The Big Interview: John Kinloch Anderson

John Kinloch Anderson with bolts of tartan at the company's Leith base, where the fabric is also manufactured. Picture: Jon Savage
John Kinloch Anderson with bolts of tartan at the company's Leith base, where the fabric is also manufactured. Picture: Jon Savage
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Its kilts are woven into the fabric of the nation – worn by the Royal Family, the tennis champions Andy and Jamie Murray, and actor Sir Sean Connery. Now Kinloch Anderson is looking to fuse its history and heritage with hi-tech as it celebrates its 150th anniversary.

Chief executive John Kinloch Anderson describes the occasion as a “landmark” which will be celebrated with the unveiling in Inverleith Park this Saturday of a sundial originally gifted to Edinburgh by his family in 1890.

The company has undertaken the restoration of the Kinloch Anderson sundial, which has been described as a key part of Edinburgh’s cultural heritage, after being approached in 2017 regarding such a project by a committee member from the Friends of Inverleith Park.

To mark the achievement, the firm has created a special sundial tartan, adding to its commissions over the years for the likes of Barbour, Drambuie, Irn-Bru (“Unmissable and very reflective of their brand”) and Edinburgh Zoo’s pandas (inevitably in black and white).

The firm welcomed King George IV in 1822 in a visit organised by Sir Walter Scott, and it holds royal warrants for the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, and the Prince of Wales, the only company in Scotland to hold all three. As for tennis royalty, the Murray brothers both wore the Murray of Elibank Tartan for their respective weddings.

Kinloch Anderson is the sixth-generation boss of the company, which started out when William Anderson and his two sons, who ran a tailoring business in Edinburgh, decided to progress from their partnership to a limited company after orders increased.

“They became renowned as Scotland’s premier civilian tailors, and then prior to the advent of the First World War, military tailoring developed as an important part of the business, with officers’ uniforms being tailored for all the Scottish regiments,” says Kinloch Anderson. “At one time there were over 200 qualified tailors sitting cross-legged on their benches in the workshop.”

The move from bespoke civilian to military tailoring established the firm’s specialist knowledge about kiltmaking and tartans “and elements that are still of great importance to the company today”, he says.

The firm’s chief highlights the “bold” decision in the late 1920s and early 1930s by the third generation to introduce ready-to-wear men’s clothing. “It really incurred the disdain of the master tailors of George Street of the day. But it was actually the right decision, as a decade later most of the other tailors had faded away.”

After the Second World War, fourth-generation WJ Kinloch Anderson regularly travelled across the Atlantic, and a wholesale division was established to meet burgeoning demand from the Scottish diaspora.

A garment manufacturing business developed from this, with a ladies Kinloch Anderson kilted skirt being considered the market leader, selling to the US, Canada and across Europe. “In the 1970s and early 1980s, over 100,000 skirts a year were leaving Edinburgh and going all around the world.”

Moving to John’s father, Douglas, currently the firm’s chairman, the global recession and changes in classic fashion slowed the growth of the manufacturing arm “but marked an important change of direction for the company”.

Douglas Kinloch Anderson looked at what other companies and brands were doing and saw the potential in Asia to develop partnerships with other “top-quality” companies. That led to a brand development business, and the firm has more than 20 partners and more than 300 Kinloch Anderson shops and sections in Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan, and soon to be North America.

“We haven’t just sat still – each generation has made a significant change or move in direction to fit with today’s needs.

“Whilst being proud and respectful of our 150-year heritage, we’re mindful that we’ve not got to where we are by doing things the way they’ve always been done,” says Kinloch Anderson, who intends to take the firm’s ethos into the digital age.

Digital sales continue to carve out a greater share of shopping activity, with the latest data from the Office for National Statistics showing that online transactions in April comprised 17.3 per cent of all retail, representing a year-on-year jump of 11.7 per cent. Textile, clothing and footwear stores saw internet sales total 17.1 per cent of total transactions, a 24.4 per cent year-on-year increase.

Kinloch Anderson acknowledges the many obstacles faced by the retail sector of late, with BDO recently noting that UK retail sales fell 2.2 per cent in May on a like-for-like basis. But he notes the importance of customer experience, “and finding a niche and unique selling points we very much have”.

It comes as consumers increasingly prefer to spend on brands with a story and clear provenance. “People are looking for, dare I say it, authenticity, history and heritage, and we can certainly deliver that – but the method of delivery is changing,” says Kinloch Anderson.

“We need to continue with traditional values of service and quality of product, which I think are timeless, but we have to look forward, and we do see plenty of growth and development in the business areas that we’re in.”

The firm’s Highland dress offering is both on and offline, and manufacturing still takes place at its Leith base, which is also home to a heritage room and showrooms. “You can actually look through the window and see the product being made – and I think in a digital era that still counts.”

And while shopping habits may be changing shape, the chief executive says people still generally make “considerable” effort to come to the shop, with visits typically lasting two hours. One likely contender for most effort was a man and his sons who came over from the US on a whistlestop trip lasting little more than a day purely to visit the retailer.

The firm describes itself as “synonymous with British style and Scottish character”, and the chief executive reports that as well as great enthusiasm for Scottish dress overseas, the kilt’s popularity at home shows no sign of waning. When you go to a wedding in Scotland, “you see all generations from the young to the more senior all wearing kilt outfits – and that’s important for an industry”.

The firm’s other areas include its corporate identity division, a growing area where customers have ranged from insurance to spirits firms looking to create their own tartans and tweeds (“we value those partnerships and they are important to us”); a whisky range; womenswear, childrenswear, accessories, gifts and an 1868 ready-to-wear men’s collection, inspired by the firm’s history and heritage and which launched two years ago.

Kinloch Anderson gained a degree in sports science, physical education and recreation management at Loughborough University, and then worked for high-end spa group Champneys in London.

He returned to Edinburgh in 2000, working in the shop (while completing a certificate in management studies at Napier University) and various divisions of the company, before taking on the chief executive role.

Now, looking ahead ten years for the company, he says: “I would see some changes in buyer behaviour and the digital age etc, but I would really see it strengthening and developing the areas that we’re in.”

He sees real potential in its business diversification “and we’ve currently got a new, strong team coming together here to help us achieve these aims and they’ll be absolutely critical in the company’s development”.

Some “modest growth” in staff is forecast in coming years at the firm’s headquarters from the current workforce of 28.

Taking its products overseas is also seen as a real growth area, with part of the new team intending to develop particularly active markets.

“With Scotland’s association and heritage of tartan it’s interesting how it’s a terrific export and how many other countries admire and buy into the tartan and clothing associated with it. It can be as popular in places like Japan, Russia and China, as it can be in its native country so we do see certainly see some growth potential in those countries.”

Kinloch Anderson is also one of an estimated 200,000 family businesses north of the border, and its chief executive – whose mother Deirdre is a senior director at the firm – echoes the belief that such a model enables you to act quickly but think long term.

“There’s no doubt that you can ‘sail your own ship’, so to speak,” he says, “If you’re travelling in a certain direction and you want to go in a different direction, you are able to do it.

“You’re not beholden to others outside the business, and shareholders and so forth that might have a different view. We are all about the long term as we’ve hopefully demonstrated over the last 150 years.”