by Sarah Mower, November 12, 2020
Photography by Mike Wilkinson
Approaching Dumfries House through green parkland in Ayrshire, you soon realise you’ve entered a kind of utopian regenerator – a domain running full tilt on His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales’s drive to make sustainability, craft, education and employment work for the community. One autumn day in 2019, it was all go on the estate. A gaggle of schoolchildren were meeting rare-breed pigs; teenagers were being bussed in for thatching and stonemasonry classes; and catering trainees were assembling an organic-produce lunch menu in the restaurant kitchens. Also on the agenda: a visit from The Duke of Rothesay (as the Prince is known in Scotland) to meet with the first-ever batch of Modern Artisan students, then in the midst of finalising designs for their debut Yoox Net-a-Porter for The Prince’s Foundation collection – available to buy across Yoox Net-a-Porter sites this month, in true circular fashion, sales will go back to fund The Prince’s Foundation.
There to show HRH what progress had been made – alongside the students, comprising a Scottish team of makers, and fashion designers from the Politecnico di Milano – was Federico Marchetti, CEO and chairman of the Yoox Net-a-Porter Group. The final designs would merge creativity, sustainability and Dumfries House textiles finesse, backed up by five years of Net-a-Porter AI data about what people like to buy.
The Prince and Marchetti, who’d met when the Italian gave HRH a tour of Yoox Net-a-Porter’s state-of-the-art Tech Hub in London, proposed The Modern Artisan as a mix of handcrafting and machine learning, as well as a British-Italian educational exchange on a real commercial collection. “We wanted to give the artisans all the digital skills to succeed,” Marchetti explains. “Because data and technology can be a way to save the planet.”
The mission was perfectly aligned with the Prince’s lifelong interest in promoting eco-conscious practices and traditional crafts. “He is a true champion of sustainability,” says Marchetti. “The Dumfries House motto is ‘Respecting the past, building the future.’ That resonates with me. It’s a new way of making beautiful things – an old job, but with new tools.”
So, here’s an amazing thought: if you’ve been a Yoox Net-a-Porter customer over the past few years, then you’ve also had a hand in The Modern Artisan’s Yoox Net-a-Porter for The Prince’s Foundation collection, shaping the wide-legged trousers (£895), the midi-dress (£795) and the jumpsuit (£895), and granular details such as adjustable waists. Data gleaned from sales patterns revealed a global attraction towards a “relaxed fit” – surely even more deeply embedded in the fashion psyche since the start of the pandemic.
Housed in an old sawmill on the estate, The Modern Artisan atelier is where the majority of the collection’s 18 super-luxurious men’s and women’s pieces were handmade – guided by experts – by the students. One of them, Nicole Christie, a graduate from East Kilbride, knows exactly what her favourite piece is: “Oh, the camel coat with smocking on the back. It was so complex to work out the geometric shapes. At first, it took three hours to sew. Then we got it down to 90 minutes. It shows the epitome of our skills. I felt such a sense of pride in making it.”
As impeccably pretty and professional as the whole organisation looks, it’s part of the ecosystem set up by the Prince to relieve gritty social issues. Graeme Bone, now a super-sharp tailor who wears his own chic-punk kilts to work, says, “I’m local to here. It’s kind of a rundown area, with a lot of poverty. It’s important to show a younger generation that they can have aspirations – I want to push that positivity and make them believe they are capable of anything.”
The Prince’s Foundation also has a Future Textiles programme at Dumfries House (it teaches skills to everyone from schoolchildren to returners to employment), which has grown exponentially since 2014 under the guidance of textiles dynamo Jacqueline Farrell. Farrell – who came from teaching at Glasgow Clyde College with a record for spring-boarding Scottish fashion careers (Tammy Kane and Louise Gray are alumnae) – was appointed education director of The Prince’s Foundation at Dumfries House to help close a gap HRH kept seeing: on official visits to cashmere, tweed and tartan mills in the Borders (many of them long-time exporters to the likes of Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Ralph Lauren and more), he found that young workers couldn’t be recruited to replace those retiring. So Farrell’s eyes lit up when she was asked to help oversee The Modern Artisan’s aim to prove that small-batch runs of designer-calibre fashion can be commercially and sustainably produced in Britain. Much of the collection uses Scottish luxury overstock cloth; other materials – such as cashmere and wool from Johnstons of Elgin and eco-silk from Centro Seta in Italy – are natural, traceable and, with the input of the data intelligence, designed to last.
Everything, of course, was delayed by lockdown (the Prince himself was self-isolating at Birkhall with Covid-19 at the end of March) until August, when the grounds of Dumfries House reopened and production could resume under Covid-secure measures.
Now back in Milan, Marchetti is delighted with what the completion of the project symbolises. It’s partially a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the founding both of Yoox, in Milan, and of Net-a-Porter, in London (the companies merged in 2015). He’ll be the first to see whether customers really will respond to progressive enterprises such as The Modern Artisan, when it shows up in the data – but he’s betting they will. “Because now, more than ever, customers are looking for values,” he says. “Not just for shopping.”
Originally published in British Vogue