Bill Baber Knitwear

storyBill and Helen Baber first opened their studio workshop in Edinburgh in 1977. Recently we spoke with their son – and current owner – Jack Baber about his family’s business, and the current state of the Celtic marketplace.

What are your roots?
Long story I’m afraid! My paternal grandmother was brought up in west Canada, Vancouver I think. Her husband, my grandfather was English. On my mother’s side, my nana was Welsh and my grandpa was Nigerian, sadly none are with us any longer. Mum and Dad met and moved to Edinburgh, Scotland in the late sixties and I was born in Edinburgh 1981. I feel roundly British, really I am a child of the commonwealth!

How and when did you get involved with the company?
From before I was born really. Mum and Dad set up in 1977 and I vaguely remember playing in the store front as a kid, certainly I remember doing the odd bit of work in my teens but really it wasn’t until my 30s that I got involved formally. Before that I worked as a design manager at a recycling products company in England, we made wheeled bins and plastic buckets.

What are your roles and responsibilities there?
I manage the wholesale export business and ecommerce platform. We are so lucky to be based in such a great city as Edinburgh and have visitors from every corner of the map. Our collection has appeal all over and we supply stores in many countries, not just the UK and Ireland, but also Canada, US, Germany and Australia.

What are the challenges involved?
We are a tiny business, there are three of us and while we want to say yes to everyone and do everything that pops into our heads, in reality we can only do so much. We make a unique collection of styles in a huge range of shapes and patterns and don’t really like to make the same thing twice – but we have to be realistic and practical. We have to find ways to do what the larger manufacturers can offer people – a large collection in stock which can be sent anywhere in the world on short notice, first class quality and global customer service, a constantly evolving range of designs inspired by the heritage of Scotland using all natural fibers and all for an affordable price! Phew!

What are the rewards?
We get to travel and meet fantastic people, many of whom share a love for the culture and heritage of Scotland. We are creative people and are always designing new shapes, solving new puzzles. We are now in our 40th year and it really is a fantastic thing to be part of a long running family business. I hope to pass it on to the next generation of the family, wouldn’t it be great to reach 100 years old! 2077 here we come.

What is the company’s history and current mandate?
As I mentioned we started out in 1976 as a small craft boutique. On the strength of the designs and through many years of hard work the business grew up and began exporting. We entered the digital age and now sell our collection through a network of fantastic re-sellers all over the world. We are always working on the collection to keep it relevant and are working on bringing wool back into the collection – sounds odd but we are a knitwear business that hardly uses a stitch of wool in the whole collection. It’s mostly linen and silk, and has been for 15 years or so. However, around three years ago we decided the time was right to get back into the cashmere and merino wools which we think really complete the collection and are bringing a number of new designs out which best show off the character of the yarn.

Who are your core clients?
As far as end users go it’s generally a ladies wear collection, yes we do make menswear, but really ladies clothing is where it’s at. Our style is unique so our customers generally have to know their own mind and feel bold about what they like to wear, of course we can help you find the right style to match your look, but an adventurous spirit always helps. We embrace colour and anyone who has a passion for their outfit will be right at home in the collection. We also use exclusively natural yarns and make everything in our little studio so tend to attract a discerning shopper – we are certainly not a high street, fast fashion brand. Ours is a collection that matures with age.

How do you reach them?
Location, Location, Location. We are based right in the heart of the Old Town in Edinburgh, in the shadow of Castle Rock and the area draws huge numbers of visitors for most of the year. Edinburgh also has a hugely prestigious University and thousands of students and their families get to discover Edinburgh with each new intake. If you are in the same location for many years you benefit from repeat customers – many of whom don’t remember the name of the store they visited 20 years ago, but they know just where it is! We have regulars who have been buying from us since the beginning, and as far as I am concerned every new customer is just a trainee regular. The internet is a big help, although we still don’t get into too much on the social media front, increasingly browsers find us through online recommendations and searches online – that’s great for us, we get a chance to showcase what we do and hopefully encourage people to seek out one of our fantastic resellers near to them or to make a trip to the Grassmarket and see the collection where it’s made.

How do you differ from your competition?
Because we are small, we are scrappy. There are things we can do which a larger company simply wouldn’t consider. For example, we make one off pieces where the larger producers will make hundreds of the identical garment. We can change the whole direction of the range if we feel the time is right, like bringing in woollen sweaters or moving from formal evening jackets to more casual shawls and wraps. There is also something to be said for being family owned and run. If you buy a garment from us, a Baber made it!

How has the internet helped your business?
It’s a basic expectation now that every business has a website – we operate in a global marketplace and with tools like PayPal and sites like Amazon there really is no language barrier, something which I think hindered early ecommerce work. Customers are also far more comfortable with the online experience – buying form a site where you never meet an employee and sending money internationally sometimes weeks before you see your purchase. There are still barriers of course, we produce a lovely product and the texture is such an important part of your enjoyment of a garment that buying it in person and getting the chance to try before you buy is hugely valuable for us, but that is an opportunity for us to better communicate what we do and we are working on it all the time.

What are the company’s future plans?
We need to get a little more time in our day for play. Over the last 18 months or so we have been so busy just keeping up that we only got to start in on some new projects and didn’t get to fully explore them. We expanded into some new premises late last year which gives us the room to breathe a little more easily and are really looking forward to get on down the road with some fresh ideas.

What are your thoughts on the current state of the Celtic marketplace?
I remember going to an exhibition with my parents in the early 90s, in Philadelphia I think, so this is a really well established market with some seriously experienced vendors and buyers. After many years away it was only in 2010 that I started working in the industry and getting to know the faces and stories that are such a huge part of the Celtic experience in the USA and Canada, so you should take my opinions with a pinch of salt! To me I think we might be lacking a little in the new start ups, I wonder how we encourage younger people to get into the artisan crafts, people who will become the vendors of the future. Many of the skills I see around me are really hard to learn and take many years of hard work – certainly in the UK there has been a real shift away from apprenticeships and craft skills and I think these are so important to the Celtic marketplace in particular that we need to foster them and make room for kids to learn their trade. I think we also have to look out for the truly authentic, as the market globalizes and retail continues to struggle post 2008, we need to be careful we don’t wash away the quality with cheap copies.

What can be done to improve it?
Ultimately it’s the market that decides, you can’t artificially stimulate it I don’t think. But the market has to give people the chance and has to go looking for quality products and has to give contemporary a chance to become tomorrow’s heritage items.