Humble Harris Tweed struggles with Japan’s powerful retailers

Humble Harris Tweed struggles with Japan’s powerful retailers

Quirky and esoteric Harris Tweed, the handwoven cloth that heralds from Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, has enjoyed a cult like following in Japan for many years. The wool has featured in Doctor Who’s Tardis and celebrities from Vivienne Westwood, Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna are fans.

In Japan, brand awareness amongst the fashion conscious is over 50% built largely by word of mouth, subtle product placements and endorsements. Whilst Japan accounts for over 40% of the company’s total sales, the absolute business size is approximately GBP4m (USD 6m) which given this large market and its brand history is frankly peanuts.


The Harris Tweed company runs on a quasi cooperative style; the 140 home hand weavers are all self employed (to comply with an arcane law); and Japan’s business and brand management have been left to third parties.

In the last two or three years, the brand’s popularity has surged as large Japanese retailers, like Shimamura, a large retail fashion business, listed on the Tokyo stock market with annual sales exceeding USD4.9bn and Ito Yokado a general merchandiser, have developed and marketed a wide variety of Harris Tweed branded items.

Most have not been priced at levels one would imagine for a hand made, artisanal item.

Harris Tweed Shimamura Bag

This premium looking handbag for example is selling at JPY2,900 about US$25. I don’t know how much share of that is going to Harris Tweed but I’m sure it’s a mere fraction.

Pricing is not in fact the biggest issue. It is Brand Management. Whilst there are guidelines for the use of Harris Tweed. To be precise they read: “Products containing genuine ‘Harris Tweed’ may be called ‘Harris Tweed’ if no less than 50% ‘Harris Tweed’ is used in the composition of their external surface excluding buttons, trimmings and linings”, these seem to have been forgotten, ignored or deliberately avoided.

I am not a fashion professional, but doubt this bag adheres to the 50% guideline.

Then there’s the issue of co-branding. Am I alone in wondering if associating Harris Tweed with Disney makes sense?


The complex supply chain is another factor. Many of the goods are manufactured in third countries, like China, through OEMs who may or may not be trading directly with Harris Tweed. 

Too little or too late, Harris Tweed has this month announced plans to appoint a Japan Brand Ambassador. 

I am wondering whether “Policeman” or “Enforcer” would be a better title?

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