At this time of year, as we start introducing some transitional layers into our wardrobe, we thought Victoria Stapleton, Founder and Creative Director of Brora, would be the perfect person to ask what we should all be wearing this autumn.
We absolutely adore Brora, a brand that shares values close to our heart, with a strong emphasis on high quality natural materials, fantastic colour combinations, made sustainably in Britain. Brora's cashmere, which is to die for, has been manufactured in Scotland for years. We also love their jumbo cord trousers at this time of year.
Every summer Victoria and her family of 5 daughters, plus assorted boyfriends, decamp to the island of Colonsay, off the North West of Scotland. This was the perfect setting for an impromptu family photo shoot of Brora's new autumn collection. Victoria has kindly shared her staycation style tips with us as well as revealing why the North and Scotland are such magical places for her family.
Tell us about your summer?
We spent some time at our home in Cumbria close to where I was brought up, a place we all adore. We then headed further north to Colonsay, an island in the Inner Hebrides, 3 hours by ferry from Oban. Perhaps unsurprisingly we were close family. You’d think we would have had enough of each other by now but a few of our daughters' friends dropped in and out which helped ring the changes.
Can you tell us a bit more about these places and why they are special to you?
I moved to Cumbria when I was eight, my mother’s family came from there, so although we now live close to London, the pull to head up north is very strong. I always tie in a trip to the mill in Hawick where all the Brora cashmere has been made for nearly 30 years. Arriving there and bumping down the track to the cottage never loses its allure. We are on the banks of the River Eden and at this time of year, river swims are a must for all of us. The water is incredibly soft and there is just enough current in certain places to give my adrenalin a kick start.
The girls all love it as they have been coming since they were babies, cousins live close by, and it does still feel other worldly. Now two of them are at the Glasgow School of Art, it is a perfect bolt hole to stay with their friends. And a great overnight stay for those heading to or from Scotland so we do end up seeing a few people other than family!
Did this summer feel very different for you?
Strangely, it didn't feel that different and perhaps that is because these places are quite remote and we have had a similar summer routine for as long as I can remember. Last year we couldn’t get to Colonsay as the border was closed and the island was not welcoming outsiders. It was therefore all the more thrilling to head back to those white beaches, clear blue seas, huge views and of course the local pint!
What are your holiday must haves?
I am quite obsessed by shrimping. There are some amazing rock pools full of tangled seaweed and juicy shrimps that can be caught when the tide is just right. We take large nets and when you dig down with a long, low drag and pull up the net to find a few jumping around, it is terribly exciting – and rather addictive. A bucketful of shrimp, cooked fresh with some bread and butter, makes a fine feast. A swim in the cold sea is a must have too.
Any holiday meals you particularly look forward to?
The best supper we have is the one on the beach and each year this is planned towards the end of our stay. We all have to forage for something in the daytime to bring to the party and cook on the fire. Mackerel, shrimps, oysters all washed down with tumblers of red wine and home-made bread. We swim, chat and cook until it’s almost dark – that takes a while in Scotland in summer! Another evening we will spread newspaper across the kitchen table and eat freshly caught lobsters with mayonnaise, one of the only things I know how to make.
What’s great about a staycation?
Driving means you can take as much kit as you want. Packing neatly has never been my forte; I take umpteen bags with endless shoes and boots, walking and wellies, golf clubs for the undulating rabbit and sheep infested 9 holes, jackets galore, tweed, waterproof, canvas and of course a suitcase full of Brora jumpers. The ease of going from A to B with dogs, children and clobber, without having to unpack until you get there, has to be a huge bonus!
Can you tell us your staycation style tips – what do you pack?
So not surprisingly it is rare to find a clothing label in my suitcase that isn’t Brora. Half of that is the sheer laziness of actually bothering to shop elsewhere and half of that is because there is so much that has my name written all over it. I packed 2 new pairs of super luxurious jumbo cord trousers, one a rich conker shade, another deep dark green; the latter has a matching jacket, umm yes that makes five jackets in my car! I’m also very in love with a new high necked plaid blouse.
I also wore our new fair isle jumpers & tanks. Another favourite is a more recent discovery; we started making knitwear in alpaca yarn, it is so soft, lovely big stitches and just feels great. The navy and cinnamon patchwork cardigan is fabulous.
