Scotland’s ‘cashmere queen’ Belinda Dickson on reinventing her brand

Belinda Dickson, pictured with husband Alastair. Picture: Cate Gillon
Belinda Dickson, pictured with husband Alastair. Picture: Cate Gillon
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CASHMERE designer Belinda Dickson leads a hectic life commuting between work and homes in Edinburgh, London and Elie, Fife.

She is about to jump on a train from Edinburgh to Glasgow, where she has a business meeting, and later in the day she is returning to the London home she shares with her corporate lawyer husband, Alastair Dickson.

With all this to-ing and fro-ing, it is perhaps not surprising Scotland’s “cashmere queen” has decided to abdicate her throne at her company, Belinda Robertson Ltd, in favour of younger, fresher, more tech-savvy minds.

The entrepreneur, who was awarded an OBE for services to the textile industry, is making way for a new team brought in to reinvent her cashmere brand.

“We were becoming an old-school company that needed to buck up and embrace new technologies,” she explains. “So, many of us built a website and thought ‘that’s done’. How wrong we were. The technology is changing all the time. Because the business has changed a lot, I have had to bring in new skills.”

However, while she accepts it is a necessary move, she admits that handing over the reins has been one of the toughest things she has ever done.

“Everybody said it would be,” she says. “When you’re an entrepreneur, you build everything off your own instinct. When you bring other people in you realise that’s not the way you should have done it. You have to change it.” However, she adds: “I think it’s quite refreshing. It’s a pleasure to see people who are so enthusiastic to get their hands – and brains – into that part of the business.”

Belinda, who also serves as a board member of the UK Fashion & Textile Association, says she will still be a figurehead for the business.

She says: “What I have to offer is my experience, my contacts and I’m still very much involved in the design of the products.”

She set up the company 20 years ago having ditched her initial choice of career as a PE teacher. A move into marketing for a telecommunications company brought her into contact with the cashmere knitwear industry in the Borders, prompting her to come up with her own designs.

“I went into knitwear because I wanted something that fitted well,” she says. “Most jersey was cheap fabric, badly cut. I wanted something soft, elegant, that fitted well, which is basically what I did with knitwear.”

She went on to work with internationally famous labels Nina Ricci, Michael Kors and Dior before setting up Belinda Robertson Ltd in 1992. With her designs catching the eye of celebrities such as Madonna and Sharon Stone, she has never looked back.

Now the brand is changing its focus to the online wholesale side of the business.

“I think there is still room for retail,” says the 53-year-old, who took the surname Dickson when she married her second husband eight years ago. “I didn’t think a company like ours needed to be heavily into it.”

So, although there is still a Belinda Robertson shop in Edinburgh’s Dundas Street, the original Belgravia store was closed in 2009 and instead the company operates several concessions.

These outlets, in addition to the online presence, enable the company to continue to cater to different types of customer.

“Service is absolutely crucial,” says Dickson. “You’ve got to remember there are different types of clients – some will want to come in and feel the product and shop in a shop, others want to do it online, others want to do it online and then speak to someone.”

With fashion companies increasingly turning to the internet to showcase their goods, there is more pressure to develop designs and get them online as soon as possible. For this reason, some of the Belinda Robertson products are now made in China, where goods can be produced more quickly.

And while the United States and Korea are two of the best markets for the brand, the company is continually on the lookout for new markets.

“You’ve got to stay on top of it. The moment you don’t, there’s someone else behind waiting to take it from you.”

Belinda is now looking forward to taking on other challenges.

“I have done quite a lot in the industry,” she says. “I feel I have got a lot of input to give it. When you’re younger and growing a business, you don’t have much time for that.”

On a personal side, she is hoping to spend more time with her family, which includes five grown-up children from both her and Alastair’s first marriages.

She also hopes to do some of the things she wasn’t able to do when she was growing her business. High on her list are trekking in Alaska or going to Nepal, although she has also recently discovered the joy of holidaying in Scotland.

At present, however, Belinda has no plans to leave her main base in London where she and her husband spend the week, before heading up to Scotland for the weekend.

“Ultimately, I think I will end up in Scotland, but I don’t think we’re ready for that yet.”