IT’S not everyone who’s given the chance to design their own tartan so when the opportunity arose, Vixy Rae didn’t need to give it a second thought.

Despite a childhood antipathy to the stuff rooted in the “biscuit tin culture” of Edinburgh's tartan-bedecked Royal Mile, the 45-year-old designer and retailer is now a convert. So much so that she has even written a book about it, The Secret Life Of Tartan. In it she runs through some of the myths and untruths that surround tartan, visits those who make and wear it today, and shows how it’s promoted and celebrated both as a heritage artefact and as a contemporary textile with universal fashion appeal. The Edinburgh native also charts her own relationship with our world-famous national fabric.

“For me, tartan was Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen, or it was the Royal Mile, and then there was this huge void in between,” she explains. “I didn’t own anything tartan. I didn’t quite get it. I didn’t have a strong family lineage, either … I love fabric, I love colour and I love people, that’s always been my career, but I was like: ‘Where does tartan sit with me?’ I wanted to learn about it and understand it.”

As for Rae’s self-designed tartan, it came about as a result of her day job and her association with our other world-famous national fabric: tweed. In 2015 she and business partner Dan Fearn took over Stewart Christie, then a stuffy and unloved, if venerable and long-standing Edinburgh tailor, and set about dragging it into the 21st century by its elasticated braces.

“It’s funny to think that we’re now kind of custodians of it,” she says, looking around the sedate and pleasantly-cluttered downstairs room which is her main domain and which serves as a showroom for the female clients the company is now drawing in increasing numbers. “I used to walk past and think I’d never go in there, but you know there was so much history and heritage which was just covered in dust. It has been a joy really. It has been a really fun journey.”

The company turns 300 next year and as part of the next stage of that journey Rae has come up with a Stewart Christie tartan. It has been designed in-house and woven in Hawick. “I wanted the colours to be something I could wear, because there’s not a lot in tartan that I would wear, and I wanted it to tell a story,” she says.

To that end she has based it on two greens: the original Racing Green which for decades was the colour of choice for Stewart Christie’s shopfront, and the brighter variant which appeared in the late 1970s. To that she has added a powdery blue and three stripes of what she calls “Old Gold”, one for each century of business. “Then I’ve completely weathered it and muted it, so it’s like a hunting tartan. And it’s so tasteful. I think it’s beautiful.”

She pulls out her phone to show me a picture of a kilt-in-progress in the new tartan, its knife pleats pinned ready to be sewn and ironed. She also plans to use the tartan in accessories and in collaborations with the makers of other garments, such as macs. Is there a danger of the company over-extending with its ambitions and, more pressingly, its new tartan? No, she says. The aim is to mark and celebrate the company’s three centuries of business and then use the new tartan “subtly and wisely”. “I’m not going to splatter it everywhere.”

She’s right to be mindful of the company’s heritage. Stewart Christie is the oldest bespoke tailor in Scotland and, along with Campbell’s of Beauly, the only one which still makes its suits on the premises. Alexander McCall Smith is a loyal customer, as was Sir Walter Scott before him. The company still has correspondence from the author in its archives.

Other modern day customers include the actors Ewan McGregor and Jack Lowden, and Prince Charles, who recently commissioned a doublet in dark green silk velvet. “Me and Dan did the personal fitting,” says Rae proudly. “We went and met him, then we took up the skeleton fit with the tailor, and then we hand-delivered it. It’s absolutely beautiful. We don’t have photographs yet but we’re waiting. He loves it. He’s worn it twice.

“We made for his grandfather and his great-grandfather. We didn’t make for his dad because we lost our Royal warrant in the 1970s, but now we’ve made that I’m looking to get it back.”

Clearly, Rae’s client list tends towards the wealthy then. “A lot of our customers have two or three houses,” she says. “They’ll get all their tailoring for the whole family and then they’ll come in six months when they’re back in Scotland. We have some things that sit on the rail for a year because someone will have something made and then they’re away travelling.”

She reels off some of the institutions the company services – the Royal Company of Archers, the R&A, the New Club – and the gilded individuals who are long-standing customers, among them the Duke of Buccleuch and Lord Thurso. Understandably things tend to become rather hectic towards the start of the grouse shooting season on August 12.

But that mixture of tradition and innovation which now distinguishes the company doesn’t stop at the front door of its woody premises on Queen Street. On the pavement outside is an old red telephone box which Rae has commandeered and fitted out with wood panelling and an antique phone that actually works.

“They were going to take it away and I said: ‘Over my dead body’,” she laughs. “You have to buy them through a charity so I approached Save The Children. They paid £1 for it and then sold it to me for £1. So I own it and have the responsibility for it.”

