Soft focus -A West Yorkshire company takes on the couture cashmere world

A small family firm from West Yorkshire takes on the couture cashmere world and wins, reports Jo Haywood

There’s nothing soft and woolly about John Kaye. If 35 years in the textile industry have taught him anything, it’s that only the tough survive.‘This has never been an easy business, but it’s harder than ever now,’ he said, after a whistle-stop tour of his mill in Holmfield, Halifax. ‘The coming years will undoubtedly be difficult, but if it is was easy it wouldn’t be fun, would it?’Fun for John involves numerous trips abroad and around the UK every year, back-to-back meetings with Chinese cashmere manufacturers and complicated brainstorming sessions with design teams from fashion houses like Hermes, Aquascutum, Hugo Boss, Lacoste, Paul Smith and Thomas Pink. But after 35 years in textiles and 15 years as head of his own company, Heritage Cashmere, doesn’t he long to be on the golf course, snug in his cashmere cardigan? ‘This business still needs my experience, and I still need the buzz,’ he said. ‘I have just come back from two weeks in China. It was non-stop and really tiring but I still get a massive adrenaline rush out of it. It definitely helps that this is a family business though. I know when I’m away it’s in safe hands.’The safe hands in question belong to his son James and his step-son James, which is not quite as confusing as it sounds as one is happy to be called Big James for the sake of clarity.While John was not keen for his own son to join him at Heritage Cashmere, he was almost frogmarched into the original family business by his father – who started out as a designer at William Eddleston’s in Sowerby Bridge and ended up as chairman of the company. ‘Naturally, when I was young the main topic for discussion at home was textiles,’ said John. ‘I was expected to join the family firm, but I was stubborn and rebelled. I went to Liverpool University instead to study pure maths and medieval literature. It was an odd choice, but I was an odd person.’After he’d finished rebelling, he realised he had actually enjoyed working in the mill during the holidays and would like to learn more. His father said he could join him on the management team at 9am on Monday morning, but John’s rebellious streak overruled him once again. ‘I wanted to spend six months in the mill itself, seeing every part of the process and learning how everything was done,’ he said. ‘That experience was worth its weight in gold.’ William Eddleston’s was bought out by another company in 1990. John stayed on as managing director, working hard for five years to make his division a top earner, but couldn’t shake the feeling that he was just another employee without any real say in the running of the business. ‘The idea for Heritage Cashmere had been brewing in my mind for a few months,’ he said. ‘So I went home and told my wife I no longer had a job.’ Instead, he had an entire new business, designing, manufacturing and supplying cashmere accessories and knitwear to luxury fashion houses. ‘I knew I wanted heritage in the name,’ he explained. ‘Even when the business was only one day old it already had a heritage stretching back to both my sets of grandparents who had all worked in the textile trade.’His haute couture links go back to 1980 when he was still at William Eddleston’s. ‘A chance came up for a meeting about exporting to France,’ he said. ‘Up until then it had all been about the Commonwealth. We only dealt with countries coloured pink on the map. My father didn’t think it was a good idea so, of course, I wanted to do it.‘I met this energetic, enthusiastic French guy who took some of our cashmere products to the likes of Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. They loved them and we were in.’Heritage Cashmere retains  strong links with prestige fashion brands by offering them a bespoke design, manufacture and supply service. They are currently producing accessories for spring 2011 and designing for 2012.‘It’s very much a marriage between us and the fashion houses,’ said John. ‘Our design teams have to work creatively together. They bring their ideas and we bring our expertise to the party.’The company opened its own mill shop just over a year ago – so Yorkshire fashionistas can now get their hands on catwalk cashmere at a fraction of the price – and is looking into online and mail order retail. John and the two Jameses all agree that while times are tough in the textile trade, they stand a better chance than most of surviving because they are constantly innovating and, perhaps most importantly of all, they are a tight-knit family concern.Although the dynasty almost ended with John, who did everything in his power to stop his son joining him at the mill. ‘He thought I was mad for wanting to work here,’ said James. ‘He did everything he could to put me off and then packed me off to business school in London for a year.’‘I hoped he’d meet a rich, leggy blonde from Russia and go off and make his fortune,’ John throws in.‘But I didn’t,’ said James, taking up the thread again. ‘I came back and have not regretted it for a minute. It’s wonderful to work in a family business.’Even if it’s a family business that can’t function without a goat taking its coat off in the Far East? ‘It is a completely ridiculous business to be in, isn’t it?’ said John. ‘We rely on rice-eating goats that live on the other side of the world. If only we could raise flocks of them here, life would be much simpler.’

Cashing in on cashmereCashmere is an extraordinary fibre. It’s strong yet gossamer light, with a softness and warmth that’s difficult to beat. But quality cashmere (the word comes from the old spelling of Kashmir) is not just extraordinary, it’s also rare. It is only on the freezing mountainous landscapes of China and Mongolia that the cashmere goat can grow its soft, downy winter coat to protect itself from the extreme climate.When the weather warms up, the goats naturally shed their winter woollies, which are then gathered, combed and cleaned in preparation for their transformation into fabric fit for a couture catwalk.There are different grades of cashmere available. Garments and accessories manufactured using lower grade, blended or recycled cashmere often quickly pill and lose their shape. But using superior virgin cashmere virtually guarantees comfort and longevity.

Soft focus

A small family firm from West Yorkshire takes on the couture cashmere world and wins, reports Jo Haywood

Comments powered by Disqus