Barbour is born again

Paul Bignell asks if new celebrity fans can restore the flagging fortunes of the Queen's favourite coat-maker
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The Independent Online

With their distinctive waxy finish and corduroy collars, Barbour jackets have for generations been worn by the country shooting set, pony-mad girls and ruddy-cheeked farmers at agricultural shows.

But these stereotypes are no longer enough to sustain the Queen's favourite overcoat maker. In a cost-cutting drive, Barbour last week shut one of its two remaining UK factories – in Galashiels in the Scottish Borders – laying off 46 workers.

To revamp its image and break into new markets, the company is promoting the Barbour jacket as a fashion statement for the young and hip. It points to a slew of new fans: pop stars, actors and models, including Lily Allen, Peaches Geldof, Sienna Miller, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Rufus Wainwright, Alexa Chung and her boyfriend Alex Turner, from the Arctic Monkeys.

Next month Barbour launches a range that includes jackets made from waxed silk. "We're contemporising to attract a younger audience: making the jackets shorter and more fitted," said a spokesman.

But the firm will have to tread a precarious line, according to fashion insiders. The rival overcoat maker Burberry achieved a huge boost in sales following a marketing drive aimed at young, trendy buyers. But it came to regret this when the distinctive Burberry check became ubiquitous and synonymous with Z-list celebrities and "chavs". Barbour insisted yesterday that it was not going to fall into the same trap: "That's not our marketing objective and it's not the way we want to go.

Harriet Quick, fashion features director at Vogue, said Barbour could well pull off a revival by appealing to the young and fashionable. "The jackets have a loaded history from being associated with the aristocracy and gentlemen farmers [but] there is a reason why they are being adopted by indie bands and celebrities beyond the fact they are waterproof. There's a sort of classicism to them which has a strong appeal."

Other fashion watchers are more sceptical. Danielle Radojcin, fashion editor at Handbag.com, said: "I think the traditional Barbour jacket is a design classic, as iconic as the Burberry trench or Levi's 501s. It's cool in an ironic way and that's been recognised by celebrities. However, the new range might be more of a hard sell. It's still a bit Sloaney, so I think it would take a trend-setting celebrity like Kate Moss to wear one in order for them to take off. We'll just have to wait and see."

While the company's creations won't be seen on the catwalks of Milan or Paris, it has come a long way from the oilskin fishermen's coats and boiler suits that helped to make its name late in the 19th century. It manages £65m in annual sales (compared with Burberry's £850m), nearly a third of which comes from its womenswear range.

The company was founded by John Barbour, who was raised on a farm in Galloway, south-west Scotland. Crossing the border, he set up J Barbour & Sons in 1894 in South Shields as a drapery shop catering to the town's sailors, fishermen and shipyard workers. The business later started selling its trademark oilskin clothing to landowners, farmers, farm workers and shepherds. Always a favourite with royalty out on a shoot, it received the first of its three royal warrants in 1974.

The Queen's love affair with Barbour was recently celebrated on screen, when she was portrayed by Dame Helen Mirren. The success of The Queen helped the label to enjoy a sudden surge in popularity, especially in the US.

Although its waxed jackets are still made at its remaining factory in Simonside, South Shields, other elements of Barbour's business have been less successful. Its knitwear, in particular, has fallen out of favour, which is why the Galashiels site that produced its jumpers and hats closed its doors last week.

Royal approval

The Queen has granted Barbour three royal warrants and often sports one of its classic jackets... seen here in a particularly shapeless example jerry dawes/ albanpix

After dark

Lily Allen, pop star and off-beat fashionista, has often been seen wearing a Barbour on nights out around Soho. She wore one over a hoodie and a pink dress at last year's T in the Park music festival

Biker boy

Ewan McGregor, actor and motorbike enthusiast, wears a lightweight design. Barbour made the first waxed cotton motorbike suit in 1908; its first motorbike jacket followed in 1938

Festival chic

Struggling to keep dry at a soggy Glastonbury, Peaches Geldof, traipsed around in the mud wearing her Barbour. Very practical but not exactly de rigueur for rock chicks

The silk route

Barbour hopes this is the big idea that will boost its fortunes. The Waxed Silk Mac is designed to appeal to younger, trendier buyers. Those fashion-conscious twentysomethings are the target market

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