s Brora’s style? Victoria is insistent anyone can wear Brora with their own aesthetic spin – whether androgynous, girly, fashion forward or classic, there are so many ways to make it your own. Victoria’s vision was a shop where you could buy for your mother, yourself and your daughter, and these family values and involvement really set the company apart. The word ‘inspiring’ is banded around far too frequently these days, especially in fashion’s oft-hyperbolic rhetoric, but this is one businesswoman who truly deserves the moniker.
Have you been into Brora before? Who do you think is an inspiring businesswoman?
Thanks to Brora for inviting me along! We received a goody bag with gift voucher on the night, the fruits of which you will see in a post soon, but all love of Scottish manufacturing and inspiring businesswomen entirely my own!