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Fashion 88 — Life in a Northern town

How a 1988 fashion event in the Borders attracted world-class designers.


'A radio-cassette, jacket and Cashline card were stolen from a Vauxhall Astra parked at Neidpath Castle, Peebles on Sunday afternoon.'

A short report of this theft appeared on page four of 'The Southern Reporter', Thursday 14 July, 1988. For me, the triangulation of these details conjures up a JVC tape deck, a denim blouson and a Precious Metal compilation: a friend's mother in a white Astra fitted with bucket seats and a roll bar, driving at pace on the back roads, playing Bryan Adams' 'Run To You'. Rock and rurality were axiomatic. I don't think the Second Summer of Love happened.

Equally removed from the habitus of the farming community, the main feature on page four that Thursday was devoted to stories connected with Fashion 88, a festival of style that had taken place in the Borders a week earlier (in spite of some heavy weather). A showcase for the local textile industries, Fashion 88 aimed to develop new fashion markets by raising awareness of the high quality woollen cloths and knitwear produced in the region.

Fashion glitterati arrive in Kelso

A glittering array of international design talent was invited to stay at the fancy Sunlaws Hotel in Kelso, and undertake a series of industry visits, exhibition openings and networking dinners. Under the direction of Hamish Carruthers, an influential, enthusiastic impresario, President and Chairman of the South of Scotland Chamber of Commerce and Design Director at Claridge in Selkirk, Fashion 88 attracted an impressive roster of 18 established and emerging designers: Jean Muir, Nino Cerruti, Sonia Rykiel, Donna Karan, Bruce Oldfield, Alistair Blair among them.

Focusing on the closing Grand Gala Dinner, 'The Southern Reporter' delightedly cantered through 'The Night Our Belle had a Ball', a first-hand account of the glamorous evening hosted by the Duke and Duchess of Roxburghe at Floors Castle.

A champagne reception led to a meal of Tweed salmon, partridge and raspberry pastries before the massed pipes of the Gordon Highlanders played jigs and reels — 'Jasper Conran, Vivienne Westwood and Jean Muir were last seen dancing up the driveway behind them' — and a spectacular firework display burst into colour over the River Tweed.

On 15 July, 'The Peebleshire News' also covered Fashion 88, giving some gossipy details of how the fashionable guests were dressed: 'Chantal Thomass I had already seen in a mini-crinolene of yellow and black. She looked stunning but it is not something I could wear myself. Vivienne Westwood continued to plug her Scottish image with a dress in tartan. Arabella Pollen continued to look like a younger and prettier Selina Scott in a silk suit.' In attendance, an American TV crew, filming 'Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous', a series that brought the imagined landscape of Dynasty and Falcon Crest to life with 'Champagne Wishes and Caviar Dreams'.

Luxurious styles for 1980s females

Two years earlier, Floors Castle had been the getaway for Prince Andrew when he proposed, in private, to Sarah Ferguson, who wore Alistair Blair's quintessentially 1980s take on a classic coat when the engagement was made public. Blair was to Fergie what Oldfield was to Diana, Princess of Wales. When the Duchess of Roxburghe, dressed in cobalt blue by Oldfield for Fashion 88, gave an interview to 'Scottish Field' about her role as an ambassador and consultant for the Borders textile industries, she posed for photographs dressed in bright, fashion-forward Ballantyne cashmere.


During the 1980s, the pre-Crash, metropolitan, deregulated 1980s of Gold Blend couples and Chelsea Mews Polo drivers, the expense of cashmere, its connotations of exclusivity and luxury, expressed professional, upwardly mobile success. Seamlessly, suits tailored from the softest, inkiest drapes and sweaters in the densest blacks, could segue into city life. If the shoulders were padded and waists cinched, it was all the better to show off the sophisticated behaviour of a rare and costly cloth.

Many of the photographs that accompanied press coverage of Fashion 88 illustrate aspirational executive dressing for young women: a smart Oldfield wrap dress in monochrome houndstooth, defined by its black velvet collar and belt; a curving, broad shouldered blazer in green wool crepe by Arabella Pollen using Linton Tweed; a navy cashmere hacking jacket worn mannishly with wide-leg navy and grey check pants and a long silk tie. Think Melanie Griffith when she trades places with Sigourney Weaver in 'Working Girl' (released, coincidentally, in 1988). The clothes are modern, classic, reserved yet conscious of their place in time.

Border tweeds and tartans may have been traditionally associated with the heavier, more angular silhouettes of men's suiting and sportswear, but Fashion 88 avowedly saw the future as female.

Scottish press reports on the big names in fashion

In the group of designers invited, a couple of names stick out alongside their more stylistically conservative, practically-minded counterparts. A young John Galliano, four years out of Art School, caused a degree of consternation (for Priscilla in 'The Sunday Post' at least) in his 'unbelievable, badly fitting suit. Long, black jacket with wide lapels and above-the-ankle length trousers with cut-outs at each side'. Daringly exotic, on a mill visit to Pringle, 'The Glasgow Herald' noted he flashed his 'honey-coloured shins, bronzed to perfection from recent lazing in the Italian sun. Not even on a weathered rugby team has Hawick seen the like.'

Vivienne Westwood, having just released her seminal Autumn / Winter 1987-88 Harris Tweed collection, appeared pseudo-demure in a grey dress, Peter Pan collar, white gloves stitched into the ends of her sleeves dangling uselessly. Priscilla (again) commented that the platform brogues Westwood wore were 'Fun — but Dreadful'. Westwood's association with tartan was well established. She had a commercial relationship with John Buchan Lochcarron, of Galashiels, who was supplying up to 75 per cent of the fabric for her shows and an important aim of Fashion 88 was to illustrate how versatile, witty and contemporary the produce of Borders Mills could be in the right hands.

