London - Scottish cashmere brand Johnstons of Elgin returned to London Fashion Week to showcase not what they are best known for autumn/winter staples, but to establish itself as a label for all seasons, to shout about its contribution to luxury British manufacturing and to showcase the strides it has been making with cutting edgy lightweight textiles and knit innovations in cashmere silk and cotton.
FashionUnited sat down with creative director Alan Scott backstage at the Johnstons of Elgin’s first spring/summer presentation at the Palm Court at the Waldorf Hilton Hotel, to discuss how the prestigious Scottish manufacturer is building its brand - expanding upon its successful accessories and knitwear businesses with womenswear, its quest to make cashmere an all-season fabric, and why it is important to champion British manufacturing and textiles.
“For us, London Fashion Week is about putting ourselves on the map and an opportunity to showcase the newness that we are developing for a spring season, how we are transforming our cashmere brand into a year-round brand,” stated Scott. “As well as to showcase the breadth of what we do, the repertoire of fabrications, and the innovation that we’ve got by putting that type of fabric into these lightweight gorgeous pieces, that are timeless, that are pure luxury and I think it - a great statement for British manufacturing and British luxury.”
Last season, for autumn/winter, Johnstons of Elgin made a statement for their fashion week debut, introducing press and buyers to its luxury cashmere, very much a brand in its comfort zone, cashmere is essentially still seen as a winter product, however, the Scottish manufacturer’s goal is to offer a complete product, from accessories right through to apparel for both men and women, and this spring/summer presentation is at the heart of those ambitions.
Scott explained: “It is the first time we’ve ever shown spring, so it is a very big deal for the company, and because it is so out of that comfort zone with the winter season, what we need to show, and I think this collection does that, is to show how cashmere can be used for an everyday, almost casual ath-luxe sportswear type of fabrication that people fall in love with and want to wear all the time right to something you could wear out in the evening, something to make a real statement in to an event.”
Johnstons of Elgin showcases debut spring/summer collection
For spring/summer, Scott showcased 15 womenswear and 5 menswear cruise-inspired looks, all designed to illustrate the year round wearability of cashmere, as well as the viability of a luxury cashmere manufacturer taking that big leap into luxury brand territory and raising the profile of its womenswear brand at London Fashion Week is part of that strategy.
“It is basically getting to the essence of Johnstons, as not many people know the brand, especially not in womenswear. We have an incredible accessories business and knitwear business and what we’ve never done properly is to fuse the fabrications with the rest of the brand, this is everything coming together to create a look, to make a complete collection,” expressed Scott.
Inspired by the island of Ischia, situated in the bay of Naples, the SS19 collection features pieces that are super-light, sporty, and lux in a tropical palette of pastels, hot pinks, lemon, electric blue, juxtaposed with cool neutrals to give contrast and depth to the capsule line. It not only looks summery but it has been designed and crafted to take wearers through the spring and summer months thanks to the company’s innovative advances.
For high summer, tissue weight cashmere and mesh constructions are highlighted, with dresses and cropped trousers surprising the fashion crowd due to them being 100 percent cashmere, while still being light. While other pieces designed for warm climates, showcasing Johnstons of Elgin’s newest innovation in lightweight technology, a distinct species of cotton, which can only be grown in a few regions of the world, that when knitted is luxurious, silky and breathable featuring fewer seams for a cool and clean look.
“Yes, there is a traditional element, we’ve been looking into the archives to get those references, how we are doing it though is super modern and that’s whats right for the market at the moment,” Scott revealed. “No one has seen it, it is brand new, it’s about showing the flexibility and versatility of what this fibre can do - as it can be traditional perceived as being just one thing. We want to show the modernness and the contemporary ways that we can develop this fibre, as not many companies can say that they can produce, weave and design the fibre - we produced the whole thing, it is a vertical operation where we are sourcing the cashmere in Mongolia, and we are weaving it and dying it in Scotland.”
