All manner of established fashion and lifestyle brands have in recent years keenly highlighted their own “heritage” as a means to promote their core values and stay relevant way beyond the latest Instagram-fuelled craze. You can see why: as the pace of new style trends accelerates rapidly—a blur of fads, briefly loved then discarded on a whim—a more discerning and staunchly individualist kind of consumer instead craves qualities of longevity, integrity and a classic kind of cool.
The most successful of the heritage brands don’t merely rely on their past glories, though, no matter how compelling their histories and archives. Instead, moving the story forwards—collaborating, adapting to new markets, undertaking projects beyond the usual remit and combining traditional techniques with bold innovation—is the route to contemporary relevance and continued success.
Few achieve this fine balancing act as seamlessly and adventurously as the globally revered Harris Tweed. Hand-made from local wool by successive generations of islanders in their Outer Hebrides’ homes, since before the Industrial Revolution, the cloth is known for its high quality, durability and beautiful colors, as well as its associations with Royalty and celebrity across the subsequent centuries. Then there is the instantly recognizable Harris Tweed ‘Orb’ trademark, which has authenticated genuine Harris Tweed since 1910. Most impressively, a specific Act of Parliament, passed in 1993, legally safeguards Harris Tweed’s noble reputation from copyists and wannabes, ‘to promote and maintain the authenticity, standard and reputation of Harris Tweed; for preventing the sale as Harris Tweed of material which does not fall within the definition…
"Not only is the product itself sustainable, but it’s actually sustaining a community in a vulnerable socio-economic part of the United Kingdom."
Such high levels of craft, expertise, heritage and credibility explain why The Standard, London, chose to work with the Scottish superstars of all-things wool and weaving, to ensure many of the softer and most tactile surfaces within the hotel would tell a distinctive design story—or, indeed, spin a yarn—all of their own. Furthermore, Harris Tweed’s resurgence of popularity in the 21st Century—thanks to a modern, fashionable sensibility which has increasingly been asserted—chimes perfectly with the Standard Hotel group’s forward-thinking mindset.
This bold, new Harris Tweed era has been ushered in by Mark Hogarth, who was appointed as the Creative Director of Harris Tweed Hebrides back in 2008. A Politics graduate, originally hailing from Ayrshire, Hogarth—the son of a Scottish dairy farmer—previously worked as a professional model, as well as a parliamentary researcher, before joining the company at a time when it was struggling to modernize.
A succession of high-profile Harris Tweed fashion collaborations has duly ensued—with the likes of Dries Van Noten, Paul Smith, Prada, APC, Stone Island, Nike and Converse, to name just a few—in tandem with a move towards luxury interior design projects. New markets for Harris Tweed are currently flourishing in the BRIC nations, with its existing markets across Europe and the US increasingly strengthening. Harris Tweed Hebrides now achieves an annual turnover of £10 million, providing employment for hundreds of highly skilled weavers and mill workers in some of the most remote parts of the United Kingdom.Here, Hogarth discusses how Harris Tweed’s uniquely creative vision and confident collaborative spirit have now resulted in its fabulous fabrics proudly featuring within the iconoclastic interiors of The Standard, London.
When did your own interactions with Harris Tweed first happen?
One of the first jobs I got when I was modeling was during the second round of the tried-but-ultimately-failed Harris Tweed revival, back in the year 2000, when Harris Tweed had been in the doldrums for several years and they were trying to relaunch. This was organized by Brian Wilson who was at the time the Trade and Industry Minister [Wilson is now the Chairman of Harris Tweed Hebrides].
Vivienne Westwood had also worked with Harris Tweed, in the late-80s, right?
The first attempt to revive it was in the 80s, yes, with Vivienne Westwood kind of bringing the whole punk dynamic to it. Vivienne Westwood, over the years, has been good for Harris Tweed, particularly where she is now, in the post-design phase and using her name to promote sustainable and environmental issues. Harris Tweed, by accident, has always been sustainable and has always had the level of inbuilt ethics. Not only is the product itself sustainable, but it’s actually sustaining a community in a vulnerable socio-economic part of the United Kingdom.
