WHAT started as a hobby for York-based textiles designer and dog lover Lilly Shahravesh now leads the pack in canine couture. Ruth Campbell discovers what inspires her

THE converted attic of a Victorian terraced riverside home in York is the unlikely setting for the creative hub of an international luxury dog wear design brand which has gathered a celebrity following.

Famous fans of Lilly Shahravesh’s beautifully tailored British tweed coats, hand knitted virgin wool sweaters, cute Italian leather collars and designer bow ties for dogs include Jonathan Ross, Gabby Logan and Jimmy Carr.

Her hand-cut, individually stitched canine couture has appeared on the catwalk alongside designs by Vivienne Westwood and Ben de Lisi and she recently created a jewel-studded collar for Brazilian footballer Neymar Jr’s golden retriever Poker, an item so precious it was protected by security guards.

Since launching her LoveMyDog label in 2003, turnover has quadrupled: “Dogs are part of the family now. We give them human names, like Alfie and Betty, rather than Patch or Scruff. We take them on holiday. They have taken on a different role,” says Lilly. It follows, she says, that owners want to buy them well-designed products made from high standard materials: “The market has grown and changed.”

An Iranian, born in Tehran, Lilly loves working with traditional, good quality British textiles, such as Liberty cotton prints, corduroy and handwoven Scottish tweeds, and feels she benefits from observing British culture and landscape through the eyes of an ‘outsider’.

The daughter of a doctor and a beautician, she came to England to attend boarding school in Surrey when she was seven. “I thought it was the most exciting, exotic place I had ever been to,” she says. “I loved the people, the countryside and the food – roasts, shepherd’s pies and bread and butter pudding.”

Her strong sense of Britishness is reflected in her designs, which are classic with a clever urban twist. Leads and collars are hand-crafted by traditional British saddle makers and one of LoveMyDog’s bestselling coats is cut from Melton wool, traditionally used in the uniform of Buckingham Palace guards. The Rivington coat was inspired by Prince William’s RAF uniform and deerstalker hats have been a surprise hit.

As well as these ready-to-wear designs, Lilly makes bespoke outfits and is introducing a high-end Lish label, featuring luxurious one-off fabrics, to complement the mid-priced LoveMyDog range. “Sometimes people want matching outfits or something special, a dog version of a Savile Row suit, for a wedding, big celebration or red carpet events,” she says.

Since everything is hand-crafted in England, LoveMyDog doesn’t deal in large volumes, stresses Lilly, who has even visited the Outer Hebrides and worked with islanders to create her own signature Harris tweed. “This unique fabric is still woven by hand, as it has been for generations, on the island, using wool from hardy breeds, which makes the cloth extremely soft, hardwearing and very warm,” she says.

She sells around 6,000 products, including 2,000 dog coats, every year and there are waiting lists for Harris tweed coats and pet carriers. “We literally can’t keep up with demand.”

Previously based in London, Lilly, who trained at Middlesex Poly, started out designing knitwear and textiles for high street fashion chains, including Next and French Connection, but quickly became disillusioned. “I found it suffocating,” she says. “If you have got a creative streak, designing something different doesn’t work. You have to follow trends.”

She began creating dog wear as a hobby, after her sister Missy bought a chihuahua miniature pinscher cross puppy in the late Nineties. “I started taking her little gifts, but could never find good quality designs,” says Lilly.

She created a few one-off items, including a crocheted dog sweater and a fleece-lined coat, which she also started making for friends. She never dreamed she would end up as a full-time designer for dogs but, with such an obvious gap in the market, she was inspired to launch LoveMyDog in 2003. When she set up at her first trade show, no-one showed any interest until the last day, when a Harrods buyer walked past and bought the whole collection. “That was my big break,” says Lilly.

But it was hard work: “I was on my own, working until midnight, sewing on buttons and stitching velcro on Friday nights, when everyone else was out enjoying themselves.”

Her path to success wasn’t straightforward and eight years ago she nearly went bust. “Picking up again was my biggest challenge,” she says. “I over-expanded – it was a big learning curve – but I rode the storm and connecting with the online market was what saved me.”

Today, Lilly employs six full-time staff to create the stylish outdoor dog wear which sells in some of the most prestigious stores across the world, including Harrods, Heal’s and Selfridges, with a loyal band of followers from the States to Japan and throughout Europe.

She draws constant inspiration from the cathedral city of York and surrounding countryside: “It could be the texture of a paving stone, an elderflower bush or blackberries we’ve picked. I love the change of seasons and the river front, where we live.”

She and husband Paul Kirkman moved to the city five years ago when he was appointed director of the National Railway Museum and Lilly converted the attic of their new home into her design studio, while retaining her workshop in London.

Although Paul has since left the museum to start his own consultancy, the couple have no plans to move. “We love it here, it’s so cosmopolitan and cycle-friendly, with lots going on,” says Lilly. “We can also get to the countryside easily.”

Her dog Rabbit, a Norfolk terrier Jack Russell cross which she acquired ten years ago, loves it too. “Most of the time he is really stinky and covered in mud, but he is my muse,” says Lilly. “Everything gets road-tested on him.”

People often stop and comment on whatever jacket or raincoat he’s wearing when they’re out for a walk. “But I’m always too embarrassed to say I made it,” laughs Lilly.

  • Prices range from £25 for a snood to £325 for a bed. Coats range from £59 for a quilted raincoat to £150 for a deluxe tweed.
  • W: http://lovemydog.co.uk