Many of Britain’s most elite artisans and heritage manufacturers have weathered the global hurricane of fast fashion. From the textiles of Johnston’s of Elgin that weave Hermés blankets to the Chanel knits that originate at the Barrie factory in Hawick, they remain in favour with some of the world’s most exclusive luxury brands. Certain small factories in England and Wales possess qualities that international design houses appreciate more than any other, like Dries van Noten’s last collection for example – virtually a love letter to his favourite British textile mills, with the logos of Lovat Mill of Scotland and Fox Brothers of Somerset writ large on the outside of his menswear. From shoemakers to milliners, read on to discover the UK brands bringing a special kind of tradition to our wardrobes. >>
Harris Tweed with its flecks and complex weave that echo the landscape in which it is produced, is such a part of Scotland’s national identity that it’s protected by an act of parliament. Only cloth produced in the Outer Hebrides can be marked as authentic and stamped with the distinctive orb emblem. As loved as the complex cloth is, just over ten years ago it looked like the industry might die out. However, in 2007 Harris Tweed Hebrides was founded, and thanks to a contemporary approach to marketing, the company now accounts for 75% of all production in the area.
“The iconic ‘Clo Mor’ – gaelic for ‘Big Cloth’ – had become synonymous with stuffy gent’s jackets,” says creative director Mark Hogarth, “but the Shawbost Mill operated by Harris Tweed Hebrides has slowly updated that image over the past ten years.” The list of designers using the cloth is now epic, and this season is no different, as Hogarth details: “Manolo Blahnik used ‘plain’ yarn tweeds in a bright collection of heels, while Thom Browne used a variety of grey scale and monochrome for his season-defining womenswear collection. Prada came to Harris Tweed for the right balance of pattern and colour to fit with the corduroy and canvas of a 70's collection.”
The oldest manufacturing factory in the world has collaborated with some of the most influential names in fashion history, including Vivienne Westwood, Paul Smith, Yves Saint Laurent and Prada. For over 230 years, John Smedley has been producing knits in Derbyshire. Today, its name is synonymous with meticulous merino wool, sea island cotton and cashmere jumpers. This season, the company has produced the knits for The Vampire’s Wife, Longshaw Ward, Teatum Jones, Holly Fulton & Lou Dalton. Design and marketing director Jess McGuire- Dudley explains what continues to attract new, cutting edge designers to the factory: “They can gain a vast amount of knitwear knowledge from our teams and benefit from our machinery – both age old and the latest technology. They can also visit the John Smedley factory which is just 90-minutes from London, and experience our manufacturing for themselves.”
Designers love to delve into the archives at John Smedley, rummaging through thousands of pieces for new inspiration. The collaborations are driven by the most fundamental nature of clothing; rather than a cut or trim, it’s about the weave itself. “Some designers prefer to use fibre as a point of difference,” explains McGuire-Dudley. “Lou Dalton often works with our newer fibres such as alpaca, mohair or bouclé, and some, such as Longshaw Ward or Holly Fulton, create elaborate intarsia patterns, that are knitted using the most vibrant colours in our finest knits.” While Fashion Week benefits from the know- how, John Smedley’s own product remains modernist and classic. The manufactory’s grey v-necks are once prosaic and luxurious – you really can’t get better.
When it comes to reputations in high fashion, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons in Tokyo is bullet proof. It’s significant then, that in her frequently reproduced official portrait, she is wearing a Lewis Leathers biker’s jacket. The British brand has been around since 1929, and is world famous among genuine bikers. Since its reboot in 2003, when bought the company, it’s attracted a new kind of attention. Harris began reshaping things over ten years before as an employee, recalibrating manufacturing to make it as meticulous as it is modern. “When I first got involved in Lewis Leathers in 1991, the product didn’t have the detailing it had in the 1960s and 1970s,” he explains. “I was spending time in Japan, looking at the denim revival, and the attention to detail in each item. I felt that if I brought the craftsmanship of Lewis Leathers back our classics, with the correct linings and zippers and detailing, we would meet a demand for quality in Japan that was the most discerning around – so it would be good enough for the rest of the world.”
When Harris took the helm, the profile of London- based Lewis Leathers really took off in Tokyo – he accepted commissions from Junya Watanabe (operating underneath the Comme umbrella) for his MAN collections and, in 2005, Lewis Leathers created hi-top trainers with Comme des Garçons. The collaboration with various brands in Kawakubo’s organisation has been consistent, and since 2012 a selection of hand-painted English-made black leather biker jackets has featured at the main Comme des Garçons label, frequently featuring slogans created by Kawakubo herself.
Many discerning men in London talk about “Tricker’s” rather than “brogues”. The small Jermyn Street store is a place of pilgrimage for customers, who vary from bespoke regulars to fashion types eyeing up the new season offerings. The brand, which has been going since 1829, is also a favourite with designers who commission them to create collaborative brogues, usually co-branded to flag up their authenticity. Junya Watanabe has been working with them for years, as have Margaret Howell and Paul Smith and, more recently, Mr Porter.
“Spring is the second season we have collaborated with them,” says David Morris, the online store’s shoe buyer. “We have three exclusive styles. I adore the generations of expert know-how that goes into making these shoes; each individual item is painstakingly created via 260 processes.” The master shoemaker at Tricker’s, Scott McKee, explains how the affection the brand enjoys today is grounded in function and authenticity: “From the outset, Tricker’s quickly became the maker of choice for farmers, estate owners and the landed gentry, who swore by the comfort, strength and practicality of its heavy, waterproof footwear. It’s no accident that Sir Edmund Hillary and his team chose Tricker’s for a Himalayan expedition in 1961 – the shoes and boots were virtually indestructible.”