Quiet Luxury

In recent months the fashion industry has seen demand for what’s known as quiet luxury grow steadily. In simple terms, quiet luxury refers to well-made items of supreme quality without the logos or emblems that quickly convey a sizeable price tag.

Our cashmere silk tennis polo in olive and terracotta

In the last few decades, excess was the order of the day. For a large group of consumers, a desire to communicate wealth through clothing has been prominent and the quiet luxury micro trend is a challenge against that, perhaps also signalling the beginning of the end of this attitude. The US television series, Succession is credited for sparking this change but other factors, including an increased eagerness to live and purchase sustainably, have also had an influence on this shift in attitude.

For us at Colhay’s, this move toward quiet luxury feels like a step in the right direction. However, in our view, this phenomenon of consciously buying quality was widely practiced in the past and is not entirely new. Before the advent of fast fashion, it used to be the norm for people to invest in only a few pieces of the highest quality clothing, look after them, and then wear them for life. Although the clothes were not ostentatious, they aged well and looked after the wearer, sometimes even over generations. They never called it “luxury” though, and it was regarded more as part of ordinary house-keeping routines.

Made in Scotland sweaters from the 1970s that the founder Ronnie's father passed onto him, still in pristine condition after over 40 years of wear.

This older philosophy lies at the heart of Colhay’s. Our belief is that true luxury is about owning a piece that’s intended to be enjoyed by yourself rather than to make a statement to others, but that you also know has been made well, from the highest quality raw materials, and that will last. It is about the process of putting time into looking after something that will then in turn, look after you over the years.

How did we get here?

Looking far back to Roman times, the Latin word luxuria, which is the root of our current word luxury, meant sinful excess and had largely negative connotations. These connotations remained throughout the Middle Ages, but into the 1600s we saw luxury become something more desirable, albeit still something unreachable by most people, when the nobility started to develop a taste for opulence and it became less of a taboo word.

Luxury in the 19th and 20th centuries

Fast forward a few hundred years to the nineteenth and early twentieth century and for most ordinary people, the norm was to own well-made, no-frills clothes, with people saving up and purchasing items of high quality that would last them years and years. They tended to be made locally, and were largely accessible to most people, although you wouldn’t replace these items at anywhere near the speed that we replace our clothing now. Coats would last 30 years, and not three; tears and holes would be mended at home by hand; the same goes for shoes, shirts and suits. There was a culture of extending the life of garments by taking good care of them, but this was only possible, because the underlying quality of the clothing was there to begin with. Back then, tailoring played a more prominent role in people's wardrobes too. People would buy clothes and have them altered to fit, or make something bespoke that would fit them perfectly, investing both time and money in their garments. Then that suit or dress would be worn for a life time. These high-quality clothes were not regarded as luxury as such, just well-made, unpretentious clothing that everybody wore and last decades.

Cashmere vest from the 1960s by Ballantyne, an old Scottish knitwear mill, for Harvey Nichols (Hornets, Kensington). After 60 years, the cashmere has been aged to perfection, with a smooth texture, no pills, and a substantial hand feel. 

Luxury in those times (nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century) still signified the truly rare, one-of-a-kind clothing, household items, furniture and accessories, for example, dresses from French haute couture houses that were made specifically for the wearer and for special occasions using incredibly precious and rare materials. Those of means were the only ones who were able to buy and replace these items frequently, and used them to signify their wealth. Following the latest fashion trends and buying new clothes every season was the reserve of the wealthiest.

House of Worth was established in 1858, and was a French fashion house that specialised in haute couture, ready to wear and perfumes

The impact of fast fashion and luxury today

Consumers’ attitudes towards buying have been highly influenced by the growth of the fast fashion industry in the latter part of the twentieth century. Fast fashion allowed you to keep up with the latest fashion trends without the hefty price tag. It was no longer those of significant means who could replace their whole wardrobe every season - now everybody could. But this came at another heavy price – those offering these clothes had to keep costs down to make them affordable to the mass market, so the quality had to be compromised. You no longer needed to be within the wealthiest elite to buy multiple new items frequently, for every season, as was once the case. Almost all of us can now buy new clothes every month, every week even, if we want to, at incredibly low costs. We can wear something new for every occasion and even throw garments out after one wear. But these clothes were not built to last, or indeed, cannot be built to last given the low prices that they are being offered at. Being able to buy clothes at these low prices also gives little incentive to look after them through proper care, including alterations, proper washing or storage.

