“Our school run is on bicycles with a basket loaded with hockey sticks and sports kits,” explains vivacious knitwear designer Alex Gore Browne. “The full circuit takes about half an hour and then I’m out for a brisk walk around the park with our whippet, Labrador and two Cockapoos. I’m then straight to the coffee machine and upstairs to my desk. Racing through the day before school pick-up”...
Her light-filled studio is at her magnificent home, Tidmington House, in Wiltshire – a busy hub of children and animals. She has two children, Tilly, 10 and son Teddy, eight – not to mention the two donkeys, Pluto and Pepsi, two Shetland ponies, Fudge and Oreo and four dogs, Tigger, Moon, Disco and Piglet.
Her husband, Jo Bamford, son of Lord Bamford and heir to the JCB-digger business, whom she met through a mutual friend in Ibiza, was the one who first spotted the Grade II listed manor house, parts of which date back to the 1600s, and they instantly fell in love with it. And as luck would have it the family’s Daylesford estate – the organic farm founded by Jo’s mother Lady Bamford – is close by.
The house with its pops of colour, wonky architecture and oodles of character is perfect for children (albeit exceptionally stylish ones). Who wouldn’t love a play date at the house with the outdoor climbing trail, the circus-inspired playroom and their very own playhouse made from an old shepherd’s hut complete with bunk beds.
And the playful touches extend to every corner, from the Union Flag and postbox in the hallway, the bunting-adorned kitchen and even the library-style loo.
Alex’s knitwear brand is similarly shifting the goal posts on how you perceive tradition.
Her new ‘Dress Your Jumper’ range means her elegant, painstakingly hand-crafted cocktail jumpers can be eternally reinvented with a wardrobe of extras: ruffle collars, rosettes, cuffs. Her silk knit bows are fast becoming a must-have addition.
“I always stumble when asked what I do,” says Alex, who is also adding tracksuit bottoms, knitted dresses and other accessories very soon. “I start by saying I’m a knitwear designer followed by ‘but not woolly jumpers sort of knitwear’. 20 years on I need to work on a better response.”
“I try and push the boundaries as much as I can creatively. I am always looking for new techniques but still making knitwear that’s wearable.”
Alex launched her label in 2000 after completing a BA in Textile Design at Central Saint Martins alongside the likes of Jonathan Saunders and Roksanda Ilincic.
Her designs, produced in Italy and Scotland, have caught the eye of many key luminaries including Donna Karan, Louis Vuitton and the late Alexander McQueen, whom she designed and consulted for.
If she had to pick a career highlight it would have to be Kate Moss walking into her Notting Hill boutique and buying the whole collection: “That was a good day”.
We didn’t know where to start first – amazing home – amazing knitwear – we wanted to find out about it all. And we especially love her life motto.
Photography: Helene Sandberg | Words: Claire Brayford | Go to www.alexgorebrowne.com
Tell us how your love of knitwear began?
My grandmother taught me to knit when I was four years old. We made a grey wool handbag together in the drawing room of my grandparents’ house in Chelsea. I didn’t hand-knit much as a child, but I was always making things and that’s definitely what led me into constructed textiles as opposed to more flat, printed fabrics.
We love the theatrical flourish to your designs – but what do you love about knitwear?
I love the immediacy of it and the scope. Just a simple change of yarn and you can create a whole new structure. It’s never-ending. I learnt to weave at Central Saint Martins in London but always found that the process was too slow and once you’d threaded up the loom, you were committed until the end. Knitwear is much quicker and I found I could be more spontaneously creative. I love the mistakes that occur and how a new design can happen when you least expect it. I love the intricacy of casting off and how therapeutic this can be. I don’t love it when the yarn snaps and you lose a day’s worth of knitting as the fabric falls off the machine.
What do you want to achieve with your creations?
I always aim to create something I haven’t seen before. The MA at Saint Martins taught me to push myself to my limits but also I decided a while ago to just make it fun, otherwise what’s the point? There was a collection that I didn’t enjoy, it didn’t come together how I’d hoped and it made me want to enjoy the designing more. The latest collection has a lot more colour and I’ve really focused on things that I love.
Is it something you personally wear all year round and for evening?
Luckily our British summer means that there are styles that can be worn all year and especially for evening, as the sweaters are so comfortable. If a dress is too tight or my heels are too high, I generally don’t have a very good time.
What was it like working with Alexander McQueen?
The ultimate. Creatively I was stretched to my absolute limits, which I loved. Looking back, it was a huge honour to have him sketch designs from my fabric.
How did you meet, and what did you learn from him?
Plum Sykes told him about me and a meeting was set up. She was a huge support when I started out and was responsible for the start of my career.
I learnt to design with no boundaries. Without having to consider the production, anything was possible.
How do you think the fashion industry has changed since you first began?
It’s changed beyond measure. Lookbooks were printed and orders were hand written and faxed when I began. The way to sell and communicate with customers is so different now with social media, but it can be turned into a real positive if you move with the times.
Tell us about your home?
It was a house that Jo had always loved and one day it came up for sale. I love the wonky floors and all the original features, they’re hard to replicate.
Do you have a favourite space?
