Coco Chanel was an unlikely fly-fishing enthusiast – or huntress for that matter – but when, in the late 1920s, the designer was holed up in the wilds of the Scottish Highlands at the country estate of her long-term lover Hugh Grosvenor, the Duke of Westminster, she was entranced by country sports and, less surprisingly, the clothes that came with them. Decades later her passion for hardy British tweeds would result in one of the most iconic pieces of clothing ever made – the Chanel jacket. And although the neat, chic four‑pocketed suit has never gone out of fashion, this autumn the tweed jacket – along with tweed dresses, trouser suits and coats – feels fresher than ever.
Chanel’s successor, Karl Lagerfeld, knows more than most about the versatility and symbolism of tweed. And to showcase it for autumn he created the most Parisian of scenes. His faux bistro, Brasserie Gabrielle, installed in the Grand Palais, had it all: a sweeping mahogany counter, waiters in crisp white aprons, sumptuous red leather banquettes and the plats du jour listed on a Chanel-monogrammed board. What was really on offer, though, was one of the most commercial – and most classically Chanel – collections the house has produced in years.
And the star of the show was the tweed, from Cara Delevingne’s opening look – a soft black “fantasy” tweed skirt suit (jacket, from £13,750; skirt, from £1,260) with naive hand-stitched edges and quilted sleeves studded with tiny black satin bows – to funnel-necked coat-dresses (£2,900) in looser-weave fancy tweeds. Lagerfeld cut tweed into bombers (from £18,017), parkas (example £20,580), ponchos (£2,398) and cocooning great coats (£2,398), and transformed it into evening staples including tuxedos (from £866), or coats (£28,753) encased in chiffon and glitter and topped with gold-coin belts (£1,177). “More French you cannot get,” Lagerfeld said ahead of the show. The German designer even parodied the classic two-piece with trompe-l’oeil tweed-effect knitted suits (£3,694) in pastel shades of lilac and beige or pink and grey.
For the stylist Leith Clark, the woman behind Keira Knightley’s red-carpet looks and her own fashion biannual Violet, as well as ad campaigns for Chanel, the allure of this sort of gamine tweed is enduring. “It’s a staple. I love it used traditionally and more playfully too. My black Chanel tweed jacket is from about nine years ago. It always looks great. And,” she adds crucially, “it can make one appear well put together.” Clark counts Crayola pastel pieces from Luella Bartley’s now demised label among her tweed collection, as well as a Chanel 2.55 bag and numerous pieces from Erdem.
To the capricious dresser tweed is the ultimate versatile material – it can be stately and grown-up or lively and coquettish. It can be town or country, rigorous or relaxed. And few designers are as aware of all those undertones as Miuccia Prada, who gives Prince of Wales check as well as lustrous chevron and knickerbocker tweeds a starring role in her tour de force autumn collection. Herringbone tweeds are cut into double-breasted coats (£4,285) with panels of fluffy mink and wide double-faced-jersey collars, or into neat cropped-sleeved jackets (£2,535) with matching cropped trousers (£605). The Milanese designer has even fashioned the fabric into cocktail dresses styled with elbow-length leather gloves – one (£2,140) in salt-and-pepper tweed is decorated with chunky ochre bows and topped with crystal pins and sequinned embroidery.
“Sweet but violent” is how Prada sums up her winsome but highly desirable looks. It was a sentiment that seemed to reverberate through Erdem’s autumn offering, dressing his heroine – an elegant debutante cutting up pieces from her granny’s wardrobe – in a fuchsia and purple tweed coat-dress (£2,940) with raw shaggy edges, or a whimsical riff on the classic Chanel suit (jacket, £1,650, skirt, £1,455) in the same raw-edged tweed.
“Tweed is such an evocative material,” muses Erdem from his Shoreditch studio. “A very English cloth developed for practical, sporting reasons. And it’s contradictory – its beginnings and purpose were masculine but it’s become so ladylike.” To cut through that saccharine femininity the designer exaggerates its texture with woolly edges and hems trimmed with deep borders of lurid lace. “Tweed has a sense of propriety. I loved the idea of undoing it.” And for Erdem working with tweed has one significant bonus – that a designer can control all the elements that go into it.
