Interview with Jade Holland Cooper, founder and designer of Holland Cooper Clothing
- Credit: Archant
Jade Holland Cooper threw away her textbooks, in the middle of a Royal Ag College course, to sell 30 home-designed tweed miniskirts at Badminton Horse Trials. Her friends said she was mad. A decade later, she heads up Holland Cooper, a multi-million-pound fashion brand
Jade Holland Cooper gets hay fever.
Look – I’m aware that’s not a hold-the-front-page splash. I understand the Daily Mail (probably) won’t pinch that nugget from me: Top tweed-designer farmer’s girl allergic to POLLEN!’ (Whatever.)
But it makes me laugh. I’m sitting on her white sofa, in the (rather beautiful) minimalist sitting room (morning room? Snug? Not sure; it’s the size of a small field) of her Cotswold country home, which looks out – via a terrace – over undulating green acres. Full of pollen.
She’s being so lovely. “Last week my eyes were swollen,” she empathises.
But, right now, only one of us is sniffling and croaking. And (clue here) it’s not Jade.
No. She’s perfectly tanned, hair scraped back becomingly; a stunning long gold necklace winking flirtatiously at a t-shirt sporting the slogan “I’m a 90s fashionista”.
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Hay fever. Fashion. Life.
I’m not sure Jade Holland Cooper does anything quite the way anyone else does.
She’s sitting, utterly focused on my questions; never for a single second do I feel she’s not giving me her full attention. The only time she uses her phone is to show me a picture of her beloved 20-year-old horse, Magic. (“I’ve had him since I was three.”)
But it’s like sitting next to a power-house. Like being underneath buzzing high-tension cables. Like watching a racehorse at the start-line, knowing - the millisecond the gate opens - it will become a silhouette in the far distance.
“Do you ever sleep?” I ask, hearing about her schedule for the next few days (fly to Edinburgh; Royal Highland Show; visit a Holland Cooper mill; back to show (this is just one day); photo-shoot on the Sunday…)
“If I have to be sweeping the floor in Harrods at 4am, then that’s what I’m doing. I’m not precious about it,” she says. (Annoyingly, I miss asking if she’s ever done that.)
(Money on the fact she has, though.)
Does she ever sleep?
“Not very much.”
Does she eat?
“Probably far too much,” she laughs.
But then – just in case I’m imagining her slipping into Pret; or spreading out a picnic of canapés and champagne on a Highland hill (which I vicariously was) – she qualifies it.
“You’re always on the go so it’s not like I sit down at 12.30 and have lunch. Jesus, no! I will eat on the go. There isn’t time. You have to think of every minute of your day as opportunity-cost. What have I done in the last hour that is going to make us money and move the business forward?”
Opportunity-cost. Make money. Move the business forward. These are phrases intrinsic to Jade Holland Cooper. These are what make her tick.
A woman who dropped out of Cirencester’s Royal Ag, pretty much knowing she was going to found a business empire (“Yeah, yeah,” sceptical friends said); who started off by taking 30 of her own-design skirts to Badminton Horse Trials; who now – at the age of 31 – runs a multi-million-pound fashion brand that sells to the likes of the Beckhams and royalty itself.
But before you think you now know her. Before you think you can classify her as a dollar sign and a spreadsheet, nota bene.
Note the ‘us’.
There’s definitely more to Jade Holland Cooper than meets the ‘I’.
If you look at the clothes Holland Cooper sells (be careful; I did, thinking I was safe. I’m now hooked), you’ll notice several things. Tweed (beautifully-cut tweed; tweed as you’ve probably not seen it before); fox-fur collars; good old (new) hacking jackets (when were they last a fashion statement, hmm?); houndstooth skirt and cashmere cape. What you’ll also notice is this. They’re not being modelled (no disrespect) by the vicar’s wife serving tea while her husband’s dodging sponges in the local-fete stocks. The models are sassy-chic; 21st century; Jade- (often a model for her own clothes) gorgeous.
