The stables of a once loss-making Scottish country estate have been transformed into a popular fashion and lifestyle destination thanks to a partnership between landowner Lord Damian Scott and former Avoca creative director Amanda Pratt.
Lord Damian Scott
“If you were a venture capitalist investor looking to start a new retail project with a pot of money, you probably wouldn’t decide to go restore some 18th century buildings in the middle of a park,” says Lord Damian Scott. Yet last summer Scott did exactly that, establishing a 21,800 sq ft fashion and lifestyle store and cafe on his estate in Dalkeith, on the outskirts of Edinburgh.
Now the £7.5m project Restoration Yard is flying and, with Amanda Pratt, the former creative director of reputable Irish retailer Avoca, on board, it looks set to be a long-term success.
Restoration Yard grew out of the need to restore the deteriorating category one-listed stables on one of Scott’s family estates, Dalkeith Country Park. Scott is the brother of the 10th Duke of Buccleuch, one of the largest private landowners in the UK. The family has had the stewardship of vast amounts of land since the times of King Charles II.
Dalkeith was the family’s principal home until World War I and later became a popular public park, which the family maintained. Over the years, the stables slowly deteriorated until finally, in 2007, the Buccleuchs realised something would have to be done.
“Their fabric was at risk,” explains Scott, who sits on the board of directors of Buccluech, the organisation that look after the family’s interests. “We had to manage it – and come up with a business model that would fund the investment.”
The board wanted to reconfigure Dalkeith as a visitor attraction of substance. On a fact-finding mission to Ireland, Scott visited, among others, reputable lifestyle retailer Avoca on the Powerscourt Estate in Wicklow.
“We were struck by the offering and knew it could work well in Dalkeith,” he recalls.
But then the 2008 financial crisis hit and the project was shelved until 2015. Finally, the board gave Scott the reins to drive it forward. Scott, who graduated as a gemologist in 1993, owns London jeweller Heming.
“My background in retail means I have a heightened awareness of the banana skins out there for people who think that to set up a shop with a cafe is a straightforward process,” he says. “Dalkeith may only be five miles from Edinburgh’s Princes Street, but it’s still a rural location.”
How do we adapt them and turn their weaknesses into our advantages?
Lord Damian Scott
There was also the problem of configuring listed buildings into a modern retail space: “These stable were originally built for 60 horses, their grooms and coaches. How do we adapt them and turn their weaknesses into our advantages?”
In the summer of 2015, Scott remembered Avoca: “We needed some expert guidance and I remembered that trip to Ireland. I hunted LinkedIn for an Avoca connection and found Amanda.”
Until 2014, Amanda Pratt had been creative director of Avoca, her family’s business, which was sold to US catering and facilities group Aramark in November 2015.
Pratt had been key in creating the Avoca experience in its various locations in Ireland, and was also designer of the own-label collection. She agreed to visit Dalkeith in July 2015.
“It was an early-stage building site when she came but something resonated with her,” remembers Scott.
Restoration Yard construction
Pratt has intended to meet with Scott for one consultation but was persuaded by members of the Buccleuch board to join the team as creative director: “Initially, I said no to getting involved. I mean, I live in Ireland. But Duncan [Mackison], COO of Buccluech, talked me round. I saw from early on that the USP was the heritage. I love history, I love architecture, I love being excited visually and I could see early how we could make the details from the stables work.”
Scott says that from the start, Pratt wanted to get under the skin of the Buccleuch family: “She painstakingly visited some of our other properties [Boughton in Northamptonshire and Bowhill in the Scottish borders], armed with her camera. She interrogated us about the history, the art – she wanted to understand what drove everything. Her view was that the heritage and art were an incredible potential source of inspiration.”
Understanding this history helped her to come up with a design concept for Restoration Yard.
“Her reinterpretation of our family history would give the brand an authentic voice, which is hard to create in this world of sameness,” says Scott.
“I could see how we could take the details from the different houses – the paint colours, the tiles, everything – and translate that into the stables so that it would beautiful and relevant to the Buccleuch family,” explains Pratt.
It was Pratt who came up with the name: “The word ‘restoration’ resonated because it reflected the stables and the Buccleuch history stretching back to Restoration King Charles II. It was also a restoration of faith in myself.”
