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The interview: Ronnie Chiu, Founder and Director, Colhay’s

Tom Bottomley
28 January 2022

Former lawyer Ronnie Chiu took a very different career path not long before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, sourcing and launching his own luxury knitwear brand, Colhay’s, with a focus on quality which utilises the skills and craftsmanship still hanging on in there by a thread on the Scottish borders.

Chiu originates from Hong Kong, where his father and grandparents were once involved in the garment trade, and the story behind his quest for knitwear perfection is entwined in his roots.

When did you founder the Colhay’s brand and where does the name come from?

I launched the brand in October 2019, not long before the pandemic hit – so perfect timing! The name derives from a combination of my sister’s and my wife’s sister’s names combined. I think it works. I was previously a lawyer for a number of years, but I’d grown up with my father having his own business in fashion and accessories. I’d helped him a few times in the past and learnt some things from him, and I’ve always had an interest in clothing, and menswear in particular.

So, what’s your background?

My family, predominantly my father, had been in the garment and fashion trade for many years. I’m from Hong Kong originally, and if you were from Hong Kong in the 1950’s through to the 1970’s, like my father, you were very likely to have been involved in the garment trade in some form. He’s been a big anglophile his whole life, the same as my grandparents too, which was quite natural if you grew up in British colonial Hong Kong. People saw British craft as the pinnacle of quality and, no matter how poor you were, you’d still save up and try and buy something that was made in Britain, because that was very much a mark of quality. Shoes had to be from Northampton, knitwear had to be from Scotland and, if you could afford it, suits from Savile Row! That was the aspiration anyway. It was very much a culture of buying something and wearing it for life. People took care of things for decades and passed them on to the next generation. So, I was brought up with those kind of virtues.


Has that been your inspiration?

Yes, as I also inherited quite a lot of very nice clothes from my grandparents and my father, including two made in Scotland Pringle jumpers that my father bought in the 1970’s. One is a long-sleeved polo style with a saddle shoulder, in what was called at the time "Virgin New Wool", which we now know as Merino wool. The other piece is a cardigan, again with a saddle shoulder, which now looks quite retro but at the time was very cool. He bought those with his first pay cheque when he was about 23. If you had a Pringle jumper, that was kind of like the mark that you’d made it in life! He wore those for many years and passed them on to me, well worn but still in very good condition because people really took care of things. It was that experience that got me on the hunt to find the same kind of knitters who could still make those kind of pieces. It really got me thinking, where can you find that kind of quality these days? My experience with modern knitwear is, if you wear it for two or three years it tends to lose shape and be prone to pilling – and you end up getting rid of it. So, to see those jumpers that had lasted so well for 50-odd years was quite eye opening.

Where did that lead you?

My father said they were made in Scotland and I should maybe go on a hunt to try to find knitters of such distinction, but he also said he doubted they still existed. I eventually found them on the Scottish borders. Pringle has obviously moved its manufacturing overseas, but their old factory is still there in Hawick. It’s empty these days, but I’m working with one of the family owned manufacturers in the main town and the factory manager actually came through Pringle. He worked for them for over 20 years, when Pringle was such a big part of Hawick and a huge employer in the town. When I showed him my father’s original knitwear, he remarkably even thought he’d had a hand in making them! He recognised the old label and it was quite a nostalgic moment. He is now managing his own factory, obviously a lot smaller than what Pringle used to be but with the same craftsmanship. It’s quite amazing that my dad’s from Hong Kong, thousands of miles away from Scotland, yet there’s this connection through knitwear.


What happened next?

We started working together, initially just on a basic collection of crew neck, V-neck and rollneck knits, focusing on fit and silhouette, but with the idea of bringing really high quality knitwear back in to people’s consciousness. Our cashmere crew neck jumpers retail at £370, while our lambswool crew necks start at £210. We then started to move it forward with styles that are a bit more contemporary, such as our chunky shawl collared cardigan in a super fine lambswool that retails at £495, to appeal to a modern customer who appreciates such quality. If you think of Scottish knitwear, you tend to think of quite traditional cuts, and maybe people wearing them with a Tweed jacket on a country estate. There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact that’s probably the factory’s mainstay for a number of years, but I just felt there’s a lot of young guys, or guys that are young at heart, who would appreciate such quality in more modern styles and fits, as it’s not widely available. That’s what Colhay’s is all about, bringing back that knowledge and understanding of producing something that looks great and lasts decades, and can be passed on. There are plenty of people out there who appreciate that, though obviously it’s quite niche.

Such high quality made in Scotland knitwear always carried quite a high price, so it must be really high these days?

Quite right, but I think proportionately it’s not actually more expensive than it was before, all things considered and if you look at it as a percentage of people’s earnings. Back in the 70’s, it was probably just as expensive to average folk as it is now. I’m in my 30’s, and I think people’s appetite to spend and invest in something that lasts decades has dampened quite a bit in my generation. People tend to look for things that are a bit more transient, chasing after fashion more than quality. Having said that, I do feel there’s a lot of guys out there who are transitioning back to the old days and old ways of making things – looking for something classic that they can wear for a long time. I also think there’s a lot of virtue in just taking care of something. You can take a lot of joy in that, and also in wearing something in over a long period of time. It makes something really personal. It’s a joy that is largely lost nowadays. My father came from a very poor background, but him and his friends - who were from similar backgrounds – were all basically just saving up for a Pringle jumper! It carried real value.


With all the talk of sustainability now, do you think "built to last" is swinging back in the spotlight for a younger generation?

I think there is absolutely a re-focus back to sustainability being a very important part of our planet having longevity. But we use the "s" word quite a lot these days. One of the things there isn’t enough focus on is quality. I think we rightly need to talk about sustainability, but there’s quite a narrow view with people talking about the production process – making sure we’re using less energy and using recycled materials and so on. But, if that garment doesn’t last very long, then we’re back to square one within five years, and we have to keep repurchasing – so there’s much greater scale production and consumption. If you look at the old days, sustainability was kind of a given, because you’d buy something that was very expensive but you’d expect it to last your whole life and even pass it on. Things were made that well, and that’s the focus I’m trying to bring back.

Are your products just direct to consumer from the Colhay’s website?

We are just direct to consumer from our website at the moment, though we did do a week-long pop-up at The Service lifestyle concept store on Savile Row, in collaboration with a few other like-minded brands, at the end of October last year. It was good to connect with people in person, as initially we mainly connected with fellow quality and heritage clothing enthusiasts around the world on social media to get the word out. We have customers in America and Japan who are really liking what we do. That’s the great thing about social media, you can put yourself out there and if you’ve got the right message you tend to attract like-minded people who start to support you. It’s a nice niche we’re in, and we’re quite supportive of each other.

What are your plans for the future?

The challenge now is to try to get ourselves out there more in the mainstream, and get more people to understand what makes high quality knitwear and why it’s worth investing in. It’s about arming people with the knowledge. Not enough brands really give enough information, they assume people will just buy things if they say "made in Scotland". We’re giving the reason why they are, and on our website we go in to quite a lot of detail on the product pages about the quality of the fibres and yarn. We even say who spun the yarn, who knitted the garment and who did the hand finishing – and why it is so good. We also explain what fully fashioned means and why it’s so much better than cut and sew. Even the quality of the wash is a factor, and why the Scottish water helps with the garment. It’s all in the detail, and going forward we’re developing more unique designs and we might look at doing more pop-ups and trunk shows. We also might look at wholesale in the future, but it’s about crunching the numbers to make it work.

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