Essence of England ~ Chapter 4 | Roger Saul
In our Essence of England series, we speak to values-aligned creatives, entrepreneurs and familiar faces from across the South West about their lives, work and what ‘Englishness’ means to them.
Roger Saul is best known for turning a £500 birthday gift from his parents into one of the 20th century’s most iconic British brands: Mulberry. But while the brand is renowned worldwide, Mulberry’s – and Roger’s – roots lie firmly in South West England. Named after the trees Roger would pass each day on his way to school, Mulberry products are still made in Somerset by local craftspeople.
Since moving on from Mulberry in 2003, Saul has turned his hand to everything from running a luxury hotel to landscape gardening. Having purchased Sharpham Park in Somerset (where else?) in the early 2000s, Roger has since restored the 300-acre historic parkland into a mixed economy farm and deer park, producing its signature spelt using a system of organic crop rotation to replenish the soil without the need for pesticides and fertilisers.
- Roger Saul at Sharpham Park
We spoke with Roger about coming of age in 1970s London, the Mulberry collection that helped to define classic British style, and finding the common threads between fashion and farming.
One of your first jobs was working alongside iconic menswear designer and retailer John Michael Ingram. How did that experience inform the launch of Mulberry?
I left school at the end of the 1960s and at that time managing a boutique was a rockstar job – it was what every aspiring fashionable young person wanted to do. I got a scholarship to study Business Studies at Westminster College so I got in touch with John Michael and asked if I could possibly be his Business Studies trainee. He graciously received me in his palatial office in Savile Row and said yes to taking me on, even though I don’t think he really knew what a Business Studies student was!
I worked my way around the operation, from making coffee and cleaning the stationery cupboard, to working in one of his boutiques, Guys and Dolls, to joining John Michael Tailoring, and then finally as a gift buyer going off with him to trade shows. The whole experience gave me a wonderful entrée into fashion and entrepreneurship.
During that time, I started buying leather belts off hippies coming into the business off the street, and was making huge margins. My father worked at Clarks Shoes so I asked him where to buy leather wholesale and I found some amazing colourful snakeskin and used it to make chokers. That was my first attempt at designing, making, costing and selling.
I spoke to my parents about turning the idea into a business and they gave me £500 as a birthday present – a huge sum of money at the time. I used that to start the company that became Mulberry.
“That collection became iconic; heralded as ‘Le Style Anglais’, it cemented us as a cool brand mixing British country style with high fashion.”
How did you grow Mulberry into a global business?
The 60s was formative for fashion, shifting it into an era in which every season, every collection had to be totally different. For the first five years of the 70s, belts were the fashion accessory – handbags almost didn’t exist. So we changed our collection regularly and I also found myself working with other European designers, creating buckles and belts for their collections. By seeing their colour inspiration and styling, I learnt to anticipate what would be fashionable for the following season.
I also had to grow my skills at working with leather as the business developed. A hot designer brand, Stirling Cooper, approached me to create belts and clutch bags for them but we really struggled to get the soft leather we were using to stay in shape. So, my father introduced me to a number of leather technicians – real craftsmen who were used to working by hand. My father was a huge inspiration, not only in teaching me how to work with leather but also with the practical side of running a business, like working out costings.
How did Mulberry become associated with iconic British style?
When we first launched Mulberry, London was fashionable and fast. British designers were selling all over the world, from Italy to France to America. Classic British brands did exist but they weren’t seen as ‘fashionable’, per se. But all that changed in the mid 1970s when I launched a collection inspired by English country sports like hunting, shooting and fishing. That collection became iconic; heralded as ‘Le Style Anglais’, it cemented us as a cool brand mixing British country style with high fashion.
Then, when the first global recession hit at the end of the 1970s, we lost the American market because of the dollar-to-pound exchange rate and the business took a huge hit. We had to stop thinking season by season and instead look inwards to understand what made Mulberry unique – and it all came back to that specific collection. That was when we first started to cultivate ‘Englishness’ as part of Mulberry’s brand.
“I love creating things that look like they’ve belonged in the garden forever”
Where does your love of gardens come from?
My granny would take me around the garden as a child and teach me the Latin names for all the plants, which I promptly forgot! Something about her passion for it must have sunk in, though.
My wife and I bought the manor at Sharpham Park as a semi-detached house when we got married and it had a massive garden, filled with herbaceous borders, lawns and trees. I quickly realised I would have to learn how to maintain it!
I remember visiting Hestercombe, which has the most beautifully designed garden by Gertrude Jekyll, and promptly falling in love with her work. Her way of incorporating different materials and architectural artefacts into her gardens has really inspired me. Since then, I’ve worked on the ‘secret gardens’ at Kilver Court and the grounds at Charlton House, as well as Sharpham. I love creating things that look like they’ve belonged in the garden forever. I’m always looking for ways to make gardens more interesting, creative and magical.
What’s the inspiration behind Sharpham Park and your spelt business?
When the opportunity came up to run a working farm, it fulfilled a childhood dream for me. My grandparents were farmers and I always loved spending time with them while they worked.
I planted 4,000 trees and restored red deer to the park, and then was trying to decide what to grow on the rest of the land. My sister was very unwell with cancer at the time and she suggested we grow spelt instead of wheat. I had never heard of spelt but started to research it and discovered it has this incredible history. It was reportedly the marching bread for the Roman army because of its nutritional value! So, that convinced me to go for it.
- Spelt Spread
What inspired you to farm organically?
Well, much like fashion, farming is a building exercise. If you’re designing and building a collection, you look at what sold best in the past, what the current trends are around you, and where you think things are going to go next. When we set up Sharpham Park, we took the same approach.
During the recession in the early 2000s, organic lost favour because consumers were prioritising price. But over the past five years or so, there has been a shift in the other direction. We are all taking environmental and health concerns much more seriously. People are actively looking for farms that use regenerative techniques, minimise chemicals and avoid fossil fuel fertiliser.
- harvest time at shaprham park
What should be on the agenda for a weekend in Somerset?
Somerset is the most beautiful and varied county, from the Levels to the Mendips to Wells to Bath. I would bring my bike and cycle the glorious Ham Wall Nature Reserve. Then I’d visit Glastonbury; there’s a lovely little café called Heaphys (where you can sample our Spelt Barista Blend!) and you can sit there and watch the weird and wonderful go by.
Bruton is always worth a visit. I think The Newt is the most extraordinary experience and Hauser & Wirth is amazing. There also seems to be a new restaurant popping up every day, so we are spoiled for choice in that regard.
What does ‘Essence of England’ mean to you?
I think of the rose as the quintessential English fragrance. Years ago I bought a tuberose perfume for my now-wife Monty. Wrongly, I always assumed a tuberose was part of the rose family but it’s actually a different plant! It produces a white flower with the most amazing aroma. I’m now growing it for my wife’s wedding anniversary this year. So, to me – although I know it’s not technically a rose – that scent is what I think of when it comes to Englishness.