Farming and fashion go hand-in-hand in rural Stirlingshire, as Nancy Nicolson discovers.
Exclusive screen printed silk evening dresses and luxurious designs produced from finest cashmere drape from rails in 25-year-old Iona Crawford’s farmhouse studio yet, with a glance outside at muddy fields, she confesses to a long-held yearning for a John Deere boiler suit.
For someone who inhabits the heady world of high fashion, it seems an incongruous desire, but it soon becomes clear it’s purely practical because this successful young fashion designer is frequently hands-on, feeding cattle, sheep and pigs on the family farm in Stirlingshire.
There are no brothers or farm managers to share the workload so when her parents are away, she’s in charge. And while she may look petite and fashionably frail she can fork silage as well as anyone – and undoubtedly more elegantly than most.
Playing a practical role in a farming family has clearly influenced Iona’s artistic style and is integral to the fashion design which has flowed from her paintings. Her drawing of a horned Highland cattle beast, for instance, is the inspiration for a flowing dark evening dress modelled at a recent fashion shoot, no matter that the animal probably passed through her father’s butcher’s business in nearby Bannockburn. Iona Crawford, you soon learn, is nothing if not grounded in reality.
But while haggis, black pudding, best steak and lamb are the staples of her father’s 100-year-old family business, Iona has already made her mark in the glamorous and competitive world of international fashion.
Collection on show
Recent shows have taken place at London Fashion Week and at an exclusive salon event in Glasgow which showcased her autumn/winter 2012 collection.
An artistic video shot in the gritty atmosphere of Stirling mart one cold January evening, featuring cattle and a sales ring empty but for a solitary model, launched her previous collection to considerable acclaim and now features on YouTube.
Her blog mixes references to newborn lambs and photographs of the favourite farm pig with descriptions of being invited to a champagne celebration of fashion hosted by the Queen in London and attended by fashion icons such as Zandra Rhodes, Betty Jackson and Rouland Mouret.
So while you might imagine an aspirant fashion designer would gloss over references to their farming backgrounds in a desire to fit in to the rarefied atmosphere of haute couture, Iona positively embraces them and shrewdly exploits her roots to considerable effect.
An avant-garde dress made entirely from woven baler twine, for instance, was the centrepiece of an early collection three years ago. It was hand-knitted and described at the time as “not as uncomfortable as one might imagine”. These days she refers to it as an “art piece” and admits that she has become more commercially focused, creating and wearing timeless feminine, elegant clothes in silk, wool, leather and tweed.
She explains: “Most of the clothes I design have idiosyncratic prints and they’re what I’d describe as investment pieces, dresses that you can pull out of your wardrobe now or in 10 years time. There’s an element of satire, some fun and intrigue, and people like that. They like to understand the story behind them.
“I design for real women, people like myself and my mum.”
Her design literature, however, goes many colourful steps further, describing her as “renowned for innovative and intricate garment structure fused with trademark tailoring… the collections are unashamedly elegant, silhouette exaggeration, experimental pattern cutting, contrasting fabric textures, unorthodox tailoring and masculine style influences all create an inimitable avant-garde yet wearable look”. This is no ordinary John Deere driver.
Her farming credentials, meanwhile, are undoubtedly sound. As the middle of three sisters, she was brought up to help at calvings, with shearing, scanning and dosing livestock. She can handle farm machinery and round up sheep.
She explains: “Sunday was always the day the big farm work was done because the butchers shop was closed and dad could get on with the livestock jobs. We don’t have a sheepdog so I have clear, painful memories of chasing sheep while nursing a hangover.
“Our parents sent us to Young Farmers and always told our boyfriends that their first Christmas present would be wellies and overalls. Everyone had to muck in.”
After attending art school in Edinburgh, Iona knocked on countless doors and persevered to force her local community to sit up and take notice of the farm-girl fashion designer.
From Scotland with Love
She set up meetings with Business Gateway, became a Business Ambassador for the city of Stirling and, with backing from the cashmere company Johnsons of Elgin, was invited to showcase her designs in Tokyo at a show entitled “From Scotland with Love.”
Her clothes are now stocked in London at Notting Hill’s Narciss, at the new Scottish Design Collective shop in Glasgow and in New York at “Prince of Scots” but private commissions for coats, dresses and trousers costing £200 to £2,000 are the main sources of her income.
And while her commercial aim is to have her collection in a large department store, she’s under no illusion about how hard she has to work to achieve that goal.
On the creative front, she is working on mounting an exhibition in Glasgow of her paintings and garments, highlighting the link between the art on canvas and the associated fabric it has inspired.
Back home on the farm, she works in a stylish studio with rails of exotic clothes and mannequins in a wing of the farmhouse while her “assistant”, her mother, bakes pancakes and cakes for visitors then helps her change into outfits to demonstrate the elegance and wearability of the clothes.
Initial assumptions that international fashion and Scottish livestock farming can’t be bedfellows are certainly challenged by the time you leave Craigend Farm, even if Iona refuses point blank to wear her real work clothes to be photographed feeding the cattle. Clearly that would be going one step too farm.