Knitting pretty

Pringle, the Scottish knitwear company founded in the early 19th century, has been given an injection of youthful energy thanks to a collaboration with students from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London.

The tie-up, known as the Archive Project, started with an event staged last August in the small, picturesque town of Hawick in the Scottish Borders, where the heritage brand has been based since it began in 1815.

For the company’s open day, or “day of record”, the people of Hawick were invited to bring along their Pringle pieces to the brand’s headquarters and to “share memories over a cup of tea and a slice of cake”.

The lure of coconut squares and home-made scones was hard to resist; more than 200 people streamed through the doors of the village hall-style venue. The crowd was mostly aged over 60 and the mood was part reunion, part Antiques Roadshow hustle and bustle. Visitors included former machinists with stories of Friday nights out, the daughter of house model Dorothy Blakeley, the 1960s designer Lesley Rankin (the first female creative head hired by Pringle), and sisters Caroline Anderson and Valerie Fraser, who have a business selling vintage Pringle clothes on eBay. All came clutching precious items, from an exquisite, still-soft 1960s primrose yellow cashmere sweater to 1912 long johns and garish golfing designs like those worn by Nick Faldo in the 1980s. “Pringle jerseys were the best,” says Robert Taylor, who travelled with his wife and her Pringles to Hawick that morning. “You put one on and you felt really good – you felt the business.”

Gathering these memories (and sweaters) was a team of history and theory students from Central Saint Martins, kitted out with a scanner, white gloves and photocopier. Rather than hand the archive material over to the in-house design team, however, Pringle asked other students studying for the women’s wear MA to take the vintage pieces and think about how they could be new again. Professor Louise Wilson, director of the college’s fashion MA course, says: “Youth re-energises.” Five of the students – Yeori Bae, William Hendry, Viktor Smedinge, Timur Kim and Estefanía Cortés Harker – then saw their designs, which ranged from deconstructed argyle sweaters to golf jumpers given a graffiti spin, go into production. Strikingly anti-retro, this is the next step on from reissues.

Pringle is not the first old brand to realise the value of new blood, of course. Brands such as Levi’s and Speedo have long worked with students to gain these new perspectives, providing vital support to colleges in the process. But, Prof Wilson says, “many projects are not followed through” to production stage – they are an academic exercise and nothing more. Recently that has started to change, with brands such as Marks and Spencer, Bally, Asos and Triumph all engaging in their version of the Pringle project. Asos and Triumph, for example, have produced limited edition student-designed pieces, while Bally and New Look offered capsule collections of students’ work and Marks and Spencer produced a collection by Royal College of Art student Anna Smit. Pringle, though, is the first UK-based luxury brand to come to market with its student designs.

As well as giving Pringle a youthful burst of creativity, the Archive Project provides the brand with a reputation for supporting new talent (8 per cent of sales from the project will go to the college) as well as positioning them to get ahead of the curve by working with talented young designers before they are even out of college. “This makes them appeal to a younger demographic,” says Cortés Harker. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement, with the students getting valuable experience and even great jobs (two of the five CSM students from the Archive Project are moving on to full-time positions at Lanvin).

And it’s potentially lucrative. With a revamped heritage look providing a reassuring pull for customers in the recession – see the strong sales enjoyed by brands such as Burberry to Barbour – it also makes sense for Pringle, the oldest Scottish luxury brand, to get in on the archive action now.

The Archive Project designs, which will retail for 20 per cent less than the main line, have been snapped up by buyers and will go into stores including Dover Street Market, Barneys New York, Fred Segal and Corso Como this month.

No wonder that, although there have been numerous changes in the company since the “day of record” – former global communications director Benoït Duverger has become managing director; designer Clare Waight Keller has left, to be replaced by former Balenciaga designer Alistair Carr; and Mary-Adair Macaire resigned from her post as chief executive, with Jean Fang, a member of the family that has owned Pringle since 2000, taking up the position – the Archive Project has remained a constant. “The Archive Project is super-important to us,” says Duverger. “It’s just what Pringle should be.” A seamless mix of past and future.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.