Rosie Nickerson shines the spotlight on three entrepreneurial spirits who have created successful fashion brands from their homes in the country
Rosie Nickerson meets three field fashionistas, who are running successful businesses from their rural homes and creating women’s country clothing that actually works in the field.
For more proper field clothing for women that is both stylish and practical, The Field’s Sporting Dianas are making the kit they couldn’t buy. Lady Melissa Percy founded her outdoor clothing brand, Mistamina, for vibrant kit that is flattering, affordable and fun. And The Countess of Lucan founded LUCAN to create elegant, practical clothing that will take you from shoot to dinner party.
BEST WOMEN’S COUNTRY CLOTHING
If you thought that living hundreds of miles from the big smoke, surrounded by moorland, woods and fields would adversely impact your chances of founding a successful fashion business, you’d be wrong. I spoke to three rural fashionistas, based full time in the country, who run their own fashion businesses from Northumberland, Shropshire and Hampshire respectively. With energy, determination and the wonders of social media, they have managed to combine a deeply rural existence whilst running their thriving fashion businesses. In many ways, living and working in the country has been the secret of their success.
When Arabella Hoskyns-Abrahall founded her fashion label, Bella Hoskyns, she looked no further than the moorland she crosses daily on the school run for her logo inspiration. She chose the profile of a peewit (or lapwing as it’s known in the south) to represent her fashion label. Hoskyns-Abrahall and her family moved up to Northumberland full time in 2013, where they already had a weekend cottage on her husband Bertie’s cousin’s estate, next to Whitfield and Knarsdale. They’d had reservations about staying in London with three young children, so made the move, with Bertie spending three nights a week in London. Ensconced in Northumberland, Bella has embraced the variety and challenges of a rural life, far from the bright lights of London. Her children, now aged 10, eight and four, adore it. She tells me: “It’s idyllic for the children, roaming free in the country. We have two lurchers and my daughter and two sons enjoy shooting and going beating and generally being quite feral. Bertie shoots a lot, I enjoy rough shooting and picking bunnies off the garden from my bedroom window.”
Always interested in fashion, Hoskyns-Abrahall had worked for a fashion agency in London and later at Tatler and then for a fashion-passionate female entrepreneur. She had felt for a long time there was a real void in the country clothing.
“It was all a bit unisex or the stuff for girls looked somehow too ‘new’, I wanted something flattering, feminine, like an old friend or a hand-me-down favourite. I started off with a rail at the Northumberland Show. I remember I got such a thrill from seeing people trying my clothes on, I had ‘outed’ myself and put myself out there, and I thought, ‘It’s actually happening.’ It still gives me such a buzz, and my family are always so excited when a fair goes well.”
Setting up a fashion business from home had proved difficult when Hoskyns-Abrahall lived in London but went surprisingly smoothly once she moved to the country. “I didn’t know anybody when we moved here but on my first day I went to the village shop and asked if there was anybody who could sew and it turned out there was a lady called Becca Losh who happened to sew in the room above the shop. It all gathered momentum from there. It all came together surprisingly easily, in many ways it feels like fate. Also, the school where the children are at in Whitfield, on top of a moor, seems to have the most creative of parents: a talented school mum, Gemma Koomen, helped me with my website and a school dad, Dan May, who does all the wonderful photography for me… it’s all totally homegrown.”
Hoskyns-Abrahall’s style is vintage-inspired, in beautiful soft tweeds with high-waisted tweed trousers and plus fours that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the 1940s. The tweeds are sourced from Yorkshire, Northumberland and Scotland. The high-waisted culottes and breeks are mostly sold to lady guns, as are the gilets, with big pockets that are both elegant and practical. She has recently started doing men’s waistcoats, which sell very well and are regularly worn by her husband and his friends, who are walking advertisements for them. She also designs practical yet elegant swing coats and peplum jackets, which TV presenter Alice Fox-Pitt was seen wearing on Ladies’ Day at Cheltenham and at the Grand National.
In the main, Hoskyns-Abrahall sells online and via Instagram, and at local fairs. Logistically, with such young children, it’s hard for her to do too many fairs, but she tells me she has big plans for the future.
“I plan to have a few stockists and I’d love to do Badminton, Cheltenham and the Game Fair, I haven’t been able to do these larger ones as yet. But I definitely plan to. I’ll have to rope in my friends and family to help me man my stand.”
