The woolly thinking that has held Pringle back in the past has been cast aside, with a nod to its Scottish history and rich cultural heritage
• Some of Pringle's designs for spring/summer 2010
WHEN it comes to British fashion, the word 'heritage' carries a lot of weight. Consumers both at home and further afield are seduced by history, and companies from Aquascutum to Burberry and Daks have ridden on the back of that trend, reinventing themselves as classic high-fashion brands and leaving behind any notions of fusty old clothes for fusty old people.
Scotland's very own 'heritage' brand has been ripe for the picking for a decade. Pringle of Scotland was founded in 1815, more than 40 years before Burberry, and in theory should be the grande dame of the lot. It's nearly two centuries old, famous for its quality knitwear and can be credited with inventing the twin set. Much of its production still takes place in Scotland. However, until fairly recently, it has struggled to find a truly firm footing in the fashion world.
But that is changing. Tomorrow evening, Pringle of Scotland will show its autumn/winter 2010 collection at London Fashion Week. It's the second time the brand has shown in London since returning to Britain's fashion capital from Milan Fashion Week last autumn, and it should cement the company's renaissance.
By the end of the 20th century, Pringle was known for pastel golf jumpers and past-it knits. It was going to take a miracle to dig the brand out of the literal and metaphorical bargain buckets. But that miracle finally came in 2005, in the guise of fashion supremo Clare Waight Keller, formerly of Gucci, Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. She has managed to inject youth, humour, high-fashion and irony into a brand that was lacking all of these. She has rescued the brand creatively speaking, but there was still some way to go as, in its attempts to shake off the dowdy image, Pringle seemed to have forgotten its own identity.
Which brings us to the spring/summer 2010 collection, shown back in the autumn at that symbolic homecoming to London Fashion Week. Knitwear is not something that sits easily with summer collections and can be easily sidestepped, so it is telling that Waight Keller chose to embrace Pringle's heritage so wholly with a firm knitwear focus for spring. "Waight Keller," said Vogue's review of the show, "went all out to remind the audience that Pringle is a knitwear firm."
"Knitwear is the soul of the brand, but we've always had a more difficult time of knitwear in spring," says Waight Keller, a petite brunette with a gentle English accent and a penchant for black. "But it's so flexible it can be anything, and it's so important to be creative with it and to recognise that knitwear can be very light, very subtle and very wearable year-round."
• Clare Waight Keller in Pringle's design studios
The result is fresh, simple and classic. Neutrals and whites are highlighted with lemon yellows (the colour of the season), and knits are either light and whimsical or chunky cables. There's youth, vibrancy, fashion and style but it's rooted in heritage and there's a sense of confidence, a feeling that this is what Pringle does best so it's going to do it without apology.
The move has been driven by chief executive Mary-Adair Macaire, formerly of Chanel, who joined the company in September 2008 (a year in which Pringle made a reported 9.3 million loss). Her objective was simple: to revisit the rich past of the 195-year-old brand that had somehow been forgotten.
The current collection is significant in that it marks a step back, towards the foundations of the brand. Pringle may have clambered out of those bargain bins, but some would argue that it went too far in the opposite direction, becoming a high-fashion brand without utilising its strengths, which lie in part in its roots, and alienating existing customers in the process. It is telling, for example, that the brand that gave the world the twin set in 1930 stopped selling it as part of its Noughties makeover (while Chanel continued to make millions of pounds from the concept).
Indeed, Pringle is responsible for a number of firsts that have fallen by the wayside in recent years. However, you can expect to see Scotland's biggest fashion brand making a much bigger hoo-ha about some of its remarkable achievements in seasons to come.
Pringle began producing cashmere alongside its original hosiery and underwear in 1870, and was the first to use cashmere for regular garments. By the early 20th century, it introduced "knitwear" to describe outer garments, and the iconic Pringle Argyle pattern was developed in 1920. "The Argyle pattern and the twin set are such iconic elements of the brand, but they don't have to have connotations of what your grandmother used to wear," insists Waight Keller. "A twin set is forever. There's no reason why it can't be very modern."
There's that word again. Balancing modernity and heritage is the clear focus for the Pringle label, which has first-hand experience of what can happen if you neglect one in favour of the other. The autumn/winter collection will very likely be a further step towards a brand more aware of its own roots.
It is this collection, Macaire suggests, that truly begins to communicate the future of Pringle as a high-fashion heritage brand. And if the hints Waight Keller has dropped as to what we can expect from tomorrow evening's show are anything to go by, this will mean revisiting its Scottish beginnings. "This collection will be about exploring our Scottish heritage, but in a very modern sense," she says. "So you'll see a sort of simplification of that idea of heritage, but with Fair Isle, Aran knits and tartan."
