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Issue 2 - Material girl

Scotland Magazine Issue 2
June 2002


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Material girl

Belinda Robertson, feisty Glasgow girl, has taken cashmere to a new plane of fashion

Cast your mind back – not very far – to when there were just four types of sweater: polo neck, turtle neck, round neck and V neck. Nothing else varied much, except that sometimes people bravely wore a matching cardigan over the top, and then the ensemble was called a twinset. It was probably knitted in the Scottish Borders, in lambswool or – just occasionally – in the wool of the cashmere goat. Rare and expensive, this, and traditionally difficult to manufacture and ‘finish’; but so luxuriantly soft and easy to wear, so tactile. Potentially, in fact, rather addictive.

Kerpow! Enter Belinda Robertson – feisty Glasgow girl and party animal, with a will of steel and an eye for a singularly main chance. She set out to turn cashmere into what every woman was crying out for, subconsciously or not: clean-lined, colourful, modern, funky and fashion-aware pieces of clothing to make you feel a million dollars. That was 1986, since when Robertson has stormed the international markets, designing for private labels in the US and Japan; she has also opened her own flagship store in London, a sleek and discreet showroom in Edinburgh and others in Milan and New York, and diversified into menswear, baby clothes and cushion covers; she sits on numerous industry boards, and earlier this year – at around the time when she gave us the witty cashmere G-string – was awarded an OBE for services to the textile industry.

I meet Belinda Robertson on a rainy evening in her Edinburgh studio. She is just back from the Far East – Japan, Hong Kong and Korea in six days – and there’s no sign of her energy flagging. In fact she looks fabulous, in black leather trousers and a must-have black cashmere polo neck (it’s brilliantly designed to fit around female curves). I recall a story told by a mutual friend, who arrived at Robertson’s house at 10 in the morning once to be greeted at the door by Belinda, still in her party gear from the night before. Not many 40-something mothers, even working ones, have that kind of stamina.

But it was stamina, determination and being prepared to tackle danger head-on and face it down – in an apparently chronically crisis-ridden industry – that got the business off the ground in the 1980s. Robertson had in fact begun her career as a PE teacher, but realised that she really wanted to be in business. A successful spell in marketing at a telecommunications company brought her into contact with major knitwear manufacturer Dawson International (owner of Pringle and Ballantine) and Lyle & Scott, and when she hit the ‘glass ceiling’, she left to have her first child and “design a few sweaters”. She takes up the story: “I had always been artistic, and I drew six or eight styles and took them to Gleneagles and to London, where they sold.

“Cashmere was then an exclusive luxury product targeted mainly at people aged 45-plus. I saw an opportunity to lower the age profile, and make it less traditional and more of a fashion item, younger, more modern, more colourful. It really started out just as a hobby, and grew organically from there.”

Robertson’s idea was to develop a system that would offer trade customers both choice and flexibility, to produce small, creative runs and to tailor-make the service. Not surprisingly, she fell foul of the production problems that had previously dogged the industry. Factories were full of skilled workers, not managers, and when she secured a £125,000 order on a trade mission to Japan, it was almost curtains for the embryonic business. “We were late, the order was not correct, and the ice was getting thinner and the mountain higher. But I had to keep going,” she recalls. So she found a partner to set up and manage a factory and finishing plant, and has never looked back.

The Nina Ricci and Christian Dior fashion houses were among the first to appreciate what Robertson could offer. Karl Lagerfeld became a customer. And her eye for gauging what women wanted dovetailed perfectly with that of the American designer Michael Kors, then making a name for himself among the Park Avenue princesses for exciting, glamorous and sexy-but-wearable clothes. Their lasting 10-year collaboration has shown what could be done for a private label in terms of innovative design and technically expert production.

Although wary of taking the plunge into selling direct to the public, three years ago Robertson opened a London store, just off the luxury shopping hub of Sloane Street, to showcase her own labels. The store uses limestone, mirrors and leather furnishings by Bill Amberg to create a young, bright and colourful environment – just like the designs themselves. Any item can be made to order in an impressive 120 colours. Meanwhile the Edinburgh showroom – open to the public, but a bit of a well-kept secret – contains ends of lines, samples from the current and previous seasons, sometimes even cancelled orders – at significantly discounted prices. Customers are invariably offered a cup of coffee or a glass of wine while they’re scouring the rails.

Not surprisingly, the major players in Scottish knitwear – Ballantine, Pringle, Lyle & Scott – have not been slow to catch on to the potential of combining good, modern design with a luxury product made in Scotland, and marketing it to a slightly younger public. All have, to a degree, undergone a process of self-reinvention in recent years, and it has provided a challenge to Belinda Robertson’s four-strong design team to remain different, and one step ahead in what has become a very competitive commodity industry. “It has to be in the design and originality of what we do,” says Robertson. “Also people buy into a collection that fits them. We’ve changed our sizing structure because people are getting bigger, but you can’t cater for the whole lot.”

The collection shortly to be unveiled at London Fashion Week for autumn/winter 2002 will send out screen-printed cashmere, lace, classic shapes made quirky by the use of colour and stripes, combinations of cashmere and silk, beading … all very glamorous and ‘grown-up’. In addition, a new Robertson B collection, in collaboration with Marcus Lupfer, has 20 or so hip pieces for the text-messaging set (including the guys): zip-up cardigans, slogan T-shirts, berets, skinny stripes. So-called ‘spa-wear’ – a luxury association if ever there was one – also features now, as do some extremely attractive, flecked chunky polo necks among the menswear in the Edinburgh showroom. Clothes can be bought through the website, and the full luxury service runs to transparent envelopes for storage and a re-dressing service to bring worn wool up to its former glory.

That Belinda has acted as an exciting flagship for the cashmere industry has not been lost on magazine fashion editors either, a notoriously critical breed. In the UK, Vogue, Harpers & Queen and the Sunday Times have all carried flattering editorial, and USA Today has also picked up on her work, although as yet there’s no New York store, only a trade showroom. “We know that the press isn’t going to write about us if we don’t give them something to write about, and clothes that looks great on the page,” she says. The hot pants and G-string have certainly generated a few column inches.
Robertson says it’s tough being an entrepreneur, often swimming against the tide. But success, when it comes, is sweet. “I’ve become very broadminded through travelling and meeting people all over the world. I love the pace of life and the buzz of London, New York and Tokyo. I work hard and play hard. But I’m fortunate in that I have the mix of both London and Scotland.”

It’s this perspective that has taken cashmere out of the dressing rooms of dowagers to comfortably take its place on the catwalk. But editing a mass of ideas into a coherent collection that will actually sell takes plenty of talent, energy and dedication. Bravo Belinda!

Belinda Robertson
22 Palmerston Place
Edinburgh EH12 5AL

Tel +44 (0) 131 225 1057

4 West Halkin Street
London SW1X 8JA
Tel +44 (0) 207 235 0519