Perhaps it was the view from the train window on a day when the sunlight tilted at Edinburgh’s sandstone glories that first seduced Anna Freemantle-Zee into making the city her home. She believes there is no better way to arrive in a city than along the rail lines that bring you into Waverley Station, with the beautiful setting of Edinburgh Castle rising above you and the vista of Princes Street’s architecture making it so inviting to the first-time visitor.
Originally from Holland, Freemantle-Zee has made Edinburgh her home for more than a decade now, and that outsider’s view adds a unique perspective to her interpretation of the city. It’s a place she enjoys – cycling up and down those hilly city streets with the Dutch love of the bicycle still intact – but you sense that the wanderlust, which we’ve all had to repress recently, is never too far from the surface. “We have children here, and, actually, it’s a really good place for them to grow up… but we may also move on once they grow up a bit. We’re thinking maybe Portugal. If it were just me, I’d probably go back to New York for a stint, but at that point, I’ll have become too old... I’d be like the old rock’n’roll star arriving back!”
That outsider perspective certainly helped when she first became involved with the Edinburgh International Fashion Festival. A few attempts had been made to create a fashion week in Edinburgh to rival the one in London. However, Freemantle-Zee felt that Edinburgh shouldn’t try to ape a huge city such as London but play to its strengths. “You’re never going to have that commercial machine behind it that London has, or that it needs in general, but you’re sitting on this fantastic bit of heritage, you know – all the mills, the fabric and the story of Harris Tweed.” And so, Edinburgh International Fashion Festival developed its own identity, taking elements from international brands in the unique Edinburgh setting with access to the vibrant local textile industry. This cross-discipline creativity generated multiple events, including film screenings, high-profile gatherings and panel discussions.
With that in mind, Freemantle-Zee is currently involved with St James Quarter in creating a style event that seeks to take the best in international haute couture and make it relevant to the Scottish audience. “What I’m trying to do is to look at each individual retailer and see how we can create something that is more culture- and heritage-focused but also still, obviously, keeps the retailer happy being there and being involved in whatever events take place.”
One idea is to use the interior design section of a store, such as John Lewis & Partners, to showcase the work of local mills and, perhaps, the Edinburgh College of Art’s Interior Design faculty in a series of ‘capsule collections’ that sit alongside an established range. “So that it also becomes interesting to youngsters who want to get into the industry and to people aware of what the industry is doing and where it needs to go, eventually.”
That educational piece will have sustainability at its core as we emerge into a world that increasingly grapples with climate change across all industries. Longevity and purpose seem to be the message. With COP26 (United Nations Climate Change Conference) taking place in Scotland later this year, the fashion industry – like every other industry – will be under the microscope more than ever before.
“That’s my little challenge that I’ve got to work on, to deliver something nice, but also something that is on a global scale, so we can bring in people for it, you know; that there’s an actual excitement of people coming to see these kind of events, or certain collections that come out of this… it’s not an easy one, but I’m sure I can come up with something.”
It is a challenge that Freemantle-Zee is looking forward to, and, judging by her track record, one she will have little difficulty in surmounting. As for what the future holds, it seems that she is in a constant state of learning and evolving and hasn’t sat still during lockdown – far from it. “I am in the process of finishing off a child psychology degree, which I’m not sure what I’m going to do with, but I’m intrigued by the psyche. I’m currently fleshing out ideas for a psyche, medical and fashion exhibition with one of the great museums.”
Then there’s her work as a muse for the international couturier, Iris van Herpen. More recently, that has centred around future predicting and DNA extraction, which all sounds rather fascinating. “I didn’t really have a five-year plan. My children are ten and 13 now, and they’re up and running, but once they’re all settled in, God knows what I’ll do. My husband is an artist, and he can go anywhere he wants. So, I don’t know… Covid has made a couple of changes – some good, some not so good, but I’m very happy to just be where I am at the moment.”
Edinburgh might hang onto Anna Freemantle-Zee for a little bit longer, at least for now.