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Issue 21 - Lets get funky

Scotland Magazine Issue 21
July 2005


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Lets get funky

Scottish culture has played a major role in the fashion industry in recent years. Kate Patrick went in search of Scottish style gurus

When Howie Nicholsby redefined the traditional kilt by producing it for 21st-Century Kilts low-slung and in leather, dark grey wool or even camouflage print for one well-known British pop star, he may have sparked a small army of Scottish designers into rethinking how they could make the most of their internationally recognisable tools.

Traditionalists might suck their teeth and grimace, rigor mortis-style, but Nicholsby wasn’t the first designer to recognise the potential of a quintessential Scottish totem, and to pick it up and shake some fresh air into it. Rarely does the fashion clock tick through a whole 365 days without tartan making an appearance somewhere.

Vivienne Westwood created an entire, fabulous ‘Highland Warrior’ collection for men in 1996 that featured mini kilts, traditionally-shaped kilt jackets in cream wool with rosebuds, flowing tartan capes with lace jabots and waistcoats with pom-poms.

Westwood has always been one for mixing it, and she makes Nicholsby look conservative by comparison. But if he – without going to quite the lengths Westwood was prepared to contemplate – could make the traditional kilt ‘funky’ for a whole new generation, why could sporrans not come in for a bit of a makeover too?

And if London-based accessories designers like Anya Hindmarch could do well out of selling bags sporting photographic prints of people’s faces, why couldn’t a Scottish designer do the same with the pert image of a heilan’ coo?

Well, here’s the news: it’s happening. Jennifer Cantwell, from her workshop in Inverness, started up Sporran Nation (Tel: +44 (0)1463 232 644; – and her contemporary creations are guaranteed to attract attention to your nether regions, whether you’re a man or a woman.

Among Cantwell’s unique, handcrafted collection are sporrans in sea-green nubuck bearing the skull-and-crossbones motif, goatskin sporrans covered in the contents of grandma’s button box, pliable pale leather sporrans with cups of tea in pink and orange satin splashed across them, sporrans bearing clocks, electrical circuits, stars and bombs (phalluses, more like) and an inviting suede version in lilac and green (heather colours, naturally) that is simply summed up as the ‘danger sporran’.

The sporran is traditionally worn a hand’s breadth below the belly button, although Jennifer’s chain belt can be adapted for a lowerslung effect. “The scars and blemishes of the leather give each sporran a defining texture and surface – and character,” says Jennifer, although the motifs alone would be character enough for most wearers.

Meanwhile Edinburgh-based film producer Catherine Aitken (Tel: +44 (0)131 552 7611; was spurred into creating an online collection of bags by the success of a one-off she made on a film set in Cannes two years ago.

She had enjoyed dressmaking for years having been taught to sew, in the best craft tradition, by her grandmother. People stopped her in the chic streets of Cannes to ask where her handmade bag was from, and she started to sell copies into small shops, set up a website, and suddenly found herself more in the business of bags than the manufacture of movies.

Her bags reflect a delectably romantic vision of Scottish country life, drawing on Scottish images and traditional Scottish fabrics to produce designs with names like ‘My Luv’, inscribed with the words from the Robert Burns poem, or ‘Harris’ – in faux fur-trimmed tweed.

Aitken uses reconditioned antique kilts, traditional tweeds and soft mohairs, reminiscent of an old-fashioned Scottish childhood, as a basis for the collection.

“It’s texture I’m really interested in,” she says.

“My uncle was a kiltmaker, and when I was young, I thought tartan was boring.

“But I grew up to love it, and I realised that my first collection needed an identity. That identity came from using Scottish fabrics but in unexpected ways, for example using kilt pins to hold the straps in place. I tried to make small bags, but somehow they ended up squidgy and big, often in an A-shape. That has become my trademark.” Mixing up Harris tweed and fur to create a bag that should really be worn rather than carried was one early success; but Aitken then found some old postcards showing Scottish scenes, which inspired her to use graphic images on the next colllection. The ‘heilan’ coo’ bag has had such an enthusiastic response that Aitken is considering using ‘heilan coo printed fabric’ as lining material to the whole range.

Designing principally with her girlfriends in mind, Aitken realised she might be missing a trick. A male film critic friend had admired her work.

“I didn’t want him to miss out on my bag frenzy,” she says, “and working in the film industry I often found myself having meetings with men who would never think of wearing a suit, but were totally flummoxed about what to do with their papers, scripts and everything else they had to carry about.

“So I created a briefcase, the Munro, for the ‘unsuited businessman’ out of Harris tweed, with leather and buckles. At the 2005 Made in Scotland trade fair in Glasgow, I took a huge order from a Japanese distributor who simply went for all the men’s bags.” In between handmaking the bags, still on her trusty sewing machine, Aitken is working on The Man who Walks, a film of Alan Warner’s novel directed by Irvine Welsh, better known as the colourful author of Trainspotting. These film developments can become tendentious; so it makes sense to have another string to one’s bow.

“People do like the idea of a limited edition piece, that’s not off a production line,” she says.

“I try to change the whole collection twice a year. Wintry fabrics tend to make better bags, but you can find tweed in wonderful burnt orange and bright pink, to introduce for a summer season.” She’s also planning a line in Fair Isle which will slide neatly into most people’s definition of bohochic, and a line of mohair stoles lined in silk dupion is now on the website.

If Cantwell and Aitken are finding a niche market via their websites or small retail outlets, Glasgow-born Jonathan Saunders has hit the department stores with a splash.

Saunders zinged onto the international fashion stage in 2004 with some startling and innovative print-based designs which you will now find at Harrods and Selfridges in London, and branches of Harvey Nichols throughout the United Kingdom. He recently teamed up with VisitScotland (the Scottish Tourist Board), to design a bespoke fabric cover for its new Guide to Scotland’s Cities – but only a limited edition of 250 – which was launched during his Autumn/Winter collection show at London Fashion Week in February 2005 (copies available via the VisitScotland citybreaks website

Saunders, broad Glaswegian, trained at St Martin’s in London, and with attitude to boot, said at the time that he was extremely proud of his Scottish background, and spends as much time there as possible.

“As someone now living in London, it becomes even more obvious that Scotland’s cities all have great individual style, but the same intrinsic strengths: fabulous architecture, stunning scenery and fantastic people. I wanted to express that through my design for the guide. There’s a real buzz about Scotland at the moment, and I’ve tried to capture that.” His limited edition print is a fusion of zestycoloured prisms, reminiscent of the 2003/4 collections of kaleidoscopic, chiffon and silk dresses that catapulted him into the lenses of the international fashion press and resulted in design commissions from Pucci and Alexander McQueen.

Saunders’ latest collection, inspired by strands of Inuit and African culture, manages to be elegant without being overtly ethnic. He’s still only 27, and, in the best Scottish tradition if he can cut it as an independent, he can look forward to a psychedelic future.

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