"Turnover went one million, two million, three million." Despite its product's fusty image, Linton Tweeds is on a roll.
Leslie and Carole Walker are proud of their new commercial baby: a visitors' centre dispensing tea, scones and ends of fabric - excess produce of the Walkers' firm, Linton Tweeds - to passing trade in downtown Carlisle. The centre is apparently a hot favourite with the local Brownie troop and with a phenomenon known in Cumbrian leisure circles as 'knit 'n' natter clubs'. Mrs Walker is a former school-teacher and Mr Walker wears sleeveless jumpers. The gemutlichkeit is palpable. When, therefore, Mr Walker remarks that 'Jean' has been kind enough to come up from London to open the shop, he conjures up a vision of something soft-spoken wearing taupe and crepe-soled shoes. Not quite. 'You know?' inquires Mrs Walker, helpfully. 'The designer, Jean Muir?' There is a reverential silence. Visualising the chalk-faced doyenne of British fashion at a Carlisle knit 'n' natter club does call for a certain hush.
But Jean's is by no means the most unlikely label to be associated with this small textile mill. Linton Tweeds' story begins with the irruption into its sartorial history of no less a name than that of Coco, a picture of whose owner (dressed, naturally, in tweeds) hangs on Walker's office wall. 'The original Mr Linton - who started the company in 1912 - used to go shooting with the London couturier, Captain Molyneux,' explains Leslie Walker. 'One day the captain introduced him to a young French lady who was opening up a couture house. Her name was Mademoiselle Chanel. There has never been a Chanel collection since that has not included one of our tweeds.' Coco having long since been assumed corporeally into that Great Fashion House In The Sky, Walker's dealings are with Chanel's new leader, Karl. (Lagerfeld to you.) On those occasions when Linton Tweeds' MD and CEO isn't on the phone to Karl in Paris, he can probably be found talking swatches with Bill (Blass) or Calvin (Klein) in New York. And there is, of course, always Jean in London.
Nor is Linton's client base its sole source of surprise. While the recessionary '90s have proved a wretched time for British textile manufacture as a whole, the Walkers have had more business than they have known what to do with. 'Our turnover went roughly one million, two million, three million from '90 to '92,' says Walker. 'It hit £3.8 million last year. We were sending out 50% of orders to be machined elsewhere. I wouldn't,' he concludes, wearily, 'like production to go any higher than that.'
Now, the implications of all this may come as a surprise to those of you who are au fait with the brittle world of haute couture. After all, tweed is tweed is tweed: a frumpy, scratchy sort of commodity, favoured by gym mistresses with Eton crops and men's wristwatches. One cannot easily recall seeing Naomi or Cindy or Linda slinking down the catwalk in a Norfolk jacket and brogues. Whence, then, the Walkers' burgeoning turnover?
The answer to this enigma is that Linton Tweeds' tweeds are remarkable precisely for their untweediness. As it happens, you probably will have seen Naomi, Cindy and Linda clad in Linton's products: you may well simply not have recognised the cloth on their comely backs as tweed. If this seems unlikely, consider the swatch of dayglo-pink fabric proffered by Carole Walker. 'The texture,' she says, ruthlessly shredding it, 'comes from this. Touch it.' Eugh. It feels like rubber. 'It is,' says Mrs Walker, pleased. 'Then there's this' - she extracts a filament of what looks like etiolated tinsel - 'that's Christmas-tree yarn, and this' - streamers of superannuated lavatory roll - ' is tissue-paper yarn. We're constantly having to push back the boundaries of what people think tweed is. Karl Lagerfeld won a prize for this cloth,' notes Mrs Walker, 'but it was The Boss' - the name by which her husband is known around Linton's shop floor - 'who designed it.' The Boss himself, meanwhile, obviously derives a certain grim satisfaction from having been proven right by history. 'When I went into the textile industry after my National Service,' Walker observes, 'the fashionable work-study buzz word was "rationalisation". Everyone else in Scotland' - Walker is from a family of Selkirk weavers - 'was busy saying: "Get rid of yarn-dyeing," for example, "farm it out to a specialist." Well, all they've ended up with is sheds full of weaving machines, and anyone can do that.'
