Gary Janes pulls out another dirty, careworn coat and lays it on the table. “Now this one [second picture] looks like it’s from a few years later. Notice how it’s shorter than the previous one. Someone must have decided that the long coat wasn’t practical for their uses – perhaps it got in the way, or the person spent time sitting down. So they commissioned one that was a good bit shorter.”
Janes (left in first picture, with the author) is talking me through the earliest pieces in the Barbour archive. In the Brand Room of the Barbour HQ, on a South Shields industrial estate, he is reliving the days when the area was an industrial powerhouse and John Barbour was supplying its first oilskins to sailors, stevedores and general workers (brochure in third picture).
“Now these are something special,” he says, pulling out the next cloth bag from the rack. “This is a long coat, but there is also a piece that buttons up between the legs. If you attach that and then fold up the two sides of the coat, you have a pair of shorts that covers the top of the trousers.” It’s a coat that becomes a pair of overalls, essentially. Add a pair of long boots, and only your knees are exposed to the elements.
Barbour has been a British revival success story, increasing revenue over the past 10 years from less than £50m to more than £150m. It is now sold in more than 40 countries. A large part of the growth is down to increased sales in the US, Germany and Scandinavia. It has also continued to be popular in the UK. The Asian market is small but growing, with the opening of a Tokyo store in 2013, a presence in South Korea and Taiwan and the opening of a number of stores in China through a distributor, China Outfitters, last autumn.
But this success has also been rooted in an effective use of Barbour’s history and archive. At a time when consumers – particularly men – are prioritising provenance, authenticity and British production, Barbour ticks all the right boxes. “There are so many inspiring things you can lift from the archive,” says Janes. “Particularly given that many pieces are often one offs, made for particular purposes, or are the result of bespoke alterations that customers have requested.”
To demonstrate, he pulls out a waxed coat that a customer had adapted into a British paratrooper’s jacket. There are new pockets for ammunition, extra poppers for security and sections reinforced with material from his army-issue rucksack. “This was a long-standing customer who preferred to wear his lightweight Barbour while on duty in the Falklands,” Janes explains. “When he retired, he gifted it to our archive.”
There are obvious historical echoes here in the famous waxed Ursula jacket (from £199), which Captain George Phillips commissioned from Barbour in 1937 to wear on the British submarine HMS Ursula and which subsequently became standard issue for all submarines. And Barbour continues to adapt its modern jackets to contemporary requirements, with more summery models and a long list of different lines and collaborations.
The design team is currently working with Japanese brand White Mountaineering, has just concluded a collaboration with Patrick Grant of Norton & Sons and is launching a new line with Land Rover that promises to be the most luxurious collection Barbour has ever produced. “It’s a big range, but just like the original Barbour models we aim to cater to a large section of the population, male and female,” says Janes.
I’d recommend checking out White Mountaineering’s Waxed Mountain Parka (£529) and the Dept B collection for the slimmer SL fits such as the Solway Durham wax jacket (£299).