Cashmere’s journey from Mongolia to Multrees Walk www.heraldscotland.com
THE marriage between Mongolia and Multrees Walk - the Edinburgh avenue where Harvey Nichols and Louis Vuitton are neighbours - has to be sustainable, says Simon Cotton.
The chief executive of the luxury knitwear firm Johnstons of Elgin - which has just opened a flagship store in the Scottish capital’s exclusive shopping precinct - has set up a critical link between its mills and the cashmere farmers of Mongolia who supply the raw materials for their products that are sold under their own brand and for names like Burberry, another Multrees neighbour.
The 222-year-old firm is also investing in its Scottish future with a new £500,000 development centre set to open in Hawick later this year where it will centralise the design of new techniques and new types of fabric.
Mr cotton, 49, said there is growth across the company, which now has five stores in the UK, with others located on London’s Bond Street, in mills in Hawick and Elgin, and in St Andrews, and a further store could follow.
He said: “There’s two sides to our business. We have our own brand, and that’s about a third of our turnover.
“We have the private label business where we manufacture for other brands. Both sides have been growing.
“On the private label side, it’s been about having fantastic relationships with the best brands in the world, which we are doing very well, and we make iconic products for them, which the customers want.”
The firm tends not to mention private clients but customers such as Burberry are happy to make the association in their accounts.
“On the brand side, it has been very much about that new consumer interest in authenticity, and brands that have a provenance and a history.”
The firm sources merino wool mostly from Australia and cashmere from China, Mongolia and Afghanistan.
He said: “I was involved in the setting up of an organisation called the Sustainable Fibre Alliance.
“Ourselves and a few other companies set this up to work in Mongolia particularly on the sustainability of cashmere, and just making sure that the nomadic herders that produce it are able to deal with issues like the challenges of global warming, because they’ve got warming there of 2.8C.
“That’s affecting the grassland, increasing animal numbers are affecting the grassland. The nomadic herding practices that have been in place for centuries really now have to deal with a lot of new challenges.
“Cashmere is a great, romantic story. You know, wild goats roaming the grasslands and all that stuff. But if we want that to be around for the next 100 years, we’ve got to support the people and the supply chain.”
Claimed as a world first, it has introduced lighter weight technology which it says allows customers to wear knitted products year round.
Last year the company committed £4.5 million, an 800 per cent increase from 2012, to introducing its new technology and R&D capabilities.
Owned by the Johnstons for the first four generations and then the Harrison family since 1920, it last year booked £9.9m, profit before tax, a 59% increase year-on-year.
The firm employs 1,000 over its Hawick and Elgin mills, and is responsible for one third of Scotland’s textile apprentices.
It again looks to the future by running school visits, with 2,500 children seeing the mills each year. “They’ll do tours, but they’ll also do face to face interviews with young people in the company. They’ll do hands-on projects as well. So really, it’s trying to engage with the next generation and let them see that textiles is a vibrant industry with a good future, which has not always been how it’s been portrayed.
“Obviously the industry as a whole has gone through some decline for a period of time, but there’s now definitely a resurgence as people get much more interested in things like authenticity and how things are made, who’s making the products, and things like that.”
The company says it has the most advanced weaving looms and knitting machines in the UK.
Mr Cotton said: “We’ve invested a lot in finer gauges for the weaving and the knitting. That’s to give us a more international appeal, more year-round appeal, and broaden our products, so it means that we can remain relevant to the private label customers regardless of what their fashion cycle does. But it also means that from our own brand, we can give a much wider range of products.
“The technology and investment in machinery certainly is part of it. Take, for example, the fine gauge knitwear, which we’ve developed, so a really fine knit where you can wear it under a suit jacket. We developed that with whole garment technology, so basically very little sewing required. It’s a product which is made almost entirely on a single machine. We did that in collaboration with a very high end, very well respected yarn spinner in Italy, and the Japanese technology leader in the sector, Shima Seiki. You needed all three parties to do that. Just buying the machinery on its own was certainly never going to get us there.
“We’re in the process of launching our innovation centre in October in Hawick, where we’ll have all our design team, all the technical developers, all our programmers together under one roof. The magic happens when you’ve got designers and technical people working together, and then you can do things which maybe can’t be done if you’re designing in one office and sending things down the modem to another office.”
He said so far Multrees Walk living up to expectations and some international shoppers are “engaged by the idea that there’s actually a Scottish luxury brand which can sit beside the Louis Vuittons and the Burberrys and the Max Maras very comfortably”.
Q What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?
A I have a particular fondness for Mongolia. Alongside two other companies, Johnstons was the original member of the Sustainable Fibre Alliance, which works with the nomadic herders in Mongolia to improve all aspects of the sustainability of cashmere production.
Q When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?
A I don’t think I had a clear idea until I was in my mid-30s and realised I had the opportunity to lead a business.
Q What was your biggest break in business?
I joined Russell Europe Ltd as a marketing manager and, although incredibly hard at the time, I learnt very quickly as part of that process, and when we did achieve the turnaround it was extremely satisfying.
Q And your worst moment?
A For my first MD role in 2007 I took over a company that had never made a profit. I learned a lot about the value of “lean” in manufacturing and how to balance the need to fill factories with the need to stay profitable.
Q Who do you most admire and why?
A My wife runs a charity that brings to Scotland children from the areas of Belarus affected by the Chernobyl disaster. Somehow she manages to completely energise herself to work with the charity and can make some incredibly tough decisions when necessary.
Q What book are you reading, what music are you listening to?
A I am reading Alistair Gray’s new book The Game Changer and listening to a young local musician called Calum Jones – he has a fantastic future.
Q What was the last film you saw?
A My son Seth took me to see Spider-man: Into
The Spider-Verse. I thoroughly enjoyed it.