A bright new life for Indian cloth

Features Posted 10/04/17
She was William Brown’s nemesis, the lisping, spoiled little rich girl who threatened to “scream and scream until I’m sick” in the Richmal Crompton stories. Now Violet Elizabeth has found her niche as a supplier of gloriously colourful recycled silk outfits.

Entrepreneur Lucy Brickwood made a deliberate choice for her company’s title: “I wanted it to be a woman’s name, not something that would be defined or restricted by the label. I wanted a name from a book, so people might get a slight feeling of déjà vu when they heard it. I liked Violet and Elizabeth – they are two names that flow well together. They go well with my sense of humour.

“In my mind, Violet Elizabeth Bott in the William stories grew up to be a strong-willed, independent woman, not afraid of colour or how to use it. Not scared to be who she wants to be. I also really like the mental image of a red-headed girl wearing my silks threatening to scream until she is sick!”

Lucy says the company came into being as a “happy accident” when she was unemployed and seemingly unemployable.

“I have never been very good at not having anything to do,” she said. “I have always loved learning and creating new things. I happened upon a craft website (looking for something completely different) selling recycled sari silk. I remember thinking ‘that looks like fun, I’m sure I’ll find something to do with it’ and ordered a random selection 2kg box.

“When I opened it, it was like Christmas and I was four again. All the beautiful colours, prints, patterns and textures. It was amazing. (I still get that feeling when I open the boxes). It was nothing like any of the fabrics I had previously worked with. The first thing I made was a pair of pyjamas, then knickers and progressed into lingerie, sleep, lounge and holiday wear. I love combining colours and textures – especially when they clash.”

Lucy gave her first samples as gifts to family and friends and when they were well received, she began to form the idea of making a business out of them. She joined the Princes Trust Enterprise programme and did the “sensible bits, like business plans, seeing how viable my idea was”. She well remembers the day she met her business mentor.

“I showed him my work. He was silent for a few minutes looking at the fabrics and the way they were made. Eventually he said ‘it’s so bright, it hurts my eyes, but in the best kind of way’. From then on, I knew we’d get on like a house on fire.”

Lucy’s venture began with a market stall in Spitalfields, East London. Two-and-a-half years later, she has a “Beach Hut Boutique” in Whitstable Harbour Market as her main outlet and a developing website.

All this stems from a foundation course in art and design at Canterbury. Lucy remembers it as “a wonderful year. They encouraged everything – colour, mess and creativity. Possibilities seemed endless”. From there she took a fashion design degree at Kingston University and discovered a love and a talent for pattern-cutting, tailoring and menswear.

She admits her sense of colour and her “slightly tongue-in-cheek” approach to fashion led to her tutors steering her off the menswear route “on the basis that I had no understanding of the meaning of subtlety” and she began to understand she was a square peg in a round-hole world.

While at university, Lucy did internships at fashion and lingerie companies and when she graduated she worked in bespoke bridal lingerie, which she remembers with great affection. But she missed the structure of tailoring and took a cutting apprenticeship in Savile Row.

“This was like stepping back into Dickensian London,” she recalls. “I learned so much from many wonderful people, not just about tailoring and cutting, but about tradition, textiles and heritage. However, again, square peg/round hole syndrome struck and I could not conform. I decided to finish my tailoring education in Italy, where I was told the translation of tailor means ‘architect of clothing’. How true.”

Now she is set up as Violet Elizabeth, Lucy sources the sari material from Delhi. All have marks and holes and the first process when they arrive in the UK is to have them cleaned and repaired. Then each piece is designed into something new, cut and made in Kent. The business also sells bags made from recycled newspaper, as well as dyes and trims from community projects in India.

“These projects help women and children across India gain education, skills and employment,” says Lucy. “In February, I went to out there to see the progress of some of the organisations. I met craft traditional handloomers, block printers, carvers and pigment masters.”

Lucy is adamant about avoiding waste and tries to use every scrap of the fabrics she buys. Offcuts are used to cover gift boxes, or sold for crafting.

So, where does she see her company in five years? “Ideally, I would like a stronger retail presence in boutiques and online. I would like to have a dedicated production line in Kent, or the UK and I would like to offer an apprenticeship scheme for young people, or people living on the streets looking for a way back into work. Other than that – more brightly coloured commuters!” she says, with a smile to outshine her outfits.

<a href=”http://www.southeastbusiness.com/assets/flipbook/2017/SEB0517/SEB05May17.html#p=24>Click here to read our waste management & recycling feature

Tweets from @SEBmagazine