And these days those ingredients can be almost anything. At Lesage, where many of the most ornate Chanel tweeds are made, textiles are woven using chiffon, leather, denim, chains, lace – anything, in fact, that can be worked by hand into these exquisite fabrics. Erdem works with Kirsty McDougall – an old friend from his Royal College of Art days – who has produced tweeds for Alexander McQueen, Tom Ford, Aquascutum, Louis Vuitton and fellow Scot Louise Gray, as well as supplying labels including Comme des Garçons through her other business Dashing Tweeds. For McDougall, born on the Isle of Lewis, home of Harris tweed, the material has to evolve to stay relevant – even if, for purists at least, the latest tweeds bear little relation to the traditional compact, hardwearing estate tweeds.
“The boundaries are stretched by fancy yarns and textures but these textiles are still traditionally manufactured even if the materials and finishes are not,” says McDougall, who works collaboratively with labels to produce increasingly sophisticated fabrics. “Some designers give me a film to watch, a mood board or even just one word.” Others, like Erdem, have a very specific idea of how they want the finished material to look, and increasingly, McDougall finds herself with ever more fanciful commissions. “Occasionally, something can’t be done by the manufacturers and I will hand-produce it instead,” she says of processes that could include hand-inserting feathers into tweed or hand-printing onto the weave. “It’s actually quite enjoyable but I always need to get lots of help in for that.”
If tweed is a booming business now, the picture was altogether more bleak less than a decade ago. In 2007 the production of Harris tweed was at an all-time low and the entire industry was in doubt. But a group of savvy investors saw the potential in a material that’s revered around the globe, and have nurtured it back to health. Last year almost 1.5m metres of Harris tweed were produced – still a far cry from the height of the industry in the mid-1960s, when the figure was an astounding 7m metres – but the biggest producer on Lewis, Harris Tweed Hebrides, has increased its annual orders from around £800,000 in the Noughties to £10m today.
The sense of heritage and the infinite possibilities are what make tweed so appealing to designers. At Proenza Schouler most of the textiles in the autumn/winter show were specially developed, including black and white chunky tweeds that were sculpted into fluid skirt suits (jacket, £1,715, skirt, £1,025), coats (£2,270) and bandeau tops (£1,150) with raw edges, suggestive slits and boxy cuts. Elsewhere the New York duo used a shimmering black tweed for a plunge-front dress (£1,995) with a panelled skirt, and created faux tweeds using layers of chiffon tightly bonded together. For their resort collection, available late autumn, they feminised it even further with raw-edged ruffles tracing seams and grazing arms on a palest grey tweed drop-waist dress (£1,535).
Sacai’s Chitose Abe treated her tweeds in an equally fresh, youthful way, cutting checked or salt-and-pepper tweeds into sporty coats (£4,500) trimmed with white fur or knitted Aran, and boxy little suits (£1,500) with contrasting panels of pleated white silk.
At Dior Raf Simons provided an equally novel new look pairing slashed A-line skirts (£1,250) in black and white tweed with crisp shirting, or splicing sections of tweed with organza, fur or wool in ravaged-chic yet super-luxe dresses (£2,050). There were masculine blazers (from £2,050) and trouser suits (£3,450) too, and therein lies another key attraction for designers today: tweed can instantly give tailoring a boyish twist.
The appeal of dressing like the boys has been central to Stella McCartney’s collections ever since she was a student at Central Saint Martins, combining classic Savile Row suiting with delicate lace-trimmed slips and camisoles. This autumn she continues the theme with salt-and-pepper tweed suits (from £1,930) with exaggeratedly flared trousers and tightly cinched jackets with raw-edged lapels, and chunkier tweed coat-dresses (from £1,470) that fit snuggly to the torso before darting out into handkerchief hems. McCartney set out to explore “liberation, sensuality and womanhood” with a feminine, playful collection that “delves into the classics to come up with a fresh take on timeless dressing. From controlled tailoring to bricolage dresses, each piece flatters and sculpts the body.”
This form-fitting theme is most apparent in those alluring “bricolage” pieces. Tweed corset tops (£595) with an off-the-shoulder strap are softened and spliced with panels of silver floral brocade and then paired with tightly belted, high-waisted cropped tweed flares (£865). These pieces not only sum up a fresh approach to tomboy dressing but also take tweed from day into evening in the most demure, elegant way. It’s a far cry from Coco’s hunting tweeds, but it’s almost certain she would have approved.