Felicia Brocklebank loves crawling through bog and heather in the pouring rain, often covered in mud and soaked – but never to the skin. As an experienced deerstalker, she knows – like many generations before her – exactly how to kit up for keeping out the worst the weather can throw at her. The difference is that she wants, while lying in sodden undergrowth waiting for the perfect shot, to look almost as impeccable as she does going for a stroll down Bond Street. And she isn’t the only one to have such high expectations. Like Brocklebank, who is a director of children’s shoe firm Papouelli, Claire Zambuni dovetails running her eponymous communications agency with a number of other commitments – not least her shooting adventures around the world.
They are two members of a fast-growing group that is changing the face of country clothing: high-flying women with a serious interest in field sports. Women have increasingly infiltrated the long-established male‑bonding exercise of the corporate shoot and all‑female days have become popular. Lessons are offered at schools such as Holland & Holland Shooting Grounds, which has trained some 2,000 female shots since it set up the Green Feathers course for women in 1995. Then, women made up about five per cent of clients, says director of operations Steve Denny – now it’s 20 per cent. Gunsmith and clothing supplier Purdey, which is almost 200 years old, has run women’s courses for nine years, and finds that although 85 per cent of clients are first-timers, 80 per cent of those continue to shoot. Women-only clubs are proliferating, from Zambuni’s The Shooting Society, based at members’ club Home House and intended to be social as well as sporting, to Just for Ladies Shooting Club, the women’s section of estate-shoot hub Guns on Pegs, set up by City lawyer Emma Pegler. Another example is The Shotgun & Chelsea Bun Club, which was founded by country girl Victoria Knowles-Lacks a year ago to offer clay-pigeon shooting and socialising days via social media and has already involved 1,800 women. “They all like to dress correctly and look good, and the City corporate days are the most competitive in all directions,” says Knowles-Lacks. Their demands are adding a stylish dimension to this once utilitarian area of clothing.
Country attire used to be divided into practical gear mainly for men, in stiff, thornproof tweed or waterproof fabrics with function taking precedence over form, and tweed- or cashmere-based women’s outfits, sometimes sumptuously fashionable and intended for supportive consorts who joined their partners for the shoot lunch – take the Russian woman who, according to Holland & Holland’s creative director Niels van Rooyen, “thought shooting tweeds meant a Chanel suit”. Today’s active female shots – such as the eight City guns on a recent women’s day that Roubi L’Roubi, co-owner and creative director of Savile Row tailor Huntsman, held at his Hampshire estate – make no such faux pas. “Their demand to look stylish in functional clothes was as uncompromising as their shooting was efficient,” says L’Roubi. “It ranked as one of the best days of the season, with a very decent bag. Their male partners came along, but only as their loaders.”
In a relatively close-knit world, top female shots such as Brocklebank and Zambuni know the designers at traditional shooting suppliers and are not shy about explaining their needs. Brocklebank – who has always shopped at Holland & Holland because her father bought guns there – has been giving feedback to van Rooyen. “If you are stalking for four days, crawling along the ground, you need a tweed that will dry out overnight in a heated room, so you can brush the mud off,” she says. “It also has to be comfortable to move in.” She believes van Rooyen has brought “an extra dimension of beauty and practicality” to the brand’s clothing and returned it to its elegant British roots. “There has been a real change in attitude among shooting women in the UK, towards making a great effort to look smart in an understated, quietly elegant way.” Van Rooyen says he achieves this with “the best British fabrics – tweed, moleskin, cord and cashmere – in earthy colours from flora and fauna, horn and wood, with a fashion element that features bird or leopard prints. The clothes always have technical aspects, too, such as a zip-out waterproof lining, or expanding shoulder panels that are virtually undetectable when you wear the jacket over a cocktail dress in the evening.” Seventy per cent of the items are made in the UK, using cashmere from Barrie (now owned, like Holland & Holland, by Chanel), and sales have risen by over 50 per cent in the past two years. “Our customers feel that they need to look glamorous but practical. Where it used to be a shapeless wax coat and wellies, it’s now a well-cut tweed jacket, which can be worn with jeans at the weekend, and shaped, lined boots from brands such as Dubarry [from £199] or our own, made by Le Chameau [£345].”
