Hawick is a long way from the Paris catwalks, geographically and figuratively.
The grey sandstone architecture of the Borders town seemingly has little in common with the air kissing and chiffon swishing of the fashion world, but there's a little secret tucked away- a fashion fan's dream - filled with covetable cashmere creations and designer labels. That place is Barrie Knitwear.
Inside the factory the noise - a mid-toned whir accompanied by the metronomic clunk of machinery - is almost deafening. Our voices are raised, but I still can't quite hear everything. Something to do with the beautiful cashmere jumpers being created line by perfectly knitted line in front of our eyes, I presume, but I can't be sure.
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"Everything here is fully fashioned," says Barrie Knitwear sales director Clive Brown, his Borders accent just audible over the sound of the click and clack of the giant Bentley Cotton knitting machine we're leaning over. "Instead of being cut to shape it's knitted to shape." I gesture towards three blue elastic straps attached to some red cashmere with fierce-looking metal hooks. What are these? Instruments of woollen torture, perhaps? No, something about garment tension, Brown says, though I didn't catch the rest of the explanation. It's the noise, you see. It's deafening.
We move away from the din of the apparatus and pause at a row of white tables. "That's some of the Chanel Paris-Dallas collection," says Brown about a pile of boldly patterned cashmere, as though spotting bundles of expensive Chanel clothing (potentially worth thousands of euros per item) was an everyday occurrence. But then here, at the sprawling Barrie Knitwear factory on the outskirts of the largest town in the region, it is. There's Chanel everywhere: Chanel cardigans on the tables, Chanel jumpers being bound together by skilled workwomen and Chanel skirts hanging on the prototype rails. All crafted out of the most exquisite cashmere. In short, this is sartorial heaven, and it's right here in the Scottish Borders.
Not that anyone in the factory has stars in their eyes. The company, established in 1903 by Walter Barrie and Robert Kersel, has been working with Chanel to manufacture cashmere garments for around 25 years. They also continue to produce cashmere clothing for designer brands such as Hermes, Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. In October 2012 the relationship between Barrie and Chanel blossomed into marriage, when Chanel agreed to buy Barrie for a sum reportedly running into seven figures, though nobody involved in the transaction has ever confirmed the price. Barrie's then owner, former textile giant Dawson, was in administration and the future of the Hawick knitwear factory remained uncertain.
Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel fashion president, said at the time: "The acquisition of Barrie by Chanel is all the more natural as the factory has worked with us for more than 25 years, producing cashmere knitwear including Chanel's iconic two-tone cashmere cardigans. Through this acquisition, we reaffirm our commitment to traditional expertise and craftsmanship."
Chanel celebrated the acquisition a few months later by holding its famous annual Metiers d'Art fashion show in Linlithgow Palace. The evening was described by those in the Barrie factory fortunate enough to have been invited as "incredible". In attendance were some of the most influential names in fashion such as British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman, who witnessed the showcase of garments including a series of cashmere pieces created by Barrie.
A year and a half on from the acquisition and I've come to Hawick to find out what - if any - difference the Chanel buyout has made. At the time of the deal commentators hailed it as great news for Barrie. It would, they said, secure the future of the company and ensure it would continue to produce top-quality cashmere.
Have those prophecies come true? Brown and the staff - those I meet, at least - think so. "In a very uncertain world it's given people stability," says Brown, who has worked in the Scottish knitwear industry for 30 years and been the sales director at Barrie for the past decade.
Since it was bought by Chanel the company has taken on 20 staff (it now employs around 190 people) and bought six new computerised knitting machines to bring the factory total to around 30. But, says Brown, "it's not just about financial stability to buy machines; it's about stability for the town and that people can see we're growing the business".
There certainly appears to be a steady flow of work. Barrie produces six collections a year for Chanel, besides lines for other clients such as Hermes and American label Thom Browne. The factory has also started producing Barrie's own label, a 20-piece collection of brightly patterned cashmere separates by Odile Massuger, who is also part of the Chanel knitwear team, that will be sold in the world's most exclusive boutiques. Barrie has created some of its own classic cashmere designs in the past, but these garments will see the knitwear company take its first steps into the world of high fashion.
