Mackintosh: The Definition of Waterproof Outerwear
Mackintosh: The Definition of Waterproof Outerwear
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date May 2, 2018
Few brands—if any—can lay claim to a historical legacy as enduring as Scottish outerwear purveyor Mackintosh. You’ll find “Mackintosh” in encyclopedias, dictionaries and fashion lexicons alike. Mackintosh, as a high-end menswear brand, is relatively young; as it relates to outerwear, Mackintosh’s legacy stretches back nearly 200 years. The name is used for both a brand and for waterproof, knee-length jackets, so how did we go from Macintosh to the mackintosh to Mackintosh?
The year is 1823 and Glaswegian scientist Charles Macintosh has just patented a new waterproof fabric. Macintosh’s novel idea? Using a layer of liquefied rubber between two pieces of fabric to create a waterproof barrier. Until that point, the exterior of garments were oiled to repel water. While efficient, the result was unpleasantly odoriferous and heavy—imagine walking around with a coat drenched in oil.
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Like most things in fashion, though, Macintosh’s breakthrough wasn’t exactly original. Rather, he was inspired by—or, at the very least, cognizant of—James Syme, a surgeon, chemist and a fellow Scot. Both used the same process of using naphtha to liquify rubber, but Syme did it five years earlier and published research on the subject rather than patenting his discovery. Macintosh’s real contribution was seeing the commercial potential of waterproofing with rubber and synthesizing it with the concept of two-layered fabric—also not a new invention and in use in other fields.
Regardless of the technology’s origins, Macintosh was the first to create garments using it. As with virtually all new technology, people struggled to fully adapt to it at first; the rubberized cotton trapped heat and became rigid and uncomfortable in the winter. As such, Glaswegian tailors and consumers were reluctant to fully embrace Macintosh’s outerwear. But, ever the stubborn inventor, Macintosh relocated to Manchester, an industrial city, where he created the Charles Macintosh India Rubber Company and resorted to producing the garments himself.
In 1830, Macintosh and fellow inventor Thomas Hancock merged their businesses. Hancock, too, had been experimenting with the use of rubber to create waterproof textiles and his later vulcanization of rubber (accounts vary about when this occurred, but it was sometime between 1839 and 1843) would allow the duo to greatly improve Macintosh’s jackets. Slowly but surely, the jackets began to propagate beyond Manchester and Glasgow and, this being the pre-Internet and instant-communication days, were often referred to as mackintosh—rather than macintosh—jackets. Thus was born the mackintosh: a waterproof, knee-length jacket that was fastened with buttons.
Charles Macintosh died in 1843, but the rubber-bonded fabric he developed with Hancock continued to be popular among manufacturers, who created waterproof mac coats and other garments. The Mackintosh lineage is complicated, but one manufacturer, Talworth Ltd, established in 1895, would set itself apart over the years. Despite not being one of the original purveyors of mackintoshes, Talworth Ltd. would come to be the Mackintosh brand we know today, albeit via a very circuitous route.
Originally established in England, where it did business for most of seven decades, the company would relocate to Scotland in the 1960s and change its name to Traditional Weatherwear in 1974. Really, for much of the 20th century, the mackintosh was anything but luxurious. In the words of Daniel Dunko, Mackintosh’s former managing director—and former owner—the company’s focus was on “industrial clothing” until the 1980s. And, despite spreading outside of the United Kingdom in the latter years of the 1800s, the mackintosh remained a decidedly British jacket in the early 1900s, becoming an integral part of uniforms for rail workers, police officers and soldiers in the United Kingdom. All things considered, the mackintosh—writ large—became ubiquitous in British menswear and refined contemporary silhouettes the brand offers now stand as homages to the many forms the jacket took throughout the century.
