Lord James Percy: To the manor worn

Who better to revamp the Barbour jacket than a hunting, shooting, fishing aristocrat? Susie Rushton meets an unlikely fashion designer
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The Independent Online

Unlikely as it seems, when he's not picking off a few partridges, Lord James likes nothing more than to sketch fashion designs. For a year now, the Sloane Ranger's favourite brand, Barbour, has employed Percy as the designer of a special collection - of, you guessed it, olive-green jackets - targeted at the more discerning shooting party-goer. And his Northumberland Range has quickly become one of the company's best-selling lines.

For Barbour, Lord James's success hasn't come a moment too soon. Beloved by country folk, it has a 111-year history, three royal warrants and a strong niche in the outerwear market - but one that has been facing a stiff challenge from seriously hi-tech competitors.

In The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook, Ann Barr and Peter York noted that "The Barbour appeal is its green oily pre-synthetic look". But today, even Sloanes admit that technical synthetics are often superior to the classic waxed jacket.

Lord James, certainly, had misgivings about the performance and style of Barbour's weighty, boxy waxed jackets. On meeting Dame Margaret Barbour, the chairman, at a charity lunch at his family estate in Linhope, he spoke up.

As we look at his collection at Barbour's head office in South Shields, he tells the story. "I said, 'Dame Margaret, can I just say something about your coats? They're beautifully made and all that, but they're pretty crap for actually doing anything in. You can't swing a cat or shoot a pheasant in them.' She looked a bit thunderous, and then I showed her the four prototype coats I'd made." Percy had no schooling at all in clothing design, but he's an enthusiast who from the age of seven customised his own coats. Before he joined Barbour, he was already a hobby-designer with a "little luggage company" here and a "little coat company called Black Wolf" there.

Dame Margaret saw in Lord James both an expert who could improve her products and a marketing opportunity. "He's such an attractive-looking man, isn't he? I mean, what better representative than him?" she asks.

Percy's first collection for Barbour, last autumn, was just four coats, each adjusted for shooting: sleeves engineered to allow the wearer to raise a gun without the coat pulling up; moleskin for its quietness; breathable Teflon coatings rather than waxed cotton; and pockets that can be buttoned open while the wearer reaches for cartridges.

Lord James has now added country staples such as a leather gilet and a "yard coat". Given a slimmer fit, a subtle drawstring waist and more flattering shoulders, he's improved on the trad Barbour look. "My brief was to do a shooting kit on the basis that, while Barbour had that market 15 years ago, there's been a lot of erosion.

"Barbour didn't necessarily have the expertise for the final details. My designs are still in line with the classic garments, still reasonably old-fashioned and old-world, but making it high-performance and specifically designed for movement."

He gave his prototypes a full work-out, wearing them out on the moors, doing press-ups in them and even playing a few sets of tennis in them. Of course, there were limits: the brass zipper had to stay, and he's stuck to a colour palette of what he says is "olive green, olive green or olive green".

Yet, he says, he wouldn't really want to stray too far from the traditional Barbour heritage of camouflage colours and tartan linings. "I'm not that original. It's got to be reasonably conservative, because that's where the market lies."

Not that Lord James is short of ambitions for the Northumberland range: he has a women's collection planned for September 2006 (take note, Madonna) and wants to expand into fishing, tweeds and even something for "the younger market".

Barbour are happy as long as Lord James continues to be the "face" of the brand, although he dislikes personal promotion: "I would have preferred to be an anonymous designer, but they wanted me as a front man."

And it's as a marketing concept, above all, that he's is most valuable: posed in the company's catalogues and ads leaning against the bonnet of a Land-Rover parked on a grouse moor, gun slung over one arm, golden retrievers at his feet, he's an authentic poster-boy for a fading country lifestyle of the English upper classes.

"It's quite embarrassing, actually," he says. "I take a hell of a lot of shit from my mates, but I've got used to it. If I'd produced something that was crap, I would have been torn to shreds." Instead, he's received plaudits from the shooting industry and, so far, very respectable sales.

In Lord James, Barbour have found blue blood, expertise and the "right" lifestyle. The only hitch appears to be a rather endearing inability to stick to the marketing script. What will he wear, I ask, when he takes his wealthy American shooting party on to the moors? The Lightweight Cheviot, perhaps? The Dunmoor Shooting Fleece?

Percy stretches back in his chair. "Me? I'll be wearing a T-shirt and a pair of jeans."

www.barbour.com, 0191-427 4210