Silk road to success

The success of silk fabric specialist James Hare lies in the genes and an ability to embrace change. Sharon Dale reports

YP Life and Style captioned: James Hare Art Decop Crystal fabric

Fortunes have famously been made and lost in the fabric trade as mechanisation, cheap imports and reckless offspring took textile firms from boom to bust.

Proud Yorkshire company James Hare, world famous for its silk fabrics, is a rare success story. Still family owned and run, the business is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.

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Its longevity is thanks to entrepreneurial spirit, ability to embrace change and good genes, though Queen Victoria also played a part.

Founder James Hare had already gone from selling fabric lengths from a cottage on Clare Street, Leeds, to bona fide woolen merchant trading from a city centre warehouse, when he heard Queen Victoria was seriously ill. He quickly sank all his savings in black serge, knowing there would be a run on it, as everyone wore black following the death of a monarch. Within days of her death, he had sold 250,000 metres and the firm achieved nationwide fame.

When James died in 1908, his sons took over and, as well as wholesaling fabric, they began manufacturing woolens and worsteds and later made garments.

Foresight and diversification have served the firm well. It survived the 1921 financial crisis after heeding warnings from a banker. It drastically reduced the price of stock and sold it just before the crash. It was also among the first to recognise the beauty of Harris Tweed and became the largest stockist in the world. Their policy of installing the latest equipment meant they were the first company outside London to have a teleprinter and an answer machine.

The move into silk came in the 1980s when it was clear that their manufacturing and distribution business was struggling. The fabric is now made in India and China and exported all over the world for bridalwear, fashion and interiors.

Managing director Tim Hare says: “Our silk was popular, so we decided to concentrate on that and we were the first to sell lengths direct to the bridal trade. We realised there was a market for interiors fabrics and that’s now 60 per cent of our business.”

Holding onto its bricks and mortar assets over the century and a half has also helped the firm thrive. The HQ is still in Leeds and is still owned by the Hare family, along with other commercial and residential property.

“The future is rosy. Fifteen years ago our business was five per cent export. Now it is 40 per cent and our biggest market is Russia. We have just made a huge investment in America and we are hoping that will lead to great things,”says Tim, whose son, Charlie, and daughter, Saffron, also work at James Hare.

They are helping drive the company forward with the launch of two 150th anniversary interiors collections to celebrate. Richmond and Evolution fuse heritage influences with contemporary style. They look set to appeal to customers at home and abroad thanks to the Hare’s progressive approach.

“We have been braver with design and colour and it has paid off,” says Tim.