Brian Wilson: In war of wool vs synthetic, Harris Tweed is a winner

Designer labels have embraced natural tweed for their ultra-high fashion outfits. Picture: Getty
Designer labels have embraced natural tweed for their ultra-high fashion outfits. Picture: Getty
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Natural and sustainable Harris Tweed could have a bright future as the public wakes up to the environmental damage caused by synthetic clothes, writes Brian Wilson.

Florence is a smart city at any time but the second week of January adds an extra edge. For 46 years, this has been the calendar fixture for Pitti Uomo Imagine, which modestly describes itself as “the world’s most important platform for men’s clothing and accessory collections”. The peacocks are out in force, strutting their stuff.

I first came here 20 years ago as a Government Minister, supporting Scottish companies. In fact, I was reminiscing about that happy era this week when we called on a stand run by Jamieson’s, which sells wonderful Shetland knitwear to the world. The same folk were here in Florence two decades on, doing the same vital work that supports 35 jobs in Lerwick.

It’s curious, perhaps, that ­Pitti Uomo is busier than ever. Isn’t all business supposed to be done online these days? Yet there must be 20,000 people at Pitti Uomo, from around the world, displaying and examining the season’s new ­ranges, making contacts, socialising and doing all the human things that ­cannot be delivered via computer.

More recently, I have come to Pitti Uomo through my involvement in Harris Tweed Hebrides which will celebrate a decade of production later this year. At that time, the industry was at a low ebb and ­reopening a derelict mill at ­Shawbost on the west side of Lewis was an act of faith more than expectation. It turned into a great success story which it is a privilege to be part of.

As makers of a fabric, rather than finished products, Harris Tweed Hebrides is dependent on what other people do with it. Pitti Uomo offers a glimpse of that for the ­season ahead. There is still something quite uplifting about seeing tweed that started life in a weaver’s shed being transformed into beautiful clothing which will adorn the fashion capitals of the world.

READ MORE: Paul Walker: Designing 21st Century tweed

A lot of breath is wasted on worrying about the identity which ­Scottish goods should be marketed under. The simple answer is “horses for courses”. Harris Tweed benefits from multiple identities – Hebridean (good for provenance), Scottish (good for woollens), British (good for fashion). The one that trumps them all is quality, without which the others would not get us very far.

Events like Pitti Uomo are reminders of just how vast and competitive the market is. It owes nobody a ­living on the basis of reputation alone. As Harris Tweed found out just in time, it’s necessary to ­constantly remind the world of your existence. Failure to do so leads in only one direction, as much of the Scottish textiles industry discovered to its cost. I wish there was more of it left and we should cherish what remains.

The Scottish industry is based almost entirely on natural materials – i.e. wool – so the growth of synthetic fabrics from the 1960s spelt bad news. But wheels always turn and the movement now is back towards the natural, at least at the high end of the market. This is not just about fashion but in response to well-founded environmental concerns about the unsustainability of harmful synthetics. I was discussing this with Peter Ackroyd, who runs the excellent Campaign for Wool, an organisation which benefits from Prince Charles’s longstanding ­commitment to that cause.

READ MORE: Harris Tweed specialist sews up deal with Italian giant

“There’s considerable hope that the heavier woollen look is ­coming back,” he said. “Take a look at the Zegna stand – they’re putting up quite a formidable challenge in proper overcoats to the puffa lot.”

It’s quite refreshing to retreat to a real world in which debate does not involve the words Brexit or ­independence but rather focuses on woollens versus puffa. For the uninitiated, puffa means the ­padded jackets which most young men wear, at least in Italy. Ten per cent of that market would keep all the weavers in Lewis and Harris working for a long time to come.

Another trend of recent years has been towards “athleisure” wear, ­taken up by all the big fashion brands. It denotes casual as opposed to formal, a hybrid style where sportswear is upscaled to designer styles, with prices to match. That can mean using ­cashmeres and tweed. “The stars are aligning in favour of Harris Tweed,” Peter assures me, so that was worth coming to hear.

Peter left Florence to attend the funeral in Hawick of James ­Sugden, a great champion of Scottish ­textiles. A Yorkshireman steeped in the textiles industry of that ­county, he came to Scotland via Johnstons of Elgin, transforming it into a ­marvellous standard-bearer, employing 800 people. Needless to say, Johnstons are at Pitti Uomo. Like all successful exporters, they know if you want to sell, you have to travel.

Latterly, Mr Sugden was ­committed to shoring up what remains of the Borders industry and one method was by encouraging luxury brands to invest in Scottish mills in order to ensure a “sanctity of supply” rather than become wholly dependent on the Far East. The most conspicuous example was the acquisition of the Barrie mill in Hawick by Chanel, saving it from going the way of so many other ­Borders mills.

Over the years, it has been good to see small companies we met at Pitti Uomo going on to great things. One example is Finlay and Co, ­established by an Aberdonian, ­David Lochhead, and friends to make sunglasses because they thought they could design better ones than the market offered. They have just opened their first shop in London and were catapulted to modest fortune by Meghan Markle wearing their product in the first photographs of herself and Prince Harry, at the Invictus Games.

It’s a nice story and one with a moral. The company’s success, says David, was built on attending shows in Florence, Paris, Miami and New York – all assisted by ­modest grants from government funds. If we are serious about ­getting more ­companies into exporting and ­creating the jobs which flow from it, then there are few better ways than that of investing public ­money. Meantime, salute the people who are out there selling, year after year, and on whom the jobs at those depend.