When Mark and Emma Harris moved from London to Lake Forest in 2000, they never really left home behind.
Though the couple had physically uprooted with their two children (and a third on the way) so that Mark could take a job in Chicago, “we still had many heartfelt connections to England and Scotland,” affirms Emma.
While the sentiment is quite visible in their charming Victorian home, decorated with a number of precious British antiques and large paintings of the countryside, perhaps it is most evident in a line of personalized Saxony wool scarves and bags, cashmere blankets, and silk ties that represent some of the meticulously designed handmade goods from their new accessories company fittingly called Harris Made.
Their tagline, “because tradition matters,” is a definitive throwback to Harris Made’s rich British roots that have inspired everything they create. The scarves, for example, first gave Emma the idea for the company three years ago after finding her university scarf tucked away in a bottom drawer while packing for a trip. “The tradition is hundreds of years old, and were originally worn as emblems of school pride by Cambridge and Oxford University students,” she says. They are made from Saxony wool woven in a mill that dates back 250 years, which also weaves the iconic scarlet uniform fabric for the Queen’s Guard. Of the numerous bag designs, one is a modernized duffle/backpack that is inspired by those worn by American paratroopers during World War II with metal hardware designed by the same foundry that makes the Queen’s carriages. And the silk ties date back to 1261 when British silk makers received the first Royal Charter from King Edward I.
“I have always cherished the old traditions and skills of British manufacturing, and in moving here saw how much love there was for everything made in the country,” says Emma, who designs everything herself after learning the trade years ago as a designer at Laura Ashley. “It seems like everything is going back to its roots which is important.” To that point, the Harrises donate some proceeds to help fund apprenticeships at their mills. “There’s real succession issues getting the youth of today interested in these older skills so we are very involved in helping promote and run these programs. We are proud of that,” says Mark, noting there’s still a great need for it beyond just England. “Some of the mills have tried to penetrate the U.S. market without success, so they are very excited to have this opportunity to wave the British flag, so to say,” he adds. The timing couldn’t be more right. “There are a lot of Anglophiles,” jokes Emma, encouraged by popular shows like Downton Abbey and interest in the next generation of the royal family. The Harrises themselves have exclusive North American agreements with the family-owned mills, some with Royal Warrants from Queen Elizabeth II, thanks to family connections. Mark’s father was a three-star Air Marshall in the Royal Air Force and was an aide-de-camp to the Queen who later knighted him. Mark and Emma were also married and baptized their children in Westminster Abbey.
While the company, comprised of just Mark and Emma and a board of advisors, has been attracting university clients such as Northwestern and the University of Chicago locally who want to bank on some of the gilded campus pride and recognize donors, Harris Made has also been garnering the attention of corporations like Beam Suntory and Oak Ridge Investments who crave special client gifts that can be personalized. “All are handmade. We have a propriety printing process, which is unique, so we can reproduce logos, school seals, and crests,” says Mark, explaining the custom idea is akin to London’s high-end Savile Row tailors.
“But the message to the recipient is that we have been quite thoughtful, not only in the unique design, but with the story behind it,” says Mark, which is often told in handwritten notes Emma sends out to each client—a hobby that first bonded her and Mark as teenagers when she was a penpal to his boarding school friend James.
“There was much fanfare every time she would send a letter,” he jokes. After a group of them traveled Europe together upon graduation, Mark and Emma remained friends, marrying years later in their late 20s before moving to America where Mark once lived as a child in Key West, Florida. After being involved for years in marketing and public relations’ positions for financial services firms, Mark quit his job and joined Harris Made full-time two years ago after surviving a second bout of cancer. “It gave me pause for all things important,” he says, “and we are committed to making this work.”
So far it seems to be working. Late last year, Harris Made was selected as one of five case studies by the Kellogg School of Management and, in 2014, it was a finalist in the British American Chamber of Commerce Awards.
The future looks bright too, as the couple revamps their website (harrismade.com) with photography from Raviniabased photographer Jeff Cohen (a former editor and photographer for Playboy). And although it has been a madeto-order company, they have just launched a Harris Made range of handmade bags and accessories that are available online for purchase.
“Our discerning clients are looking for meaning, value, and a connection to their purchase,” says Mark. “Their interest is our focus on sustainability, quality, heritage, and provenance.”
Find out more at harrismade.com.