Economic position of Borders textile firms

Since the couture heydays of the 1960s, when Bernat Klein, E Y Johnston and Linton Tweed designed richly coloured, deeply textured women’s fashion fabrics for Chanel, Dior and Nina Ricci, the Borders textile industries faced unrelenting competition and devaluation caused by the development and uptake of synthetic fibres and blends — lightweight, durable, easy to care for — and by the emergence and success of globalised manufacturing bases. They lost ground to companies in the Far East, which could produce high volume goods cheaply, and more critically, they lost ground to companies in Italy, which offered a superlative, design responsive service producing short-run, high quality fabrics with a flexibility attuned to designers' specifications. Border firms were inclined to stick to tried and tested colourways, traditional patterns and weights, insisting problematically on large minimum orders, and were therefore considered to be unresponsive to fashion and difficult to work with. Commenting on the circumstances that led to the evolution of Fashion 88, 'Drapers Record' noted '… quality … was perceived by some designers to prevail at the expense of design.'

Even so, at the end of the 1980s, in the towns strung along the rivers Tweed, Teviot, Ettrick and Gala, the textile industries generated an annual turnover of £150 million, exporting 70 per cent of their produce. Reportedly, around 60,000 people were employed in trades directly associated with textiles — spinning, dyeing, knitting, weaving, finishing, maintaining plant. With the textile industries holding such a key position in the economic life of this needlessly remote and overlooked region of Scotland, sustaining a place in the market was critical. Textile firms showed themselves to be keen to embrace new technology, and in this, they reflected attempts to diversify the local economy into electronics, printed circuit board production in particular.

The Hawick-based knitwear firm of Lyle & Scott was investing £1 million per year in equipment which included a £400,000 intarsia machine and, as part of Fashion 88, a computer-aided design system which allowed designers to obviate the need for expensive sampling, was on display in Hawick Museum. The Scottish College of Textiles in Galashiels, which received a prize scholarship from Fashion 88, wholeheartedly embraced technically-led design, enjoying unrivalled facilities at their Netherdale site. Though the majority of students were female — as were many mill-floor operatives, the industries were still controlled by men. Faced with threats from new materials and foreign competition, it was, then, perhaps easier — more 'natural' — for firms to put their faith in hardware than to pair that investment with advice about the value of fashion and changing social practices.

Fashion 88 aimed to nudge Borders businesses into changing their perspective and approaches — to take advantage of the interest shown by, for example, Japanese markets (sadly, Kenzo Takada had to pull out of the Fashion 88 events). In this respect, Fashion 88 was, in the moment of its execution, judged a success and followed two years later, by Fashion 90.

We would recognise the phase of post-industrial decline that these towns teetered into at this time more easily in the large Yorkshire conurbations with which they shared so much psychically and commercially. The Wakefield Mill on Huddersfield Street, Galashiels was (and is) one of the few in the town to maintain a close association with textile businesses. Some were repurposed as a mushroom farm, a supermarket, a business park, warehouses, flats and studios. Yet others laid empty, descending towards dereliction and destruction. Often, in the spaces they have vacated, quick-build retail parks housing outlets for familiar retail conglomerates stand in their place, representing a significant loss to the built environment, the culture and self-esteem of the towns.

Lament for a lost industry

In the early 1990s, I attended art and design classes at the Borders College in Hawick, which at that time occupied Wilton Mill, a handsome building dating from the early 19th century, locally famous for its domed clock tower. John Hume, the foremost cataloguer of Scotland's industrial past, detailed Wilton Mill's 'castellated stair tower' and 'French Renaissance office block' in his 'Industrial Archaeology of Scotland'. Sadly, Wilton Mill was finally pulled down in 2015, to be replaced with an unremarkable Aldi.

When I feel nostalgic for the towns I grew up in, which, at the end of the 1980s maintained their essential 19th-century character, I watch the Dream Academy's video for 'Life in a Northern Town'. Filmed on a freezing hillside above Hebden Bridge, polite Indie Romantics in square shouldered, woollen overcoats and pin-stripe shirts sing a lament for lost industry in front of a brass section from the Salvation Army. It is not a memory I can have, but it is one I that I feel.

See also:

Further reading

  • 'Energy use in the woollen and worsted industries: a report' by WIRA (London: Department of Industry, 1978) [National Library of Scotland shelfmark: GIM.27.[1]].
  • 'Jean Muir: Beyond fashion' by Sinty Stemp (Woodbridge: Antique Collectors Club, 2007) [Shelfmark: HB5.207.11.257].
  • 'Pringle of Scotland and the Hawick knitwear story' by Hugh Barty-King (London: JJG, 2006) [Shelfmark: HB3.206.8.404].
  • 'Scottish Field' (Edinburgh: Scottish Field) [Shelfmark: NJ.285/1 PER].
  • 'Scottish wool cloth sample book' by the Scottish Woollen Publicity Council (London: International Wool Secretariat, 1969) [Shelfmark: H1.204.323].
  • 'Southern Reporter' (Selkirk: Tweeddale Press Group of Newspapers) [Shelfmark: CB.2/161(10)].
  • 'The tweedmakers: A history of the Scottish fancy woollen industry, 1600-1914' by Clifford Gulvin (Newton Abbey, David and Charles, 1973) [Shelfmark: NC.422.b.4].


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