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Fabric of the Community

A wardrobe staple during and after WWII, Harris Tweed faces challenges as it goes upscale and gets an update.

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Island Vistas

Photo By Gerardo Somoza

Colorful bales.

Photo By Gerardo Somoza

A short drive from Shawbost, along the rugged coastline and through the misty moors that make up Lewis, the owners of the smallest mill on the island also have big plans for Harris Tweed. “What we have is a completely unique product,” says Derek Reid, who bought Harris Tweed Textiles in 2003, along with a shell of a mill. “It is handwoven. It has phenomenal colors. It has a heritage and culture that are quite simply unique and an act of Parliament protects it. So, you’ve got something that is iconic, desirable and capable of being fashion-related, but which needs leadership and direction.” Reid, a former marketing director from Cadbury Schweppes, maintains that the challenge is pricing Harris Tweed accordingly and making it appealing to the end consumer in a modern world with many choices like ultra-light, softer tweeds made from blends. The weight of a Harris Tweed, which is one of the pillars of the parliamentary act, cannot be altered.

“We can’t compete with regulations, but I think the solution is creatively thinking outside the box using your own brainpower to decide how to skin the cat,” says Reid.

For Harris Tweed Textiles that means producing cashmere blends alongside Harris Tweed, but not under the Harris Tweed banner, to increase sales and keep the mill running 12 months of the year. “There is a massive hill to climb now,” says Reid. “At it is a hill that requires unanimity of objectives between all the mills, all the weavers and the entirety of the industry. We have to see production reach 750,000 meters over the next three to five years. It’s going to have to go through a pain barrier where prices go up [but where ultimately] everyone benefits financially. The days of selling a Harris Tweed jacket at only 120 pounds are hopefully long gone.”

The challenge is not lost on the Harris Tweed Authority. “The demands of protecting the orb thus far have stifled the ability to promote it and we’ll have nothing left to protect if we don’t promote,” says Lorna MacAulay, the newly appointed president of the Authority. “We need to find the balance between protection and promotion and bring it back to fashion.” From her office, which is fully dressed—or upholstered—in Harris Tweed, MacAulay is wrestling with the task of bringing Harris Tweed into the 21st century. “We need to be proud about bringing it back and start showing off,” MacAulay says.

She may have a captive audience, if she shouts loud enough. Fusty images of Harris Tweed à la fuddy-duddy sport coats and Miss Marple-esque sensible suits are currently gathering mothballs as designers and industry insiders are increasingly lured by the fabric’s wide-ranging appeal.

“Harris Tweed is the DNA of modern men’s wear. It is the foundation of men’s fashion and great taste in men’s apparel. It’s bigger than the isles themselves and every great name in retail has been inspired by the beauty of Harris Tweed,” says New York–based men’s wear designer Joseph Abboud, who recalled a photograph of Coco Chanel donning a borrowed men’s Harris Tweed jacket. “In this world of mass production and automation there is a boomerang effect towards luxury handmade products,” says Abboud.

In 1987, Vivienne Westwood themed her women’s collection around the cloth and Alexander McQueen made his “Grey Lady” ball gown from a hand patchwork jigsaw of different Harris Tweeds. Dolce & Gabbana tapped the fabric, as did Alexandre Plokhov, Versace’s men’s wear designer, who opened his Cloak show with a gray cape made from vegetable-dyed Harris Tweed in 2005. “For sure tweed as a fabrication has a look and tells a story,” says Tom Kalenderian, executive vice-president and GMM of men’s at Barneys. “Harris Tweed’s artisan factor is a key element,” says Tommy Fazio, fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman Men. “Even people like Tom Ford are making suits inspired by Harris Tweed.”

After an inspiring outing at Première Vision in September, Fazio says he expects to see a “real resurgence” of the fabric next fall. Macleod is preparing for it. Still in his garage, he is about to finish off his five-day week of weaving eight hours a day. Nearly 170 meters of Harris Tweed are rolled up and waiting to be sent back to the mills.

“We want to see the industry grow. We must aim for that. We’re not traditionalists,” he says. “I would love to see Harris Tweed that I wove here worn by some elegantly dressed man making his way down the high-class streets of New York or Paris.”
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