"I felt the fear and did it anyway" - A story of perseverance and determination
My story starts in the late ’70s, aged 17, blue-eyed and naïve to the realities of life, when I arrived in Hamburg, North of Germany, for a 2-year gap year as an apprentice. The company ran 2 organic food stores and a specialist educational toy, book, and natural fibre clothing shop (it was difficult to find 100% natural clothing at that time)
Unfortunately, my German was of school-level ability so they put me to work in the food shop first after a disastrous start. But with the help of evening classes, within 3 months I was able to communicate well. In the evenings, I also studied basic accounts and touch typing which continues to be put to good use!
After 1 1/2 years, I opened and managed a small, natural textiles clothing shop for my bosses. My 2-year experience was challenged by the way they treated all their employees. Every few months I was training new people to replace those who left in a hurry on a regular basis. I was miserable but determined to finish my contract. This was my first lesson on the importance of perseverance.
They say your first job is the most important and for me, I believed it is impossible to work for another company. My experience was so tough. In Hamburg, I decided I had to become self-employed to find happiness.
Looking back, I learned how not to behave, and how not to treat your team and understood the importance of working together in a harmonious way, treating everyone with respect, and allowing space for personal development and growth. This has been crucial in the building of a happy ERIBÉ business.
My love of quality natural textiles was born but being imprisoned in a retail space was not for me – I needed to study how it is made and the processes involved. I returned to Scotland to study at the world-leading Scottish College of Textiles in Galashiels and began a degree in Textile Design in Weave, Print, Knit, and all the technology involved.
Interestingly enough, I was accepted without the proper qualifications or a portfolio that shows the importance of following your heart despite all.
So, my new question was how to enter in this intriguing “art of business”.
I knew nothing. Who to ask?
What I did have was a new surname that could be used to make a bad experience positive. My name would become a brand that is not identified with me as a designer, but as a Team of innovators, makers, sellers, and wearers.
Two challenging years later, the first tiny collection knitted by myself, market research and business plan completed and a typewriter and phone installed in my student flat, I was ready at last to call the buyers of Harrods and all the shops I could find in the yellow pages. It was truly terrifying!
Quickly I discovered it was impossible to be a bookkeeper, secretary, salesperson, manufacturer, designer, or manager! I was working all hours. Next task: to find firstly out workers to knit for me, then moved on to a small micro-factory to produce my collections.
This required patience and strength as I repeatedly hit new brick walls with every new challenge until I found the right partner.
To get sales I traveled by bus overnight and walked the streets of London introducing myself to retailers. The fear was intense. Every problem I encountered, every slap in the face I received I searched hard to find the opportunity to keep me and my daughter alive.
As a one-man band, I had a light bulb moment: I could not afford small orders, or even too many small orders. Writing invoices on a typewriter, chasing invoices, etc.. was too time-consuming. This was before the computer was invented. I urgently needed large orders, fewer customers, and fast payment. Market research led me to New York and sleeping on my college friends’ floor alongside the cockroaches…Traveling between living in the poverty and very unsafe area downtown and selling in the richest areas was astounding!
The contrast between the rich and poor was stark and shocking to my young, ignorant eyes. New York was not a safe place.
By pure coincidence I learned about the benefits of “strategic partnering” My collection was knitted in merino wool as that was what I could afford. I teamed up with a cashmere designer and helped her with sales so all my orders ended up being in luxurious Scottish cashmere, giving me the extra profit needed.
Getting paid was challenging. The Gulf war gave new increased tariffs and difficulties and businesses in the Borders started to close.
New market research led me to Japan where my new special Market Research Collection met with resounding success. I was now competing with the many big textile companies from the UK!
Still working from my shabby student flat, I would work early, often with clothes over my pajamas for speed. And one morning after dropping my daughter off at playgroup I was focusing on selecting from my hand-drawn colourful designs that covered the entire floor.
I looked up to see two startled, very smartly, suited Japanese gentlemen peering in through my window. With much embarrassment on both sides, I invited them in. When they saw all my designs strewn across the floor a new era had arrived for ERIBÉ.
In 1986, when I began, there were at least 250 luxury textile manufacturing companies in the Scottish Borders and many more craft knitters with 100’s of out workers scattered across Scotland and the islands. All selling worldwide, luxury cashmere, fine woollens, or Shetland hand machine knitted garments to a hungry global market. Nowadays there are less than 10 companies left and this includes individuals who outsource. During the 1990s and 2000s few read the writing on the wall and made the necessary changes to survive. And, with a heavy heart, I watched as one by one they closed their doors making a highly skilled workforce redundant. Many still work in supermarkets. These are highly skilled, craft manufacturers who make miracles happen using their skills.
My order book was never big enough to keep even one mill going. I was also producing for many famous designers such as Paul Smith, Pringle, Burberry, and Margaret Howell for many years using my design and technical skills while slowly and steadily building my own ERIBÉ brand first in Japan and then in Germany competing directly with famous brands such as Ballantyne Cashmere and Peter Scott. I employed 3 people. My split was 50/50 sales of Designer own brand production / ERIBÉ brand for many years while I brought up 4 children.
What have I learned: Keep your long-term vision, but work in the present to reinvent your business to support the market.
Overnight, lucrative markets can crash, and fashion and trends change. Top customers go bust or move on. Who could have predicted the internet, global cheap travel, the many wars, cheap imports of quality cashmere from China, and Covid 19? But to remain in business and adapt and grow you need a business with a very strong foundation, with flexibility, innovation, and people central to its core. And that is what ERIBÉ has achieved. But there is never a moment for complacency, we as a team continue to create and improve, one step at a time, a business with multi-sales channels in 23 countries with several customer profile groups.
All the while maintaining a focus on quality, Scottish, young, and contemporary knitwear that is sustainable, and ecological and brings joy and profit to our customers and wearers.
What about the future?
- Enter the unknown with an open mind and smile despite feeling absolute terror within!
- Ask, listen, and think.
- Research, analyze, and analyze.
- Follow your gut feeling.
- Every day is a learning day. Every problem, however big, has an opportunity.
I feel so grateful to have this freedom to live and explore our world, working together with fabulous people.
There is a reason all children need to learn a language, act on stage, arts and crafts as well as the usual curriculum. These are all skills required in adulthood for presentations, communication, solving problems, and understanding how things are made. I was one of those lucky children.