Already featured on Style.com, the American-based website, the Barrie label is being tipped for success. The first collection has also got the all-important seal of approval from Karl Lagerfeld. The Chanel creative director photographed the campaign images - which feature Phil Collins's daughter, the model Lily Collins - ensuring Barrie's first major solo foray into the marketplace will be as glamorous as it is high-profile.
Brown, for one, is impressed with how the French fashion house has managed Barrie so far. "The new Barrie collection shows the intention our owners have with the business - not only with the couturier but with our own brand as well," he says. "Everything they've done is about growing the business - it's not about only making Chanel product. They want us to work with other couturiers and grow our own brands."
Getting that message out is crucial for Barrie's success. Since the Chanel acquisition Barrie has also started a training scheme to give young people the technical skills required to work in the factory, a programme which takes between 18 months and two years. While attracting young people to apply for jobs is essential, given the decline in the rest of the Borders textiles industry and the perceived instability of jobs it is seldom easy.
"The workers are the heart and soul of the business," says Brown, who started his working life as a garment washer at knitwear label Glenmac. "In total in the textile industry in the Borders I believe 15 years ago there were 9000 people working and I believe now there are fewer than 1000. So we're one of the biggest employers. [The decline is] frightening. That's not just in fully-fashioned knitwear, it's in tweeds, in wovens - in everything."
At Barrie, though, decline is the last thing on anyone's mind. Instead the factory, a large, modernspace that almost sparkles with cleanliness, has more offers of work than it can take on. Brown and managing director Jim Carrie are attracting local youngsters into the business once again - the training scheme offers from four to six positions each year - but there are still obstacles to overcome.
"We're starting to get youngsters but it's difficult because so many people lost their jobs in the industry in the last 20 years," says Brown. "Mums and dads are saying: 'Don't go into that industry.' That's why we're working with the schools and colleges to say there is a future."
Back on the factory floor, we've moved away from the mechanistic symphony into the comparatively peaceful programming room, where employees Craig and Mark (Brown knows everyone in the factory by their first name, and a few by playful nicknames) are plotting complex patterns on computer screens ready to be transferred to the high-tech Japanese-made knitting machines which produce some of the company's most technical designs.
Conversation turns to the recent Chanel autumn/winter 2014-15 catwalk show at the Grand Palais in Paris. By all accounts it was a visual feast, which saw the glass-domed building transformed into a Chanel-themed supermarket at the behest of Lagerfeld. There were Chanel-branded DIY products, doormats, fresh produce and even ketchup. The clothes - food-themed, naturally - were a riot of colour, pattern and texture.
One of the looks, a purple and pink knitted trouser and top ensemble inspired by beetroot, was created with the help of the pattern programming team at Barrie. "Mark did the beetroot," says Craig with a shrug after we've leafed through some of the other vegetable-inspired knitwear designs the Barrie team worked on. Brown explains: "We get a theme given to us and the guys in here have to give their interpretation of it. The knitting technicians come up with a silhouette, but Craig, Mark and the guys in here, their brains come up with some kind of idea for the fabric, and then we send those ideas to the studio. For instance, with the supermarket collection, Chanel said to us: 'We need pullovers that are like carrots, beetroot, kale.'"
The close relationship between Barrie's in-house team and the studio at Chanel is fairly uncommon in the industry. That Barrie's team can have so much influence over what appears on the Chanel catwalk is unusual, and testament to the Hawick company's skill. Even the Chanel press officer, who accompanies me on the tour, is impressed. "That's incredible," she enthuses.
Brown continues: "That's one of the reasons the relationship has worked for so many years - the studio trust in what we do here, and they know whatever happens they get a result."
At the other end of the factory, in what's known as the finishing area, more of Barrie's impressive hand skills are on display. Components of Chanel garments are being stitched together by a team of workers. At one end of the room two women are hand-cutting necklines into red cashmere jumpers with scissors, one of them cutting with such speed and skill that it's easy to forget each of these designer pieces will be sold for hundreds of pounds.
The press officer asks an obvious question: "What happens if she makes a mistake?" Brown pauses then says two words which not only answer the question, but also perhaps explain why Barrie Knitwear continues to be a force to be reckoned with in the fashion and textiles industry after more than 110 years. "She doesn't." n