Did she just utter the T-word? If anything is an acknowledgement that Pringle of Scotland has to play up the 'Scotland' part of its name a little more, it is news that it'll be wheeling out the tartan. And it's almost certainly a wise move. As a high-fashion brand, Pringle has only a few years under its belt. It's not easy, then, to compete with the big power-houses that have been doing this for decades. However, as a heritage brand, it has a couple of centuries worth of experience, which should prove invaluable.
Consumers in mega-markets such as the US and the Far East recognise this, and are known for splashing their considerable cash on brands with a bit of history behind them. Burberry may have upped its fashion ante over the past few years, but it has never left behind timeless staples like the trench coat it is credited with inventing. Indeed, the garment remains at the centre of every collection.
What Burberry knows and Pringle seems to have cottoned on to is that fashion fans overseas need a concrete reason to spend on a particular brand when there are so many to choose from. In the case of heritage brands, the reason is buying into a sense of Britishness and, more specifically in Pringle's case, Scottishness. It's no coincidence that the company has chosen a Scot – actress Tilda Swinton, who lives in Nairn – to front its latest campaign.
As part of her involvement, Swinton stars in a short film by Ryan McGinley, with locations including ruined castles, beaches and caves. Swinton is barefoot and bare-faced. With her androgyny and agelessness, she seems to embody an idea of timeless style that Pringle is keen to embrace. "You see models in our clothes, who might be 18 or 19," says Waight Keller. "Then I wear them and I'm in my late-30s. And then you've got Tilda wearing them in her late-40s. There's a real modernity to that. It's great to have a woman of Tilda's age fronting the campaign. There's such a sense of character and of life experience to that." As she did last season, Swinton will more than likely have a front-row seat for the show tomorrow evening.
Pringle's return in the autumn to London Fashion Week was so successful that Waight Keller is excited about another season on sovereign soil. "Coming back to London for Fashion Week last year made the Scottish focus for us even more important," she says. "Tilda is a big part of that because I think she embodies an idea of contemporary Scotland so well, that idea of heritage and roots, but also of real modernity. That's the kind of Scot I've had in mind working on the autumn/winter collection.
"The scenery around Nairn, where we shot the campaign with Tilda, has also been a massive influence for me. The colours and textures of that landscape are so evocative. Even the weather is an influence."
Ironically, it is Pringle's return to its Scottishness that is likely to help it expand further afield. From Paul Smith and Vivienne Westwood to Alexander McQueen and Burberry, it is the brands that have communicated a sense of Britishness (read aristocracy, history, eccentricity and tradition) that have been most warmly embraced outside Europe.
Pringle is by far the oldest of them all and yet the collections of the past few years have chosen not to communicate that explicitly. "For me, growing the global presence is important," says Waight Keller. "A stronger presence in the UK is great, but the Asian and US markets are a key part of any brand's success. On the one hand, there's always an element in those countries where they appreciate tradition, but they also know exactly what they want and it's not always as straightforward as you might think. Personality and modernity are key to them."
Pringle currently has six standalone stores around the world, including three in the UK, but plans are afoot to expand to New York and Paris, and a transactional website launch will also play a key role in the plans for expansion. Sites in Hong Kong, Korea and Tokyo are also being considered. The company is looking to expand during a recession, but it's a cautious growth. And all the while the brand is addressing what we're all looking for during these difficult economic times: reliability, quality and timelessness with a brand whose history we can trust.
Then there's the partnership with the art world. In addition to working with Ryan McGinley, Pringle has partnered with the Serpentine Gallery in London to promote and support Scottish talent by inviting a group of artists to create new works inspired by some of Pringle's most iconic imagery, including the twin set and the Argyle pattern. These works are being unveiled this week. Artists taking part include Glasgow-based David Shrigley, who has already created a range of witty T-shirts for the company based on the twin set.
Pringle of Scotland's strategy is clear. It is, without doubt, a modern Scottish brand, but it is positioning itself as more of a grande dame than an enfant terrible. Its campaigns are fronted by an actress in her late-40s who eschews both make-up and celebrity culture and is just as happily modelling menswear as womenswear. It is building links with the art world but is forging a brand based on its rich history.
It is proud of its heritage but looking to the future. It favours style over fashion, classic comfort over trends, and timelessness over an obsession with youth. And above all, it is Scottish through and through.
This article was originally published in Scotland on Sunday on 21 February 2010