It is now synonymous with the very latest in sartorial cool – worn by everyone from Ben Affleck in Academy Award winning Argo to musical icon Madonna and used by designers from Vivienne Westwood to Chanel. Yet just six years ago Scottish heritage brand Harris Tweed was in danger of disappearing altogether. At the forefront of the fabric’s incredible renaissance has been a perhaps unlikely knight in shining armour – former Labour energy minister Brian Wilson.
He says: “I have spent most of my working life as a journalist and politician but have always had an entrepreneurial streak. When I left university, friends and I started a newspaper called the West Highland Free Press. It is still going after more than 40 years, as the only employee-owned newspaper in Britain. When I came out of politics in 2005, the Harris Tweed opportunity arose by coincidence of timing rather than by any stroke of genius on my part.”
A remarkable turnaround
Turning Harris Tweed around from bust to boom did, however, require a considerable amount of nous. Poor investment and a fall in sales had hit the brand hard, with seasonally-based production slipping. Perception of the brand was that it was outdated and stuffy, a long way from its current status, used by high-street chains like Top Man, as well as boutique labels including Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton.
Wilson formed Harris Tweed Hebrides with a group of co-investors in 2007, re-opening a mill in Shawbost on the west coast of Lewis, after the owner of the largest tweed maker in Stornoway had decided to drastically cut Harris Tweed production to make just one small range of jackets. When this happened, people sat up and took notice of what was, says Wilson, “a real race against the clock to forestall a catastrophic point of no return.”
He continues: “When things looked really grim for Harris Tweed, several people I held in high regard approached me about the mill at Shawbost which had been closed for a couple of years but still had equipment in it. I was pretty sure a good friend, oil trader Ian Taylor, would come up with the bulk of the necessary investment. We got started in the nick of time.”
Since then, objectives for Harris Tweed Hebrides have become increasingly progressive. For the first time, Harris Tweed is a year-round industry. “Historically, it was very seasonal and went up and down according to the cycle of sampling, ordering and producing. We have managed to level that out and do not lay people off in winter. That is a huge advance.”
What is remarkable is the speed in which the brand has been revitalised. Wilson continues: “We set about a very proactive campaign of doing this. The challenges of operating the mill were in the capable hands of our Chief Executive, Ian Angus MacKenzie, who had been in the industry all his life and brought in the very best team to support him. I was involved mainly in promoting the brand and, by good fortune, the person who had worked with me when I was still in politics, Mark Hogarth, was ideally suited to that mission, with a background in fashion. He became Creative Director.
“In retrospect, it is obvious that Harris Tweed had long been crying out for fresh eyes to look at it in a far more creative way.”
Definition of craftsmanship
Key to this has been making the most of Harris Tweed’s tradition of exceptional craftsmanship, with its Orb trademark one of the oldest in existence, in continuous use for over 100 years. Adds Wilson: “A Harris Tweed Act of the Westminster Parliament defines Harris Tweed. It must be made from pure virgin wool, handwoven at the home of the weaver in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Without that definition and statutory protection, it would not exist.
“The Harris Tweed Authority is constantly fighting legal cases involving breaches of the trademark. Harris Tweed Hebrides funds the vast majority of that through the levy on Orb-stamped tweed but the structure of the industry means we can’t stop people taking risks with the trademark or the Intellectual Property of Harris Tweed. That can be frustrating. There will be an even bigger need for vigilance in the future – particularly in China where there are already regular attempts to copy it.
Into the future
“Relationships are very important. Our biggest market is Japan and we have a fantastic agent there who keeps very close to end-users. A good agent is worth their weight in gold but increasingly there is direct contact with customers. This has to be managed by people who are talking the same language on the basis of knowledge and experience of the industry.”
As Harris Tweed goes from strength to strength, it will continue to work hard to protect its brand and trademark, and the long heritage of quality craftsmanship that these represent.
“Our most important assets are the Harris Tweed brand and the trademark protection which it enjoys,” states Wilson. “It’s a name known the world over with a provenance and reputation that major companies would kill for – yet the whole thing comes down to about 150 weavers and 100 mill-workers living on an island off the North West of Scotland.”
5 business lessons
- Go for it – if you are lucky enough to come across an opportunity that excites you, don't calculate for too long.
- Don’t pretend to know more than you do – bring in the people who have real expertise.
- Be loyal – to those whom you depend on for advice and support.
- Treat everyone with courtesy and respect – it is surprising how often this will be reciprocated, maybe years later in unexpected circumstances.
- Keep travelling – this is an essential source of ideas, information and original thought.
- To find out more about Harris Tweed visit:
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