Milliner Laura Cathcart, originally from Norfolk, moved up to Shropshire from London when she married William Cash, in 2014. Home is a moated, medieval hall complete with a two-storey Tudor gatehouse that is located in a remote rural hamlet up a long and winding lane, four miles north of Bridgnorth. From an elegant studio in a converted coach house in a farmyard adjacent to the house, Cathcart designs flattering and up-to-the minute millinery for the smart set, under her brand, Laura Cathcart, which she set up in 2011. After training at The London College of Fashion, Cathcart originally worked in interior design but soon found she was missing working creatively with her hands. She started making hats in her kitchen after being given some vintage hat blocks by a friend’s mother. Soon afterwards, she completed a two-year internship with milliner Gina Foster and went on to create her own collections.
Cathcart tells me about her inspiration and her best-selling styles: “It’s a nod to the vintage style. I think our bestseller must be The Dottie, a little oval button with a bow on it, that’s been one of my bestsellers for years.”
Cathcart has two young children, aged four and 2½, and in the summer it’s a bit of a juggling act as she is also very busy with holiday lets and group tours (the house is open to the public by appointment). She explains it’s only possible as she has a superb nanny, as she needs to work at least 6½ days a week all summer. Fortunately, things are quieter in winter, which allows her time to catch her breath a little.
“We probably made nearly 200 hats last year. I have no idea what it will be this year, it seems to increase every year. Half of that number are sold as stock and the other half would be commissions.”
Cathcart loves the space and quiet of being based in the country and tells me she is surrounded by a lot of other artisans, which is great for creativity but the downside is there’s little or no client footfall. As a result, Cathcart goes to London every week, to meet clients and also works with two fashion labels, Beulah and Eponine.
She continues: “We are very busy at the moment, we have a full order board, we are working on about a six- to eight-week turnaround now because there’s quite a queue of commissions, but we do have a lot of stock which is ready to sell immediately. The majority of what we do is bespoke but some people love buying online, probably they will have seen it on my Instagram, which seems to be my largest marketing tool, as it is for many.”
Last year, with the two Royal Weddings, Cathcart made nine pieces for HRH Prince Harry’s wedding to Meghan Markle and 12 for Princess Eugenie’s marriage to Jack Brooksbank. Unfortunately, she can’t tell me who her clients were but she does tell me she made an intricate pink ostrich feather hat for Elizabeth Hurley for the Epsom Derby last year, which hit the headlines in most tabloids.
Annabel Tyrwhitt-Drake founded Miller & Drake in 2017. She is based near East Meon in Hampshire, on the Bereleigh estate, and her husband, Tom, runs the farm. Tyrwhitt-Drake set up her fashion label when her three daughters were all at school. She had started to think about going back to work and was pondering what to do. Her sister-in-law had suggested she should find a product she felt passionate about and sell it.
Tyrwhitt-Drake thought about it, and as a keen shot she was always a real fan of tweed culottes as she finds them both flattering and feminine as well as being warm and practical in the field.
She tells me: “I had a pair I’d worn to death and I wanted a second pair in a different tweed and nobody was selling them… I had a ‘ping’ moment and thought to myself, ‘I know, I’ll design and sell ladies tweed culottes.’ It was a need to do something while my children were at school and I thought if I do it myself, I can keep it as big or as small as I want to really.”
A SUCCESSFUL BUSINESS
She says: “It has been a bigger success than I had hoped for. The first season went really well. I speak in seasons purely because
I sell the culottes mainly from September to December, so mainly in the shooting season, although I do sell the fedoras outside the shooting season. The culottes are very well made and I always get really good feedback on their quality. I am really, really pleased to have paid off my start-up costs, in the first season, as lots of people said, ‘Oh, it will take years’, but I suppose as it was just me, out of my dining room and I’m not going for global domination, it wasn’t too difficult to keep my costs down.”
The waistcoats and culottes are made in the north, and Tyrwhitt-Drake gets the tweed from a mill in Scotland, so they are very much British made, designed and sourced. She modelled the culottes on the pair she already had, tweaked a few of the design features and selected four tweeds that she liked and that cover most tastes. She also sells different coloured fedoras, which she embellishes with her trademark fur pom-poms and feathers. These sell well and are often seen at race meets and point-to-points, as well as out and about in London.
Modest to a fault, Tyrwhitt-Drake tells me: “I am a total fish out of the water in all of this. It’s such a learning curve and I have made mistakes along the way, which is all part and parcel of running your own business.”
She used to work as a PA in the City and tells me she has no retail or fashion background, nor marketing or PR experience, but her business is growing fast and she is working on some exciting new items to add to her collection for the forthcoming season.
All three of these rural fashionistas join the ranks of the most stylish and innovative designers, living full time in the country. With the clever use of Instagram and well thought out websites, their relative rural isolation has proved no barrier to success.