Laura Shippey is head of design at TOAST, the clothing and homeware brand which started out with nightwear and now covers everything from jumpers to jewellery, and tops to towels.
Celebrating crafts, textiles and utilitarian design, the brand has increased its playful, colourful edge and is known for its modern bohemian vibe, inspired by cultural references. Designed in house in the UK, the clothes embrace an international workforce, from block printers in India to Irish ceramicists and Scottish knitters.
With a new store about to open in Edinburgh’s New Town, London-based Shippey, 44, talks about the brand, how TOAST clothes are made to last, and why Edinburgh is the perfect fit.
What’s a typical day for you?
I am lucky enough to have really varied days from one week to the next. This morning, after a commute from South London, I started the day with a Design team meeting. We had all been out of the office last week travelling to suppliers or researching for the new season so it was good to come together and discuss our findings and plan for the coming weeks. After lunch I took the woven designs to a print archive to select from an extensive collection of vintage textiles from around the world to start building print and weave concepts for the next collection. We left with an armful of beauties including a Japanese Kimono from the 1950s with an extraordinary colour combination for a lining and a huge batik printed leaf design from India.
What is your training/background?
I studied Fashion Design at the University of Northumbria. I chose that course as it was one of the few that offered a placement year at the time and I was able to go to Paris in my third year to intern for a small designer level company called Mr & Mrs Macleod. I absolutely loved the experience. For the first time I saw every process that goes into creating a beautifully crafted garment from sketch and fabric and trim selection, through fittings, sending out patterns and fabrics to the factories, to setting up the showrooms and selling to Barneys in New York or Browns in London.
My first proper design job was at Margaret Howell in London. I was there for eight years and in that time had the opportunity to work with some of the oldest mills and manufacturers in the UK. Margaret taught me about the value of editing, how to pare back a design or collection to a place where it looks harmonious, where the garment looks as if it had always been, with the stitching and detailing exacting and functional, and where the style and fabric are perfectly suited. Quality was everything!
I then moved to New York with my musician husband and young son and worked for J Crew. We had this incredible colour room, where the walls were covered in the full colour spectrum, from neutrals, the entire rainbow and right through to neons. It was an incredible resource.
Why did you want to work for TOAST?
After eight years in New York I was keen to move back to the UK and be closer to family as my two sons grew up. I was really excited to learn of the opportunity at TOAST as it was a company that had always had a very clear point of view; an appreciation of craft and design, a timelessness and a certain utilitarian practical nature that is close to my heart.
What’s different about TOAST products?
We work hard to create products that are unique; designed with great care and made of exceptional materials.
Which items do you think will sell best in the new Edinburgh store?
There’s an ikat jumpsuit, hand-block printed wrap dresses, a batik dot skirt and embroidered tops which I think will all prove popular.
We’ve partnered with Bothy Project to offer a one-week residency in one of their bothies to a Scottish visual artist, whose work, once completed, will be showcased in-store.
Is there any particular Scottish inspiration/element in TOAST designs?
We work with several Scottish knitters, one of which, Harley in Aberdeenshire, makes our beautiful lambswool Seamless Fair Isle Yoke sweaters. We also use cloth from Locharron, a heritage mill in Selkirk.
What challenges do you face when designing?
We work with a lot of incredible craftspeople at TOAST; many techniques are executed by hand such as block printing, hand weaving and embroidery in India. In most cases we embrace the irregularity inherent in the process and I think this is crucial to a feeling of character for a garment.
What is the fun part and what surprises you about your job?
I love the collaboration within the design team. We all have different strengths and, when combined, this leads to great design. Once we have the first prototypes, I love playing with outfits, exploring proportions and textural combinations, which is an exciting moment for me. Finally it gives me great pleasure seeing our TOAST customers in the clothes, the moment that makes it all come to life!
How has it evolved, how have your designs changed?
When I first started at TOAST I wanted to create a collection that was a balance of workwear, textile richness and craft with an element of the relaxed nature of pyjamas to honour the brand’s origins in nightwear. These fundamentals are still there, but I think we have become braver with colour and have evolved our relationships with weavers and printers so that we are constantly exploring new techniques such as mud-resist printing and shibori.
What have you learned from working with TOAST?
An incredible amount about textile techniques from knitwear to woven fabrics, wools from Europe, cottons from India and indigos from Japan. Through our dialogue with makers in all kinds of disciplines I am learning about craft in a new way.
Who are your customers?
TOAST customers are often interested in beautiful, thoughtful design with a contemporary edge so we concentrate far more on an aesthetic that has soul rather than on age. We find that they are looking for clothes that last, rather than buying throwaway pieces.
Which items do you have at home from your range?
My favourite pieces from the current collection are both dresses. I have the large check print cotton dress. I wear it with tights and monkey boots now but it will be great when the sun comes out with bare legs and strappy sandals. I also have the button shoulder dress which has a cool, soft utilitarian quality in indigo cotton twill. But most of the time I am in one of our gorgeous sweaters.
What are your goals?
I am not interested in putting any more “stuff” on the planet so my goal is to ensure that there is a good reason for every product, that we are supporting craft or traditional mills, that every piece is produced in a way that is not harmful to the environment. This year, we’re launching a new repair service in certain stores.
What’s your style philosophy?
Make it feel effortless.
Where are your products made?
We place huge value on skilled design and craftsmanship. We look to India for block printing and khadi, for example, but then to British craftspeople and manufacturers: Scottish mills, Irish ceramicists and shoemakers in Northamptonshire.
Our products really can come from anyone and anywhere. For example, this year we’re also supporting emerging craftspeople with the introduction of the New Makers Programme. We have selected and are mentoring five emerging makers whose products will be sold online and in selected stores, with all profits being returned to them.
Who has influenced your style and what are your inspirations?
I take my inspiration from a range of sources but what I consistently come back to are artists, architects or artistic movements such as the Bauhaus or Black Mountain College. Or it could be a space like Kettles Yard [the University of Cambridge’s modern and contemporary art gallery] where there is a high regard for natural materials presented in a modern, unfussy way; where simplicity of form and tactility are celebrated but there is also spirit of optimism and possibility.
The new TOAST store will open at 4 North West Circus Place, Edinburgh EH3 6ST, on 25 March