The Original Waxed Jacket: How Barbour Transcended Britain
The Original Waxed Jacket: How Barbour Transcended Britain
- Words Asaf Rotman
- Date September 22, 2020
Veteran menswear aficionados were ecstatic, thrilled that (after an arguably lackluster season) streetwear’s leading man finally released something they could get behind. As for the mainstream hype customer, they were... unsure. [Yes, the leopard print instantly stood out](grailed.com/drycleanonly/supreme-barbour-ss20-collab-info)—when does it not?—but why Supreme would work with a relatively traditional British outdoor company was no doubt confusing for younger customers, particularly for those lacking exposure to the beloved waxed jackets.
In reality, the collaboration–like all of Supreme’s best partnerships—made perfect sense. An established name looking to attract younger, more fashion conscious clientele partners with the New York brand, while Supreme introduces its audience to a historic heritage label with serious insider cache. Of course the capsule, which consisted of a waxed jacket, bucket hat and fanny pack, sold out.
More importantly, the overwhelming excitement around the collection by a demographic that in large part Supreme has recently struggled with proved two things. First, though this was already well established, the Ivy and Prep trend is making a comeback. Secondly, the “grown up streetwear” set is still hungry for classic silhouettes reworked with a contemporary twist, the type of design that defined Supreme through the early 2010s. Above all, the fanfare surrounding a nearly 50 year-old design—albeit a revised version—showed how in the midst of pandemic and economic turmoil, men are starting to once again embrace iconic menswear staples. In an environment defined by uncertainty, timeless classics offer stability. Given its illustrious history and century-plus of expertise, Barbour is exactly that.
A brand with working class roots embraced across British social strata, from royals to football hooligans and country folk alike Barbour is widely recognized as enigmatic of British manufacturing and ingenuity. Today, its original waxed jackets are greater than the company which produces them, but a symbol of how the country estate and made-to-measure tailoring intertwined to form the core of modern men’s sportswear.
In order to fully understand how a small importer from South Shields, England became an international business that is as emblematic Burberry—despite being one-tenth the size—you must realize how a family turned a novel invention into an institution, one still thriving five generations later.
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Founded in 1894, Barbour began as J. Barbour and Sons, an oilcloth importer based in South Shields, just south of the Scottish border. In order to distance himself from competitors, founder John Barbour bypassed oilcloth in favor of a lesser known (albeit superior) technique, waxed cotton. Unlike oilcloth—which utilizes linseed oil as a water repellent and is prone to cracking at low temperatures—waxed cotton is considerably more durable, breathable and comfortable.
By applying paraffin wax to the exterior of cotton raincoats, J. Barbour and Sons created some of the first truly water-resistant outerwear. A favorite amongst sailors, within a matter of years few went out to sea without their trusty J. Barbour and Sons. Though not the first producer of waxed cotton jackets, J. Barbour and Sons no doubt popularized the process and—particularly considering how the jackets traveled the world on the back of British sailors–word spread fast. The introduction of a catalogue in 1908 by John’s son Malcolm Barbour only exacerbated the rise in popularity. By 1917, 75 percent of sales were directly through the catalogue, with a global clientele spanning from Chile and South Africa to Hong Kong.
Though primarily geared towards sailors, in 1934 J. Barbour and Sons began exploring a new market: motorcyclists. Alongside the rise of prominent British motorcycle manufacturers Triumph and Royal-Enfield, third generation family member Duncan—Malcolm Barbour’s only son (who joined the business a few years prior)—saw an opportunity to create riding equipment specifically suited for the quickly growing English motorcycle market.
An avid rider himself, Duncan Barbour introduced a riding suit and jacket which became standard issue across the United Kingdom. From 1936 to 1977—when the company (albeit briefly) exited the motorcycle market—Barbour was the official jacket of the International English team, and the four decade plus relationship plays a vital role in the company’s current aesthetic.
Now revered by both sailors and motor enthusiasts, Barbour’s working class bonafides were complete. Next, like any great heritage brand, came the military.
In 1939, Duncan Barbour was drafted into the British forces and left the company for the remainder of World War II. In his stead, father Malcolm Barbour and wife Nancy Barbour oversaw the business. Suddenly, the company—already renowned for its water-resistant waxed cotton—was producing uniforms for the British army including the Ursula suit, which became standard issue for submarine service members.
Following the end of the war—similar to the return of G.I.s in the states—military uniforms became civilian wear and suddenly Barbour coats were a staple throughout the country, no longer simply workwear for sailors and motorists.
Considering its deep historical ties to the working class, it’s surprising how Barbour is most often associated with aristocracy. Yet, three Royal Warrants (decrees from the monarchy certifying those who produce products for the Royal Family) and a slew of endlessly re-blogged photos of Princess Diana later, the brand is clearly connected to the upper crust. This shift, funnily enough, only occurred in the mid-'70s.
In 1957, Duncan Barbour passed away, leaving wife Nancy and 19 year-old son John Barbour in control. When John Barbour suddenly died just 11 years later, his widow Margaret was immediately appointed to the board of directors. As it turns out, the three most iconic Barbour designs—the silhouettes that directly inspired the Supreme collaboration and are Barbour’s top sellers to this day—were all Margaret Barbour’s doing.
