FOR most people, bringing a new business into the world, nurturing it and helping it grow, would be enough of a challenge in these difficult financial times.
But Harriet Kirkwood must like a challenge. With the design brand she launched with her two fellow costume designer sisters still less than a year old, she is also in the process of toilet training her new puppy.
Which explains why, mid-conversation, she rushes to mop up a “minor hiccup”. Amid giggles – and presumably some wet newspaper – her sister Jemima takes over.
K’outure is the baby of Harriet, 27, Jemima, 24, and Matilda Kirkwood, 26, three sisters (there are seven siblings in all) from the village of Advie, in the Scottish Highlands. The collection is based on a series of capes. And while the styles vary enormously, constants are the rich Highland landscape colours and the sumptuous textures of tweed and wool.
“Every piece is a one-off,” says Jemima. “A design can be made up again but only ever in one fabric so everyone is getting a unique piece of couture.
“We all have our individual design flairs,” she adds. “Harriet specialises in the ruffles and brings a lot of theatrical flair to the designs. I’ve always worked with angles so my designs have the hood with the double-layered shoulder, and Matilda’s very traditional and brings a lot of historical elements into her designs.”
“We’ve all had a very artistic and creative upbringing,” adds Harriet. “Mum raised us all doing lots of different arts and crafts. We’d have everybody round the kitchen table making hot air balloons out of papier mâché and that sort of thing. There was an awful lot of dressing up, and we had a tree house outside so there was a lot of role play and adventures.”
A short art course in Ullapool while they were at high school inspired all three sisters to head to Edinburgh College of Art, where in consecutive years they opted to join the costume design department.
“It’s all about narrative and character, so you’re not necessarily looking at trends but at theatricality, flair, the character, and then the costumes that would complement that character. So we try and adopt that process when we’re working with clients. We like to get to know them and try to work out what it is they’re after.
“When we graduated, we all did work separately within the costume world, in theatre and TV and film, but the way that works is freelance, from job to job. The three of us all decided we wanted to try and do something together, where we could be the designers all the time and have freedom over that.”
That decision also coincided with all three making the move back home to the Highlands, and to the scenery that informs their designs. “Advie is five miles out of Grantown on Spey,” says Harriet. “It’s gorgeous. You have a view of the Cairngorms from the house and the River Spey running down below. You can’t not be inspired by it. The landscape is very rugged and the fabrics we specialise in – tweed and wool – naturally lend themselves to that kind of environment.”
They are also conveniently close to their suppliers – illustrious companies that sponsor them such as Harris Tweed, Johnston’s of Elgin and Knockando Woolmill.
But how do the three of them get along together? Family ties don’t always lend themselves to the best working relationships. “We work really well as a team,” insists Jemima. “One of the benefits, I think, of working with your siblings is that if there is a problem, it’s just out in the open then it’s dealt with. There’s no treading on eggshells, we’re all really honest with each other, and we all have the same work ethic.
“Of course we have arguments, but they’re all sorted within ten minutes with a cup of tea and a Kit-Kat.”
So, having recently won a Most Enterprising Business award, they’re putting that celebrated Kirkwood work ethic into practice for 2013.
“We’re just going to work really, really hard and see where it takes us,” says Jemima. “And we’d like to attend some more fairs – that’s where we can interact with clients; they can feel things, they can try them on.
“Once a woman puts on a K’outure garment she usually falls in love with it.”
K’outure capes, from £300 (www.koutureltd.co.uk)