Subscribe to Holyrood updates

Newsletter sign-up


Follow us

Scotland’s fortnightly political & current affairs magazine


Subscribe to Holyrood
Fashion sense

Fashion sense

On an afternoon last week, Mark Hogarth walks into the calm of the lounge of The Bonham Hotel in Edinburgh’s West End, in a snazzy tweed biker’s jacket (we plunge straight into conversation, and I forget to check my wild guess at its style).

It’s a busy time for the creative director of Harris Tweed Hebrides.

While the official Ryder Cup Harris Tweed collection, created in partnership with Edinburgh-based retailer Walker Slater, was unveiled last May, its impact is truly felt during the tournament. So much so, that the co-founder of the band Chic, Nile Rodgers, who was appearing at the competition’s gala concert, was impressed enough to request that a special suit be made for the show.

The Harris Tweed industry used to be seasonal “with an intensive push towards August followed by a quieter autumn characterised by design and sampling,” said Hogarth. Not so now, with September “a flurry of design, weaving and last-minute orders for the coming Autumn/Winter collections and beyond.” And while he’s in the capital, Hogarth is taking the opportunity to whip up interest in ‘The Harris Tweed Ride for Wool Week’.

Staged this Sunday (5 October) in conjunction with Harvey Nichols, it is described as a “gentle two-wheeled odyssey meandering through Ye Olde Reekie featuring Walker Slater, The Blackbird, Tea at The Bonham, Hamiltons and Common People (the shop) and most importantly, Dapper Ladies and Chic chaps. Prizes and surprises with a dash of Victorian ambience by Hendricks”.
The Campaign for Wool, with the Prince of Wales as its patron, is designed to raise awareness amongst consumers about the “unique, natural and sustainable benefits” of the material.

This combination of tradition, quality, style, collaboration and global reach is very much at the heart of Hogarth’s approach to his job.

Harris Tweed Hebrides was founded in 2007 by a consortium led by former trade and energy minister Brian Wilson, today the company’s chairman. From a low ebb, the industry has been revitalised and the famous fabric brought to the forefront of 21st century fashion and design.

Based at Shawbost on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis, it now accounts for around 90 per cent of Harris Tweed production. With skilled artisans throughout the company, representing generations of experience in this craft industry, it works closely with more than 130 self-employed home weavers whose skills are fundamental to the process.

In the last few years output has risen from a low of 250,000 metres a year to an annual production of one million. Harris Tweed Hebrides was named Textile Brand of the Year 2009 at the Scottish Fashion Awards and again in 2011. It exports to more than 60 countries and customers including Alexander McQueen, Chanel, YSL, Paul Smith, Margaret Howell, J Crew, Rag&Bone, and Vivienne Westwood.

It’s a far cry from the product’s founding, born in the Western Isles out of a need for insulation from the elements. It was the Countess of Dunmore, who initially popularised the cloth amongst her aristocratic friends and became the driving force behind the development of the Harris Tweed industry in the 19th century. From there, it reached its heyday in 1967 when output hit seven million meteres annually.

But with around 15 mills and more than 5,000 weavers, a combination of declining demand, price-cutting and the advent of cheaper, synthetic fabrics and more transitory logo-based fashion, the industry entered into decline. Ironically, the financial crash of 2007 provided a re-entry point for Harris Tweed.

“People stopped buying bling,” said Hogarth, “and there was a trend to products with provenance, that lasted for more than one fashion cycle. And it was helped by the whole hipster movement, which buoyed the artisanal approach to all kinds of products.”

How, though, to combat the cyclical nature of fashion? “The best way to keep your brand equity as high as possible is collaboration,” said. “The sum of the parts is always greater and collaborations make for good stories. The key element is never plateau, get better, bolder. You can’t talk about what you did last year or last month.

“It’s interesting to look at other models, such as the whisky industry; they don’t look over their shoulders at what other whiskies are doing they look outwards to what other luxury brands are doing. It’s certainly something we can learn from. 

“It’s about taking a cottage industry that operates in a global market and retaining that individuality, the element of story-telling, highlighting the colour and demonstrating that the luxury is in the process. I won’t rest until we are seen as a luxury product. Not in the handle, we are not silk or cashmere but in the sense of conveying that complexity in same way as if you drink Laphroaig or a Lagavulin.”

Learning from, and collaborating with, luxury brands extends to collaborating with quality in other sectors, said Hogarth. That includes the knowledge economy: “The success of the industry is solely down to the islanders, the future looks solid and connections with academia have helped in innovation and development.”

One example is a £125,000 project, supported by Creative Scotland, with the School of Textiles at Heriot-Watt University which aims to keep the heritage of the iconic fabric firmly at the centre of innovations and new products and hopes to develop new woven fabric and product ranges for interiors and fashion. As well as the design and artisanship being rooted in Scotland, Hogarth is hopeful that some manufacturing can be ‘re-shored’.

There is already a small, but significant shift from the Far East back to the periphery of Europe and Hogarth sees no reason why it can’t reach Scotland. “There’s a balance to be had,” he said, “and it would help cut down on the fashion miles.” And with that, Hogarth is off, back to promoting the Harris Tweed Ride for Wool Week.

Holyrood Newsletters

Holyrood provides comprehensive coverage of Scottish politics, offering award-winning reporting and analysis: Subscribe

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox


Popular reads
Back to top