Unique platform for Harris Tweed designers at fashion showcase

It’s classic and cool, contemporary and traditional, edgy and ladylike, all at the same time — Harris Tweed in its many forms, as imagined by the different local designers and producers, all working out of the Outer Hebrides.

Saturday brings the rare opportunity to see the best of our Harris Tweed clothing and accessories, with the fashion show bringing the whole Harris Tweed Festival Day to a close.

The island businesses taking part in the showcase include Diggory Brown, Rarebird, byRosie, Dzintra, Sallie Avis and Shona MacLellan, who gained a ‘wild card’ slot for the event. The second part of the fashion show will be from the retailers, Harris Tweed Hebrides and Catherine Campbell’s Harris Tweed Isle of Harris company from Tarbert.

It’s happening in An Lanntair at 5.30pm and is free to enter, like all the Harris Tweed Festival Day events.

Picture of Netty Sopata of Diggory Brown
RUNNING THE SHOW: Harris Tweed fashion event organiser Netty Sonata

Of all those taking part, Netty Sopata of Diggory Brown has been the busiest. With her experience of fashion shows in London, kiltmaker Netty was a natural choice to produce the fashion show, with the support of Sarah Maclean from Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.

Sarah is an Economic Development Officer with a creative industries remit and “masterminded” the whole thing, according to Netty.

It has been a point of principle to give the designers as much autonomy as possible, down to the music chosen to accompany their collections, which comprise three outifts each. Netty’s choice of soundtrack — the Peaky Blinders theme tune by Nick Cave and the Badseeds — is perfect for her collection.

I also think it fits with the direction in which alternative contemporary designers like Netty are taking Harris Tweed. It’s edgy. It’s punk. A bit intellectual without being pretentious. It’s tough tailoring, which I reckon is pretty cool.

I love Netty’s handmade kilts, with their six bespoke leather buckles down the side (can’t afford one, dammit), and their edginess somehow manages to connect a thoroughly modern aesthetic to the history of Harris Tweed, its heritage and place. The moodiness of Nick Cave’s lyrics works the scene beautifully. “On a gathering storm comes a tall handsome man, in a dusty black coat…”

Netty described her work as “traditional skills and traditional cloth but applied it in a contemporary way”. And with her experience of fashion shows, she was a good choice for producing this local showcase. Her London Fashion Weeks have included two seasons as a kiltmaker for Christopher Kane and three seasons working in handfinishing and general finishing. There have also been one-off shows in Glasgow and Belladrum.

Picture of Harris Tweed Fashion Show models
STRIKING A POSE: Some of the models for the show

When I popped in to the back rooms of the Harris Tweed Authority on Friday, where the models and designers were gathering for fittings, it all seemed to be under control. Netty was working her way through a checklist — “it saves panicking if you can figure it all out now, like what shoes you need for a certain outfit” — to make sure there are no dramas on the big day.

Appropriately, the walls were adorned with big prints of Ian Lawson’s work, which is also still on show in An Lanntair. The photographs, which capture the character of Harris Tweed and its people, beautifully juxtapose the wools and the cloth with the natural colours found in the landscape. The pictures are delightful.

Another designer I met in the HTA rooms on Friday was Paulette Brough from Rarebird. I had thought Rarebird only made accessories — their ladylike ‘Alba’ handbag is lusted after by many and reminds me of the Hermès Kelly bag — but no.

Picture of Paulette of Rarebird fitting a coat for the fashion show
ALL MEASURED UP: Gillian in Paulette’s design

Here, Paulette was fitting a Princess-line coat to model Gillian Hay who admitted feeling “nervous, just nervous” about the show. Paulette said she was “really pleased” to be taking part, adding: “I think it’s really good to show what’s being done locally”.

One of Paulette’s other pieces is a skirt in Paris Black. I love this fabric. At first glance, it appears pure black — but a closer look reveals the tiniest traces of bright colours. It’s very chic… and I’ve written about it before in a piece for Harris Tweed Hebrides which examines the brilliance of the colour blending process.

Later, Netty fitted one of her kilts to model Esther Martin. The second phase of preparations took place on Tuesday, with the dress rehearsal.

Picture of Netty Sopata of Diggory Brown fitting a kilt
I WANT ONE: Netty checks the fit of a handmade Diggory Brown kilt

Nine models — senior pupils from the Nicolson Institute — will be the showing off the clothes and are being taught how to ‘walk’ by Sineag Blane, who is choreographing.

Everyone in the showcase has their own interesting story. Take Shona MacLellan from Uist, for example. Shona is mainly a knitter — “her stuff is amazing,” said Netty — but has been working on pieces that combine knitted sections with Harris Tweed.