My favourite, happiest place is the sofa in the kitchen. I love being tucked up with a child under each arm and dogs sprawled across us – occasionally a donkey or a Shetland roam in.
How did you approach designing your home?
I never felt it was designed. It just evolved as we’ve found and added things that we love over time. It takes a while to figure out your own style but generally I go with a gut feeling. I can only have things in the house that I love.
What were the elements that you were keen to keep?
When we bought the house it was filled with colour and had such a warm feeling – we wanted to keep this feeling of home. We love it so much it’s sometimes hard to leave. I hope it also has a sense of fun. I love discovering things like the carousel horses and the old post boxes. I’m not ready to grow up.
How did you come up with the design features and especially for the kids’ amazing playroom?
Somehow, without realising it, there’s a circus theme that runs through the house. We’re big fans of the Giffords Circus and all the incredible costumes and scenery, which has definitely been an influence. It is the room I most enjoyed decorating and it’s a room we spend a lot of time in as a family, especially in the winter when the fire is lit. The piano was another lovely gift from grandparents. As well as being useful for piano practice, it plays itself and is a beautiful piece of furniture, which perfectly matches the ceiling.
Tell us about the other child-friendly additions to the house.
So many of the rooms have a focus on the children but that’s because they’re more fun and it’s how we want to live. We’ve got hooks in the ceiling in the drawing room for a swing, which the children love! Tilly and Teddy’s grandparents had the shepherd’s hut converted into a playhouse with bunk beds. In its life, it’s been a Lego room, a homework room and a great sleepover bedroom. I’d like to claim it as my office when they leave home.
Would you ever consider moving into interior design?
I have plans to design a range of cushions but I am not sure I have the confidence to design someone else’s house. What if they didn’t like it?!
Describe the early days of motherhood – what are some of your most vivid memories?
My very first memory of motherhood was when Tilly, just born, was placed in my arms. I’ll never forget the feeling of warmth coming from her little body and the overwhelming feeling of love. I could never understand why no one had quite explained just how special it would be, but I suppose you just can’t put it into words.
How did you cope when you were sleep-deprived?
I did feel exhausted for about five years. To be honest it’s a bit of a blur looking back, with just a feeling of knowing that every single second was worth it. I was also very lucky to be working from home. But I can’t say I was very productive if we’d had a bad night.
What kind of mother do you hope to be?
We all try to be our best. You don’t ever make a decision on it being the second best choice for your child. I hope I’m fun, I hope they think I’m the best mother in the world! I try to be as open as I possibly can with them. There is a big bad world out there and you need to be ready. I don’t believe in protecting them. Sometimes I worry that their life is too sheltered and of course I wouldn’t wish anything bad for them but I do think that if things go wrong those experiences will only make them stronger. I like them to see that Jo and I aren’t perfect. Luckily we don’t argue much but if we do, we don’t hide it from them.
Jo is my rock and without his support it would be very hard to do what I do. It was difficult working in London on my own when I started out and now I feel I have a little team of support around me. The world doesn’t end if I’ve had a bad day.
Is having lots of fun important in your household?
YES. I would say Jo is in charge of fun. He’s very good at a pile-on playfight or turning up the music full volume on a Sunday morning and dancing in the kitchen.
Would you be more likely to encourage them to play than to study?
It’s about a balance. You have to work hard in this world but I also know that needs to come from within. I look for what inspires them most and encourage them without pushing them.
Tell us about your approach to parenting?
Our job is to love and nurture them and then send them out into the world to be who they’re meant to be. There are ‘old fashioned’ values in our house. Manners are everything and thank you letters are essential. It was how I was brought up.
Are your children naturally creative – how do you encourage that side?
In a wonderful way, they are not creative like I am. I’m so happy for Tilly that she’s not following in my footsteps. She’s free to create her own path. At the moment she wants to be an equine vet. Teddy likes to build and construct. Who knows which way that will go? I just know that I’m loving watching every twist and turn.
How do you manage your time?
Family life comes first. Always. It’s hard when my working day feels short but once school finishes, my time is with the children.
Do you struggle to balance work and motherhood?
I struggle when I don’t feel like I achieve as much as I used to in my work but the children will leave home in a flash and then there will be work to console me.
Do you have any tips for other working mothers?
Just to know that there is no right or wrong way. I once read in a book that it was fine to have help bringing up your children while you work as long as that help does as good a job as you. So much depends on how you were brought up yourself. My mother didn’t work and I remember her being there always. That has had a big influence on my parenting. But equally growing up with a working mother can be an inspiration to your children. I know that Tilly and Teddy are proud to see me work.
Does it help to work from home?
It’s most helpful in the evening if I need to work once they’ve gone to bed. It is nice though to have a change of scenery.
What motivates you?
Success motivates me. I’m also my happiest when I’m working really hard. Through hard work comes success.
Does being a mum make you approach your business differently?
It’s helped me to slow down. I probably worked too hard in my 20s and 30s. I know that if things go wrong in a business sense it’s not the end of my world like it used to be.
What qualities do you need to be a successful entrepreneur?
Every time things go wrong, you need to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get back out there. Everyone has failure at some point in their business. It’s how you handle it that matters.
And finally, what is your life motto?
Dreams don’t work unless you do.