Orwell + Austen sweaters are objects of desire for a new breed of style-savvy knitwear lovers. Stephanie Smith talks to Yorkshire founder Jessica Schuhle-Lewis. Pictures by Jake Schuhle-Lewis.
Playful and quirky, of-the-moment and yet with a familiar, classic quality, it’s hardly surprising that there are waiting lists for Orwell + Austen cashmere sweaters. The brand’s latest collection is inspired by the music and movies of the 1970s and 80s, with nods to Saturday Night Fever, David Bowie and Blondie, cleverly bringing an appealing freshness to cultural icons, slogans and motifs appreciated by fashion lovers from teens to those who remember them first time around.
The new Disco sweater sold out quickly and more are being made to boost stocks. “I underestimated its popularity,” says Jessica Schuhle-Lewis, who founded Orwell + Austen in 2012 and creates the designs on her tablet at the west London home she shares with her husband and their two small children.
Although she has always drawn and painted, Jessica, 34, has no formal design training. She went to Carleton High School in Pontefract and studied Law at the London School of Economics, graduating in 2005. Jessica comes from a creative family, however. Her mother, Reini Schuhle, worked as constituency office manager for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford MP Yvette Cooper until she retired, but now creates embroidered landscape art. Her father, Brian Lewis, is a painter, writer, poet, teacher and arts administrator and he and Reini recently held a joint exhibition at Pontefract Library. Jessica’s brother Jake is a fashion photographer and shoots all Orwell + Austen’s images, including the ones featured here. The name of the brand came from marrying Jessica’s two favourite authors, an idea inspired by her sister, Hannah, who is working on an English Literature PhD. “It sounds slightly heritage, like it’s been around a little while,” Jessica says.
Orwell + Austen has been around for just six years, however. After graduating, Jessica began working as a lawyer in the City. “I didn’t really enjoy it,” she says. “I wanted to do something that was more fun and interesting but I had zero skills to move into fashion. I didn’t think that I would get any work with someone else, so I decided to set my own thing up. I figured that if it worked, great, I would be able to move into the industry that I wanted to be in, and if it didn’t work, then hopefully, I would have a lot of skills that I would need to transfer.”
Using her own drawings and designs, she began designing cashmere printed scarves and found contacts in Nepal, via a family friend who had once worked and sourced there. Soon she found a small family-run factory in the Kathmandu valley, specialising in making hand-woven scarves, sweaters and beanies using traditional techniques. “They said I didn’t have to do big order runs, which is what kills most people when they start a brand.”
Being able to control stock and minimise wastage are important environmental considerations for Jessica, as are the conditions at the manufacturers, which she has visited several times. “It’s a lovely factory,” she says. “They have been going for more than 30 years and they employ a lot of women from the surrounding villages.” The knitting machines are hand operated, not computerised as in larger factories. “To do a front panel for one of the designs takes about a day,” she says.
Three years ago, she began working with a sales agent and decided to concentrate on making the sweaters. “With the sweaters, you just get so much more wear,” she says. “They can be a bit more fun, a bit more personal. Also with the price points, people feel a lot more comfortable spending that amount on a sweater than they do on a scarf.
“The first sweater I did was Je Ne Regrette, which still sells well. I’m always looking for things that would look good on a sweater.”
The sweaters sell through the Orwell + Austen website and are made to order for stockists (they can be found in 20 independent boutiques from Scotland to Guernsey, including Aura in Beverley). The website also sells the brand’s T-shirts and sweatshirts made in organic cotton.
This month sees a new collaboration with Kat Farmer of lifestyle blog DoesMyDoesMyBumLook40. The collection is called True Colours, inspired by Cyndi Lauper’s 1986 song. “One of her sons has Aspergers and she loves the lyrics,” says Jessica. A quarter of the profits from sales of the range on the Orwell + Austen website will go to the National Autistic Society.
Jessica continued to work part-time as a lawyer until the birth of her second child a year ago. She now plans to keep growing the business, and would love to be in statement department stores such as Liberty and Selfridges before too long. “It’s a quarter of a million pound turnover, which is really good for a business which I still run myself,” she says. “Profits have doubled in the last two years.”
She hopes to be able to recruit UK staff to help run operations, and is keen to offer flexible working. “Especially in London, the cost of childcare is eye-watering and it’s really very difficult to be able to look after your children and work in a meaningful way, because it’s a strict 9-5,” she says.
Meanwhile, there are more riotously bold and bright designs on their way. Form an orderly queue.
Orwell + Austen designs can be found at Orwellausten.com.
There’s more fashion and beauty here.