By Brian Wilson

Each September, the textiles world assembles in Paris to display its wares. The show is called Première Vision and it is a vital cog round which the Harris Tweed orb has long revolved.

Collections are displayed, old friendships renewed, new customers introduced, sample orders taken and off the whole cycle goes for another year.

The show is located at the vast exhibition park close to Charles de Gaulle Airport. Harris Tweed Hebrides takes a stand at Première Vision each year and our sales team work overtime for three intensive days with precious little opportunity to enjoy the delights that Paris has to offer. The old hands can get a good feel for the season ahead from the response at Premiere Vision.

Picture by Jane H Macmillan

Four months later, fabric has been turned into finished product, at least by the leading designers of menswear. This calls for another big show. The autumn/winter edition of Pitti Uomo Imagine is held each January in Florence. This is an opportunity to see what some of our customers have been doing with Harris Tweed and to hear about the feedback they are getting. It’s also a great networking event in the setting of a wonderful city.

This year, as usual, we saw exciting collections from clients in Japan, the US, Italy, France, Spain and quite a few others. At this stage, it is really gratifying to see the beautiful and sometimes exotic garments they produce given pride of place in an international show of this type – in the knowledge that the fabric has started life in the weavers’ sheds of Lewis and Harris.

At Harris Tweed Hebrides, we make a continuous effort to ensure that the weavers, mill-workers and wider community are kept informed of what the fabric is being used for by the time it reaches the end user. It is a source of pride and interest to many that Harris Tweed continues to attract such respect and creativity wherever textiles are appreciated.

Few of the collections we see at Pitti Uomo are expected to convert into large-scale orders but it is essential to the reputation of Harris Tweed that high-end fashion houses continue to use the fabric. The hope is that this will then cascade down to the middle range brands which deal in larger volumes. Chanel or Prada alone would not keep Shawbost mill working for very long, but it is wonderful to have them!

Historically, by far the biggest market for Harris Tweed was in North America. That fell off a precipice in the 1980s when the market was over-supplied and the Harris Tweed mills in Stornoway were more interested in competing against each other than in keeping an eye on what was happening elsewhere. Price-cutting to win market share from other mills has been the historic curse of the Harris Tweed industry and that lesson needs re-learning.

We still have some excellent, high profile customers in the United States including Brooks Brothers, Theory and – most recently – Supreme. However, this is in nothing like the volumes of the past and reviving this market is still one of the biggest enigmas we face. That is even truer in Canada which was also a major Harris Tweed market and where, because of the Scottish connections, brand recognition remains strong.

I was invited to speak at an event held at the British Consul General’s residence in Toronto when the Harris Tweed Authority and Harris Gin came together to promote the two excellent products. It was a delightful event, with a high quality guest list, but whether it turns into a Harris Tweed revival in Canada remains to be seen!

Pictured: Andrew Percy MP, Trade Envoy to Canada: Brian Wilson, chairman of Harris Tweed Hebrides: Kevin McGurgan, UK Consul General in Tornoto and Simon Erlanger, Managing Director of Harris Distillery, with trade promotion officials from the Consulate. Taken by George Pimental

Harris Tweed sells on the basis of multiple identities – handwoven, Hebridean, Scottish, British and above all quality. Most people who buy it around the world probably don’t know much about where or how it was made. But they can feel the quality!

I am all in favour of promoting each of these identities. Maybe we should do more, for instance, to build the Hebridean brand based on the unique characteristics of the place. We have lots of great products which, one way or another, take their inspiration from these natural assets and attributes, whether it’s the colours of the landscape or the riches of land and sea. In our different ways, Harris Tweed Hebrides and Harris Gin have both shown what marketing can achieve. Why not for the wider Hebridean brand?

One wee story from Toronto helps illustrate the international nature of trade. I looked into the Hudson Bay Company store – the biggest department in Canada and, in times past, a Harris Tweed customer. However, virtually the whole store was now given over to franchises for international brands, rather than their own products.

Straight away, I spotted a fine Harris Tweed coat made from Shawbost fabric – but the customer had been a French company, Sandro, rather than a Canadian one. It makes the point that just because we do not sell directly to retailers or countries, it does not mean our fabric does not end up there. And yes, I bought the coat made from Shawbost tweed, with a French label in a Canadian department store!

At Harris Tweed Hebrides, we have been marking our tenth birthday. The company was founded to take over the derelict Shawbost mill at a time when the industry was at a very low ebb. It has been an exhilarating journey which has opened up for me, personally, an opportunity which I never expected, to be involved in a unique and wonderful industry.

When we began, the biggest international market was Germany. Then it was Japan. Now our output is more evenly spread with two-thirds still going to exports though growth has been strongest within the UK itself. It is constantly necessary to be looking for new opportunities all over the world – and that is a challenge that will never get easier for a business sitting on the edge of Europe.

Ten years ago, our chief executive Ian Angus Mackenzie assembled a team of the finest and most experienced specialists in various aspects of Harris Tweed production. They have stood us in very good stead. However, one of the most gratifying aspects of the period has been to see the steady reduction in age profile of both weaves and mill-workers.

Harris Tweed is again an industry with a great future as well as a glorious past. That is a message we seek to transmit to every corner of the globe!

(Brian Wilson is Chairman of Harris Tweed Hebrides, and a UK Business Ambassador)