BREATHLESS That’s the word that comes to mind when I finally manage to grab half an hour with Henrietta Ludgate, two days before London Fashion Week.
She sounds as though she’s done a ten-mile run before arriving in her studio. She stops mid-sentence, randomly, then starts again after a long pause, tearing off at different tangents as her mind leaps over all the things she still has to do. No wonder the Dingwall-born designer can’t wait to get back home to the Highland landscape that inspires everything she does.
“It’s mental. Very, very, very, very hectic,” she pants. “You always end up with situations that pop up and you’re dealing with stuff you didn’t expect to have to deal with. It’s a bit like spaghetti.” And she laughs with such lack of pretention and affection, I have to remind myself this is the woman who dressed Livia Firth for her dinner with Barack Obama and the Queen. And who poured Miriam Clegg’s curves into a white, body-con peplum number when her husband gave his keynote speech to the Liberal Democrat conference last year. It’s no surprise that she’s fast becoming a red carpet favourite. First this season came East-Enders’ Shona McGarty (who plays Whitney in the soap) brushing up rather beautifully for the National Television Awards in black, plunge-back, floor-length Ludgate.
“For the Baftas, we dressed the creative director of the London Film Festival [Clare Stewart – in eye-popping Schiaparelli pink, a Ludgate signature shade] and we have quite a long request list at the moment. We might have someone at the Oscars, but first I have to get fashion week out of the way. I’ve said yes, I’m just trying to fit it all in.”
This season she was exhibiting as part of the Estethica strand – established by the British Fashion Council to promote designers working ecologically – at fashion week with an AW13 collection she describes as “quite futuristic and sculptural. We have silver and black, white and blue – there’s an icy blue and an amazing deep blue cashmere.
“We’re calling it cocoon,” she continues. “It’s like an insect wrapping itself up in silk and that’s basically the idea, creating armour. I think wearing clothes is very much like putting on armour, especially in winter. And it can really change the way I feel. Particularly if I’m feeling crap about something and I don’t want to go out, I can put on a dress and as soon as it’s on I feel, ‘OK, I can do this now.’ I like that idea of transformation. I like to see people come into the shop and change from whatever they’re wearing, that really excites me.”
But what inspires her above all else is the scenery that surrounds her Dingwall home, from the ancient forests and the mists rising off Loch Ussie, near Strathpeffer, to the futuristic colours of the Northern Lights. “That’s my starting point for every collection. Growing up there was such a privilege. I don’t think many people get the opportunity to grow up in such an amazing, beautiful environment. I want to tell that story.
“I didn’t realise how much it inspires me until I was studying at St Martins. My best friend there was just a genius. I used to think, ‘Wow, I want to get inside your brain, you’re just amazing.’
“She invited me to stay at her house one summer, on the island of Formentera, which is off Ibiza. I was walking around her home and it was exactly the way she designs and I just got it. I suddenly realised that how you design and how you see things and interpret things is from your background and how you grew up.”
Her upbringing also informs the eco element that is central to her designs. “I never really think of it as eco, I just think of it more as common sense,” she insists. “Everything was always saved because you never knew when you might need it. Waste was the worst thing in the world.”
A former pupil of Gordonstoun, she began her career as a costume designer on programmes such as The Big Breakfast and The Jack Docherty Show for Channel 4. “They’d have someone come in who had just written a book about, say, bananas, so I’d have to make bras out of bananas. It was pretty insane and very fast paced. You’d just have to make crazy things for whatever was on the show that day.”
But fashion was always her first career choice, “from age zero, I think”, mainly thanks to two fantastically creative grandmothers. “One of my grannies was a costume designer. She did stuff for James Bond and Worzel Gummidge. My other granny was a sewer and a knitter. She loved bright colours and was very zany.
“Once she turned up and she was wearing these ridiculous shoes and unfortunately I was wearing exactly the same ridiculous shoes. We hadn’t been shopping together, hadn’t seen each other for months. She was just a huge inspiration.”
And so, when her parents disapproved of her applying to study at Central Saint Martins fashion college in London, her granny stepped in and signed the form on their behalf.
Her green consciousness grew following graduation, when she worked with Osman Yousefzada, a designer probably best known for his Little Black Dress collection for Mango in 2008. “He did a lot of manufacturing in the UK at the beginning. Then he started putting his cashmere out to China and Italy and I was seeing first-hand the factories at home getting smaller and shutting down. I just thought we were really losing something. Yes, it’s cheaper to produce outside the UK but you don’t have the quality control, it takes a lot longer, you can’t watch the whole process so things go wrong.
“I’d be talking to these guys and they’d be saying, ‘I’m going to get a job in a pub or as a motorcycle courier,’ and I was thinking, ‘You’re a really skilled cutter or seamstress or whatever.’”
As a result of that, she only uses labour in the UK for her own collection, while details such as her peplum are created using things like recycled baseball caps. She is part of a still small eco fashion movement that is none the less growing in strength and credibility. Yes, the jumpers knitted from recycled Andean lorry tyres and the homespun earrings crafted from shrunken crisp packets still exist, but ethical fashion is increasingly seen as a serious player in the industry. You have only to consider labels such as Stella McCartney and Ali Hewson’s (Bono’s wife) Edun to get the message loud and clear.
Ludgate has serious admiration – and a spot of jealousy – for the brand Honest, whose designer Bruno Pieters, formerly of Hugo Boss and Christian Lacroix, launched his own label last year after a two-year sabbatical from the industry. “What’s really great about it is on his website he tells you exactly who made each piece, where the factory is, how many people are employed in that factory ... you know the cotton was farmed from this farm. Giving all that information to the consumer is a really good idea and I want to borrow it,” she laughs.
But the rest of us are still catching up. “The consumer needs to think, ‘OK, so I’m getting this top from Primark, it’s only £3,’” says Ludgate. “But how much do they earn in an hour? Do they think they could make a top for £3 and how much fabric would it take? There are not many fabrics you can buy for £3 a metre.”
Not that the stars need any convincing. Ludgate is increasingly in demand as the fash pack’s go-to girl for green glamour.
“Laura Bailey found me first, right at the very beginning,” she says. “We’d just done our first fashion week and one of our dresses was pulled for the cover of a magazine and she was the model. She tracked me down and wrote me the loveliest e-mail saying, ‘I really love the dress, I’d love to meet you.’ She was so supportive and fantastic.
“She introduced me to Livia Firth, who really goes out of her way to make people think about what they’re wearing. Green fashion is not a potato sack, it’s really beautiful. That helps in changing the mindset.”
When Firth – Colin’s wife and the woman behind the Green Carpet campaign – called and asked her to make a showstopper frock for her dinner with the Obamas and the Windsors, it was the design job of her entire career. “Oh my gosh, my heart was in my mouth,” gasps Ludgate. “She phoned me up and I was having a really, really bad day – terrible – and she said, ‘Hi, I’ve got this dinner in two weeks, can you make me a dress?’ I literally had to start sketching there and then. I was sure they weren’t good enough. I was totally star struck.”
The end result was a floor-length, deep green duchess satin gown with a pleated back reminiscent of the kilt – that Scottish influence again. So it’s no surprise to learn that, while London is currently her base – she has the temporary use of a studio there – she still considers her business wholly Scottish. “I wish I was at home in the Highlands all the time,” she says. “I haven’t had a holiday for years. That’s what I want more than anything.”