Design icon Barbour has had its headquarters in the North East for the past 100 years. Worn by the royal family and pop icons alike, the brand is in safe hands under Dame Margaret Barbour. Christine Holland reports.Barbour’s journey from being the provider of reliable all-weather jackets and trousers for sailors, fishermen and shipyard workers at the turn of the 20th century to becoming the international leader in weatherproof countrywear 100 years later began with Dame Margaret taking the reins of the company in the 1970s.
Travelling draper John Barbour opened the first shop in 1894 in South Shields. His sons Jack and Malcolm came on board as partners in 1906. The first Barbour catalogue appeared in 1908, and within ten years the company was selling garments to South America, Hong Kong and South Africa.
In the 1930s Barbour began retailing clothing designed for motorcycling, kitting out British international motorcycling teams for three decades in Barbour International Oiled Cotton suits.
Manufacturing at Barbour began after the Second World War, from SimonsideTrading Estate at South Shields. John Barbour began working with the company in 1957 aged 19, but died only eleven years later of a brain haemorrhage. His wife Margaret immediately began working with the company despite her lack of retail experience.
Margaret Barbour was born and brought up in Middlesbrough and trained as a teacher. Following her husband’s untimely death she dedicated herself to driving forward the business. She first became a director, working in every department to understand and appreciate the company root and branch.
In 1972 she took control of its fortunes when she accepted the role of chairman. Dame Margaret immediately began refreshing and diversifying the well-established brand, introducing accessories and new styles to open up the Barbour name to a wider range of age groups and countries.
The iconic designs of Barbour’s classic products, at the core of which are its corduroy-collared waxed jackets, are now evolving to include contemporary twists on a well-established theme.
Strong design and a deep understanding of retail markets worldwide underpin Barbour’s perennial appeal. The company believes that design is a priority best carried out by those who know the brand well.
Dame Margaret said: “Design has been and remains at Barbour, a team effort. We have the benefit of being a smaller company that can work in a close team from the original conception of the product through to final production. We do not believe the brand has a need for a named designer like the pure fashion brands. We have always numbered designers from casualwear backgrounds within the team and find it is this mix of skills which makes our products unique and exciting.”
The designers are not only experienced in specialised areas such as menswear or ladieswearbut also have a knowledge and understanding of how to work with different fabrics and cloths.
Dame Margaret said: “It is essential, however, that they understand the importance of Barbour’s history and heritage as this is at the very heart of the brand. We have our original catalogues from 1908 (when the first one was launched) and they are a constant source of material and inspiration to our design team.”
Barbour has been awarded three Royal Warrants, first from the Duke of Edinburgh, then the Queen, and in 1987, the Prince of Wales. The royal connection has boosted sales – not only from the Royal Warrants but also from the Oscar-winning film The Queen. Helen Mirren’s depiction of the Queen wearing a Barbour jacket doubled sales in New York.Despite offices in Germany, France and America and close working relationships with distributors in all other markets, Barbour’s brand identity is in safe hands. Dame Margaret comments: “It is important that as we develop and evolve the brand we remain true to our founding principles of quality, fitness for purpose and durability.
“New contemporary styles return you to relevance but only delivering quality and innovation can ensure that you remain there.” By Christine Holland for Managing Change magazine, an RTC North publication www.rtcnorth.co.uk