The future for Chanel’s Borders mill looks all sewn up

Chanel Fashion at Barrie Knitwear
Chanel Fashion at Barrie Knitwear
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IN A small back room in a mill in Hawick, pencil sketches from the world’s most celebrated fashion designer buzz through slowly on a fax machine. Those sketches – scratchy, fluid and conceptual – are then transformed into something real, something tangible and wearable.

The designer is Karl Lagerfeld, the creative director of Chanel, and the mill is Barrie, a 109-year-old company, considered by many in the fashion industry (including Chanel) to be one of the best in the world. Chanel has worked with Barrie for over 25 years, and it’s a collaborative process. Barrie is trusted to interpret the rough sketches faxed in from Paris, and its staff attend all the Chanel shows, including the unveiling of the Métiers d’Art Paris-Edimbourg collection, which took place in Linlithgow Palace on Tuesday evening and was a celebration of Scottish textiles and craftsmanship.

Just a few hours before the show, Clive Brown, the sales director at Barrie, and Bruno Pavlovsky, president of global fashion at Chanel, give me a tour of the mill, where hundreds of Chanel’s iconic two-tone cardigans are being prepared to be shipped to Paris. Brown refers to Chanel and Barrie as “the dream team” and it’s no wonder; the French fashion house swooped in to rescue the factory from closure in October after Dawson’s International – the group that owned Barrie – ran into financial difficulties.

Chanel paid a rumoured £9.7 million for the company, preserving 176 jobs in the process. Barrie now joins nine other artisan producers (the only one in Britain) whose futures have been secured by the fashion powerhouse over the past decade. The acquisition was made, says Pavlovsky, to safeguard Barrie’s future, and it will still supply to other rival luxury brands. “When this financial issue came up we had to have a very quick reaction,” he explains. “It was 29 August and we had one week to make a proposal or they would close. So it was rushed, quite difficult. But it has been very positively received by other brands, that they will continue to work with Barrie.”

Today, however, it’s all about Chanel, and Barrie’s employees are busying themselves on a sophisticated production line that sees buckets of raw yarn turned into chic little boxy cardigans complete with Chanel’s famous entwined Cs logo on the buttons.

Each staff member has their own specialism and trains for months, even years, before being unleashed on a garment. Some cut neck holes, others attach sleeves. Buttons are marked out and sewn on by hand, and pieces are checked and checked again for flaws. A single garment can involve up to four hours of hand work, compared to just four minutes for an unbranded crew-neck sweater. “There are far faster ways than the way we do it,” says Brown with a smile. “There are simpler ways to do it but I don’t believe simpler is best.”

He leads us into a steamy room full of industrial washing machines, where 40 garments at a time are washed to get rid of the spinning oil and soften the fibres. Where other mills wash their cashmere for set times, staff at Barrie do it all by feel. And Brown is quick to emphasise that super-soft cashmere with the texture of “cotton wool” (the kind that comes from China and Italy) is not the feeling they’re after. It may give the customer “instant gratification”, he says, but it won’t last in the same way. And he should know; he takes calls from customers who have owned a jumper for years and want Barrie staff to fix a small hole for them. They do of course. “It’s not a seasonal commodity,” he says with a shrug. “It’s a luxury investment.”

Until Tuesday’s show, a riot of cashmere and tweed, the source of this luxurious product – a small mill in the Scottish Borders – was relatively unknown. However, with the work of Barrie’s craftswomen (almost all are female) splashed on front pages across the globe over this past week, the link between Chanel and Scotland is there for the world to see. “We’ve always known that we make what we believe is the best product in the world, but we’re very bad at publicising it,” says Brown with a knowing look to Pavlovsky. After all, no one does publicity better than Chanel, and there can have been no greater marketing coup for the Scottish textiles industry than the most iconic fashion house in the world paying homage to Scotland, in Scotland.

But what of the lasting legacy? Once the carefully managed mist has settled on Linlithgow Loch, the elaborate banqueting tent has been dismantled and the beautiful people’s heads have been turned by the next big thing, what will all this mean for Scotland and its design industry?

Yes, Karl Lagerfeld personally chose the ruins of Linlithgow Palace as the venue for this most breathtaking, most tartantastic, of shows, but on the night he admitted this was the first time he had set foot in Scotland. “I’ve been working the whole time,” he said, “but I like what I’ve seen from my hotel window. But, you know, I’m not a tourist. I’m not into sightseeing. I like how I think a place is. I don’t have to see what it actually is.”

Fortunately, others don’t feel the same. Alexandra Shulman, editor of British Vogue, confided that she will be returning soon to visit Dundee, while German fashion journalist Martina Neuen stays in Campbeltown every January and can’t get enough of Scotland.

Scottish supermodel Stella Tennant, who is based in Berwickshire and who opened the show, admits that taking centre-stage in her home country for such a special event was a moment of intense pride. “It has been weirdly emotional. I’ve been working with Karl for almost 18 years now and I remember being backstage and hearing a good Scottish accent and it would be someone from Hawick talking about the knitwear at the fitting. So to have gone full circle and to be here with the whole Chanel show is just fantastic. It’s such an exciting time.”

She added, “I love how Karl uses tweeds, tartans, Fair Isle, but he’s working with Lesage [the embroidery atelier], he’s working with a whole range of different people bringing together this totally eclectic collection but making it into something ... Chanel.”

But while Métiers d’Art was uniquely Chanel, the abundance of tartan, tweed, Argyle print and Aran knits on the courtyard catwalk must surely signal a timely resurgence of traditional Scottish craftsmanship and home-grown design.

Stewart Roxburgh, senior executive of Scottish Enterprise’s textiles team, is convinced it’s enormously positive for the industry. “We are still battling lookalikes around the world and trying to get the message out about Scottish fabrics being better. So the thing I take away most from the Chanel show is their fascination with craftsmanship – it shows that you have to find the right components and the right people to convert your ideas into reality.

“When you see Chanel’s relationship with Barrie you understand that fully. Their instructions to the company are really nothing more than loose line drawings, as they would have been in Coco Chanel’s day, and they rely very heavily on the teams in Scotland to convert those very loose ideas into a saleable product. So I think this is really going to help secure more talent in Scotland and encourage more brands to come north of the Border.”

Of course, you don’t need to convince the people at Chanel. “There’s nobody like Barrie to make the intarsias that we do,” says Lagerfeld.

Scotland is “a strong inspiration for Karl Lagerfeld”, adds Pavlovsky. “There are a lot of links between Madame Chanel and Scotland, so we thought it was the right moment for us to come here and be able to refocus on this, and for people to not just hear about the inspiration behind the clothes but to see it for themselves. It’s a big adventure.”

From Linlithgow, the collection continues its adventure in Paris, where buyers will make their choices, then it will move into production and be on the hanger in boutiques by May.

So, given the label’s love affair with Scotland, might we one day see a Chanel boutique here? “It would be very nice but it’s a big step,” says Pavlovsky. “We are quite slow at developing our boutique network. So, yes, probably one day, but not tomorrow.” n

Twitter: @ruth_lesley; @alicewyllie