The enormous influence of fast fashion has completely changed people’s ideas of and relationship with consumption. It changed what is perceived as a normal price for certain items, so that people became less and less willing to invest in higher quality clothing that is much higher in price. Meanwhile, those older manufacturers who used to produce clothing to the very highest quality for the masses came under increasing pressure, many of them had to shut down, although some remained. This created two classes of clothing on offer – clothing for mass consumption, were cheaper and readily replaceable, and clothing made like they were in the past, to the very highest quality and lasted a long time. The latter adopted the term “luxury”, in an effort to differentiate itself from the former. This need to differentiate had sometimes led to certain luxury brands using logos as it was a quick way to signify that their quality is superior. But the rise in the use of emblems and logos quickly became adopted even by companies who were not offering clothing at that quality level, thus further confusing the idea of what truly is luxury in our day and age.

Despite the advent of fast fashion which saw large swathes of manufacturing move to lower cost production hubs around the world, some older manufacturers who have always produced clothing to the very highest quality pressed on, many of them had to reduce in size, but continued to maintain the highest standards to this day. Scotland is one of the countries that prides itself on being the home of the last remaining handful of such manufacturers.  

What Luxury means for Colhay’s

At Colhay’s we’ve always had a slightly different outlook on the idea of luxury. We believe that a luxury item is something that is well made first and foremost, not necessarily a garment that ostentatiously conveys its price tag. In our view, our parents and grandparents had the right idea - they would have winced at the idea of calling their ordinary, well-made clothes "luxury", but the way that they saved up to buy these clothes, took great care of them, and cherished them over a lifetime exemplified a quiet elegance and a refined take on investing in and enjoying clothes that we feel is a certain luxury lifestyle in its own right. 

We know from first hand accounts that this is how people would consume and make purchases many decades ago, pre the 1980s, the founder's father and grandfather are good examples. More on this story here. The constant stimulation of new purchases simply wasn’t an option for the majority at this time.

Despite the seemingly ubiquitous prevailing culture of mass consumption and general decline in quality, there have always been manufacturing hubs across the globe that have battled to keep themselves immune to its effects, continuing to make products that are made to last. For example, Northampton’s shoe making industry or the Scottish knitwear industry. Though these said hubs have decreased in size considerably, they are still producing and holding on to their original values.

We chose to produce our knitwear in Scotland for this very reason. Having experienced wearing Scottish made knitwear for ourselves, and going by the testimony of the generations that came before us, we knew that if we chose Scottish made knitwear, one can trust that our garments would be high quality and be strong enough to go on to be heirloom items for our customers.

The country has a rich history of knitting, with some saying it dates back as far as the 15th century. By the 17th century, it was an occupation for many living in Scotland. One particular town called Hawick is famed internationally for its knitwear of exceptional quality. This is where we chose to produce Colhay’s garments. The knitters we work with have the craft in their blood, it’s been passed down through the generations that live there. Their knowledge and experience are unparalleled and have ensured the incredibly high quality of our pieces.

Many of the traditional techniques employed by our knitters have long been discarded by the fast fashion industry. These techniques increase the strength of the garment and, consequently, its longevity too. For example, hand finishing. Each component of our garments is carefully hand linked together by a knitter who has spent thirty years of their life perfecting this craft. This reinforces the seams, making the garment much stronger. A second example would be that our knitters knit with a high tension. This means more yarn is used to create each garment, making the knitted fabric of each piece dense and tightly packed, rather than porous which runs the risk of the garment losing shape quickly. Again, in practical terms this translates to a stronger, longer lasting piece.

Knitting at a tight tension is a traditional Scottish knitwear making technique which involves knitting really tightly, allowing as few porous spaces in the knitted fabric as possible and requires up to 40% more yarn than usual. It is a more time consuming and far more expensive technique but the end result is the garment will be a lot more robust and keep shape for decades as opposed to a few years.

Handlinking is another traditional technique whereby each knit loop at the end of a knitted fabrics is linked together by hand, creating natural curves and shapes in rounded areas of the garment so that the garment will fit better along the contous of the body. This is a far more time-consuming technique than cut-and-sew, and requires dexterity and attention to detail that can only be developed over years of training and practice. Many manufacturers have abandoned this technique for this reason but Scottish knitwear manufacturers continue to champion this skill to this day. 

It’s not solely the assembly of the garment either that feeds into the craftsmanship. Knitters in Scotland use water sourced from the Teviot river and Loch Leven to wash yarns and knitted garments to soften them. The unique and precise balance of minerals within this water softens the knitwear, but never to the detriment of the fibres.

Loch Leven in Scotland

By producing knitwear of such high quality, we hope to promote the idea of buying fewer items that have been made to the highest standards - saving up and spending on fewer items, rather than repeatedly purchasing garments that are likely to break down after a few wears. Garments that are elegant and understated, but enjoyable nonetheless because you know exactly what’s gone into making them. This shift is not only beneficial for our own mental well-being but, with the enormous amount of waste associated with the quick consumption and replacement of clothing, for the planet too. It’s difficult to turn around this mindset, with the idea of low cost clothing deeply embedded in society, but the heightened awareness of the benefits of quiet luxury is certainly a step in the right direction, taking us closer to a return of the older ways of investing in our clothes.