HAYLEY Scanlan was ready to chuck it all. The 30-year-old designer and mum of twin boys was exhausted, struggling financially, juggling continuously and beginning to question what on earth it was all for.
Not that her work wasn’t selling well; it was. Supermodel Erin O’Connor was so impressed with Scanlan’s degree show, she commissioned the designer to make her a bespoke studded leather jacket, while Marina Diamandis approached her to create a wardrobe for her tour with Katy Perry; Little Mix and Jessie J were also wearing her signature, stand-out pieces. Even so, it was hard to make a living.
“I was standing having a conversation in my studio and I was nearly crying,” she says. “I was thinking, ‘What else am I going to do?’ My stuff was doing really well, but everything goes back into the business. It would be different if I was on my own, but I’m a mum, I have two babies, and sometimes I can’t take a wage because I need to get fabric or get photos done. How long can you keep going without taking a decent, proper wage?”
While she was weighing up her options, the phone rang, drowning out the little transistor radio in the studio. It was Topshop. “They said: ‘We’ve got some news… and it’s not good…’”
Scanlan’s heart sank. “I was like, ‘Oh God.’ And they said, ‘It’s bloody fantastic!’ We were screaming, and I think I started crying as well.”
She had been hand-picked from among the very best young designers in the world to take part in a pop-up market in the high street giant’s Oxford Street behemoth – one of only four, and the sole designer from the UK. “We show there for three weeks, over fashion week, to see how it will do,” she says. “And if it does well they’ll look into taking us on long term. We’ll just see how it goes.”
She sounds fairly stoic now, but the challenge to go from a one-woman business to creating 300 pieces for a high street store within just four weeks almost broke her. She was working through the night, recruiting her mum to cut fabric, her sister to sew on crystals, and various friends and former interns to complete the order in time. It didn’t help that the project coincided with another collaboration with the Scottish Dance Theatre, which is now touring the world with her costumes. But, fingers bleeding, and despite a last-minute sewing machine breakdown, they delivered.
“Knowing how much work has gone into it, I can’t continue working like that,” she says. “I didn’t see Freddie and Oscar [her twins] for a week. Something has to come out of that. No one can work that hard for nothing. If it takes off, we’ll be in a good place, definitely.”
The Queen of Hearts collection has the same shapes and influences from her mainline range – the Bauhaus feel, with simple silhouettes and strong geometric prints – but is made from more affordable fabrics, to bring it into line with a Topshop customer’s budget. So instead of the leather zipped mini skirt Scanlan is wearing, for instance, it will be made from a synthetic patent fabric. “It’s still punky,” she says. “It still has all the zips, the studs. And even though it’s more affordable, there are still elements in there that make it stand out. That’s how I want to keep it – I don’t want it to look like it’s just come out of some factory.”
Inspired by the perhaps incongruous style icons Debbie Harry and Mary, Queen of Scots, the colour palette is all cobalt blues, deep reds and Prince of Wales check. “Debbie Harry is one of my icons,” says Scanlan. “I loved the idea of pairing someone like her with an equally rebellious heroine, Mary Stuart, the former Queen of Scotland. This is a collection that has taken me deep into the heart of my Scottish roots and represents a strong and feisty femininity.”
And while her core customers are “young girls”, she adds: “I’m 30 and I still wear it. Some of my friends who are older wear it. I design clothes that I would like to wear.
“Friends say my own style comes through, that my clothes have personality. I design what I like and with women in mind. The most important thing is to be who you are – people say they can tell that a design is mine and I take that as a compliment. So I wouldn’t say there’s an age restriction – it’s for people with a bit of an edge, who like something special. You do get noticed when you’re wearing it.”
Born and brought up in Dundee, Scanlan has always wanted to work in fashion; it was all she was really good at. “My gran was a dressmaker – she was amazing, we used to call her Super Gran. She was always making me and my sisters little outfits for parties, and I was able to knit before I started primary school. We’d sit up on Saturday nights and do our knitting, and I’d make dresses for my Barbies.
“I always did art, all through school,” she says. “I wasn’t really good at anything apart from that. I won every single art competition every year.”
But if she gets her skills from Super Gran, she gets her sense of style from her mum. “She was always very stylish, and made sure me and my sisters – there are five of us – were matching. We had to be perfect. That’s the way she was as well.”
After leaving school she went first to Dundee College, then to Duncan of Jordanstone to study textile design. But during her third year she had the opportunity to take an internship with LA-based designer Jeremy Scott. She ended up staying Stateside for nine months. “I had the best time of my life there. I was the only intern not from Central Saint Martins, so I felt as though I was thrown in at the deep end, but I learned more at Jeremy Scott than I did from four years at university.”
She went back to Dundee to complete her final year, almost simultaneously discovering she was pregnant with twins. It meant that even if she had wanted to take the next step to London, to study perhaps at Central Saint Martins as so many other Scottish designers before her have done, she couldn’t. She stayed put and started looking for work.
“Because I’d taken a year out, I’d spent so much money, my parents had helped fund me, so I was applying for jobs but it was just really difficult, there was nothing, it was just the start of the recession.”
Freddie and Oscar are now 21 months old, typically harum-scarum boys. Scanlan split from their father a year ago, which perhaps makes combining deadlines and bedtimes doubly difficult. “You just do it,” she says, shrugging. “I want to do the best I can and no one else will do it; it has to be me. It’s hard sometimes, but I just get on with it. I’m happy, even though I’m on my own. They go to a child minder who is absolutely brilliant; I totally trust her. I do miss them sometimes, but everyone has to work.”
In June 2012, she received the first boost to her fledgling career when she was nominated as Young Designer of the Year at the Scottish Fashion Awards. “I didn’t have a clue,” she says. “I was amazed I was even nominated. I’d only been in business for a year, so I didn’t think for a minute I’d win – there were so many other people who’d done so much more than me – Obscure Couture, Graeme Armour, who’d just left McQueen, Rebecca Torres. Then I won it. That was a massive shock.”
Four months later she was contacted by the V&A, who wanted her to launch her HS diffusion line in a spectacular catwalk show marking the gallery’s move to Scotland. “That was great because it was in Dundee so all my family and friends could be there. I could show everyone in Dundee what it was all about. When I’ve done work in the past – in New York or something – my mum’s never been able to come over and see it. People were queuing round the block to get in. It was unbelievable.”
And in the same year, she took the momentous step of moving her business from home – “it was just me sewing away in my conservatory” – into a studio in Dundee’s industrial quarter. The Vanilla Ink jewellers are in the same building, creating a thriving design community.
When we meet, it’s remarkably tidy – bare white walls decorated with a few flyers for her V&A show; some scraps of fabric on the floor; samples hanging neatly on rails; a naked mannequin on a wobbly stand; scissors and pins on giant cutting tables; and those three sewing machines now standing silent after their marathon of the past few weeks. “This morning you couldn’t even see the floor,” she laughs. The 20 black bin bags piled up outside are testament to a mammoth cleaning session, now she is finally able to put the Topshop collection behind her, at least for the moment, and look to the future; a clean slate.
“People are beginning to realise you can work and you can have a business outside London,” she says. “It’s all about how you promote yourself. No one’s going to do it for you; you just have to have the guts and go for it.”
The HS x Topshop collection is on sale at Topshop, Oxford Street, London, until 22 September, prices £75-£200 www.hayleyscanlan.com