This has ostentatiously not been the case at Linton's Carlisle plant. Not only has the mill clung doggedly to its own dyeing, it has tenaciously retained its late 19th century wooden hand looms as well. Walker guffaws at the suggestion that keeping wooden looms might be diagnosed as a symptom of a Luddite streak. 'Listen,' he growls, 'when you're working with airy-fairy fashion people, you've got to hit them with ideas straight away. They'll like a fabric one day, but if you send it to them, six weeks later they'll say: "What's this for?" We had two high-powered Japanese designers up here last week, and we were able to run off swatches on a hand loom for them to take back to Tokyo that afternoon. Try getting a modern machine to do that for you.'
In fact (despite appearances to the contrary), the strategy at Linton's for the past two decades has been modernisation. Indeed, Walker has spent much of his 20 years as MD - the Linton family's majority shareholding was bought out in 1972 - trying to live down the firm's perceived hideboundness. 'The first time I spoke to Bill Blass after the takeover,' recalls a pained Walker, 'he said: "But what has happened to the Lintons?" I explained, and he said: "Well, let me tell you something. When I tried to buy fabric from them they told me to go jump in a lake, so that's what I'm telling you"-and he put down the phone. It has taken me a long time to get over that image problem.'
Walker paints a droll picture of the antediluvian British sales technique that led to it. 'Miss Linton and her cousin George used to sail across the Atlantic, first class, on the Queens once a year,' smiles Walker, grimly. 'Once in New York, they'd take a suite at the Park and 10 especially privileged customers would be summoned into The Presence. And it worked - for a while.'
The eventual downfall of New York's Seventh Avenue fashion industry at the hands of aggressive trades unions put paid to Linton Tweeds' 10 couture customers - and thus, nearly, to Linton Tweeds - shortly after Walker's arrival. His response was a dash of meritocratic hard selling that probably saved the firm. 'I went to the bank, said "I need a £75,000 overdraft limit", packed my bags and flew to Japan,' Walker recalls. The Japanese market now accounts for slightly under a third of Linton's annual sales.
The democratisation of the old-fashioned couture house has proved a disguised blessing for Linton Tweeds in another respect as well. 'Chanel and that lot were all just prestige, really,' Walker asserts. 'With couture customers, if you sold six metres of a single pattern you considered yourself lucky. When Karl Lagerfeld took over six years ago, there was a lot of talk about Chanel being the last couture house to bastardise its name, but he's turned it into a bulk business. They're our single biggest customers now.' Lagerfeld's successful foray into the (relative) mass market has clearly given Walker ideas of his own. Linton already supplies a number of lucrative non-couture customers - such as Jaeger and Acquascutum - and the move of these away from the traditional summer-and-winter collections to year-round merchandising has ironed out many of Linton Tweed's own quondam problems with seasonality. 'When people ask what our capacity is, I tell them it's infinite,' notes Walker, modestly.
The temptation to enter a bulkier market is fraught with problems, however. 'When Linton's accountants pointed out that their overheads had gone up and their yardage down, they could simply bridge the shortfall by putting up prices,' says the heir, with a faintly wistful air. 'Price is not a criterion for couture, but it is, say, for Jaeger or Calvin Klein. On the other hand, they'll give us 1,000 metres to the run, and that's the kind of order we need to survive.'
Whether Walker or his son, Keith - an ex-banker who will take over the firm on his father's retirement next year - can openly pursue this rationale into the real mass market is doubtful, however: Karl and Bill might not mind buying fabric from a firm that also supplies Acquascutum, but they would presumably baulk at one that sold its wares to C and A. Such a move would require a bifurcation of Linton's product line, with a new name for budget fabrics and preferably with a new factory in which to manufacture it.
Such a move would also bring the company into an arena bristling with new and toothsome lions. Walker claims, for example, to suffer from alleged fabric dumping - 'Confidentially, Italy's giving its textile industry underhand subsidies to flood the Japanese market,' says Linton's MD, unconfidentially, 'and I have that from the Board of Trade' - and the opportunities for unscrupulous forging of Linton patterns, already a bane, would be logarithmically expanded. 'My motto is, "If you want to knock off one of our fabrics, get us to knock it off for you",' Walker observes. 'We can probably do it as cheaply, and with better yarn.'
Nonetheless, the illicit reproduction of Linton's untweedy tweeds does at least suggest that the Walkers are doing something right, and there is corroboration from another source, too. 'Strangely, Colombia has always been a good market for us,' muses Keith Walker. 'Our agent in Bogota recently went to the wedding of one of the drug barons, and, apparently, lots of the women there were wearing Linton products.' What the Lintons would have made of that particular clientele is anyone's guess.