Back to the 1980s. For Traditional Weatherwear’s existing business—industrial jackets—the ‘80s were a transformative decade. It was during this period that cheaper alternatives became available. Despite increased competition, Traditional Weatherwear remained committed to manufacturing authentic mackintoshes using traditional methods. When other companies started using synthetics and machines to create waterproof jackets, Traditional Weatherwear continued to import “rubber from Malaysia, [which was then] made into a spreadable liquid, applied to rollers, spread like a sandwich and baked and vulcanized in a big oven.”
As a result, Traditional Weatherwear was crowded out of the ever cost-conscious industrial market and the company’s jackets became de facto luxury goods. Who else but the wealthy would spend hundreds of dollars more on a jacket that ostensibly did the same thing as its cheaper, and technologically-modern, alternative? Alas, with the company’s main revenue stream suddenly evaporated, Traditional Weatherwear had to rethink its business model. It’s only then that the company started to resemble the high-end Mackintosh we know today.
Traditional Weatherwear was headed for bankruptcy in the early-‘90s and hesitant to ditch its industrial roots for a more fashionable identity. While that isn’t where aforementioned executive Daniel Dunko’s Mackintosh story begins, it’s where it starts to get interesting. Dunko, the son of a Ukrainian immigrant, started at Traditional Weatherwear as an apprentice coat-maker. In 1995 he was appointed sales director and began to shift the company’s business model towards manufacturing white label outerwear for high-end designer brands like Hermès, Céline, Louis Vuitton and Gucci. A few years later he, along with other veteran employees, purchased the struggling company.
Producing garments for luxury designers gave the company the cash flow it needed to not shutter its operations. By the early aughts, Dunko set his sights on building the company’s brand while maintaining the manufacturing business. The first step was a rebrand and, while naming the company after the iconic jacket that it manufactured was an obvious choice, it presented a unique set of legal hurdles. Mackintosh, after all, had become a generic term referring to a jacket; Dunko recalled having to “prove there was a connection” between Mackintosh proper and the jacket that other companies couldn’t equal. “The facts were that we made hand-made Mackintosh raincoats as Charles Macintosh invented, we were based in Scotland and the heritage of the brand was all there,” Dunko told The Herald.
Mackintosh eventually received clearance to use the name and began to focus on developing two parallel businesses: producing Mackintosh-branded collections and “collaborations” with luxury designers. The brand technically has worked on several collaborations year-over year, but are hard to discern—mainly because most companies do not advertise Mackintosh’s involvement beyond the garments’ care labels. This seems like a foreign concept in an era dominated by high-profile and well-advertised collaborations—few brands boast the collaborative portfolio of Mackintosh, but the Scottish brand has, historically, played it close to the vest.
Regardless, the white label business allowed Mackintosh to fund its own collections, thereby increasing the brand’s reputation and making it a more attractive partner for designer labels. The company’s parallel businesses thus exist symbiotically. It should be noted that while the Dunko-led pivot to fashion undoubtedly saved Mackintosh, it wasn’t an original idea (like Macintosh’s original “invention”): Loro Piana is but one noteworthy example of a company that exploits a similar corporate structure.
With the Mackintosh name and the brand’s knowledge of luxury trends thanks to its white label business, its generic coats boasted both contemporary appeal and unparalleled heritage. That attracted the interest of Japanese conglomerate Yagi Tsusho, which bought Mackintosh back from the employees in 2007. When Dunko purchased his first 10 percent stake in the company, his investment put Traditional Weatherwear’s valuation at roughly £1 million. In 2007, Yagi Tsusho paid £7.5 million for the company. Despite the financial success—relative to the ‘80s—and no longer being an enterprise owned by the employees, Mackintosh has been unwavering in its commitment to traditional manufacturing. After all, that’s what makes it Mackintosh. All Mackintosh jackets are still handmade in Scotland and over 10,000 jackets are produced at one of two factories.
Mackintosh’s revival throughout the mid-to-late aughts coincided with a wider shift towards traditional menswear, so the brand didn’t have to adapt its identity to be “fashionable.” Plus, it has enjoyed tremendous popularity in the Western menswear bastion that is Japan and probably benefited from the East-to-West flow of style cues around the turn of the last decade. Recently, though, the brand has doubled down on its commitment to entrenching itself as a major player in the fashion realm.