The girls all wear Brora in different ways; Allegra is never out of a cashmere beanie, Hermione is expecting a baby in November so a tiered dress is her vibe. Nancy wears bright, colourful knitwear, Jesse loves a tank and Lola wears our neck scarves and wool squares in endless inventive ways. I design Brora to be worn by all the family, from my husband and mother down to my soon-to-be grandchild. My daughters are my muses and it really helps me creatively to see how they style their Brora pieces.
When did you design Brora Autumn/Winter 2021? What were your inspirations?
We start the design process a whole year before the customer sees the collection. Therefore the colour palette for AW21, my starting point, was imagined in August 2020; everything flows from there. We normally go to a fabric trade fair in Paris twice a year and that has been cancelled so many suppliers have put their ranges on a digital platform or they have come to see us in the office which I have to say is so much easier and time efficient but I miss browsing my favourite Parisian boutiques.
This autumn we have also collaborated for a second season with Troy London, a great British brand who shares our ethos of manufacturing sustainably in Britain. We have designed together two supersoft lambswool fair isle jumpers that are made in Scotland with a seamless design which means absolutely zero waste. I was delighted that our first collaboration with Troy sold so well and everyone loved our modern take on a traditional fair isle.
At Brora we have years of experience making fair isles in Scotland. Rosie and Lucia at Troy wanted to introduce some more contemporary colours inspired by Icelandic knits. With fair isle design, opposites attract; one design reminds me of lichen, gorse and silver birch, the other slate roofs, rusty metal work and midnight blue skies, both decidedly Scottish. Working on collaborations is a very creative process for me. It brings fresh ways of looking at what we do best. I think customers love to see who we might be collaborating with next.
I always find that inspiration can come from anywhere and nowhere is this truer than in my home. I've always loved colour so my leaning is towards strong and vibrant patterns, designs and artwork. We are a creative family and Brora is very much a family affair - Johnnie and Allegra are our photographers and Allegra is also a gardener and animator. Hermione is a fashion stylist and accessories designer so often works for us. Jesse is our Brora Brand Manager. My youngest, Nancy and Lola, are at the Glasgow School of Art and we collaborate creatively all the time which I love. In the first lockdown the 8 of us lived together at our home near London and of course the weather was amazing last Spring. Everyone learnt new skills especially in the garden. I was busy on my sewing machine making proto-type Liberty print cotton face masks for Brora.
Brora is renowned for its use of colour – what colours have you chosen for your new Autumn collection?
Each season we create a totally new colour palette and it is one of the design stages that I love the most. I studied Art History at university, and find so much inspiration through art & design; I have never been frightened of mixing colours that might seem odd at first. Our cashmere mill that has been blending yarn for hundreds of years uses at least six shades to create one colour; it is just one of the things that makes our cashmere so special. Olive and Iris were key shades for SS21 and Nettle is already a front runner for AW21; it will change as the season unfolds into rich berry and jewel like shades no doubt. It is my honest opinion that everyone looks better in a colour rather than black and one of the things I like most is a day in store finding that exact shade for a dubious customer!
Did you notice any surprising customer trends during lockdown? Did people suddenly go mad for cashmere socks?
Yes, we did sell a ridiculous amount of cashmere socks and our sock machine broke down, the part had to come from Italy and the story went on and on! We’ve sold lots of blankets and our cashmere sales in general have increased; I expect people have been treating themselves with something they may not have been able to afford when they were buying coffee and a train fare 5 days a week!
Any advice, tips or lessons you’ve learnt over the last year?
I’m grateful for my health; I haven’t suffered with Covid or allowed myself to become overwhelmed by the idea. As I get older I have become more relaxed about what the day will bring and take changes to plans in a measured way. There are many things out of our control and being open minded helps stress levels enormously. I really try not to plan too much in one day as that can be overwhelming; the busiest days are photoshoots as one is up early, and each outfit and shot has to be the best it can possibly be. I’m also a late riser and allow myself to be as school runs are a thing of the past; I’d much rather not wake to an alarm!
Work was a challenge but I have faced quite a few since I started Brora on my kitchen table in 1993! I am so grateful to steer a ship that makes so much in the UK. This has helped enormously through Brexit and Covid. The Brora team really is an extension of family and we all kept each other sane and busy. We were also able to donate almost £300,000 to charities helping those affected by the pandemic. It’s felt good to be able to do something small when we are so fortunate.
All images unless specified are © Allegra Pilkington.