Harris Tweed and Brooks Brothers put sustainability top of agenda at GCU New York's first Town Hall event

09 April 2014

Harris Tweed and Brooks Brothers put sustainability top of agenda at GCU New York

Two iconic brands, Harris Tweed and Brooks Brothers, and the issue of sustainability in fashion set the scene for GCU New York’s first Town Hall event last night (April 8).

Around 100 people attended the panel discussion in GCU NY’s campus in Wooster Street, SoHo, which had been formally opened the previous day by Scotland’s First Minister, the Rt. Hon. Alex Salmond MSP, who gave the inaugural Caledonian Lecture.

Framed by an exhibition of 30 striking images from the award-winning book, From the Land Comes the Cloth by photographer Ian Lawson, the audience heard from a panel comprising Harris Tweed Hebrides Creative Director Mark Hogarth and Chairman Brian Wilson. They were joined by Brooks Brothers Senior Fabric Specialist Doug Shriver and Director of Fashion Glen Hoffs.

The panel discussion and question and answer session with the audience which followed was moderated by Nick Sullivan, the Fashion Director of Esquire magazine in the US.

The Town Hall approach is designed to allow academics and professionals to collaborate with students and industry experts to bring new thinking to bear on existing problems. Tuesday’s event was the first in GCU NY’s ‘Fashion Sharing Progress’ series, which will combine the expertise of the GCU British School of Fashion, launched last year, with the knowledge and experience of industry experts such as the first guest participants:  Harris Tweed Hebrides, the manufacturers of the world-renowned Scottish fabric, and Brooks Brothers, the Madison Avenue-based clothier which has used Harris Tweed in its designs for more than 80 years. 

During the discussion, Mr Wilson, a former UK Trade Minister and a GCU Honorary Professor, traced the background of Harris Tweed and explained how its vital importance to the local community where it is produced had uniquely earned it the protection of an Act of Parliament.  Mr Wilson’s trip to the US included the launch of a new campaign to promote Harris Tweed as the “sustainable fabric to the world”, based on its heritage, style and durability.

Mr Wilson said the fabric “ticks every box of sustainability” and continued: “Everyone loves Harris Tweed but relatively few people know the story that makes it so special. We hope this campaign will encourage interest not just in the product but also the place from which it comes and the process which creates it.

“I doubt if there is another brand in the world with the fame of Harris Tweed which rests on the skills of so few people located within a single community. The key fact is that Harris Tweed survives and flourishes in the Outer Hebrides because an Act of Parliament says it cannot be made anywhere else. That raises questions of global importance about the rights of communities to protect their indigenous industries.”

Mr Wilson is chairman of Harris Tweed Hebrides based at Shawbost on the Isle of Lewis, which was recently named UK Textile Company of the Year. The firm’s Creative Director Mark Hogarth said: “Fashion and style are no longer exclusively about how things look.  The ethics and sustainability of how they are produced are hugely important in today’s market. For Harris Tweed, the luxury lies in the complexity of the process. We have a unique story to tell the world and this will ensure that many more consumers understand what makes Harris Tweed so special.”

Brooks Brothers Senior Fabric Specialist Doug Shriver also talked about the special qualities of Harris Tweed, which have helped guarantee the fabric has remained a firm favourite with Brooks Brothers customers for more than 80 years. The firm, which has 300 stores around the world and has dressed 39 of 44 American presidents, recently celebrated its 196th birthday. Today, its celebrity customers range from Wynton Marsalis to Lady Gaga, explained Nick Sullivan, and he said the company also recently designed all the men’s costumes for the Oscar-winning movie, The Great Gatsby.

Meanwhile Brooks Brothers’ links with Scotland through Harris Tweed were further strengthened, added Nick, when two years ago Doug and Glen visited to explore the company’s Scottish heritage which they could trace back through the wife of one of the company’s founders.

The issues that continue to link the famous Harris Tweed cloth, the community that produces it and the consumers who buy it were explored further in a question and answer session which followed the panel discussion.

GCU NY Vice President Cara Smyth said: “This was the launch event in a series of high-level dialogues about fashion and sustainability. The obvious place to start was with Harris Tweed, which is a wonderful product with Scottish heritage and a close affinity to this city.”