Victoria Stapleton, founder of Brora cashmere and clothing, lives in bohemian splendour in Hertfordshire with photographer husband Johnny Pilkington, daughters Jesse, 13, Nancy, 11, Lola, nine, and whippets Honeybee and Fleefly.
When she was just 25, Stapleton pulled an ancient Scottish mill from the brink of receivership and turned it into a thriving high-fashion business with an estimated turnover of £20 million. Now in her forties, she will open her 16th Brora branch next month, in Covent Garden.
She has an eye for a cracking colour. Luscious shades she might use to tint cashmere cardigans, or rework a vintage Liberty print for flirty tea dresses, are in evidence all over the rambling Georgian house: purple hessian lines the drawing room, the kitchen is painted fresh apple green and the guest bedroom has walls of cherry red because, says Stapleton matter-of-factly, the room is in a cold part of the house, so needed some warmth.
"I'm such a colour addict that painting a wall a delicious, deep pinky-red is normal. What would be brave for me would be to paint a house white or taupe. I am sure people only do that because they're afraid of using colour," she says.
The family made the move to a rural village from bustling Lotts Road, Chelsea, eight years ago. "We had three little girls in a long, skinny house, and were getting fed up with putting the bikes in the car at the weekend and heading off for Battersea Park with two dogs and three small children crying," explains Stapleton. "Here, you open the doors and fall out into the garden. And if you're going to make a move like this, it's good to do it when the children are young so this is their home, and they don't know anything else. Meanwhile, London is still on our doorstep."
The house is, in fact, her husband's childhood home. "My in-laws were still living here but wanted to downsize to the coach house next door and were keen for someone from the family to move up here and look after the house. "All Johnny's siblings were settled, so we decided we'd buy the house off the family and take on the project.
"It was quite slow because first of all we needed to convert the coach house into a lovely three-bedroom house for his parents. And the house itself needed rewiring, replumbing, restructuring, everything. For my in-laws, their home was all about the garden." On a project this size, an architect is essential. Enter Rodney Black who, says Stapleton, understood that the house needed to retain its Georgian character and comfort, yet be adapted to suit the family's way of living.
"He was such a pleasure to work with," she recalls. "When he finished we all got rather depressed so we thought of another project, this time outside. So he designed the whole swimming pool area with a verandah, plant room, potting shed and a greenhouse. We put the pool right next to the back of the house, by the kitchen, so even if we can't see the children, we can hear them." The biggest transformation was turning the tiny kitchen into a den for the girls and converting a spacious but dark playroom at the back of the house into a large kitchen and dining room, knocking out the back wall to make a huge picture window to frame the garden.
Two large oak tables Stapleton designed and had made at a workshop in Cumbria, where she was born, prove endlessly versatile. "We move them to keep changing the kitchen around," she says. "Sometimes they're a T shape and at Christmas, when there's 24 of us, we line them up to make one long refectory table." She found the outsize kitchen cupboard, the focus of the room, at an antiques fair in Battersea Park, and topped it with a line of vintage wine bottles. The handsome, studded, deep blue leather chairs were made by her interior designer sister, Serena Williams-Ellis. "I gave her a swatch of cashmere in teal, from one of my collections, and asked her to dye the leather upholstery to match that exact shade."
In one sitting room, the dusky pink background of a frayed Turkish rug bought at Sotheby's dictates the warm tones of the room, notably the deep pink velvet of the Chesterfield sofa, which, says Stapleton, is prettier to look at than to sit on. In the second, more intimate sitting room - "Where I would sit and read the papers, if I ever had the time," she laughs - the purple hessian walls and Indian crewelwork curtains make the room the cosiest in the house.
A vintage school gym horse of worn leather, cut down by the village's upholsterer, serves as combined coffee table and informal seat. "All my daughters think the house is old-fashioned because all their friends live in black-and-white houses with plasma screens," says their mum. "But our TV's in a cupboard because I'd rather have a picture above the fireplace." What makes the house special is that Stapleton took her time. The interiors evolved, and because of that the rooms look, in the nicest possible way, as if they have been there forever.
"When I was doing up the house it was heaven because I could stop at an antiques shop and know there was always a spot to put something," says Stapleton, who also moved her Brora offices and warehouses from London to nearby Stevenage a few years ago.
"I'm a magpie and I love collecting, but I don't want to have a house that's got piles of clutter. Now it's full, and nicely full." She pauses: "Though I suppose if I come across a lovely lamp or chandelier, I probably won't be able to resist."
Pictures by Graham Jepson