It’s always interesting to find out how someone who starts a business in menswear has come into the industry.
Some are born into it. This is frequently true in tailoring, where generations before you have been tailors and you’ve lived and breathed it since you could walk. It’s in your blood and it’s all you’ve ever done. Think Rubinacci in Naples or Steven Hitchcock in London.
Then there are the guys who come through time spent in quality retail stores. Having worked in menswear for several years, they choose to go out on their own and create their ideal interpretation of their perfect store or product. Guys like Jake Grantham with Anglo-Italian in London or Ethan Newton with Brycelands in Tokyo and Hong Kong (interestingly, both Jake and Ethan came through the Armoury on their way to starting their own businesses).
And then there are the outliers. Those who have been in completely different industries, but a love of menswear, coincidence or life in general has eventually nudged or outright pushed them into the menswear industry.
That is Ronnie Chiu and that is Colhay’s.
Colhay’s has been around for a couple of years now and came into existence, in part, out of frustration from Ronnie not being able to find quality knitwear which was slim-fitting out of the box, available in smaller sizes as standard and was made to a quality level which reflected knitwear from decades prior.
The name is a portmanteau of Ronnie’s sister (Coco) and his wife’s sister (Hay). But doesn’t it sound exactly like what you expect a Scottish knitwear brand should sound like? Feels like it’s been around forever.
Ronnie’s family was originally from Hong Kong, before moving to New Zealand when he was 7. He always had a love of quality menswear thanks to his grandfathers and fathers upbringing in Hong Kong, where quality, particularly the quality of British-made goods, was enormously valued. If you only had one suit, it should be made by an English tailor. If you only had one jumper it should be from Scotland.
Ronnie’s father always wore Pringle knitwear in the ’70s and those pieces have since been handed down to Ronnie, still in perfect working order several decades on. Those lessons around quality and building a garment to last stuck with him and would eventually lead to the beginning of what is now Colhay’s.
After moving to London and pursuing a career in law, he decided it wasn’t for him and frustrations mentioned above with sizing and quality saw him search for a manufacturer in Scotland who could make the products he struggled to buy anywhere else.
He settled on a small family run maker in Hawick, allowing him to work closely with the people who were actively involved in the manufacturing process and could support the needs and learning curve of a smaller start-up.
I asked Ronnie about the specific challenges he’s faced in the first couple of years and those were largely related to dialing in the patterns to achieve consistency across the range.
When you’re working with different fibres, the same pattern can result in a difference in fit. Cables knits are often guilty of this, where the tension in the knit and the difference in weave can change the sizing, despite the identical inputs being given to the knitting machine. Even the colours used in dyes can change the characteristics of the fibres.
He also found that getting the neck of a v-neck sweater to be identical with every piece was an unexpectedly time-consuming challenge.
The desire to overcome those challenges effectively, though, is what you want from someone who makes a thing you’re going to invest in. The end result is the customer getting a consistent fit across different pieces over time. It allows you to have confidence that when you make your next order, you’re going to get exactly what you expected.
I own two pieces of knitwear from Ronnie and both have seen significant use through the last Winter. A shawl collar lambswool cardigan in ecru and a cashmere rollneck in the same colour. I chose ecru as they’re pieces that I wear almost exclusively with jeans and the lighter top with darker bottom contrast is brilliant.
I have an unhealthy obsession with shawl collar cardigans. In cold weather, they are the perfect Sunday outer layer with a t-shirt, jeans and loafers. Go out for breakfast, take the kids to the park, sit around the house. It’s just the greatest thing to wear and is the closest you’ll ever get to walking around in a big warm blanket and still pass for stylish.
This is a piece that I hope someday my boys might remember fondly and associate closely with me. The security of being picked up by their Dad on a cold day and snuggling into the warmth of over a kilogram of Scotlands finest. If it’s not still around to hand down to them when they have their own children, I’ll be shocked. The combination of lambswool and quality construction should see it easily last a lifetime and then some.
Where most shawl collars fall down is in either the fit or buttons. Our grandfathers wore shawl collar cardigans with chunky leather football buttons, and whilst they suited our grandfathers, the chunkiness of those buttons doesn’t work anywhere near as well as a well-executed flat button made from horn. A detail as seemingly innocuous as that makes the piece look much more contemporary and I’m glad that Ronnie knew this too and chose to use horn.
For fit, I’d have gone a fair bit slimmer still, but I appreciate that may not be everyone’s cup of tea. I like my knitwear closely fitted. Unlike tailoring, knitwear easily expands with you and can be worn close to the body without issue (assuming it’s not skin tight, then, of course, it’s going to look silly).
After getting a feel for it over a few months and letting it stretch with wear, I had several centimetres taken in at both sides, a decent amount taken out of the chest and the sleeves as well. It’s now pretty close to ideal and it’s a simple and inexpensive alteration with a competent seamstress.
I’m used to doing this now with most knitwear I own and I factor it into the cost of buying any new piece.
The only other change I’d make would be to lengthen the arms by 1cm to 2cm as they run a fraction short on my fairly standard length arms.
The cashmere rollneck has been great to wear and is particularly suited to being worn with outerwear (as seen here with my Barbour jacket) but it also gets a decent run with my Private White Field Jacket and my leather 530 jacket from Schott.
As with the shawl collar, I’ll still take it in a little at the sides, but it’s otherwise close to perfect. For me, I’d make the neck roll slightly tighter so it doesn’t roll away from the neck at the top, but others might feel too constricted if that were the case, so it’s probably best left the way it is.
The journey so far for Colhay’s has been largely steady and the collections don’t have any superstar sellers or pieces which drag sales down. The best selling items aren’t miles ahead of any other pieces and the pieces which haven’t sold in as much volume aren’t far below most others.
When you think about it, that’s fairly unsurprising as what you have with Colhay’s is tasteful, classic knitwear, which is well executed, placing most pieces right at home in a well-curated wardrobe.
For men who appreciate classicly stylish pieces, that’s exactly what you want. Nothing offends the eye, nothing screams when worn. You just look good in it and can get on with your day.
Colhay’s pieces aren’t cheap, but they’re not overly expensive either, particularly when factoring in the quality. What they are is value for money and that’s something we should all be happy to pay for.
Colhay’s have now fallen into the handful of brands that I routinely re-visit when I start thinking about the next piece of knitwear and a brand where I’m excited to see what each new season brings. I know there will be a couple of pieces that I really resonate with and, budget permitting, will end up in my wardrobe and maybe someday one of my boys.