Name: Annie Stewart
Location: Glasgow and Edinburgh
ANTA, the brand that puts art into tartan – and was the first to put tartan onto ceramics – is now in its 30th year and in all that time the company first started by designer Annie Stewart has remained true to its Scottish roots, with products that are, to borrow a well-known phrase, Made in Scotland from Mud, as opposed to the girders of the country’s other national drink.
Like all great ideas, Annie’s success is mainly down to her eye for design and ability in the use of colour and materials, combined with a pressing need to earn a living. And in this instance, necessity did prove to be the mother of invention.
Annie studied Drawing and Painting at Edinburgh College of Art, which is also where she met her architect husband, Lachlan. “When I left, I was qualified to do nothing, with no money and no prospects,” she says, “and although my parents had supported me through college, I was suddenly on my own financially as well. It was scary.”
Having learnt to sew and re-upholster, she began doing home furnishings but hated the fabrics she was using. “I went direct to a weaver in the Borders that was making exquisite tartan silk and decided to make scarves and ties under my own label, Stella Sandeman – items that were small and inexpensive to make but had a high return,” she says.
It wasn’t long before Annie’s designs were on sale in a few up-market stores, including Harrods in London. However, every business has a defining moment, and Annie’s was the result of an invitation to a formal 21st birthday party being held in a very grand house. She recalls: “I was sitting outside in my van, contemplating whether or not to go in, when a man drove up and parked alongside me, got out of his car and, without seeing me, used my wing mirror to adjust his tie – which was one of mine!”
“I didn’t look back after that. To succeed in business you have to believe in you. It also helps to have plenty of brass neck and confidence, or at least the ability to appear confident, and not set the bar too high. Ambitions have to be both realistic and achievable,” she says.
A trip to New York followed, the orders got bigger, she married Lachie, who is also a partner in the business, changed its name to ANTA – aptly the term given to a pillar in classical architecture that doesn’t conform to the rule – and had three children. “I was 18 when I met Lachie but didn’t marry until the age of 26,” Annie reveals. “Had we married sooner ANTA would most likely never have happened.”
While remaining true to her passion for the quality woollen fabrics that are grown and woven in Scotland. Adding extra value to sheep’s wool, the crux of ANTA’s success is Annie and Lachie’s ability to bring out what is quintessentially real about Scottish architecture and design.
As with vernacular architecture, ANTA’s products have a timeless and enduring quality that is the very antithesis of today’s disposable culture. But while the designs are clean-cut and contemporary, ANTA’s focus on craftsmanship and quality, natural, and where possible locally sourced materials. Pure wool tweed, cashmere, lambswool, linen and oak echoes the ethos of the Arts and Crafts movement, resulting in beautifully made furniture and homewares that are destined to be the heirlooms of the future.
The same skill and exacting attention to detail that produces exquisite pure wool carpet, uses nearly two kilos of yarn from sheep’s wool per square metre. This is equally evident in a beautifully tailored coat or jacket, utility bag, footstool, chair, candle or stoneware serving platter. Modern, yet also classic, these are products that will never go out of fashion and appeal to both sexes.
ANTA’s workshop in Fearn, Ross-shire may be far from the madding crowd, but the company’s website retails 24/7. The long-established showroom in Edinburgh is now joined by a new retail outlet in Glasgow’s West George Street. This gives the company a foothold in the west where people can see and feel the quality for themselves.
To mark the Glasgow launch, held in an Arts and Crafts-style former jeweller’s premises that couldn’t be more suitable or appropriate, ANTA has a new collection of carpets with cloth bindings named after well-known west coast towns, including Glasgow, Milngavie, Ayr and Paisley. For a limited period only, customers who spend £100 or more in the new store can choose an iPad cover free of charge in the cloth of their choice.
ANTA’s products may be timeless and enduring, but Annie is a shrewd businesswoman with a direct, forward thinking attitude with the ability to spot new opportunities and ways of giving added value to products. The weekly ‘Tartan Tuesday’ promotion substantially reduces the price of a given product every week for one day only, and the food recipes are now a regular feature online and in the catalogue. “We have beautiful tartan oven-to-table stoneware plates, so why not include recipes to cook on them?” she says.
Annie’s ethos as an employer is also a significant strength. “Like the majority of women nowadays I’m a working mum, so as an employer I get that women need to juggle work with school hours and children’s needs,” she says. “Just as important, I want the people who work alongside me to love what they do. At the end of the day, what is life about if it isn’t fun?”