196-year-strong brand Pringle have linked arms with Central Saint Martins students for a trip down memory lane through the exhaustive archives located deep in Scotland, where the twinset reigns supreme and Tilda Swinton stalks the coast’s rocks.
The 19th century brought the end of the Napoleonic wars, the discovery of Antarctica, the premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Darwin’s Origin of Species and Pringle’s invention of the twinset! Few fashion labels can reference themselves in the early 1800s but Pringle is one such. Starting life in 1815 and becoming the first luxury knitwear brand, Pringle introduced cashmere in 1870 and their figure hugging sweaters were made iconic by screen goddesses Brigitte Bardot, Jean Simmons and Grace Kelly, the original ‘sweater girls’. With an army of factory workers spanning generations of ladies clicking their knitting needles and highly skilled craftsmen working from the factories in Howick, Pringle have a history and a heritage still very much alive.
With Alistair Carr as the newly appointed design director, the brand have been sucking up new blood, beginning their partnership with Central Saint Martins last year on an archive project. Under the direction of Professor Louise Wilson OBE, MA students designed a collection of knitwear working alongside the brand’s knitwear veterans in Scotland. Taking the argyle as their inspiration, the pieces were unveiled during London Fashion Week back in February and marked a marriage of old and new. Louise Wilson is one of the most formidable women in the fashion industry, having taught designers including Lee McQueen, John Galliano, Christopher Kane and Marios Schwab. With a reputation for tough love, you don’t know if she’s about to laugh or bite your head off but the masochist in you hopes for the latter. Here, she told i-D Online about the project, the difference between age and heritage and the changes in British fashion.
What did you set out to achieve with the project? I always try and deliver a good project or product, it’s the same with our shows. We need sponsorship but on the MA we try not to do more than two projects a year; they have to be high calibre like this and there has to be an educational component, they’ve got to have learned a process from it. We were allowed creative freedom and the students chose the theme of argyle because to us Pringle own the argyle, in the same sense that Burberry own the check. We never really think of the outcome, I always assume it’s going to be of the best calibre.
Were your students immediately interested in the project, was it relevant to them? Yes because any good design student is a researcher. They like research, they like looking at things, and discarding them usually.
With Pringle being a heritage brand, do you think it was difficult for the students to achieve a contemporary aesthetic?There’s very few companies that do have heritage, because heritage is different to age. What is always needed is creativity to mix with the heritage. It’s not difficult to be modern or relevant as long as you’re investing in creativity, and this season they’ve invested in us to do this project. I think the difficulty in fashion is when creativity is marginalised because for quite a few years it’s been about the merchandising and the business.
From when you were at Donna Karen, did you ever want to do your own collection or work for a designer? I never wanted to do my own collection even when I left Saint Martins, but I did want to return to working with young people, which is why I left and came back.
How many of your students do you predict with be the next Christopher Kane, the next Jonathan Saunders? I don’t, it’s not my job. I’m in education. That’s the people after me; the Sarah Mower’s, Fashion East, all the layers that come after me. If I started thinking it was up to me to predict that, I should retire. If I never produce another person in British fashion, surely that shouldn’t put my job in jeopardy because it’s not on my job description that I should. Their success is a happy accident of them doing work that’s relevant.
How do you guide someone without influencing their aesthetic too much? You’re always working with their ideas. You’re always guiding their idea, you’re not generating an idea.
Have attitudes to British fashion changed in the span of your career? The wonderful thing about Britain is that one minute it’s up and one minute it’s down and one minute it’s up and one minute it’s rubbish. It’s bloody marvellous, we’re all kept on our toes. There’s not many countries who have produced a McQueen or a Hussein, in the timescale of the 90s. Then we’ve got a huge vanguard of young designers and there’s no other country that has produced that.
You’ve guided a lot of designers in their careers, have you ever had a teacher who’s inspired you? I think when you’re as arrogant as me, it’s very difficult to be inspired. And I think that’s probably the best bit of me, I’m a very negative person, I wouldn’t even know if I was being influenced. I have to commend my staff, they really are the unsung heroes, Julie Verhoeven, Peter Jensen, etc, and they’re so the opposite of me that thank God they’re there. You’ve got to stay relevant, that’s the hard thing and when you get older, are you relevant? Because it’s very youth obsessed. I can look at something and think, that’s trash, but it’s not trash to the generation that wants it.
Do you like fashion? Yeah I do, and I think it’s bloody wrong that people come to Saint Martins and study it and don’t like it, they don’t devour it, they don’t read about it, they don’t love it. It’s a great industry and quite frankly most of the people in it are amazing, I’ve rarely met horrible people.
For more on the Pringle archive, see i-D’s collaboration here.