Lulu Phipps not only gets to work with beautiful alpaca fibre in which she designs her unique collection of scarves, shawls, and interiors for her business Softly Softly, but she also owns and runs an alpaca farm in Northamptonshire with her husband Simon Phipps.
#TeamCoco couldn’t be more excited to interview Lulu for our #WomenWorldwide and #BossBabe series, to find out how it all started, when she first got into alpacas and how it developed into her own fashion company specialising in alpaca shawls, scarves and interiors.
Q. Have you always worked with or been around alpacas, since being little, or was this a new-found interest from a business perspective?
A. I have been in the alpaca business for 12 years, before that I had a somewhat varied career path. I trained at ballet school from the age of 5, then was a professional dancer for 8 years from the age of 16. I then was involved with Formula One motor racing before my daughters were born. Following on from then I did interior design and soft furnishings. I also trained as a phycotherapist. The alpaca side of my life has grown gradually, with the business venture evolving at the same time.
Q. You launched your first alpaca business back in 2007 with your husband Simon, did it start out solely as a breeding farm, or did you know that in future years you would launch clothing and interiors lines too?
A. Our ‘alpaca adventure’ started quite by accident. Simon and I were watching a vet programme on TV one evening where the vets were trying to save the life of a tiny alpaca baby (they succeeded thankfully!) and we were intruiged. We then, by chance, met an alpaca breeder a few weeks later at a country show and started to take a more serious interest. Following more research and talking to a number of breeders we then bought our first pregnant females. We already had land and horses so it seemed a fairly easy progression. Since then we have bred over 50 alpacas here at the farm, and sold to many established and new owners both in the UK and Europe. The initial idea was to build the breeding business, Softly Softly came later!
Q. Are all the Softly Softly designs for men, women, children and the home made from your own alpaca fibres, or do you also work with other small and unique businesses?
A. The Softly Softly collection comes from a number of areas. We have products made from our own alpaca herd fibre, these are created in conjunction with The Border Mill in Scotland. I also select scarves, shawls and throws from two companies in Peru. The Peruvian people have been working with alpaca fibre for thousands of years. It is known as ‘The Fibre of the Gods’ and at times only Inca Royalty were allowed to wear alpaca cloth. Their knowledge and expertise is second to none in the world so twice a year I choose artist designed limited edition items to add to the collection. The fibre from our own alpacas that doesn’t go to the mill is sent to Penrose Products in Nottinghamshire, where they produce for us amazing luxury bedding.
Q. Do you personally design and make your own Softly Softly scarves and shawls, or do you work alongside other designers?
A. Our alpacas are sheared once a year, in the spring. At that time I assess all the fibre and choose the finest quality to go up to The Border Mill. Once I know the quality, quantity and colour range we have to use then Juliet and I work together to design the fabrics. We discuss the fibre blends, the colour ways and the weaving designs. I only have a limited number of each design manufactured so they remain highly exclusive and original.
Q. Would you use the same alpaca fibres that you use for a scarf to also make a cushion for the home, or are there different types of alpaca fibres to work with?
A. I will only use our highest quality fibre for the Softly Softly products made in the UK. I believe that a throw or cushion should be as soft as a scarf. The Peruvians have perfected the art of blending 70% alpaca fibre with 30% silk, this creates the amazing lightweight, soft fabric in the scarves and shawls. In the past year we have been working with The Border Mill in blending alpaca with rose fibre. Rose fibre is a cellulose from the stems of roses and has all the qualities of silk – strength, lustre, softness, but in a more eco friendly and sustainable way. We have called the collection ‘Alpaca Rose’ and we are busy creating beautiful designs for a new range.
Q. Can we ask when you are at your most creative design-wise, and where do your design-ideas come from?
A. I’m probably at my most creative either in the wee small hours of the morning or when sitting on my tractor cutting grass paddocks! Alpaca fibre has many unique atributes, its hypo allergenic (it’s a dry fibre so doesn’t attract dust mites like wool or feather), its individual fibres are hollow so it is temperature controlling and it is the most sustainable fibre on the planet. I am constantly looking at fabrics, clothing and interiors and asking “would that work in alpaca?”
Q. If you weren’t running Softly Softly and had never been lucky enough to run your alpaca farm, what kind of business do you think would you be working in?
A. With my career path it could have been anything! I’ve always liked interior design but I love being a farmer as well!
Q. What are your immediate plans for Softly Softly, do you intend on opening any stores around the UK?
A. World domination of the alpaca product business!!!! Seriously – I have no plans for opening stores at present. That is a huge commitment of resources and time and perhaps not in this current political climate. I am concentrating on growing brand awareness and my customer numbers. One of the hardest parts of building Softly Softly is to show how amazing alpaca fibre can be. When I talk about alpaca many people tell me about their Peruvian jumper that granny bought 50 years ago that is still growing strong! It is such a tactile fabric and that is hard to get across unless you actually can feel and touch it.
Other plans are to develop new ranges of travel accessories and a collection for babies – who wouldn’t love to have their newborn wrapped in a blanket made from ‘Alpaca Rose’. We also have the scented candle, hand wash and lotion. I designed this to compliment the alpaca/silk scarves. We called the range ‘Softly Softly Scented’ and the scent is called ‘Silk’ It is a mix of White Lily and Neroli oil and is gorgeous!!
Christmas gift boxes are in development with the Scented range plus pick and mix from the collection, just the thing for under the Christmas Tree.
Q. Did anyone offer you good business advice before you launched Softly Softly?
A. My lovely supportive husband Simon. He has the business brain, I have the inspiration.
Q. Have you had to overcome obstacles while running your businesses, or has anything happened to ever make you step back and think twice about what you’re doing?
A. As I write this I am battling breast cancer for the second time. The first diagnosis was almost 5 years ago, before I started Softly Softly. This time was a bit of a surprise, though it has always lurked quietly in the back of my mind that it may reappear someday. I thought long and hard about the next steps in the days following the news. Do I stop Softly Softly? How am I going to run this business? I looked back at the first time and I remembered that one of the things that kept me going was getting up in the mornings and going out to feed the alpacas. They are such gentle, inquisitive animals that it was often I felt they were asking how I was each day. So I decided to put on my big girl battle pants and kick cancers butt again and keep the business going and growing. I have postponed some events that physically might be a step too far but we are concentrating on the website, social media and customer growth. I’ve learnt that life is unpredicatable and sometimes challenging but for me positivity and humour are the way forward. I have the support of amazing family and friends, and when the going gets tough I can curl up under a beautiful alpaca blanket!
Q. What piece of advice would you give someone looking to set up a business using alpaca fibres to design clothing and interiors?
A. Do lots of research. Learn about alpaca fibre from breeders and manufacturers. Find out what makes the best quality fibre and why.
Thank you for taking the time to answer all our #BossBabe and #WomenWorldwide questions for House of Coco Magazine online. We think you are an inspiration to continue running your wonderful alpaca business, even under the toughest of circumstances.