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Harris Tweed gets a Korea break

9th Jun '16

Ten years ago, Harris Tweed’s fortunes looked decidedly threadbare. In the latest of our Routes to Growth series, Tracey Boles discovers how it was saved by an export drive to south-east Asia

Company: Harris Tweed Hebrides Trading in: Korea, China, Japan Sector: Fashion

It doesn’t come more traditional than Harris Tweed. The richly coloured fabric is created from wool that is dyed before being spun, blending the yarn into sublime hues redolent of heathery landscapes. These are fashioned into precious cloth by artisan weavers on home looms on the Outer Hebrides.

The image of its wearers is traditional, too – prim Scottish ladies in long skirts, country gents striding through the heather in buttoned-up jackets.

But all that is changing as the cloth – reworked by leading designers – finds itself at the cutting edge of fashion in the shopping malls of China and Korea.

“It is a growth market because of the keen awareness of luxury goods, with provenance”

Less than 10 years ago, Harris Tweed was in danger of extinction. Now Harris Tweed Hebrides is a profitable business with a £12m turnover.

Asia is both a booming market and a base for assembling products, put together in Vietnam, Taiwan and China for its international clients.

Callie Mackenzie

Sitting fashionably: upholstery and dress in Harris Tweed

Young Scottish designers Deryck Walker and Judy R Clark have been brought in to update the cloth’s image and get it on the fashion pages with a client list that includes Chanel, Zegna and Vivienne Westwood.

“The south-east Asian market has moved away from the traditional blazer,” says Harris Tweed Hebrides creative director Mark Hogarth. “The majority of our market here is now in accessories and functional streetwear typified by the gilet and tote bag. A biker jacket is very popular in Korea.”

Korea and Japan are also seeing a roaring trade in accessories such as iPad cases, wallets and bags.

Customers from Korea’s urban elite are drawn to the craftsmanship, provenance and heritage, as well as the luxurious feel, Hogarth says. Sales there and in China have doubled in four years and now account for 8-10 per cent of annual turnover.

Harris Tweed, with its distinctive “orb” quality mark, is the only fabric with its own Act of Parliament and the industry can date its formal beginnings from 1846. But in 2007 it was in steep decline and one of the main mills, at Shawbost on Lewis, had closed.

A catalyst for change was the appointment as chairman of Brian Wilson, a former Labour minister and a UK Business Ambassador whose wife is from Lewis. He says: “I came out of politics and moved up here full time. It coincided with a grim period for Harris Tweed.”


Looming success: artisans weave Harris Tweed in their homes on the Outer Hebrides

Wilson found an investor, Ian Taylor from the Vitol oil and gas trading house, who put in about £1m. Now the reopened mill employs 90 and nearly 150 home weavers annually produce about a million metres of cloth. Harris Tweed Hebrides is growing at 10 per cent a year.

In Korea, agents help sell tweed. “Good representatives in country are critical to success, particularly for small companies,” Wilson says. “You need a reliable, trustworthy agent. Aside from that, you should monitor the quality and integrity of the product and back that with promotion.”

Hogarth has spent long periods in Hong Kong and Korea, forming relationships he believes will last a lifetime. “Face-to-face meetings earn kudos and demonstrate commitment and sincerity, greatly appreciated in China and Korea,” he says.

Wilson has bigger ambitions for China. “We are just nibbling at the edges," he says. "It should be a growth market because of the keen awareness of luxury goods, with provenance.”

That attitude is exemplified by Hong Kong menswear retailer The Armoury. Co-founder Alan See says: “It is a beautiful textured fabric that is versatile for the winter. It was built to withstand a bit of rain and a lot of wear. I would say it is essential for today’s modern man.”


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