Sophie Barnard on the idea behind the Longstaff Longstaff brand, her female role models, and changes towards equality

Posted on by Abbie Coombes

As London Fashion Week has demonstrated, this year it's all about having a wardrobe that blooms. Floral prints are often seen as something that should stay trapped in the 1960s, but as designer Richard Quinn has demonstrated, a very fresh twist can be placed on the print to create an outfit that's fit for the twenty-first century catwalk. It really is, all about being as bold as you dare with florals- go big, or go home!      

Strong colour combinations and predominately, floral prints are a key look for the Longstaff Longstaff brand. Their gorgeous silk notebooks and nightwear, influenced by Sophie Barnard's awareness of current trends and the English textile designer, William Morris, has seen Longstaff Longstaff create luxurious, yet practical products and clothing. We've interviewed the woman behind this exciting and superbly stylish British brand, to not only get her thoughts on the concept and ethos behind Longstaff Longstaff, but also on some of the most pressing questions regarding changes towards female equality. This proves particularly topical with it being International Women's Day on 8th March.  

Tell us the idea behind the Longstaff Longstaff brand? 

The idea behind the loungewear collections is to be able to decide for yourself on your style. We don’t sell sets of pyjamas, so not only can you choose different sized tops and bottoms but you can mix long with short and print with plain. We are a print led brand, so strong colour combinations and prints are key to the looks. We keep finding new style combinations too, especially when mixing with daywear or styling looks for the evening. I recently put the short chemise over the plain silk trousers, added a belt and a long string of pearls and was off! It still excites me that all the pieces can be worn in many ways; it’s really important to make good quality clothes work hard. It’s the very opposite of disposable fashion. 

How did the name for the brand come about?

My English grandmother was one of seven daughters whose surname was Longstaff.  The family tradition was that all daughters were given Longstaff as a middle name so that the name didn’t die out after marriage; my grandmother was Ursula Longstaff Longstaff.  It wasn’t the only way in which they were slightly eccentric - their mother smoked a pipe and their father, a mountaineer and explorer, took the older girls on expeditions to Nepal and the Rockies. The sisters grew up in the 1920s and 30s, when days were spent outdoors but the evenings were a time to dress up, whether they were staying in or going out. I loved the stories of elegant parties, wild adventures and handsome suitors and it fitted the feel of the brand perfectly.

What makes Longstaff Longstaff unique?

My first love is textile design so the Longstaff Longstaff design process starts with hand painting the prints. In fact, I use all sorts of techniques - printing with vintage lace, drawing with pen and ink, stencilling and bleaching so the prints are unique to the brand. Every designer uses their own back story and mine is a love of pattern and vintage embroidery combined with years working in theatre costume and couture fashion. 

What inspires your products? Do you focus on trends?

As a designer, I absorb so much visual information - from watching nature to fashion shows and exhibitions so I can’t help being aware of trends. Having said that, I have a strong design ‘handwriting’ so even if I’m following a trend, it still comes out as my own. Using silk very much influences the design of the clothes. I want flowing lines, plenty of opportunity for draping and styles that can be worn in many situations.

What is your product philosophy?

As a fan of William Morris I totally subscribe to his mantra of ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.'

You can’t go wrong with that and I believe that our products are both. 

Do you have a favourite, go to product?

Do I have to pick just one? The silk robe is so luxurious and the Longstaff Longstaff version ties up like a wrap around dress so it’s super flattering. I love wearing it over jeans as well as for a glam evening in. But the piece I wear most often is the camisole. It’s so versatile - I wear it as a summer top or in the evening under a sparkly cardigan or dinner jacket. And one of our silk notebooks lives in my handbag. I use it for all my meeting notes, inspiration and ideas so I never leave without it.

What does British craftsmanship mean to you?

British craftsmanship is an attitude. It’s like cooking with the best ingredients. I want my products to be the best so I use the best printers, the best seamstresses and don’t cut any corners- attention to detail is so important. I also love the mix of traditional and high tech. Master artisans still use techniques that have developed over centuries but adding new technology often allows unexpected innovations. 

What's next for Longstaff Longstaff? 

It’s so exciting to bring out new collections and new products. We brought out our first notebook in November and have been thrilled with the response. Sustainability has to be at the front of everyone’s mind and this is a way of making sure our wastage is as close to zero as possible. Any leftover fabric, including odd shaped scraps are made into the most fabulous silk covered notebooks. They really do have to be stroked to be fully appreciated.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise that all our on-line customers were men as all our products make such good presents, but it was. It made us think that we should probably be offering something for them too so we brought out the pocket squares. It’s not unusual for chaps buying presents to sneak one (or four) into the shopping basket at the end! We have some beautiful designs for more squares coming up so keep a look out!

Who is your female role model, and what has been the importance of her impact on your life? 

Without a doubt, it’s my mother. She wasn’t an entrepreneur and didn’t have a high flying career but was unshakable in the knowledge that the work she did bringing up her children was of the utmost value. It’s the reason that I didn’t start my business until our two boys were into their teens.

At the other end of the role model spectrum are two sisters who had to fight to be heard and they fought for others to be heard as well. I’m immensely proud, especially as we mark one hundred years of women’s suffrage, to be the great x4 niece of the suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett and the first female doctor, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. There is soon to be a statue of Millicent in Parliament Square and between the two sisters, they founded hospitals and Cambridge colleges, led a political movement and became the first female mayor. Millicent has just been voted Radio 4’s Most Influential Woman of the past 100 years. As a designer, I shouldn’t forget their sister Agnes who established the first interior design business run by women, designing wallpaper and furniture. That’s probably enough role models to keep one focused.

What changes towards equality are you most looking forward to seeing as women continue to join forces to advocate diversity?

I’d like to see equality in choices and opportunities but just as important is that those choices should be respected by society. Of course there shouldn’t be a glass ceiling - women have the ability and every right to be at the very top of industry, but not every woman wants to. We need to stand up for choices - for some that will be bringing up children and for others it’s becoming a CEO. They are both equally valid and we get into difficult water when one is valued more highly than the other. Diversity - including men and women, all ethnic groups and faiths is key, but so is diversity within a group and why I have chosen such different women as my role models.

Shop Longstaff Longstaff's beautiful selection of silk products today- the perfect Mother's Day gift...

Written by Abbie Coombes.