Other highlights of the impressive collection included new and never woven before cotton merino double face fabrics, used for the handmade duster wrap coat, which the brand is calling one of its light and easy outerwear heroes that is “perfect for the chill of early spring”, which sits alongside the oversized chunky ribbed-style cardigan made from 100 percent cashmere showcased in a bold navy and ecru wide stripe. There are also fluid and effortless shapes designed for the traveller in mind, with kimono cuts, voluminous dresses and pyjama styles for a relaxed, super luxe look.
“Cashmere is tactile, when you touch it, you fall in love and you’re hooked,” - Alan Scott
At the heart of the brand, Scott exclaimed is about Johnstons of Elgin being themselves, showcasing the innovations, functionality, performance and wearability of its products, and most all offering a great quality product for what Scott calls its “cashmere connoisseurs,” sophisticated shoppers who understand the product, will be loyal to the brand and will invest in pieces.
He quickly adds that there is also a new customer out there as well: “Cashmere is tactile, when you touch it, you fall in love and you’re hooked. It begins within something quite classic, a scarf or an incredible suit, but there are so many opportunities such as a piece made from double-faced fabric that you can wear during the day that’s cotton and cashmere.
“There are so many places in life that cashmere is loved and appreciated, it is that little piece of comfort or that amazing statement - I’m very confident with it, and how I approach it, I don’t try to treat it like a classic-type of fabric, I just think what can we do with this, what’s no-one seen, what can we do that’s new - it is exciting - we have an incredible product that can go into a red carpet situation or a weekend in the country or to wear on a long-haul flight to Singapore.”
A product that uses ‘touch’ as a selling point needs retail space, currently the brand has 5 stores, one on New Bond Street in London, and three in Scotland near its mills in Elgin and Hawick, and one in St. Andrews. The fifth store is in Nantucket in America, which Scott describes as a “very successful” boutique that the company has had for a long time. Expanding its retail presence is on its radar, with the company expressing interest in adding stores in Edinburgh as well as internationally.
“It is a careful plan, but there is a plan there, we want to take the brand international and bring that message of quality to other markets,” explained Scott. “We already have a very successful business in Japan, but it is very accessories driven, now we can present something that everyone can wear, there are many avenues of work to be done, but we have it on our radar. The main thing is to get more visibility, so we can get the traction.”
Johnstons of Elgin flying the flag for British manufacturing
As well as Johnstons of Elgin showcasing their textile prowess, this is a company putting Scottish and British manufacturing on the map, as every fabric it uses is unique to the brand. All the cashmere used is woven in the company’s mill in Elgin on the banks of the River Lossie, which employees 700 people, while its knitwear is created by 300 employees in the Border town of Hawick, with Scott overseeing around 20 designers who specialise in weave, knitwear and textiles, many of which are experts in colour, print or jacquard.
“Many of the businesses and textiles in the UK, and in the Scottish borders, either went abroad or closed down,” said Scott. “Its needs a great company like ours to bring it all together to create a future, - we are the biggest employer of trainees in Scotland and we have an incredible skilled workforce of artisans.”
Scott added: “There is a lot of self doubt sometimes among British manufacturing that we can never be something more, as someone else might come along and take the product, but having that confidence to say this is who we are and let’s see where we can go with this, it is exciting as it is a bit unknown.”
While showcasing spring/summer might be something new for Johnstons of Elgin it is its over two centuries of manufacturing pedigree and its Royal Warrant from Prince Charles for his estate tweeds that gives the Scottish-based company a great foundation to really establish their apparel business into a luxury staple. This will know doubt be helped by the relationships it already has with quality stockists including luxury department stores Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Liberty, Selfridges, Fenwicks and Bergdorf Goodman, who currently stock the brand’s men’s and women’s accessories, and knitwear.
“It’s a family business and we are the biggest textile manufacturer in the UK, for cloth, as well as for importing and exporting cloth, so we have lots of links in the business, the perfect vehicle to build a brand,” concluded Scott. “We are just right at the beginning and I’m being very realistic about what we can do - but I want to create a brand that people fall in love with and want to buy again and again.”
“We are after longevity, something that is consistent and doesn’t change with the wind - to be a staple luxury in the business.”
Images: courtesy of Johnstons of Elgin