Standing outside knitwear maven Victoria Stapleton's home, which seems straight from a Wodehouse novel, as she recounts the scene of a Playboy shoot on the property some 40 years prior, it's not terribly difficult to imagine the Playmates in all their suntanned, oiled-up, frosted-hair glory. Perhaps they were perched atop a vintage Rolls? Or maybe it was a Jaguar? Let me be clear, the circa-1800 vicarage is the very antithesis of 1970s smut, but if I've learned anything in the first few minutes of my arrival, it's that this quintessentially English residence is a delightful study in contrasts.
Welcome to Hill House. A mere 45 minutes by train from London's Victoria Station in the quaint village of Stanstead Abbotts, Hertfordshire, the pleasingly symmetrical, wisteria-covered brick Georgian set on 15 idyllic acres boasts the following: hand-blocked wallpaper; a disco ball hanging in the kitchen; heirloom bird sculptures created by Stapleton's mother-in-law mingling with stuffed ring-necked parakeets (her husband's handiwork); and a bare male mannequin (decapitated, no less) for no apparent reason on the front steps. "It's a real mixture here," Stapleton says. Indeed.
She, her husband, photographer Johnny Pilkington, and their daughters left London's Chelsea neighborhood in 2002, seeking a slower pace in what had been Pilkington's childhood home. The nearby town of Stevenage serves as HQ for Brora, the Scottish cashmere brand that Stapleton founded in 1993—and that now boasts 14 stores, including one U.S. location on Manhattan's Madison Avenue, offering men's, women's, and children's home goods, clothing, and accessories. Brora attracts some pretty fashionable (and pretty British) clients: Stapleton's childhood friend, model Stella Tennant, is a fan, as is Kate Middleton, who was recently seen sporting gold Brora earrings courtside at Wimbledon. The brand is a nod to the designer's roots—she grew up near the Scottish Borders in Cumbria, and all of the cashmere knits are manufactured in Hawick, Scotland, at a mill used by Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Hermès. It also reflects her personal style. The tall, striking designer is often seen in printed skirts or tea-length dresses, layered knits, and her trademark Brora or Adidas sneakers. The look: unquestionable quality, love of color, and a definite boho lean.
It's a high-minded–meets–offbeat aesthetic that's also reflected in Stapleton's home. Entering through the back door, one is greeted by a line of Wellies and a taxidermied stag's head doubling as a hat rack. After moving in, Stapleton made only a few architectural changes, knocking down walls to expand the laundry room ("It's dogs and washing all in one room, typically English") and enlarge the kitchen. The latter is the social hub of the house, a large sun-filled space featuring an Aga stove, the aforementioned disco ball (formerly a prop in a Brora Christmas window display), and two long, custom-made lime-washed beech farm tables (which together comfortably seat 24) ready to receive London friends and family, for whom Pilkington loves to cook. If the weather's right, the festivities might spill over into the plant-filled Victorian conservatory and the front lawn that overlooks a hillside dotted with sheep. Elsewhere on the grounds, there's a large vegetable garden as well as an apple, pear, and cherry orchard that produces some 400 bottles of juice each autumn. (Stapleton occasionally serves it at Brora in-store events.)
She studied history of art at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, and founded Brora after her entrepreneur father, David, purchased an ailing tweed manufacturer, Hunters of Brora. (One of David's savvy business decisions involved bringing Scottish smoked salmon to the masses via British department store chain Marks & Spencer in the '70s.) He placed Stapleton in charge of retail operations, and the brand was featured in a 1993 Financial Times shopping article on cashmere that read, "Brora does wonderful crew necks and round necks in black, blue, and brown, for £99." Without even a photograph, she wound up taking £10,000 worth of orders the first weekend.
Living outside London hasn't proved a handicap, but rather an asset for running a fashion brand—the suburban location lends itself to a huge work space that includes photography and design studios only a 20-minute drive away, as well as a very loyal local staff of 60. Stapleton met Pilkington in the '90s through her friend, the ceramist Emma Bridgewater, but they didn't get together until later, when Pilkington was hired to photograph a Brora campaign in Argentina.
History is important to Stapleton; the 22-room house's stairwell brims with three generations' worth of family photos (including that Playboy shoot, which took place on the front lawn), and she's amassed an extensive spongeware collection (some of it by Bridgewater, much of it eighteenth century). One can't help but be drawn to the main sitting room. A jewel box of a space with deep-purple hessian-covered walls, it's the perfect back-drop for Stapleton's eclectic collection of art, which runs the gamut from market finds unearthed while she was a student studying abroad in Venice to Hugo Guinness illustrations. "There are some nice bits and pieces and then there are some cheap bits and pieces. You know, it's just thrown together," Stapleton says. And thanks to the rise of all things midcentury and clean lined, she says there are surprising bargains to be had at auction houses. "You can pick up antique furniture for nothing. Everyone wants IKEA; it's so depressing."
Her three daughters' rooms are equally colorful. "It's important for them to have their space for self-expression, where they can be themselves," Stapleton says. Jesse, 18, recently threw an Austin Powers–themed birthday party for 150 people, so there's currently a life-size cutout of the fictional '60s spy in her bedroom. Nancy's and Lola's domains are just as lively. The sisters, 16 and 14, frequently join Jesse in raiding their mother's sizable closet, which is stacked with woolens, well-traveled Globe-Trotter luggage…and, knock wood, no moths. The girls' shared bath features hand-blocked wallpaper by Marthe Armitage, the 86-year-old London artist whose work—all done at her home in Chiswick—is a bit of an insider secret (Stapleton heard about Armitage through Tennant; Tilda Swinton is also a fan). The wallcoverings, which take about six months from order to delivery, also adorn Brora's boutiques.
What makes Scottish cashmere—the kind Stapleton uses—so special? For starters, unlike less expensive cashmere, which is often made from the shorter, coarser hairs of the goat's back or legs (or even strands shed on bushes), only the longest and thinnest strands of raw material, usually from the neck area, are selected, minimizing pilling. To ensure maximum softness, each piece is immersed in Scottish freshwater (renowned for its pH neutrality, which makes fabric less coarse) and brushed with the prickly, dried heads of the teasel plant. Two centuries of manufacturing experience doesn't hurt, either.