“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 also home to an icon of menswear: the waxed jacket.
Founded in South Shields by Scotsman John Barbour and 120 years old next year, Barbour is still independent and still making jackets for the horse-and-hound set with which it has come to be most closely associated - “that dream of life in the British countryside that appeals more internationally than it does at home,” offers Steve Buck, the company’s managing director for the last decade.
Yet it might be time for that stereotype of Range Rover, tweed and labrador to hang up its wellingtons. Barbour’s latest incarnation is much more slick, adding to its authorised Steve McQueen and its International biker style (also now set for development next year) to create styles more for 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 & Son (whose chief is Patrick Grant, lately on the BBC’s ‘Great British Sewing Bee’) on a new, on-going 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 other chunky knits, blazers and shirts. It really takes Barbour where it hasn’t been altogether at home before: onto smart city streets, albeit ones that are as much prone to chilly winds and downpours as country lanes.“We like collaborations to challenge pre-conceptions 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 his 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. It certainly moves the company on from its more traditional, country style and returns it more to its industrial roots outfitting fishermen, dockworkers, later even submariners and, during the Falklands Conflict, the Cowan Commando jacket for special forces. This is a long way from the ‘Horse and Hound’ set.
Not that the country image has not been a beneficial one - 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. But perhaps that has run its course: time to reappraise the waxed jacket as utilitarian chic - a Swiss Army knife of outerwear with, thanks to a Savile Row injection, a smarter casing.
Indeed, it is not just the jackets that are pushing on. The company is expanding too, which is good news for the region. A fifth line will be added later this year to its four lines of 20 seamstresses - and one solitary, brave seamster - in order to meet growing demand. These are the women - and one man - who together assemble some 140,000 jackets a year, many with those distinctive characteristics: the 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 Palace. But actually waxed jackets now only account for 30% of Barbour’s sales by value, albeit that still amounting to a hefty chunk of £122m. There is, it seems, good business beyond the wax.
“Without wishing to use cliche 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.”