Geoffrey Laird-Portch JP
Tartan maker and exporter
Born: 7 April, 1932, in Greenwich.
Died: 19 January, 2006, in Elie, Fife, aged 73.
GEOFFREY Laird-Portch was the innovative pioneer of tartan fashion whose work stormed Paris and New York catwalks. His introduction of the mini-kilt proved a showstopper, and the two fashion centres seized upon it a generation ahead of Vivienne Westwood.
In Scotland of the 1950s, tartan was becoming old-fashioned and outmoded, though abroad it presented a hallmark of prosperity and good taste. When his marketing consultant suggested a sales mission to Europe based on a Buick hand-painted in tartan, Laird-Portch was up for it. By the time the "Yank tank" crossed the Channel, the paint job was reputedly worth more than the car. In the resulting sales, even the Vatican proved a customer.
Laird-Portch was a characterful man, slightly Churchillian in appearance, whose presence and personality made him appear larger than he actually stood. He had the courage to take risks and to forge new markets with new products, and was rewarded by being one of the youngest businessman ever to win two Queen's Awards. He sold off the original Laird-Portch company to Coats Patons, restarting as Clan Laird - being promptly re-joined by many of his old staff. The business ceased when as the result of internal fraud, the receivers were called in.
At its height, his East Kilbride-based business rivalled the nearby Rolls-Royce aero-engine factory in numbers of employees. But while Rolls-Royce employed men, he took on their womenfolk, and in a move radical for the early 1960s, opened a crche for children of staff.
A one-time Marks & Spencer trainee, Laird-Portch pioneered mass-marketing of tartan through an array of Highland dress, manufacturing in wool, silk and synthetic fibres and retailing tartan, finished kilts, jackets, sporrans, flashes, scarves, golf caps, tammies, travel rugs, waistcoats, ties, cummerbunds, sashes, stoles, braces, squares, skirts, shawls and bonnets.
Adept at judging trends, Laird-Portch spotted the near-terminal steep decline in male tartan sales of the 1950s, and guessed correctly that the women's market was ripe for exploitation. In 1956, he brought in a trade check he called Blue Stewart, the first of many so-called trade tartans. Nine years later the advent of the mini-skirt provided him with opportunity to produce tartans skirts in every size and hue. By 1970, mini-kilts were in European vogue, with thousands every week rolling off the East Kilbride production line.
Laird-Portch was not someone always greeted with universal acclaim by the fustier ends of the mainstream tartan movement. Older established competitors disliked his knack of catching the colours of the moment, introducing fashion setts such as Bannockbane in blue and brown. Yet his early plaids now enjoy the same credit meted to contemporary fashion setts such as Flower of Scotland and Pride of Scotland. In a business notoriously at whim of fashion, his innovation helped to create some kind of firm pattern for orders.
Geoffrey Laird-Portch was born in Greenwich, raised in Leicestershire - where his grandfather, A J Portch, had a textile factory, and educated at Uppingham in Rutland. At 19, he trained in textiles with Marks & Spencer before gaining experience in factory management in South Africa. He returned to the UK early in the 1950s, after the business had relocated from Leicestershire to Gorbals, Glasgow. The rest became family history - turning the business round, moving to custom-built premises in East Kilbride and concentrating on exports.
In later years he made his home in Elie, Fife, and died there. He was predeceased by his wife Janet Morton Gray, and is survived by their children Fiona, Susan, Gillian and Geoffrey Andrew, and their grandchildren.
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