Scotland's Fusty Pringle Retakes Fashion

Mary-Adair Macaire is perfectly turned out; dainty as a bird, dressed in black, very chic, very classy, her long auburn hair parted fashionably far to one side. Her one adornment is a big green and red jewelled brooch pinned to her whippet-thin waist, and thick gold rings on her finely manicured fingers.

When I ask if it's Chanel she's wearing, Macaire ticks me off with one of her giggles: "No, of course not. How could I? It's Pringle. I wear as much Pringle as I can." It's not the Pringle of Scotland that most of us remember though—those Argyle patterned sleeveless jumpers made famous by royalty and then kitsch by golfers. Or the cashmere twinsets that Pringle invented and Grace Kelly made so desirable but which became dowdy when worn by women of a certain age in a certain era.

The Pringle Macaire wears today is edgy; the creation of her award-winning designer, Clare Waight Keller, who has been quietly transforming this fusty, Scottish, heritage brand into a trendy must-have fashion.

Now Macaire is ready to trumpet to the world just how much Pringle has changed. For tomorrow night, Pringle's models will strut the catwalk at London Fashion Week for the first time in years, and she'll be sitting in the front row beside the brand's new face, actress Tilda Swinton, and top photographer Ryan McGinley along with the fashion world's glitterati.

No wonder she's a little excited when we meet in her tiny, white-walled office above the Sloane Street store where the design team is buzzing around getting ready for the big blitz. Putting Pringle back in the spotlight at London is a big gamble, and not just for Macaire, who has only been chief executive for a year. Considering the financial climate and Pringle's continuing losses, it's a brave move for the company.

But she's convinced it's the right one: "If you aren't there in your own backyard then you can't expect to be great outside it. Pringle has changed so much but no one knows. That's our biggest problem and it's what I am most keen to deal with.

But, she says with another giggle: "There's always the risk we will be trashed by the press. But I hope not. It's important we are in London and we are over the moon to be with great British houses like Burberry (BRBY.L) and Matthew Williamson. "All the buzz should help us too." Although the big buyers won't be in London—because they are waiting for the Milan and Paris shows—she's sure they will see pictures of the collection. "We need those retailers in Milan and Paris to see what the new Pringle is all about."

As she talks, she pulls out a folder of pictures from the latest shoot and a short film, both by McGinley, of Swinton at Nairn in Scotland, the actress's home. They are for next winter's advertising campaign, so they are still under wraps. Having been sworn to secrecy, all I can say is that they mix that old Scottish heritage with the new in the most stunning way. It's a fickle world, this fashion one, where every twist and twirl is watched with radar eyes.

Then there's the T-shirt twinset campaign, with Glasgow artist David Shrigley, advertising Pringle's signature twinset—which, ironically, everyone thinks was invented by Chanel.

So what on earth persuaded Macaire to move from the great Chanel—where she had been for 22 years—to this little Scottish company? Macaire doesn't hesitate: "Pringle is a really great luxury brand and I'm a luxury girl. So it didn't take me long to decide that restoring such a wonderful heritage was perfect for me. I like to use both sides of my brain—the creative and the analytical."

While at Chanel, she had already had her eye on Pringle, having spotted a knitwear tunic in a magazine several years ago that she failed to track down anywhere. When the head-hunter called, not only was she ready, she understood part of the problem too—distribution.

Then, two weeks into the job, the world came crashing down with the Lehman collapse. "Holy cow," she exclaims in her sing-song Philadelphian accent, "I had taken the high dive just when the world fell apart. It was terrible for everyone, but particularly bad for us in the luxury market. So many of our customers are bankers, and their wives—all those bonuses gone. I had to reorganise all my plans, my investment was cut, and I trimmed back budgets, but the most important thing was to stay strong, stay liquid. I have had to do more with less. But I also knew I couldn't cut back."

Macaire believes her three-year plan to make Pringle profitable again is on course despite the crash. Sales of luxury goods have fallen by about 25 per cent worldwide, and Pringle is no exception, with last year's sales of £60m worldwide—a third of which are in Europe—down by about the same. She's lucky that Pringle's owners, the Hong Kong Fang dynasty, are not only in the game for the long-term but know the industry inside out; they run one of the world's biggest knitwear-manufacturing businesses, supplying clothes to retailers as mixed as Banana Republic (GPS) and Ralph Lauren (RL).

They love Pringle, she says, and have backed it since 2000. Neither Kim Winser (later at Aquascutum) nor Douglas Fang (the son of the patriach, Kenneth Fang) who took over from her—and who had to close the Hawick knitwear mill where the company began in 1815—were able to turn it around.

Her strategy is simple, to get Pringle online and to have more shops. "Natalie Massenet at Net-a-Porter has shown that e-commerce can do luxury and that being online doesn't take away from luxury brands at all. Customers want immediacy and there's no point having a brand that people can't find in our global market."

An online shop will be up by early next year. She's already found potential sites for a New York store and is looking for space in Paris and Milan, while more shops in Hong Kong, Korea and Tokyo are being considered. "Business is really not bad at all, considering the market. We are employing more people in Scotland, including many women home-knitters—than we did when we had the mill open."

She inherited 150 employees, a flagship store in Bond Street, the Sloane Street store, shops in Hong Kong and Tokyo and more than 450 rather messy concessions which are being drastically pruned. "Pringle has to communicate; that's my biggest challenge. We've got some rather untidy concessions in stores where we shouldn't be and some where we should be but the concessions are not good enough. This is my priority and I'm working on it. But my big job is to get the buyers at the stores which matter—those at Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus in New York, Corso Como in Milan, Colette in Paris, Harvey Nichols and Selfridges in London. These are the places where Pringle has to be and, I hope, will be."

You don't doubt her for a minute. Sweet and warm, Macaire is about as far removed from the haute couture ice queens immortalised in The Devil Wears Prada as you can get. But there's no questioning her steel to succeed. It's refreshing, too, to find a chief executive in an industry renowned for its bitchiness so pleasant and not frightened of showing a human face, or of being self-deprecating.

"It's important not to take yourself too seriously; we are not finding cures for cancer. But even so, it is an applied art and important for people to feel good. It's something we all do, every day, after breakfast, we have to get dressed."

And, she adds: "No one needs luxury, they want it. Our challenge is to offer people value investments. I don't know a woman who doesn't want a Kelly bag, a Chanel jacket or a Pringle twinset, and these are all products which will last for years."

There's a nice serendipity to Macaire's own leap into fashion, and now to Pringle, as her melodious name comes from a Scottish grandmother. She gave up wanting to be a maritime lawyer because clerking was so dull, working instead at Tiffany's in New York and hoping to go into advertising. After a few months, she was given a tricky customer to handle—someone who did have a Devil Wears Prada diva reputation, and who worked for Chanel—and who offered her a job. After, New York, she moved to Paris where she worked beside the redoubtable Karl Lagerfeld, the king of mixing the old with the new, building a $3bn empire out of Coco Chanel's simple classics.

Like her heroine, Coco, Macaire is mysterious about her age, which, if her CV is right, is in her early 40s. She shouldn't worry though, as she looks at least a decade younger, helped no doubt by hours in the gym.

Her spare time is as high-dive as her work, riding horses and rallying vintage cars. Once, with her former husband, she drove her Alpine A110 in the Carrera Panamericana in Mexico. At weekends, you might spot Macaire driving her 1963 Bentley—soon to be picked up at the docks—and wearing her favourite down-time outfit of jeans, little black Chanel jacket and Pringle knitwear. This is a luxury girl with a nice common touch.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.