The fortunes of John Barbour & Sons, maker of the eponymous jacket, waxed profitable in the '80s and '90s on the back of Sloane Ranger chic. But how has the Tyneside firm faced changing tastes and fierce new competition? Roger Trapp reports.
Remember the Barbour? Back in the '80s, the waxed jackets made by J Barbour & Sons primarily for huntin', shootin' and fishin' types suddenly found a brand-new crowd of stylish, metropolitan customers as the badge of the Sloane Ranger. These affluent young wannabe aristocrats lived urban lives but hugely enjoyed the country-seat implications that oozed from their Barbours along with the trademark waterproof dressing. Sales predictably boomed on the back of the trend.
Surely such a windfall is a dream come true for any company? Not necessarily. The problem with fashion is that it's fickle. Styles don't last but the firm has to, and these days the only time you are likely to see a Barbour jacket in a built-up area is when the Countryside Alliance is in town.
But Barbour the business is hanging in there and pitching hard. This spring, we should see the culmination of a radical initiative for the company. For the first time ever, Barbour is launching a specialist ladies' range.
The garments appearing in shops now hardly represent a big departure from the company heritage, since they are aimed at the female horse-rider or dog-walker. But they illustrate how it is seeking to capitalise on its dual personality as a supplier of serious kit to outdoors types (the uniform supplier for all those Countryside Allies) and as a popular fashion brand sported by celebs like Madonna and Guy, Gwyneth Paltrow and even Luciano Pavarotti. Making the Italian tenor's custom-fit jacket - described by Barbour as challenging - was probably more of a job for a sailmaker than a tailor.
According to Steve Buck, the 45-year-old north-easterner who has been managing director of the Tyneside institution for three years, it is all about filling gaps in the wardrobe. The ladies' equestrian range is just the latest in a series of developments by which the company has broadened out from its bread-and-butter waxed jackets to supply the likes of sweaters, tweed sports jackets, quilted coats and corduroy trousers. It's going down well, especially in America, now Barbour's fastest-growing market. 'They're going for the British heritage and style,' he explains.
Buck is a professional marketer who used to run that other successful outdoor clothing business Rohan, and has on his CV spells at Adidas and Clark's. 'Previously, the strategy was to make waxed jackets and find more people to buy them,' he says. This led to the company setting up operations in Germany, France and the US and distributors in Italy, Spain and Japan - overseas sales now account for two-thirds of the total. It also produced a sales surge in the mid-90s that started in Italy and spread across the Continent, where le style anglais can still be seen on the high street.
For Buck, though, this approach spelt danger. Reliance on one product means that such expansion inevitably runs out of steam, he argues. He has no wish to follow the likes of other trad Brit brands like Burberry and Pringle in becoming too familiar.
Fashion-based sales booms are usually followed by a sharp decline. That was certainly Barbour's experience. Profits peaked at pounds 19.8 million on sales of pounds 74 million in 1995, but by 1999 they had plunged to pounds 2.6 million. In the year to December 2001, the latest year for which accounts are available, profits were languishing at about pounds 2.5 million on turnover of pounds 36 million. Buck says the business is steadily coming back, with sales now rising at 15% to 20% a year and expected to approach pounds 50 million this year.
If Barbour had been a public company, such a downturn might have cost the firm its independence. But it is determinedly private, with much of the profit retained in the business. And although the day-to-day stuff is carried out by Buck and his fellow directors, the major force in the company is the woman who was at the helm back in the '80s, head of the family Dame Margaret Barbour.
Now in her sixties, she stepped out of semi-retirement to run the company for the three years before Buck's arrival, after longstanding managing director Malcolm Sutherland's departure in the wake of the reversal of the late '90s. She had originally made her mark after being thrust into the hot seat when her husband died aged only 29.
The business was founded in the Tyneside port of South Shields in 1894 by travelling draper John Barbour. He supplied oilskins and other protective garments to fishermen, dockers and other maritime workers in the area.
Among notable developments was the launch in 1936 of the still-popular International jacket, which became a favourite with motorcyclists and was the forerunner of the suits worn by British submariners in the second world war.
By 1968, when the then Mrs Barbour gave up teaching to try to save the business, it was respected for its products but had no sense of direction. 'I had this great responsibility - you could almost call it a mission - to keep the company going,' she said after becoming a Dame in the 2002 new year's honours list.
Deciding to take a fresh view and to update the range, she came up with the Bedale jacket, the Sloane's favourite, which made Barbour a fashion brand across the world. Originally designed to keep her horse-riding daughter warm and dry, the jacket won the approval of the jockey Willie Carson as well as members of the Royal Family and became an essential both for shopping on London's Kings Road and for stalking on the Scottish moors.
Dame Maggie - now chairman, with her daughter Helen as deputy - lives modestly and claims never to have been tempted to sell up, despite recent challenges. Earlier this year there were echoes of the dark days of the late '90s, when the downturn led to factory closures and job losses, with the announcement that the company was closing one of its plants to save costs.
Buck explains that the company remains committed to maintaining a significant amount of production in north-east England and the Scottish borders but says 'aggressive sourcing' by rival manufacturers means it must always strive to be more efficient. Indeed, the company may be making life more difficult for itself. As part of its range extension it has launched garments in breathable fabrics that compete not only with its own more traditional products but with those made by well-known rivals like Lowe Alpine and The North Face.
A further issue is whether, notwithstanding the launch of new ranges and items like a cologne based on the characteristic smell of a Barbour jacket, the company is taking the brand extension far enough. David Heys, who has overseen the transformation of Kangol from bankrupt hat manufacturer into pop stars' favourite, suggests that Barbour may be relying on too narrow a product range and too small a group of admittedly devoted consumers.
In addition, by opening its own stores with the intention of displaying more of its growing range than traditional retailers are able to stock, it could be increasing its exposure.
But Buck's view is that, with the shops 'going better than expected', this is a sensible route that takes Barbour to a wider public. Moreover, he insists that the company continue to take the gradual 'being true to ourselves' approach that has served it well in the past.
There is no doubt that the jacket on which the company's success is based enjoys a loyalty that would be the envy of many a rival. MP Ken Clarke loves his battered old specimen so much that he even refused Barbour's offer to repair it free of charge. The challenge for Buck and his successors is to persuade traditional customers that the company's products aren't compromised if they also appeal to those who don't spend their weekends out in all weathers tramping across the moors.
PETER YORK ON BARBOUR
Barbour the green waxed jacket people, the plucky little private company, real British manufacturer in Geordie-land. Great export record. The present family director Margaret Barbour a Dame in the 2001 Honours list. Started in 1894, Barbour made weather-resistant clothes for working and sporting blokes in perfect obscurity. Latterly, it made green goods for shooters and point-to-point spectators as well, with a first royal warrant in 1974.
Barbour was a tiny brand, but a major symbol that Ann Barr and I focused on in our Sloane Ranger Handbook of 1982. Pictures of Sloanes wearing them proclaimed the wearer's Sloaney values and belief in the country - all that rubbish. Barbour became a mass brand, a viable concession for distributors like Debenham's. Wide Euro-coverage of the Sloane books gave a European platform. High street concessions and export potential mean expanding the range for new customers - and risk putting off your old customer base. Your new customers buy you as a fashion item, not for your utilitarian virtues. And it means bringing new competitors into the hugely expanded market and suffering chain-store imitations. You have to be much, much quicker off the mark. And you can never go back to happy obscurity. It's sad to hear they're facing tough times and are closing a factory (in Crook, County Durham). But not wholly surprising, because the fashion wind has changed and the original Barbour look is a devalued statement that screams 1980s in the mass market.