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Issue 4 - Social climbers

Scotland Magazine Issue 4
September 2002


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Social climbers

Kate Patrick reports on the success of pedlars mail order clothing: a smart combination of evolution and integrity

Scene one: catalogue purveying lifestyle products plops through letterbox, the third to arrive this week. Occupants of house skim through atmospherically-styled shots of pale suede fringed cushions and hemlock-fragranced homeopathic roomspray, and wonder quite how these totems are going to fit in with the way in which they actually live. Has the notion of lifestyle‚ – now so ubiquitously understood – begun ever-so-slightly to lose the plot?

Scene two: Pedlars mail order catalogue arrives, exuding colour and energy. Inside are real people (as opposed to models), many of them related to each other, photographed in real-life situations – camping, lounging by the fire, riding (horse, bike, motorbike), gathering round for a family game, spraying each other with a hosepipe. "From Scotland to the World," it says on the front, followed by "A way of life". Is this, finally, a way of life we can not only believe in, but hope in some way to attain?

Pedlars has come a long way from its early days as a small family business based in Dundee that created elasticated-waist trousers and gypsy skirts using deliberately mismatching panels of tartan fabric. When Charlie and Caroline Gladstone acquired it in 1997 it was turning over about £70,000 ($100,000) a year; by comparison, next year’s target will be £1 million ($1.5m) which will come from a combination of clothes and general merchandise.

The original trousers and skirts still feature – although in updated, more fashion-aware checks and animal prints; but designs that judiciously use luxury fabrics like cashmere, silk and linen have also been introduced. Fleece has become a Pedlars hallmark, but not just in a comfortable-practical sense: eye-catching fleece pinafore dresses for kids, with purple daisies on a lime-green background, were a hit last winter, and gave a whole new perspective to this versatile fabric. And if the clothes look slightly Bohemian-funky, it’s because they are designed to look genuinely original: no hint of Gap-style standardisation here.

General merchandise, meanwhile, which was first incorporated two years ago with the game Corx, some dog beds and a line of herbal remedies supplied by the Edinburgh firm Napiers, has taken off to such a degree that later this year Pedlars will launch two separate brochures – one for clothes and one for stuff. As with clothes, the stuff will be for whole families and their dogs, some of it shrewdly evocative of childhood in the 1960s. Included are tipis, Enid Blyton books, frisbees, flower-shaped fried-egg moulds – things that inject some fun, and a sense of personality into the fabric of family life. "Putting in things for families is the core of our success," says Charlie Gladstone. "Plus, with general merchandise, we have to like something genuinely before we sell it. We’ve sold thousands of the game Snatch for this reason."

The Gladstones know a thing or two about families. Charlie (direct descendant of Prime Minister William Gladstone and previously a Warner Bros music executive) and Caroline (a former accessories designer for Laura Ashley) have six children of their own, happily photogenic, all of whom have featured in the catalogue over the past five years. Their friends, Huw and Jenny Parsons, with four children, are also regulars, as is Charlie’s aunt, Jeannie Gladstone. Using family and friends in place of professional models has, says Gladstone, given some soul to what they do, and made it easier for customers to relate to what’s on offer. The business is based in the stables at the Gladstones’ home, situated on a remote mountainside in incardineshire. Step beyond the stableyard and there is nothing but mountain, river and heathery moorland for miles. The unadulterated purity of this natural environment has provided the Gladstones with possibly their greatest design inspiration.

One surprising success, given the current popularity of fleece and sweatshirting as family staples, has been the Pedlars knitwear. They produce three or four basic styles, which are made up in high quality wool, some by small outworkers based in Scotland, and some by the well-known Scottish knitwear company Johnstons of Elgin. "We’ve had enormous success with fleece as well," says Gladstone, "but our knitwear has grown massively, and truly surprised us with its popularity."

Is the fact that Pedlars is based in Scotland, a traditional home of knitwear manufacturing, a possible explanation? "Scotland is a bedrock, as it’s where we’re from, and we deliberately photograph everything in Scotland now. The association does have a certain resonance. But I’m concerned about the whole notion of Scottishness: I think Scotland should stand for things other than whisky, tartan and bagpipes. In a way, what’s more important to us and our customers is that every article of clothing we sell is made in Britain. We are great supporters of small, local industry."

Although Paddy Cook’s masterful photography positions the clothes against a rural backdrop – one catalogue had the TV presenter Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall pitchforking hay in his Pedlars sloppy joe – at least half of Pedlars customers are, in fact, town dwellers, and half of those are in London. It’s testament to the company’s success in purveying a lifestyle that is both aspirational and attainable. "But with Pedlars you don’t have to trade right up to achieve it," says Gladstone, "more sideways."

The office receives 50 complimentary letters to every complaint, most referring to the swift, personal service. Last winter, when the buildings were snowed in and the team of six couldn’t access the office, they left an apologetic message on the answer machine for prospective customers, and received heartwarming messages in response: "It sounds so lovely there," and "We hope you’re all right." Gladstone says, "It’s absolutely key that we have nice people delivering genuinely truthful customer service. We all wear the clothes and know the sizing and play the games, so we can give people honest information based on personal knowledge, rather than what’s written on a computer screen. The other thing we offer is a proper, American-style no-quibbles guarantee and free returns. In practice this has never been abused, but it gives people confidence to buy."

The company has not yet taken the e-commerce route – "We’re holding off until we know we can replicate the service we deliver via the catalogues" – but there is a website for viewing clothes and products, and meanwhile the two new catalogues will come out at the end of August. If Pedlars has anything to do with it, autumn will be a lot of fun this year.

• Pedlars, The Stables, Glen Dye, By Banchory, Kincardineshire AB31 6LT. Tel: +44 (0)1330 850 400; fax: +44 (0)1330 850 490;; email: