Interview with Roger Saul, founder of Mulberry

For the full interview – go to Bath Fashion Girl, here.


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.


70s (Kenzo)

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.


Biba

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.


Brigitte Bardot

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.

For the full interview – go to Bath Fashion Girl, here.

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