Luxury brands are fragile flowers that can be destroyed by a financial freeze or a creative wrong turn. Pringle of Scotland looked like it might drop from sight throughout the 1980s and 90s. But it now has a new creative director who came fresh from Balenciaga and Tilda Swinton as its ambassador, and its future has rarely looked more promising. Charles Marlow finds out why.
Pringle of Scotland will be 200 years old in 2015. Yet two decades ago the brand looked even older. It was as if Macbeth’s three witches were designing its clothes … before they got their eye surgery. Back then, Colin Montgomerie was one of its brand ambassadors, and only a fashionista with a sick sense of humour and lots of safety pins would be seen dead in a Pringle sweater. It was a far cry from the 1940s and 50s, when Pringle was a Hollywood favourite worn by the likes of Jean Simmons, Margaret Lockwood, Deborah Kerr, Grace Kelly and Brigitte Bardot.
Nowadays the brand has Academy Award-winning actress Tilda Swinton as its ambassador. Its clothes are worn by hip bands like Dirty Pretty Things, The Kooks and The Twang; and celebrities like Madonna and Nicole Kidman line up to see its latest offerings. Plus Alistair Carr has arrived as its new creative director; he released his first full collection for Spring Summer 2011 in London on September 19. The transformation has been nothing short of magical. Maybe it was those witches? Whatever the reason, it seems like Pringle is poised for a renaissance that observers forecast will resemble the path of Burberry, another UK heritage brand that has gone from granddad’s closet to Teen Idol.
Carr says his switch from Balenciaga to Pringle was motivated by a desire to explore the Scottish brand’s deep archive, and to use it as a launch pad for a new brand aesthetic.
“I won’t be doing rustic, woolly grandma knits, but very beautiful clothes that women want to wear,” he told American fashion journalists earlier this year. “I plan to go through the archives in Scotland, and although I think it’s important to respect Pringle’s heritage, I don’t want to ‘do’ a heritage line.”
Swinton’s debut as Pringle’s brand ambassador and icon in 2010 was the first phase of a seismic shift in the brand’s fortunes. At the time, she described Pringle as being “eternal”, but it was her post-modern androgynous sensuality that helped the company establish a base camp on fashion’s Mount Olympus and gave it an opportunity to build a reputation for innovation.
While Swinton may have accelerated Pringle’s style evolution, it would not have been possible without Asian money – specifically Hong Kong cash injected by the Fang Brothers. It’s estimated the family has now put more than US$50 million into Pringle, and it’s beginning to pay dividends as the brand moves from being a company that made knitwear to what chief executive Jean Fang calls “an international luxury brand with an emphasis on knitwear”.
A key aspect of this process has been rediscovering and reinventing the brand’s legacy. To do this, Pringle began a partnership with Central Saint Martin’s College of Art & Design, Carr’s alma mater.
For the past year, its BA Fashion History and Theory students have been creating an archive of Pringle memorabilia, photographs and newspaper clippings. Fashion students involved in St Martins MA programme were invited to create their own interpretations of classic Argyle knits and twinsets, which Pringle’s craftspeople brought to life. The resulting collection was unveiled at the brand’s Sloane Street store during September, and it included op-art re-workings of 1960s twinsets, domino spot pullovers from the 1950s reinvented with graffiti motifs, and trompe l’oeil versions of 1970s classics.
Pringle’s Fall Winter 2011 advertising campaign again features Swinton, who was photographed by Walter Pfeiffer, the Zurich-born photographer renowned for his realist portraits. Scottish visual artist Jim Lambie, who was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2005, also collaborated on the project. Shot at the Glasgow School of Art, the new campaign is further evidence of the way Pringle is weaving the arts and architecture into its brand DNA as it seeks to elevate its aesthetic. Carr’s latest designs suggest it has every intention of being brave in its application of this principle.
Pringle has seen false dawns before. In 2005 – when Claire Waight-Keller, a Tom Ford protégé, was brought in as creative director – Vogue asked: “Is Pringle the new Gucci?” Not quite. While Waight-Keller added a strong sense of style to the brand before her departure, the edgier Carr is expected to give next year’s collections a much more luxurious feel, plus a more adventurous silhouette and colour palette. He can also be expected to add some Balenciaga magic to Pringle accessories.
Maybe by the time it celebrates its bicentennial in 2015 the brand will be truly ready to stand toe-to-toe with Gucci in the luxury market.
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