What’s your earliest memory of being aware of fashion?
I guess, probably when I was at Kingswood in Bath. We used to go to a men’s boutique called Lesleys. We went down there in our weekends, it was the trendy boutique. So that’s probably when, around 13.
What does being British mean to you?
Early in my design life, I went backwards and forwards around the world. Doing this, I essentially saw what ‘being British’ meant, from every angle. I think that could be considered as my apprenticeship of understanding Britishness and Englishness. It was being a Britain abroad, if you like, looking at being British from another perspective. I spent a lot of time in Italy and France in my early Mulberry days – late 60s/early 70s. Then in Japan. Certainly, those three nations had a very developed sense of every aspect of British style, character and life. Each in their own way too. I learnt my fashion ability through their eyes, I was able to reflect Britishness and British sensibilities, which perhaps I wouldn’t have if I had stayed here.
You’re Somerset born. What do you love about Somerset?
I think Somerset is wonderful, I love it. Bath, Glastonbury etc. Shepton Mallet where I am now, is quite industrial. It’s got a wonderful mix within a very small area. You’ve got a vast cross section of geography. There is an intimacy and yet a distance in it. I always remember when I used to bring down young managers to join me from London, to our factory in Somerset. They would come down and love it. There is a certain warmth that Somerset people have, that would embrace them and look after them. But you actually had to be here for a few generations to be part of Somerset. I think that’s something was quite special, in a way. Although there is this warmth, there is a real care for family. A true Somerset person could be a little bit insular in a way, but very warm.
What was it about London that drew you there?
London was always a big city. From my early days I used to sneak up to London. I had a corner of a stand on Portobello Road, where I used to sell Victorian military uniforms, which you could say, was really my first serious sense of my fashion ability. I used to buy them and collect them, and we used to wear them in sort of Seargent Peppers, late 60s time. We used to sell to groups like the Rolling Stones. It was a wonderful chance to have sight into this amazing period of time. That was my draw – I was also chasing a girl who was going to acting college at RADA. I guess, women and fashion combined together.
What was it like in the 60s and 70s?
I was 19, I found it quite scary to live there, not just visit. My first day was in a Methodist Hostel. I found myself there with a lot of international boys, it was quite different, being there on my own. The other side of this however, was the Boutique side of life, which was incredibly vibrant. I used to wear pink and purple bell bottoms, sailor pants, and great big army coats. Fashion was moving at a massive pace. Literally changing and rolling on a scale all the time. Joining that world at such a time, when I joined John Micheal, as a young fashion trainee – I was also at Westminster College studying business – was just mesmerising.
How did you create the Mulberry brand?
It’s a building block of lots of three dimensional routes. My father worked at Clarks shoes, producing 60,000 pairs of shoes a week, that’s the scale of production. I’d go in on Saturday mornings and twiddle my thumbs looking at leather. I suppose that time was in the back of my mind, always. Then when I got to London, I had the idea of creating chokers – all the girls were wearing mini skirts and velvet chokers with cameros on them. At the time I thought, I wonder if I can do this with snakeskin. I messed around with a sewing machine and my father said I should go down to Bermondsey, where all the leather wholesalers were, and I bought a whole load of snakeskin in different colours and stitched them all together, put some Velcro on the back and little cut out butterfly on the front. That was my first designed product and I sold that to Biba. Then a really hot Boutique.
I was still working for John Michael at the time, doing the accessory buying for him and his Guys and Dolls shops. I saw ladies with their leather belts and I thought, I could do better than this. I bought some leather, big brass buckles and made some belts. That was the beginning of my fashion life.
After about a year of doing this I went to my father and said: “Would you help, I want to do a business here?”. He said, well look, we’ll give you £500 for your 21st birthday present. That bought our first buckles and stationery, and a bit of leather. We set up and off we went. I was living in London, but I’d take orders and design pieces, then come back down to Somerset to make them and go back and deliver them. Graduallly I sold to more and more boutiques. I became almost ‘The belt designer of the early 70s’, which in those days was big. Belts had the same sort of power as handbags do today. They change dramatically each season, the waist and hips, high, low – wide to narrow, dramatic to whatever. I was making a new collection each season.
I started heading out to Paris and Italy, sourcing my leathers and buckles, because I couldn’t find them in the UK. Whilst I was out there I started visiting the Boutiques there, and that’s when I really started learning true style. London was all about drama and change, whereas France and Italy were all about style. It was much more beautiful design and manufacture. Whereas here we were all about the next most exicting thing. I would sell to the Boutiques and designers out there. If you like, my apprenticeship was about designing for all the top designers in France, Italy and USA. That gave me insight into the following season as to where they were going with shape and colour. It also gave me a unique opportunity as a deisigner, to see and learn from this myriad of successful designers. Dior, Burberry, Ralph Lauren, Armani – that was really exciting. Everyone also knew that I knew what next season’s colours were going to be.
What do you think has been the secret to the success ofMulberry?
