SHE HAD a job with Calvin Klein before she graduated, made Tom Ford feel broody, and is now reviving one of fashion's most traditional design houses. At just 37, designer Clare Waight Keller, below left, has worked with some of the top names in fashion and is about to inject some much-needed fun into the luxury sportswear brand Pringle of Scotland, with a new and younger range.
Established almost 200 years ago, Pringle is one of those labels that is steeped in heritage and tradition. Yet before Keller arrived to take the position of creative director in 2005, the staple cashmere golfing knits, Argyle designs and trademark lion logo were more at home on the 18th hole than on an international catwalk. Ronnie Corbett might have loved it, but fashionable women didn't.
"I wanted to move away from the sportswear associations and all of that rampant Scottishness," says Keller, who lives with her husband and two daughters in central London's smart Kensington neighbourhood. "While it was important for us not to walk away from the characteristic classic beauty of the brand, I wanted it to feel modern and contemporary - to create that juxtaposition between something very luxurious and something much more edgy and modern."
Now, interspersed with the traditional knits and cashmeres, which are still produced in the original Scottish factories, are Japanese fabrics such as raincoating or very modern "silks" that are totally synthetic but look vintage and have a shimmery feel. Next month, Keller will launch 1815 (named after the year the company was founded), a new collection, aimed at dynamic, fashion-forward twentysomethings, which will be sold through the chic London department store Liberty, and to the rest of the world via the leading designer boutique website Net-a-Porter.com
"The new range is all about proportion and silhouette - it's full of playful prints and quirky colours that don't quite go," says Keller, who adds her team of four young designers has helped inject a kind of "urban cool" into the collection.
Ranging from 40 for simple T-shirts and 450 for jackets and coats, the new pieces are the perfect foil for the more classic monochrome elegance of the main collection (which lives up to its luxury name with prices up to 5,000), and will attract younger consumers who can mix and match it with items from TopShop or their local vintage boutique.
During a childhood spent in Warwickshire, Keller knitted her first scarf at the age of five. "There were always arts and crafts going on in our family. Knitting seems very old-fashioned now, but I still have very warm associations with it. People want something that is a little bit special and anything you knit will be unique, so it has the quality of an heirloom."
Sitting in the showroom at the Pringle headquarters in Sloane Street, Keller looks younger than her years and already has three decades' worth of knitting experience behind her, and a CV that reads like a fashion week line-up. She pursued her love of knitwear at the prestigious Ravensbourne College and the Royal College of Art, both in London, then spent most of her twenties working for Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren Purple Label menswear, and Tom Ford at Gucci in New York.
More recently, she's been working with top fashion photographer Steven Meisel, who has been recruited to bring a new edgy rawness to the 1815 advertising campaign, which was shot in a derelict LA warehouse.
Anyone with less determination or self-assurance might have been intimidated, but Keller is positive about what her experiences have taught her. Lauren was quiet and meticulously thorough (four-hour long meetings every two weeks), and Ford was image-focused and pacy, but also incredibly charming. Keller fell pregnant while working at Gucci, and gave birth to twin girls three days after working on the autumn/winter catwalk show, making Tom himself think about becoming a parent. He even sent her two pairs of baby-sized stilettos when the twins were born.
Keller says: "I have learned to be very focused and to fine-tune things. For the first time here there's no-one else to hide behind and it's a big responsibility. When I arrived I knew I had to make some very clear decisions about moving away from being solely a luxury knitwear brand. If you're not confident, you can waver.
"There's still so much for me to do here - we're launching accessories this season, and both homewares and childrenswear seem like a natural progression for us. In the meantime, both the main and 1815 collections are now more directional and dynamic. Pringle has attitude."
I leave the showroom, wandering past rows and rows of knits, silks, cottons and crpes. Funnily enough, there's not a diamond-patterned sweater in sight.
A STITCH IN TIME...
Pringle may have become synonymous with the distinctive diamond-pattern sweater, but when the Hawick company was set up - by a framework knitter called Robert Pringle - it specialised in hosiery and underwear. It wasn't until the 1870s that it branched out into knitting cashmere.
Pringle created the intarsia design, better known as Argyle. The Argyle knit was a favourite of the style-setting Duke of Windsor in the 1920s and 30s, and woollens that bore this pattern became the signature Pringle look.
The company also reinvented the matching cardigan and sweater: the twinset. When society ladies combined this with pearls, a uniform was born.
The brand hit the rough in the 1980s when the once-coveted intarsia fell foul of fashion, which was then focused on tailoring and soft, unstructured one-coloured cotton jersey. The company's owners at the time made top golfer Nick Faldo their poster boy, and took the brand downmarket to attract the masses. But the move cheapened the brand, losing Pringle its cachet.
In 2000, Pringle started fighting back. Designers were told to raid the archives and Pringle got back in touch with its original aim: to produce garments of timeless quality and style. Out went the multicoloured V-neck sweaters, back came the cashmere twinset. The Pringle Red and Gold labels were also created to boost the luxury image.
With golfing wear now a smaller, separate division, Pringle's place in the luxury market was reaffirmed.
HOW TO KEEP YOUR KNITS PERFECT
• Spot-clean food stains from your clothes swiftly, as they can attract moths.
• Dry-clean your knits regularly to kill off any moth eggs and larvae.
• If possible, store woolly garments in a cedar chest - the oil from the cedarwood acts as a natural moth repellent.
• Reactivate the repellent powers of lavender and rosemary sachets by adding a few drops of essential oil to them every few months.
• Don't use mothballs - not only can they contain chemicals that may be carcinogenic, but they also make your clothes smell unpleasant.
• Prevent any deep colours running by hand-washing in cool water with a pinch of salt.
• Even cashmere has a tendency to bobble, so use a razor to gently shave away the roughness.
• Wrap new woollens in polythene bags and put them in the freezer for 20 minutes to stop them shedding. This method also kills moth eggs.