By Fred Silver
It’s France, during one of the hottest Septembers on record. Opposite me on the underground-overground train from the south of Paris to Charles de Gaulle Airport - a full-size train which runs right under the centre of the capital city - a woman passenger tries to cool her face by repeatedly wafting a folded piece of paper.
Around us, there is nothing but talk of fashion, in English and in French. Now the train pulls into the international Exhibition Centre station, 45 minutes of standing-room-only journey from the city centre of Paris.
And for thousands of people, this is their destination. Crowds fill the platform, blocking even the widest stairways, leaving only a tiny handful in each carriage to carry on to the airport. This is 9.05am, Wednesday September 17, and this is the approach to Première Vision, one of the world’s biggest fashion and textile shows.
Spread over four vast halls, the show attracts buyers, sellers and visitors from all across the globe. And amidst the thousands of stands, there is Harris Tweed Hebrides, based in tiny and distant Shawbost, but now rallying its agents from three continents to provide an international approach to the multilingual flood of customers coming down each aisle.
Firms producing Harris Tweed from the Isle of Lewis have been attending the event for many years, but 2014 is a unique year, as the Harris Tweed Authority held a special hour-long event for the international media to introduce the background to the cloth, and its unique place in the world of fabric and fashion.
This was held in the extensive and well-appointed Première Vision Press Club on the Mezzanine floor of Hall Six, starting at 5pm on Tuesday, the end of the first day of the event. There was a display of Harris Tweed products and materials, full press packs for each of those attending, and an assortment of nibbles and drinks for those staying on afterwards.
Present were Norman L Macdonald, chairman of the Harris Tweed Authority, and vice-chairman Councillor Alasdair Macleod, along with a variety of other staff from the HTA and HTH. After a brief introduction in French, Norman L Macdonald proceeded to give a general background to Harris Tweed and the special role of the Orb Mark and the unique Act of Parliament which protects the industry and its rules.
He was followed by Peter Ackroyd, an independent international consultant who is president of the International Wool Textile Organisation and the Global Strategic Advisor for the Woolmark Company in Sydney, Australia. He is also Vice President of the Strategy Board of Première Vision. Ackroyd specialises in world markets for woollen and worsted fabrics, and has particular expertise in marketing of yarns and fabrics in Europe, the Middle East, Japan, Korea and China. He has specialist knowledge of the menswear supply chain ‘from farm to fashion’.
Norman L Macdonald drew attention to the relative scale of the Harris Tweed industry…with the entire population of the islands being less than the total number of people at Première Vision that afternoon. There were only nine people per hectare on average. He spoke of Harris Tweed being a high-quality luxury cloth produced by highly skilled artisans working in their own homes. Around 300 people in total were now employed by the industry. He outlined the history of the HTA and its work to defend the integrity of the Orb Mark across the world, involving constant legal battles to defend their position. The unpaid Islanders who make up the board of the Harris Tweed Authority are charged with promoting and protecting the cloth throughout the world. “It’s a cloth which comes from the land.”
This concept was taken up by Peter Ackroyd who explained he had been involved with Harris Tweed since 1976 when he was in New York in the era when Harris Tweed cloth had a preferential tariff for entering the US market. He said the concept of the cloth coming from the land was well-understood in France with its idea of terroir, linking both land and produce. Harris Tweed also fitted exceptionally well into modern ideas of fashion, which linked the origin of the cloth with the final product. In addition, it was exceptionally sustainable and almost carbon-neutral as a product.
He congratulated the industry on its success in tripling output during the recent recession, something which no other part of the textile industry had managed to do, and also on their success in Japan, a market which always looked for high quality in its products. He pointed out that what he termed ingredient branding had become ever more important since the 1970s, with the cloth used in a product becoming an important way to distinguish it amid international competition. Harris Tweed was ideally placed to serve this need. “The market is demanding exactly what you are producing.”
A series of questions followed, from various journalists, including one about whether Harris Tweed could ever become an active fabric, rather than just a fashion brand. To general amusement, Norman L Macdonald pointed out that aspect had been dealt with long ago – decades ago explorer and mountaineer W H Tilman had worn Harris Tweed on his Himalayan climbing expeditions while George Mallory, who may have reached the summit of Everest in 1924 before dying on the climb down, had been found still wearing his Harris Tweed suit by an expedition in 1999.
• The Parc des Expositions de Paris-Nord Villepinte is a large convention centre located in Villepinte near Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, north of Paris. The centre opened in 1982 and is the second-largest in France. The centre covers 115 hectares and has 246,000 square metres of convention space in eight halls. The centre is served by the Parc des Expositions station on the RER B railway line.