After receiving the first Royal Warrant from the Duke of Edinburgh in 1974, Margaret introduced the Bedale. A short equestrian jacket made from the brand’s infamous waxed cotton, the Bedale featured a contrast corduroy collar, checkered lining, iconic oversized loop zipper pull and was immediately embraced by hunters and the elite country estate set alike. Despite its equestrian design, the numerous pockets from dual exterior bellows flaps to interior for game storage were clearly designed for hunting. The hybrid bridged the two worlds, and helped create a unique Barbour mythos—equally suited for the country club and the great outdoors.
Alongside the jacket, Margaret Barbour premiered an entirely new brand direction. As opposed to marketing towards sailors and outdoor enthusiasts—a market the company had all but captured—the new campaign featured a gentleman and his wife walking through the countryside with their Jack Russel Terrier, both naturally wearing Bedales. While not overt, the ad implicitly implied wealth, taste and British heritage. So, given the company’s near century of English manufacturing and recent Royal affiliation, the image stuck.
At the same time, Barbour reentered the motorcycle market with the International jacket–a heavyweight riding jacket featuring the black and gold “International” badge. Although Barbour was now making a pivot towards upmarket clientele, it simultaneously acknowledged its working class pedigree. It was during this period when the jacket entered the Ivy canon, with Northeast prep enthusiasts eager to co-opt what was suddenly considered trademark off-duty Royal garb.
Over the next decade, Margaret Barbour introduced two more iconic jackets, the Beaufort and Border (essentially varying lengths of the Bedale with slight tweaks to make the jackets more suited to activities like hunting or walking) and scored two additional Royal Warrants.
By the early-'00s, J. Barbour and Sons Ltd. (now simply referred to as Barbour) had relocated to a larger South Shields warehouse due to increased demand and boasted flagship stores in more than 40 countries. Still, in comparison to names like Burberry, Barbour remained extremely niche and, outside of hunting and equestrian circles, failed to gain the sort of foothold internationally it boasted within the United Kingdom.
As trends came and went, Barbour floated in and out of public consciousness, always respected but failing to connect with a younger audience. A few notable co-signs through the late-'00s helped, ranging from The Arctic Monkeys to Rufus Wainwright, but again, those are famous Brits. For the brand to truly connect with the millennial market, something else was in order.
In 2015, Barbour for the first time presented as part of London Fashion Week: Men’s. Similar to rival British heritage outerwear company Belstaff, Barbour capitalized on its own workwear history to create a collection inspired by the very sailors, motorcycle riders and military draftees it had clothed for more than a century.
Of course, those very influences form the basis of modern menswear, so naturally there was plenty to pull from. While the collection cleverly updated those vintage references into a cohesive modern men’s wardrobe, Barbour’s fashion endeavor never truly took off. Still, its big three jackets—the Bedale, Beaufort and Border—found ways to reenter the male wardrobe.
All it took was for model and original influencer Alexa Chung to wear her Bedale a handful of times throughout the late-2010s and suddenly the jacket was once again in conversation. Collaborations ranging from workwear master Junya Watanabe to Engineered Garments followed. In fact, Chung’s influence was so great that Barbour brought her on to develop her own line for the label. This sudden surge in fashion collaborations coincided with menswear’s prep revival, where brands from Noah to Rowing Blazers began to reintroduce prep standards back into the streetwear conversation.
This new menswear landscape perfectly set the stage for Barbour to connect with a new generation of customers. With men once again wearing rugby shirts—Barbour is the official clothing sponsor of the Newcastle Falcons rugby club—and hunting jackets, it makes perfect sense that Supreme reached out to the British label.
While Barbour is certainly having a moment—which will inevitably die down—it’s important to note that (the trend cycle notwithstanding), those venerable Bedale jackets aren’t going away anytime soon. The average Bedale jacket lasts five-plus years, and some keep their waxed jackets for decades.
The way the paraffin ages creates a unique patina, not to mention that each comes with a lifetime guarantee. To this day, you can ship back your waxed jacket to South Shields, where 25,000 jackets are repaired annually. Given the precarious state of the economy and an undeniable shift towards sustainability, this type of longevity is a highly prized, and consumers will no doubt reward Barbour for it.
What truly sets Barbour apart, however, is inclusivity. There’s a reason why the company can work with fashion brands and send reworked Bedales down the runway while still clothing football hooligans and fishermen in Scotland. Unlike Burberry—who famously attempted to sever its working class ties—Barbour has always embraced it’s extremely diverse clientele. From Queen Elizabeth II to the lowly sailor who wears a second generation hand-me-down, each is a critical component of the Barbour ecosystem. This open-arms approach is precisely why the brand demands so much respect, and why men are still willing to spend serious money on an arguably outdated method of waterproofing. Barbour is more than a brand, it’s living British history. In an economy where consumers are searching for long term solutions as opposed to impulse purchases, institutions like Barbour are a safe bet.