“The North East of England is a cold, wet, grey place,” says Gary Janes, doing little for the local tourist industry. “But we love it. That said, it does come with certain demands.” Protective clothing might be one, which is why the area is home to an icon of menswear: the waxed jacket.
Indeed, if few brands can claim ownership of a genre — Hoover, Coca-Cola, PlayStation, among them — then Barbour (Janes heads up design of its outerwear) is one of them. Founded in South Shields by Scotsman John Barbour, the 120-year-old firm is still independent and still making jackets for the horse-and-hound set with which it has come to be most closely associated. Steve Buck, the company’s managing director for the last decade, says his company is seen to reflect “that dream of life in the British countryside that appeals more internationally than it does at home”.
Yet it might be time for that stereotype of Range Rover, tweed and labrador to hang up its Wellingtons. It has certainly proved useful. It was Dame Margaret Barbour, chairman of the family firm, who designed the benchmark Bedale style of jacket and drove the ‘Sloane Ranger’ image overhaul that first saw Barbour on the backs of aspirational urban folk 30 years ago. Prior to the mid-1960s, Barbour was considered an inherently utilitarian/industrial brand. This, after all, is the company built on supplying oilskins to fishermen and dockers, and that produced clothing for trials riders and wartime submariners before the country image took hold.
But Barbour’s latest incarnation is much more slick, adding to its authorised Steve McQueen and International biker styles (also now set for development next year) in the creation of styles more bar and boardroom than field and paddock, its Royal Warrants with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles notwithstanding. Having appealed to a more fashion-conscious shopper with its Beacon Heritage collaboration with Japanese designer Tokihito Yoshida, now Barbour has teamed up with Savile Row’s it-tailors Norton & Sons for a new line of sharper, 11oz waxed jackets (including a velvet-collared single-breasted, hunting-jacket-style, quilted jacket and calf-length all-weather waxed overcoat), as well as Guernsey- and submariner-style chunky knits, blazers and shirts.
“We like collaborations to challenge preconceptions without shocking anyone, besides, I’m not sure that country stereotype with which we’re associated really exists. You’re as likely to see Barbour wearers in Gucci loafers as much as wellies,” explains Buck. “And this collaboration deepens our story as a British brand and aims to show that our normally rugged style can be more refined and tailored. The target here is the aficionado who likes clothes not everybody else has. The thing that has amazed me working for the company is that everybody has a point of view. That can be a strength, but it also makes it difficult to do something new.”
But with its Beacon Heritage Norton & Sons line, Barbour has hit that target with what is the most successfully style-conscious collection it has devised in years, albeit one based on considered tweaks of archive pieces. “That’s really the beauty of any Barbour jacket: it’s less designed as evolved, with details added bit by bit,” suggests Janes, its co-creator.
Indeed, the company has developed in similar ways. Its four lines of 20 seamstresses and one seamster — to which a fifth line will be added later this year to meet growing demand — might together assemble some 140,000 jackets a year, many with those distinctive characteristics: the tartan check lining, bellows pockets, the throat latch, the cord collar, ring-pull zip and, of course, the waxed cotton (the wax prepared, Coca-Cola-like, to a secret formula). And, behind the scenes, its repair service may give new life to well-worn jackets to which their owners are too attached to let go (making the occasional find in the pockets, including, on one occasion, the key to St James’s Palace). But waxed jackets now only account for 30 percent of Barbour’s sales by value, albeit with this still amounting to a hefty chunk of £122 million. There is, it seems, good business beyond the wax.
“Without wishing to use cliché we’re half way along that path from being a manufacturing company to being a ‘lifestyle brand’,” says Buck. “We try to appeal to more fashion and more mainstream consumers, and neither seems put off by the other: all seem happy to be part of the broader brand. We want to keep growth gradual. Besides, there’s no exit for the brand since Dame Margaret wants Barbour to be family-owned forever.”
But even the family gets the occasional surprise. That signature check lining, long used by Barbour because it was the family tartan? Turns out it has nothing to do with the family at all. “We found that out not long ago by accident”, says Helen Barbour, Dame Margaret’s daughter. “In fact, we found out that the family didn’t have a tartan at all. With tartan specialists Kinloch Anderson, we researched our family history and discovered that the name Barbour originated in Ayrshire on the West Coast of Scotland in the 1400s. It was agreed that the tartan ‘sett’ for the Barbour tartan should be based on the Ayrshire District tartan.” And so it is, with a taste of the 13th century, that this heritage brand moves into the 21st.