And the phrases that crop up in the descriptions are noteworthy, too. British. (Great Britain, even.) Prince of Wales. Mayfair. Scottish wool. Shooting sets.
It’s not idle talk. ‘British Made Excellence’ is the company’s tagline.
It’s as if – I say to Jade Holland Cooper – she’s spun thread made from hedgerows and fields; from farmers-getting-up-at-4am, point-to-points and sunsets-over-moorland; cut the woven fabric with scissors as sharp as Britannia’s trident; sewn it over strawberry-jam scones; and toasted success with a strong brew of tea. And then – forget the whimsy; this is the vital bit – produced something so classy, stylish and timeless, it’s hooked customers from three to 73 (and counting), urban and rural.
Not surprising, I guess, considering she’s a farmer’s daughter.
She nods: her values are, indeed, within the warp and weft of her brand. “Supporting ‘British’ is a big one. The manufacturing side of the business is huge for us. And I think that does come back to farming, promoting British; it’s very strongly engrained in you from a young age so that has translated through to the clothing.”
There are other values, just as important…
“The way you treat people in business has been a big one. The way you treat staff – it’s a big family.”
Plus an appreciation of money. (She’s been careful to the point of obsession to ensure ambition has always been in line with bank-balance.)
“And hard work,” she adds. “You don’t get anywhere without working hard. That’s been something I’ve learned from both my parents.”
The way Jade Holland Cooper speaks of her parents – her dad, Oliver, is an arable farmer in Suffolk; her mum, Miranda, a designer who’s made clothes for the likes of Elton John) – is, frankly, heartwarming. They’ve engrained in her a work-ethic that means she never stops; they’ve constantly believed in her; given her unstinting advice and support.
An only child, Jade Holland Cooper spent her young years helping out on the farm, riding horses every free moment. “We are very lucky; we have a magical farm: very beautiful, undulating little fields; loads of wild flowers.”
It’s the ways of the farm, she says, that gave her a usefully old head on young shoulders.
Intriguing. So if I’d asked her classmates, when she was six or seven, if she’d be the one to succeed…?
She laughs, shaking her head. “I was painfully shy when I was at school.”
This confident woman, who takes nonsense from no-one?!?
“All I did was spend time with my chickens. I ran a big chicken business - an egg business - or I was with the horses. I think my parents thought, ‘Oh my god! She’s going to be a recluse!’
“I couldn’t understand why anybody would want to go to a party. Why would I leave home, because it’s so wonderful! When I was 15 or 16, that changed overnight. But what that meant was, I had the most amazing childhood. I was a child until I was 15.”
So embedded was she in farm life that, after school, she enrolled at the Royal Ag (as it was then) to study equine and agriculture management.
But in 2008, halfway through her second year, something clicked.
Why? Why leave a secure course? Especially friends told her she’d be mad – “insane!” – to throw it all away.
“Because I thought: I’m wasting my time here. We live for ‘this’ long; you want to make as much of yourself as possible in a short period of time. How are you going to do that?”
How Jade Holland Cooper did it was by making 30 tweed miniskirts, detailing them with leathers and suedes she found still wrapped in tissue-paper in her mum’s old design studio. And when Jade set up stall at Badminton Horse Trials, these skirts sold faster than William Fox-Pitt on Chilli Morning (had to pick a Brit).
Was she a tweed girl? Was tweed something she loved and thought: this is undersold?
Yes. Ish. “But look,” Jade says. (A favourite word). “I was always going to find a way to make money; so this wasn’t a so
rt of whimsical, ‘I love tweed’: I’m going to indulge myself. There was an intellectual thought-process that said: Is this going to be something financially viable?”
An outworker Jade’s mum had employed – the much-missed Janet, who died last year – made those first skirts. And when a bigger workforce was needed, Jade put post-its up in the local Coop and post office – and discovered unemployed machinists from a Jaeger that had shut down in Ipswich. “A lot had become cleaners because they hadn’t been able to get any other work, which was a tragedy.”