Picture of knitted pieces by Shona MacLellan
CRAFTY: Some of Shona’s knitted pieces

She comes from a family of Eriskay knitters, Uist weavers and seamstresses and has managed to gather some old family photos and is replicating an Eriskay jumper from a picture of her great-grandmother. “It’s the only evidence I have of her jumper making.”

Another big presence in the show is byRosie whose colourful and contemporary creations have the whole surfer vibe down. The name of her range of hoodies, fisherman’s jumpers, snoods and beanies is “the croft to sea collection” and the pieces are very popular. My friend and creative writing tutor Heather Birrell had been admiring the hoodies and was thinking about taking one of them back with her to Canada, but in the end plumped for a fisherman’s jumper, made specially for her in periwinkle blue (how beautiful).

That’s a great choice. I tried out one of these smock-style jumpers in grey, along with an orange snood, and liked it very much. I had Michael, six, with me and he loved the wee purses from the Fiesta Mexicana collection.We couldn’t leave without buying one.

Picture of Hebrides Writer Katie and son with byRosie Harris Tweed
SHOPPING SUCCESS: Michael, his purse, and ‘my’ fisherman’s jumper (Santa please note)

I met a nice lady while we were there. Her name was Glenda Faus, from America, and she had been tempted by a hoody but instead went for a bag and purse in a grey and orange mix. Glenda was in Lewis as part of a holiday to celebrate a big birthday and in memory of a friend, and bought the pieces to mark her trip.

“I was in here two days ago and came back a second time just to purchase,” she said. “I came back because it’s very good quality and it’s absolutely beautiful. I don’t enjoy the tartan look but this is very appealing to the eye. The colours and the designs that they have put together — it’s brilliant.”

Glenda, who comes from a generation of seamstresses, added: “I like supporting local artisans and I wanted to tie it in to my trip.”

Picture of byRosie shopper Glenda with Harris Tweed bags
TRIP MEMENTO: A happy Glenda and her byRosie bags, headed for America

The hoody — byRosie seamstress Cara Macaulay told us about hers, a light blue check — is fast becoming a modern classic. A new twist on Harris Tweed for the younger generation.

It’s far removed from the tailored Harris Tweed jacket. Super casual. But at the same time, it takes the fabric back to its original purpose: to keep out the elements. For that reason, you could say this is contemporary Harris Tweed design at its most authentic.

Netty makes hoodies as well and wears hers nearly every day. “You can throw it on and it keeps you warm and it keeps you dry to a certain extent. It’s warm and it’s cosy and it’s easy. I think it’s going back to the traditional use of Harris Tweed which was walking on the hill in a Harris Tweed jacket.”

That being said, the tailored Harris Tweed jacket is iconic. “It’s desirable and a lifetime purchase — but there’s room for other things,” said Netty.

The best tailors in the world use Harris Tweed. We know this. And there is bound to be some excellent tailoring on show in the Harris Tweed Hebrides collection. Take one of their recent collaborations — with Italian men’s coat specialists Paltò — as heritage fashion at its best.

Some of the representatives from Paltò were so taken with the Harris Tweed story that they flew all the way from Tuscany to Lewis to check out the process, and were delighted by what they found. They made a great video of their trip as part of this special project.

Margaret Ann Macleod, Brand Development Director for Harris Tweed Hebrides, said: “Harris Tweed Hebrides are delighted to be involved with this project which is showcasing the best of Harris Tweed to our local community where the colours, the yarn and the cloth originate.

“So much of the fabric we manufacture at the Shawbost Mill, and with the independent weavers around Lewis and Harris, is exported outwith the UK. This is a great opportunity to see the best garments and accessories made here from Harris Tweed on the An Lanntair catwalk.”

Development officer and show ‘mastermind’ Sarah Maclean said: “Harris Tweed is economically significant, in terms of the numbers of jobs, but it’s got that extra dimension because of its cultural status. It’s very much within the council’s remit to do anything to help it to develop and grow.”

The event, said Netty, “will be really, really good. People will be entertained. They’ll be pleasantly surprised because there’s a mixture of the expected and the unexpected in both design and performance.

“It’s actually been really enjoyable to organise. It’s the opportunity for us to show off and be in control of how we do that. You don’t often get that. Nine times out of ten, when you submit your work it’s being shown somewhere else.”

This time, they have control of their own image. You could say that’s Made in the Hebrides too.

Harris Tweed image of crofter carrying a sheep by Ian Lawson
BROAD SHOULDERS: An Ian Lawson image from his Harris Tweed exhibition. The main image for this blog post is by Angus Macarthur and both are courtesy of An Lanntair

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