I think I talked to you about multi-level. One of the keys was because I was the designer and the marketer and that we built a manufacturing home at this end. There is something about manufacturing that is very honest. So many design companies are based around design and selling, but they third party the manufacturing. As we were doing it all ourselves, I had to learn to make, what I was designing. That structural 3D side of it, was a crucial part. That meant I had to teach my manufacturing team how to do it. I think that brings an honesty and a distance from London. You could get completely carried away in London, but in the factory, boy did you have to make it work, and you had to get the costings right. You had to learn the whole way through. Those disciplines have stood Mulberry as solid on the one side, but capricious on the other.
Internationality, my time in Europe made me really understand the market. The most important thing in terms of style, was probably mid 70s – 75/76, those collections. They were all centred around being English: hunting, fishing, shooting. That was the archaetypal Mulberryde Englais – styling used in a new way. Sports casual we called it. I designed a cotton blousen out of old army shirts. Army has been a frequent resource of design ideas for me. Department shirts with tails, I cut off the tails and made them into pockets, and a leather collar. That’s the first time anyone put leather with fabric in the ready to wear. I did that because I was frustrated that accessory designers weren’t the same as ready to wear designers. That bought our look together, hunting, shooting, fishing – leather belts and so on. That was a worldwide success for us, and what we really turned back to throughout the years as a core brand value.
How do you view Mulberry now?
I think when I first started after coming out of Mulberry, we had a difficult period, it was quite shocking. Having come through that, I felt I was really lucky to have the opportunity to do something new, halfway through my life. Something completely different. Learning a whole new set of values, was so important. Knowing and thinking about where I am now – when I was in Mulberry I was flying round the world, from one collection to then next. Whilst this may seem glamourous, I was doing the same thing, time and time again, with a different aspect to it. So to come out of this, into a new world, was very exciting. Suddenly finding out that you don’t need to be in Florence on March 2nd, or somewhere else. I think they went a little too fashionista at one point, but then Emma Hill joined and I have great respect for her. I think she has a very good feel as to what the brand stands for. I’m not wild about the ready to wear, but the accrossories have been doing very well. Keeping with the essence of the brand.
What instigated Kilver Court?
In 1996 I was looking for a new headquarters for Mulberry. I was looking for a manor house to build from. One day I was driving through Shepton Mallet, because of a road block on my way home. I saw this old headquarters, of Babycham. It was for sale. A vast 45,000 square feet of offices, old Victorian buildings – almost like a village – school house, textile mills, manor house, cottages, amazing gardens – so I thought it would be perfect for us.
In those days – ’96 we had a turnover of about one million pounds. I kept thinking could we not create a designer village here? The Mulberryshop was so successful. We had people coming from all over the world to the middle of nowhere to shop here. Myself and Clarks village had an idea to do something here in the late 90s – which we didn’t end up doing for some reason or other, but I kept thinking about it. So in 2004, after the farming side, I thought it would be a good opportunity to open a farm shop, deli, butchery and open the gardens. It seemed the natural step. Then I thought could the next step be a designer outlet village? Really taking in the quirky designer and the one’s that I really love, bringing it together. There’s a lot of traffic going through the South West, I thought if we could regenerate these buildings, from offices to a whole new retail centre, food fashion and gardens together, it could be quite good fun.
Who is your customer?
Our customer is evolving very fast all the time. Mulberry always had a very diverse customer base –from fashion models, to locals, internationals – 25 year olds to 70 year olds. A mish mash. Something we have found here. We aimed to start with ladies, aged 28 to 55, because that was probably the first easy step for us, brands like Toastand Cabbages and Roses, Orla Kiely, Nicole Fahri.
Now, it’s evolving nicely. We’ve got great regenerated furniture that my son is doing, we opened Aubin and Wills our first shop and there’s much more to come. The emporium was to entice people in and now we are setting about opening shop after shop. We have three more, which we hope to open around the time of Bath Fashion Week, good brands putting us on the map.
See Fashion blogger Carrie, of Wish, Wish, Wish – at Kilver Court - here ‘I’m like some sort of Kilver Court mascot, I’ve been there for the past 3 weekends with different people each time.‘
So the future of Kilver Court?
It’s a very exciting time. From clothes, to food, furniture and weddings – we are probably doing about 30 weddings a year, and it’s growing. We hope to open a restaurant, theatre, hotel, host live music – we have great spaces, perfect for weekends away and such. Miles to go and lots to do!
What do you do in your spare time?
Tai Chi, Pilates, gardening – obvsiously with the farm- that takes up time too. I also love restoration. I am almost always redesigning, restrcuting and rebuilding – architecturally or 3d – I love designing gardens too.
The gardens at Kilver Court, in summer.
Roger is telling his story, ‘Fashion to Farming and Back – by Roger Saul’ at The Octagon, Milsom Place on Tuesday, March 27 at 7.30pm. Following the talk, there will be a Q&A withGreg Ingham, chair of Creative Bath. Tickets are £10 andavailable here.
There will also be a Kilver Court Designer Outlet, pop-up shop atMilsom Place, throughout Bath In Fashion – March 25 – Sunday April 1st, with late night shopping until 9pm: Tuesday March 27 and Thursday March 29. There you will be able to get up to 70% off designer items