As a brand, there’s a very authentic and honest feeling to it…
The word ‘authentic’ gets overused by a lot of brands nowadays. Dross brands increasingly try to use words like ‘authentic’ or ‘heritage’ or ‘sustainable’ to cover up the fact that they have a poor product. But ‘honest’ is right, yes. One thing we always talk about is how honest Harris Tweed is—people know with Harris Tweed that if they open a door to our supply chain, nothing within it is going to be shady.
When you first became Harris Tweed Hebrides’ Creative Director, what did you instinctively feel needed to be done in order to propel the brand into the future?
I knew what Harris Tweed was and at the time I had such a bad perception of it! Particularly from when I was modeling in Japan and from seeing the way it was perceived there—it seemed so basic and so old fashioned. I went on to Wikipedia and it talked about the history and so on, but then it said, ‘as worn by Miss Marple and Professor Langdon of The Da Vinci Code.’ No disrespect to Professor Langdon, or Miss Marple, but when that’s your two pin-ups you realize you have a slight issue!
Definitely! How did you respond to that rather monumental challenge?
So, what we tried to do in the first instance was never to re-brand Harris Tweed or to repackage it. It was more a case of re-telling the story. It was a case of trying to amplify all the subtleties and make it special. Like, the fact that there’s 1,400 yarn that have to be tied on to a beam, in order that it’s warped into the right weave for the pattern. And that same beam has to then be transferred to an individual weaver, at his croft somewhere in the Outer Hebrides and he has to then tie that in. These artisanal details were never really put forward previously in the Harris Tweed story. People knew it was handmade, but they just thought that involved getting some yarn and putting it into a loom and turning on the motor. They never actually knew just the painstaking craft and patience that was involved in making Harris Tweed.
"It’s literally the only fabric in the world that has its own Act of Parliament, which is about 95 pages long, but essentially states it has to be made from virgin wool in the outer Hebrides of Scotland, but, most importantly, at the home of the weaver."
Harris Tweed is pretty much unbeatable in terms of its history and hands-on, sustainable working methods, isn’t it?
It is. And I don’t say that from a point of bias—I work in other areas of the luxury and craft sectors, as well. Harris Tweed is a craft industry, but it’s not quite a cottage industry, because in order for it to survive there needs to be a baseline production of 3 to 400,000 metres—that is the production level that’s needed to keep all the skilled craft parts of the complicated process in play. If you fall below that, then you can’t really afford to go through all these complex preparations just to make the yarn, before you even get to making the fabric. Most factories these days are specialist yarn producers or they can be weavers or production people. We take in natural wool and we make the cloth. It’s literally the only fabric in the world that has its own Act of Parliament, which is about 95 pages long, but essentially states it has to be made from virgin wool in the outer Hebrides of Scotland, but, most importantly, at the home of the weaver. And that means to be Harris Tweed you can’t just have a large shed in a farm with ten looms, that’s not Harris Tweed. It’s one croft, one loom, one weaver, one Harris Tweed.
Which of the collaborations in recent years with fashion designers and fashion brands do you feel have been the most dynamic?
I would say one of the most important ones was with Dries Van Noten, because he did something really advanced and obviously he’s from that whole Antwerp school of design. He’s a real designers’ designer. He used Harris Tweed—he used two double lines of red, so it was like a big pattern. It was completely adverse to the stereotypical Harris Tweed, which is mostly herringbones and barleycorn, so that was quite important. And I think Converse coming in and doing the All Star in Harris Tweed, that was a really important collaboration, back in about 2011. That really showed the versatility of the fabric. I was wearing a pair last night in Florence—everyone was asking about them! Back in 2006, we did a collaboration with Nike, that was a good one. Harris Tweed will give a product a certain aesthetic and if that product has a heritage of its own to draw upon, then it’s a classic case of the sum of the final product is greater than the actual parts. We’re really privileged that we have these prestigious collaborations—like the ones we did with Tom Browne and Prada. They buy into Harris Tweed because of the unique story and heritage, but they always do something that almost reflects the complexity of the process of the design. And I think The Standard, London can be added to that rich portfolio that we have. Clients that come and invest in the product and invest specifically in the process of the product, because they know it’s going to add something special to the finished aesthetic of their project.