She has christened it Gilbert after architect Sir George Gilbert Scott, who designed the iconic kiosks. The plan is to fill it with hats and other dressing-up props and let people inside for selfies in exchange for a £3 charitable donation to Save The Children, payable by text message. And right next door to Stewart Christie is another Rae initiative – possibly Edinburgh’s most stylish and eccentric tea-room (or teahouse, as it styles itself).

Rae has christened it The Chaumer and installed her 18-year-old son there as a part-time barista. It’s doing a roaring trade on the day I visit and through the back is a wonderful, old-fashioned bedroom which is available to rent via Airbnb. Come evening, The Chaumer doubles as a wine bar. It also functions as an ad hoc boardroom for company meetings and get-togethers. Told you it was eccentric.

In a sense, though, it’s in keeping with the woman herself, her background and the spirit with which she has tackled this and previous endeavours.

Rae’s was an unusual childhood. Her step-father is editor and businessman Ewen MacCaig which meant her step-grandfather was the esteemed Scottish poet Norman MacCaig. Home was a bohemian, book-lined flat on Hanover Street, in the city centre and just a few hundred metres from Stewart Christie. The flat adjoined the Edinburgh Wine Bar, the place to see and be seen in the 1980s and early 1990s. MacCaig co-owned it along with another legendary howff and artistic hangout, The Doric.

When she wasn’t wandering around the wine bar being given free food by the chefs Rae attended the Edinburgh Steiner School, an independent school under-pinned by the free-thinking educational philosophies of its Austrian founder, Rudolf Steiner. Creativity was prized so naturally poetry was on the curriculum – MacCaig’s included. One day Rae asked her step-grandfather if he would come to school to talk about it. He said he would.

“He was so sweet,” she recalls. “He came to the class and he sat at the front and held my hand and the first thing he said was: ‘I feel that if you’re all having to study my poetry, then it has all gone tits up.’ It was just because he wasn’t a big academic. He didn’t enjoy school. He thought you should just enjoy poetry, you shouldn’t have to study it.”

Rae left school at 17 and headed first to Telford College, where she did a foundation course, and then Napier University, to study photography. She didn’t last long. “I just didn’t enjoy it,” she says. “It was just breeding wedding photographers”.

A self-styled ‘Skate Betty’ – slang for a girl who enjoys skateboarding – she was more interested in photographing graffiti and skate kids than she was in mastering composition or darkroom techniques. And it was skateboarding which first took her into retail, with a shop on the city’s Candlemaker Row selling clothes to the skaters who frequented nearby Bristo Square.

Rae later took on Glasgow’s Dr Jives and opened Odd One Out on Edinburgh’s Victoria Street, from where she sold cult labels such as A.P.C and Manhattan Portage in premises now occupied by outfitters Walker Slater. Her steady hand was involved in that enterprise too, spending six years there during the hipster boom that put brogues, Baker boy caps and tweed suits at the top of the modern man’s list of fashion must-haves. And it was there that she met Fearn, a 15-year-veteran of the company and the head designer in its menswear department.

What happened next saw both Fearn and Rae leave Walker Slater a short time apart. Both had their reasons. “It was not a great departure,” says Rae matter-of-factly. “My time was done and I’m proud of what I designed there, but I needed to come out”. But when Fearn heard of the upcoming retirement of Duncan Lowe, the fourth generation of his family to run Stewart Christie, he pounced. Sort of, anyway. As Rae tells it, Lowe hung up on Fearn the first time he called with an offer to buy, only relenting gradually in follow-up conversations.

When the pair did finally take over, the company had 11 workers. It now has 27 and as well as increasing the number of employees Rae is expanding the company's premises, its business and its influence. She's about to turn a basement area under The Chaumer into a new workshop, having acquired eight sewing machines from the woman who used to make up skirts for her from her design patterns. The company is also looking to take over a tie maker which is on the verge of closing down. And Rae, the first female member of the Incorporation of Tailors of Edinburgh, is involved in a project which will allow fashion students in Edinburgh and Glasgow to undertake a new Scottish Voluntary Qualification in tailoring. Part of it will involve a week’s internship at Stewart Christie.

Plans, plans, plans. But as much as she has designs on the future, Vixy Rae will always keep an eye on the past. She returns again to that word “custodian”.

“We need to keep it going,” she says of the Edinburgh institution now in her temporary care. “It has been 300 years and we need to keep it going for the next 300 years – and keep it going gracefully and not forget about how we used to shop and how we used to make things and how we used to care about garments. All of that stuff means a lot to me and I’m passionate about it.”