However, warns William Asprey, chairman and founder of William & Son, who has greatly upgraded his company’s choice of womenswear on the advice of his shooting wife Lucy, “people will take the proverbial if you turn up with all-new kit. You risk the old adage ‘all the gear, no idea’. Our aim is to offer lovely things that pay great attention to colour and line, are sensibly priced, and are as fashionable as shooting allows – they must be waterproof, comfortable and enable you to climb fences and shoot easily.” He notes that recent warmer, wetter weather makes “a modern, breathable coat from a brand such as Schöffel [from £320] as important as a tweed jacket [£550], which is better for crisp weather. And many women like a waistcoat with a cashmere jumper [£295]. Accessories, including cashmere gloves and scarves, can multitask as weekend wear, as can our slim-cut trousers [£295], which can be tucked into boots or worn with shoes in the evening.” Purdey aims for a similar balance, and has recently returned to a practical beauty, adding technical linings to the best tweed and cartridge pockets with flaps that stay up for easy access (field coat, £875; scarf, £475, and hat by Philip Treacy, £825).
For beginners, there’s a wealth of online advice on what to wear, not least from other female shots. While Holland & Holland and Purdey offer formal advice (and will do personal appointments) on shooting wear and etiquette, websites such as the one started by Knowles-Lacks, who favours sensible but attractive clothes from Schöffel and Alan Paine, are more relaxed. As Zambuni says, “For wild shooting in Lapland or chasing ptarmigan on mountains, clothes have to cope with subzero gales or water running down your arms. My favourites are a Barbour Cotterdale jacket [£379], a Holland & Holland tweed Half Norfolk jacket [£795], a nubuck Really Wild waistcoat [£495], nubuck breeks from Cordings [from £545], Huntsman bespoke tweed trousers [from £1,480], a recycled-fur hat from Where the Fox Hat [from £595] and Pickett accessories. It’s important that what you wear always looks elegant because one big reason women shoot is the social side – networking and meeting people with shared interests.”
A growing number of female designers are shooting enthusiasts. Managing director and designer Natalie Lake set up the Really Wild Clothing Company 11 years ago with the Royal Berkshire Shooting School after learning to shoot there and finding a dearth of good-looking, suitable outfits. With support from Dylan Williams, CEO of the school’s holding company, she shrewdly realised that country style has a timeless fashion element and set out to design properly fitted and functional field-sports items that could double as rural weekend wear, as spotted on the Duchess of Cambridge. Tailored jackets (from £375), waistcoats (£395) and trousers (£400) in traditional, softly coloured Scottish tweed or leather are joined this winter by the new RW Collection London, which has a more contemporary, urban look and introduces black, but can be mixed with the shooting pieces – a recognition that many modern women shots lead primarily city-based lives. On the rural side, Helen Barbour, deputy chairman of her family firm, took up shooting several years ago and felt Barbour’s offering could be upgraded. “This is an area where I can really contribute to the business,” she says. “With our designer and the help of Claire Zambuni, we’ve created a range that looks smart and sensible and does the job in mud and rain at any time of year. Wax jackets don’t have enough movement, so we use tweed [blazer, £279], and include trousers [from £199] as opposed to breeks – women shooters want to be well turned out.” Knowles-Lacks agrees and plans to offer a clothing range with her clay-pigeon days.
The ultimate for aspiring female shots is to order, as their male equivalents have done for generations, a bespoke suit. Oliver Brown does excellent off-the-peg field-sports wear, but, says owner Kristian Robson, “we are expanding our range to cope with demand – adding more of our own tweeds and new brands such as Schöffel, as well as growing our bespoke service. Our tailor can create any item to order [made-to-measure suits from £900, bespoke from £1,750].”
Meanwhile, Huntsman is gaining female clients because of L’Roubi’s philosophy. As he says, “A tweed shooting suit [from £5,000] needs an expandable back, and to be weatherproof and warm in cold weather. It has to be sensible but never frumpy. That is the brief and the challenge.” One that designers such as him are rising to and that more and more women appreciate.