Is this interiors project with The Standard, London relatively new territory for Harris Tweed?
Two big interior projects that Harris Tweed Hebrides has worked on in the past include the renovation of the Glasgow’s Blythswood Square Hotel, hotel, in 2008, which was the former Scottish Automobile Racing Club, a late-Georgian, early-Victorian building. The most prestigious project prior to that was the QE2, back in the 1960s, where we did some of the wall panels in the bedrooms. The Standard, London, is not only the biggest interiors project that we’ve ever done, but it will be the most prestigious. What I like about what the Standard group do, is that it’s ballsy. Their Kings Cross hotel almost looks like an upside-down spaceship! If you look at the original, imaginative, brutal modernist buildings that appeared in Soviet times in Eastern Europe, it’s kind of got that vibe. And the Harris colors work with that so well.
Given the boldness of The Standard, London’s aesthetic, there must have been lots of scope to be super-adventurous with this project?
I have to take my hat off to how bold they were with the patterns and the colours that they chose. Obviously, the former Camden Town Hall annexe that the hotel is now housed in, is a Modernist or Brutalist building—at one time seen as the ugly duckling of the area of Kings Cross—and they picked these beautiful 2 by 2 tweeds, some nice herringbones, but in really bright colours. They’ve got that slightly psychedelic, modernist dimension which some might say works perfectly for the brutal style of the building, or some might say it’s like a real change, but either way—because it’s quite a hard fabric—it works with the hard shell of the building.
Where exactly will guests and visitors see these gorgeous fabrics at The Standard, London?
It’s all incorporated into the furniture inside the hotel. For example, it’s being used for headboards on the beds, all the permanent fixtures inside the rooms as well as in the sofa areas. We also produced 40 metres of grey tweed, which is being used in the main bar. And the purple dogtooth we came up with for The Standard, London is one of my favourite tweeds I’ve ever seen.
How was it working with Shawn Hausman, who’s overseen the interiors and is known for being a perfectionist?
We went through six iterations trying to get the perfect pink for Shawn, that is the level of detail that went into one of the main fabrics. There are three fabrics that were produced, completely bespoke. We created examples of fabric—I think there was a total of 36, so that was 12 different patterns, which led into each pattern. It was kind of like the story of Chanel N°5, when Coco wanted to create a fragrance and they laid out 50 possible versions in front of her and she chose the one that was number 5, so that’s why it was called Chanel N°5. One of our fabrics got approved straight away, and another was the pink and grey fabric which is used in a lot of the bed rests. That was initially returned five times to us, as being ‘not quite right!’
It’s fantastic when someone is so discerning…
Yes. And just to give you an example of the true craft of Harris Tweed—to get the exact pink right, it’s hand carded. To explain what that means: if you imagine the kind of brush you would use for your dog. Well, hand carding involves getting a mixture of wool between those two brushes and just pulling it together, pulling it apart, pulling it together, adding a bit more of the darker pink, adding a bit more of the lighter pink—a bit more shocking, a bit more salmon, a bit more fuchsia—and then, eventually, we finally got the approved pink yarn to form part of that specific tweed that will be seen in The Standard, London. And there’s not a computer involved at any stage. It is all done by the hand and the eye
How happy are you with the results?
Very happy. When we were first working on the project, seeing some of the designs and the mood boards that Shawn Hausman had done, you appreciated this hotel could actually be sensational. And it is!