It also represents Pratt’s idea that this should be an environment that restores visitors’ mind, body and soul, as Scott clarifies: “Every member of the family can come and nourish themselves whether it’s with carefully produced, locally sourced food, shopping for fashion and gifts in a thoughtfully curated environment or attending a yoga class in the Wellbeing Lab. We wanted this to be a place that’s good for people.” There is even an adventure playground for the kids.
The stables were not a natural retail environment – the space is ultimately a long, partitioned corridor: “It’s an odd shape,” agrees Scott.
I love the excitement of making something out of something else
But Pratt rose to the challenge. “I love the excitement of making something out of something else. Yes, the stables subdivide it but there’s a beauty in making what’s already there more beautiful.”
Pratt became the design authority for the whole site, fighting her corner where she had to. A basic slabbed area became a beautiful courtyard inspired by European architecture. A closed internal wall became an impressive mezzanine that links the cafe and retail areas.
She started buying in September 2015. Her first stop was Maison et Objets in Paris: “I was mainly ordering the furniture onto which the product would go. I wanted a retail space with little traditional shop fitting. It means the divisions can be very fluid.”
The store now stocks men’s and women’s fashion alongside beauty, gifts, books, stationekry, toys and babywear. Pratt did her sourcing through existing contacts and at London shows Top Drawer, Scoop and Pure. The rails, tables and knick-knacks that everything sits on or hangs off are as eye-catching as the stock and can also be bought.
“We needed to deliver something so good that it would drive revenues. We projected we’d need to a tenfold increase in visitor numbers to be able to deliver the level of sales to deliver a return investment. That’s a target of 300,000 visitors, up from 30,000 [the typical number visiting Dalkeith Country Park annually at that stage],” says Scott.
Restoration Yard soft launched on 25 July 2016, but there were already queues out the door of parents wanting tickets for the children’s playground and the cafe was overwhelmed with families looking for a place to eat.
The retail side of the business did not run smoothly at first, Pratt says: “You have an unfamiliar team dealing with an unfamiliar epos system, not to mention 5,000 SKUs across fashion, gifts and books – everything is a steep learning curve. Then of course a digger goes through our fibre optic cable early on and our sales system gets knocked out and your new team is doing transactions on handheld hotspot devices.”
Now, with 23 weeks of trading under their belts, it is time to reflect on what’s working and what isn’t. Pratt is enjoying the number crunching: “I love analysing data. We’re doing well across the board – each subdivision is strong. I’ve designed the store with moveable shopfittings so we can be agile and respond if that changes. I’m still frightened but I’m less frightened every day as I see the sales and footfall figures. From November onwards the figures have been good.”
What does the future hold? Well, Pratt feels improvements can be made: “Fashion-wise it’s not good enough yet. I like it but we’ve further to go. I’m seeing agents. I’m going to Scoop and Pure. For spring I’m stocking Charli, Copenhagen Luxe, Ilse Jacobsen, Smith & Soul and Part Two with more to come. I am inspired by the Buccleuch heritage to grow the own label collection from where it is currently. At the moment, we have own-brand cashmere made in Scotland and beautiful Italian-made men’s and women’s socks. The men’s socks are in a selvedge houndstooth inspired by what the family calls a Shepherd’s Plaid found in Boughton House’s Sir Walter Scott room, and the women’s socks have a floral pattern found in a tapestry sampler made by ‘Duchess Jane’ [Scott’s mother].
“Also, we’ve been approached by other companies and estates to replicate what we’re doing. I like the idea that the brand Restoration Yard could work anywhere, but it’s important to get what we’re doing right. The estate had been losing money and now we’ve created 50 jobs. I’m signed up for five years so I’m completely committed.”
Restoration Yard exterior
Scott adds: “The absolute priority is to build this initial store and make it strong because it’s the heart of the brand. We’ll grow online, cautiously, and Amanda is keen to develop own-label, which could wholesale in the future.”
Scott also talks of running a festival or partnering with the Edinburgh Festival, but is adamant that nothing will detract from what Restoration Yard was designed for: a place where its three parts – the store, cafe and well-being lab – make people feel better.
A venture capitalist may not have chosen to invest in this “unorthodox sequence”, as Scott calls it, but they would have missed out. As Scott says: “It’s unusual. We started with an asset and we had an imperative to do something with it, and we’ve configured it the best way we can into a sustainable business that can self-fund. It’s wonderful and, to have done it without Amanda, well that’s inconceivable.”