The story of how she went – in 10 years – from living at home, unsure where the next tenner was coming from, to head of a growing fashion empire is one of graft and determination, self-reliance and steely judgment; a rollercoaster ride.
(At one point, she tells me, she used a baby-monitor so she could grab a bit of sleep in between 24 hours working an embroidery machine.)
But she’s never lost sight of her roots.
“Do you know what,” she tells me. “Last week, I had a customer send back the first skirt that I ever sold on the morning of the first day. She wrote me a note saying, ‘I’ve followed your progress and it’s absolutely incredible. I thought you’d like to have this as a memento.’ I have such lovely, loyal customers.”
Nor has she lost sight of that idyllic childhood. For when I ask her to describe a moment of perfect happiness, she replies:
“There would be times when I’d be grain-carting; and I’d have that minute when you’d be waiting for the combine. You’d be sat on your own, looking around; the sun would be going down. And there is no better place to be.”
We talk about other phenomena.
The absurdities of the quest for Photoshop-perfect. “This kind of stick-thin culture; everyone being a size zero; lip-fillers and – ergh – hideousness,” she shudders. It’s a bullet Holland Cooper has, to some extent, dodged. “We’re not fast fashion. We will look at trends – absolutely - and I will try and immerse myself in both the country and London. But I like to think that our products, if you drag them out in 10 years’ time, are still going to look beautiful.”
She’s determined to keep that market firmly clasped – and to grab others as they open up… some courtesy of more and more mega-brands moving away from customer-understanding of what they represent.
“With Moncler, you think of the very fitted padded coat with a fur hood. When you go into their store, can you find that product? No! You will find floor-length luminous macs; things covered in pompoms. People don’t understand where to wear that. The market for that is probably the Chinese and Japanese – fine. But the UK consumer and that classic customer: they don’t understand.
“So I have a massive chunk of the market I can take, if I’m intelligent enough.”
When she expresses a worry – which is rare – it’s not on a business front. It’s about the disquieting fantasy of Instagram, where life is forever golden: “Nobody is happy every single minute of every single day. To think that they are is ridiculous.”
And the hope that any children she has will have the sort of life she had growing up. “Outside, from the minute I woke up until night-time! The biggest concern for me, when I have children, is: How do you try and give them a childhood, an understanding, a grounding reality to build their lives on? That’s the hardest thing for a parent nowadays.
“Social media is invasive; and kids have got [devices] in their hands from the age of three; it’s very difficult.”
Business-wise, she’s on a surer footing. Holland Cooper is growing every year; every second. She’s just built a huge office in Moreton. “Next year, will I build another one? I will keep moving and the train keeps going.” There’s a franchise programme rolling out. Wholesale is growing. Harrods sales are tripling each year; Bicester is blooming. Overseas is next; Germany, for one, seems a perfect market.
I can see what she gains from her relentless quest. Amazing stuff…
But what does she lose?
She thinks for a second.
“Well, you are very, very busy. You are diary-juggling permanently. You don’t have huge amounts of time to, you know, do leisurely things.”
So she doesn’t binge-watch The Bridge?
“No.” Though she does sit down with her fiancé – Superdry founder and Lucky Onion entrepreneur Julian Dunkerton – and watch Suits.
As we finish talking, I can see – through the window – workers galore in the grounds. Well, there’s a certain wedding that needs to be prepped for.
I’ve one piece of advice to offer.
“Don’t take your mobile to the altar,” I suggest.
She laughs. It’s tempting.
So, Jade Holland Cooper, I finally ask. “Do you ever look at yourself in a mirror and say: You are incredibly successful and very wealthy.”
“No!” she laughs again.
Or is there still some little girl gathering eggs?
She smiles and, for another rare second, her mind travels back to the fields that created her.
“I am that person inside, yes. Just gathering eggs.”
For more on Holland Cooper, visit hollandcooper.com.
This interview was taken from August’s Cotswold Life magazine.