As part of another rebrand in 2016, the Scottish company named Kiko Kostadinov creative director of Mackintosh 0001—a conceptual diffusion line that has proven to be decidedly fashion-forward. Well-versed consumers recognized Kostadinov’s name, though he is better known by his four-letter first name. After all, Kiko was the Central Saint-Martins prodigy who set the high street world ablaze thanks to revered stylist Stephen Mann and iconic streetwear label Stussy. His work with the two—and others, like Dover Street Market—introduced the Bulgarian-born, British-raised designer’s deconstructed and upcycled style. Putting Kiko’s rapid rise in context: when he was hired by Mackintosh, he was only 27 and had already been showing eponymous collections through London Fashion Week’s NEWGEN program.
The first Kiko-designed collection, Mackintosh 0001, rather appropriately focused on rubber, which after all, lies at the heart of Mackintosh’s history. Kostadinov explained to Dazed that using rubber throughout Mackintosh 0001 was about emphasizing the simple techniques and materials used by the company over the last century or so and giving them new life. For a designer like Kostadinov, who is a self-described fan of Arte povera, it must be a blessing to be offered a chance at designing for a brand like Mackintosh that has made a name by doing one thing—or, at least, a category of things—exceedingly well.
It’s still early days for Mackintosh under Kiko, but if subsequent 0002 and 0003 collections have given us any hints its this: his mandate is to look towards the future without losing touch with Mackintosh’s illustrious past.
Take the recently-shown 0003 collection, set to hit retailers for Fall/Winter 2018. Despite steering the brand towards the future, Kostadinov reimagined British rail and police uniforms from the ‘60s, which were, of course, then-supplied in part by Mackintosh’s predecessor Talworth Ltd.
If you ask Kostadinov, which SSENSE did, he sees the lineage as also being carried forward thanks to a commitment to utilitarianism. Mackintosh, per the young designer, is “based on a product that’s needed for specific functions” and the diffusion line he helms, while focused on “fashion, first and foremost” is "about daily function […] What do I carry most of the time around town? I need a pocket for this, or this needs to be deeper, or a space inside for a phone.”
Other collaborators include Japanese women's label Hyke, Maison Margiela and cult label Alyx. The latter consists of a co-ed collection with three raincoats, four "dry bags" and three reworks of Alyx's signature Rollercoaster Belt—made up in (you guessed it) Mackintosh's signature water-repellent bonded cotton.
"Mackintosh is a company I have always hoped to work with," noted Alyx's Matthew Williams regarding the partnership. "Their attention to detail and construction are really in line with my own, along with their pursuit for longevity. Every jacket is handmade, from the glue being spread on the seams to the pattern pieces being cut and sewn; no other jacket is constructed this way. We were able to visit the factory in Scotland and work closely with the team to use their iconic fabrics and manufacturing techniques as well as develop our own."
With such modern partners, it's a sign that the future of Mackintosh isn't just forcing its way into the "fashion" space, but finding partners who appreciate the legacy of the brand and are able to provide modernity without sacrificing history or legacy.
Given the current push to have design-directed advancements added to nearly every garment we wear, it seems fitting that Mackintosh would be on the front lines; Mackintosh was, from its earliest iteration, a “techwear” brand. We can debate how the aesthetic definition attached to that catchall term has changed from the 19th into the 21st centuries, but there’s no denying that Mackintosh has used science and strong design to produce items that fuse form and function for the end consumer.
That is where Mackintosh is today. Starting from Charles Macintosh and his quest to find a better way for people to stay dry, it has been a circuitous route, indeed. Through questionable origins, relocated businesses, mergers, improvements, imitations, near-bankruptcies, rebrands and expansion, the mackintosh has gone from typifying industrial uniforms to being Mackintosh, a luxury purveyor. It took almost 200 years, but they got here… perhaps they were always there from the start.