Inappropriately blingy dresses, dizzying fascinators and spiky high heels on soft grass: this weekend’s Grand National has become as much a spectator sport for the fashion highs and lows in the stands as for the horses taking on the famous Aintree steeplechase.
And yet, a raft of luxury labels are experiencing a renaissance in a much more authentic equestrian aesthetic, fields away from the paparazzi-worthy looks on the sidelines. Labels built on steadfastly horsey connections, from Hermès and Gucci to heritage British brands Swaine Adeney Brigg, Hunter and Tanner Krolle, are experiencing a sudden rise in sales, particularly in Asia and the Middle East, where authenticity and provenance are prized. As a result, equestrian classicism is back on the style radar.
“Despite many customers not actually being riders themselves, it is what equestrian-inspired ranges represent that lures shoppers eager to buy in to the lifestyle,” agrees Honor Westnedge, a retail analyst at the market research company Verdict.
“Horses have for ever been symbols of power in history and literature,” says Lucy Cleland, editor of the glossy British monthly Country & Town House. “Exquisite leatherwork, tailoring and practicality makes equine-inspired style sexy and timeless.’’
Indeed, as Pierre-Alexis Dumas, artistic director of Hermès, points out in the introduction of Le Monde d’Hermès, a glossy spring/summer brochure produced by the quintessential equestrian-inspired luxury brand.
“The horse, after all, was the first athlete clothed by the house.” Founded in 1837 in Paris to kit out European noblemen and women with harnesses, bridles and saddles for carriages, Hermès reflects these traditions with its current “A Sporting Life” advertising campaign.
The Italian luxury fashion label Gucci, founded by Guccio Gucci in Florence in 1921 and specialising in luggage for aristocrats, has in more recent years returned to the world of equestrian sponsorship, recruiting Charlotte Casiraghi, a 26-year-old show-jumper whose credentials also include being fourth in line to the throne of Monaco, as a “face” of the company.
Dressed in a classic equestrian wardrobe created by Gucci’s Frida Giannini, with silk foulards worn as bracelets, Casiraghi captures the current ideal just as her mother, Princess Caroline, did in the 1970s and her grandmother, Grace Kelly, did in the 1960s.
In November last year Gucci launched a new 15-piece equestrian collection, characterised by house signatures such as the horse bit and green-red-green webbing stripe. Although the gabardine jackets and velvet-covered riding cap could be worn sitting in their Guccissima leather saddle (yes, they still make saddles), they would not look out of place outside the paddock.
The same applies to Hunter wellies – a bargain at £79 a pair, compared with those by French rival Le Chameau, favoured by Kate Middleton and Prince Harry, that can cost £325 a pair – which look just as at home dodging the rain in Mayfair as they do mucking out the stables in Gloucestershire.
“Our readers tend to spend their week in town and head off to the country at weekends. The country now has a fashionable scene that often dictates catwalk trends,” says Cleland. “Our first ‘Country Sports’ supplement last winter paired Elie Saab with Really Wild (a country brand favoured by the Middletons), and Alberta Ferretti with the gun specialist William & Son, showing how fashion houses and traditional sporting labels can work together.”
Verdict’s Westnedge thinks that just as the luxury firms are satisfying the demand for equestrian style at the top end of the market, the trend is also filtering into the premium and mid-market with the likes of Joules, a country clothing brand that sells through Topshop’s London flagship as well as its own stores.
“It’s vital to keep bringing newness into a brand,” says John O’Sullivan of Tanner Krolle, a British luxury firm founded in 1856 by Frederick Krolle, a second-generation master saddler. “The ‘fashionisation’ of men has been the greatest impact on the firm, with the luxury men’s leather goods business growing 14 per cent in three years compared to 8 per cent for womenswear.”
While heavy briefcases are morphing into soft leather folders for iPads, Tanner Krolle continues to incorporate the same bridle trims it first used 150 years ago.
The interior design world is also picking up on the popularity of equestrian chic. In 2010 Cara Walinsky, a life-long rider, launched Deux Chevaux, America’s first equestrian lifestyle brand, which even incorporates “horsey” smells into candles.
“Not everyone has the time or the resources to pursue an interest in horses but I thought that it would be wonderful if we could all smell the sweetness of the hayloft, savour the warmth of a stable blanket on a cold winter night and the soapy smells of the tack room,” says the clearly horse-smitten Walinsky.