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Inspiration Stories

The Harris Tweed Renaissance

From traditional sports jackets to Converse All Stars, Harris Tweed is an industry transformed. Creative Director of Harris Tweed Hebrides, Mark Hogarth, explains how.

“I’m proud to work for a company that is humble and ultimately just wants this island industry to thrive – but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Harris Tweed Hebrides saved this industry.”

Mark Hogarth would know. As Creative Director of Harris Tweed Hebrides he’s helped engineer the resurrection of an industry that, just a decade ago, was on the brink of collapse.

Put into figures, seven million metres of Harris Tweed fabric was produced in 1967 – the industry’s golden year. By 2005, that figure was down more than 95 per cent.

It’s hard not to admire the success of Harris Tweed. The trademark Orb stamp adorning each piece of the fabric is recognised around the world, all from a humble island community nestled away in the furthest reaches of northwestern Europe.

But it hasn’t been plain sailing. The rise of synthetics in the 1980s coupled with undercutting of the island’s mills, supply-side constraints and the lack of a cohesive marketing strategy saw it fall into sharp decline. It then experienced a decade of boom and bust in the 1990s. By the turn of the century, grey clouds had gathered over the mills.

“Ultimately, you could sum up it up by saying that Harris Tweed was in industrial decline all the way to 2005 when the lowest meterage was recorded.” says Mark. “At that stage there wasn’t really an industry because there wasn’t that critical mass needed to retain the necessary skills.”

The Renaissance

They were never lost entirely, though. Scottish politician Brian Wilson, realising the opportunity to resurrect a global icon, assembled a team to reintroduce this traditional fabric to the modern world. Investors backed the vision, and in 2007 Harris Tweed Hebrides was founded.

In business we can use the words ‘consumers’ or ‘clients’, but it’s ultimately about people. There’s often too much of an emphasis on statistics and numbers.

There was no taking the fabric away from its past. To depart from this, from the flora and fauna that directly inspire the fabric and from the islanders who hand-weave it, would be to depart from its heritage. But neither was it going to be a repeat of the past. “There was never any problem with the product,” says Mark. “The problem was the fact that it had become far too synonymous with the badly-cut gentleman’s jacket.”

Operating out of the Shawbost Mill the Isle of Lewis, Harris Tweed Hebrides started targeting new clients – including Top Man, Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel. ‘The Champagne of Fabric’, as Mark started referring to it, started appearing on everything from handbags and wallets to dresses and basketball shoes.

All the while, though, Harris Tweed Hebrides maintained the interest of some of the fabric’s more traditional clients. “We’ve aimed to be more inclusive, and the best way to do that has been to push our fabric in different directions via different products,” says Mark. “So anything from a purse all the way up to a sofa.”

An old story told anew

The success of the Harris Tweed renaissance is largely down to the way in which Harris Tweed Hebrides has told the story of the fabric.

As Mark explains: “It was a case of picking out the gold dust and the dynamism of this unique product, produced in a very beautiful and robust but, of course, socioeconomically vulnerable part of the world, and then really putting that story together. It didn’t need hyperbolae – it just needed to reach a deep, broad audience, and not just a traditional demographic.

“We became more confident in our product. Post-crash, people became more interested in well-made, quality products; they became wary of ‘fast fashion’, or products that were made for a short period of time. With Harris Tweed there was never any element of planned obsolescence.”

The most challenging aspect of the business, Mark claims, has been striking a balance between modernity and tradition – summed up by the brand’s targeting the likes of Top Man and Tetrad at the same time.

But the example speaks volumes about Harris Tweed Hebrides’ entire ethos. “We don’t want to be putting a message out there that isolates people,” says Mark. “In business we can use the words ‘consumers’ or ‘clients’, but it’s ultimately about people. I think there’s often too much of an emphasis on statistics and numbers and all of these arbitrary terms, because in the end it all comes down to people, and people are emotional entities.”

And the response speaks for itself. The industry now provides direct employment for some 300 islanders (a considerable figure given the modest local population), and the fabric is finding its way into new markets across the globe each and every year. Last year, 1.5 million metres of Harris Tweed was produced.

It was a case of picking out the gold dust and the dynamism of this unique product, produced in a very beautiful and robust but, of course, socioeconomically vulnerable part of the world, and then really putting that story together.

The growth outlook is optimistic. “When people realise that something might disappear forever, they get a little bit more sensitive towards it,” says Mark. Harris Tweed Hebrides has gone some way to ensuring that this sensitivity endures.

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