Hung out to dry: The riddle of the Driza-Bones

It's the garment that epitomises Australia. But the future of Driza-Bone coats is threatened by drought. Kathy Marks visits the Queensland factory where they're praying for rain

Saturday 03 November 2007 01:00 GMT

The sweet aroma of oilskin wafts across the room as a dozen women bend over sewing machines, stitching together the legendary waxed cotton raincoats that have kept Australian stockmen and farmers "dry as a bone" for more than a century.

But the atmosphere at the Driza-Bone factory in Queensland is sombre. Last week the chief executive, Rod Williams, flew up from Melbourne to deliver the news that half of the workforce had to go. Twenty-seven people are looking for new jobs. Some have been with the company for 15 years.

The problem is rain – or, rather, lack of it. Australia is enduring its worst drought ever. No one is buying raincoats, and production needs to be cut back in line with plummeting demand. The long riding coat on which Driza-Bone built its reputation is being pushed into the background as the company tries to drum up interest in new products that are less "weather-dependent".

While the distinctive caped Driza-Bone – worn by the Prince of Wales, President George Bush and Nicole Kidman among others – is not in danger of extinction, it is being treated a bit like an embarrassing maiden aunt. In the company showroom in Eagleby, mid-way between Brisbane and the Gold Coast, the saleswoman turns her back on a modest display of oilskins to enthuse about a recently launched range of merino wool knitwear.

Traditionally associated with the Outback, Driza-Bone is now aiming squarely at the urban market. Its summer 2007 collection includes leather jackets, polo shirts and even board shorts. Quite what the rugged men and women of the Australian bush make of this change of direction by one of their best-loved clothing outfitters is unclear.

Originally fashioned from torn sailcoth in 1898 by an enterprising Scottish sailor, Edward Le Roy, the Driza-Bone coat quickly acquired popularity among landlubbers. It became part of Australian bush lore, indelibly associated with intrepid stockmen rounding up cattle in remote mountain areas. That image was reinforced by films such as The Man from Snowy River in 1982, starring Kirk Douglas and Sigrid Thornton.

Generally teamed with moleskin trousers, R M Williams elastic-sided boots and an Akubra hat, the Driza-Bone has come to be seen as the national costume – as Australian as the Burberry trench coat is English. At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, the Australian team marched into the stadium in bright yellow Driza-Bones. At the 2000 Sydney Games, the opening ceremony was launched by 120 whip-wielding horsemen in oilskins.

It was ironic that a raincoat was seen as quintessentially Australian. This is, after all, the world's driest inhabited continent. "The company has been making stockmen's riding coats for all of its existence, and that has become challenging, because the continent is getting drier and drier," says Rod Williams.

Mr Williams, a Sydneysider who used to run Timberland in the UK and bought Driza-Bone two years ago, is as closely attuned to rainfall patterns as the Meteorological Office. "I can track the rainfall across Australia by how the phone rings the next day," he says. "If it rains in Dubbo [a New South Wales country town], my stockist in Dubbo will call and order some more coats. It's that direct. It's scary."

Even scarier when it hardly rains at all. Much of Australia is in its seventh straight year of drought. In the countryside, times are hard. "We're subject to how the bush is feeling, and all our customers are suffering," says Mr Williams.

People are suffering in Eagleby, too. There is a sense of bereavement on the factory floor, where hard-working women sew pockets, attach sleeves, lining and capes, and punch in studs with a special machine. The cutting room, usually busy, is almost deserted. One woman, working out her notice, says, almost in tears: "I loved making these Australian coats. I loved my job." While the job cuts were devastating, they were not a shock, says Pippa Grove, the chief operating officer. The machinists had watched the factory space shrink. They had worked shorter hours at management's request. They knew it wasn't raining.

Driza-Bone started life almost by accident. Le Roy worked on the Windjammer ships that sailed around the world, bringing wool and wheat to Europe and manufactured goods to Australia. In an effort to protect himself from the punishing rain, wind and cold in the Roaring Forties, he used old canvas sails to create a coat, waterproofing it with linseed oil and wax. Other sailors liked it, so he made some more, designing them in such a way that the wearer could man the sails and climb the masts.

When Le Roy returned to a land-bound existence, settling in New Zealand but maintaining close links with Australia, word of his coats spread, and graziers and stockmen demanded them to help cope with the harsh climate. With a partner, T E Pearson, he began producing them from a backyard shed in Manly, a Sydney beachside suburb.

The coats were adapted for riding, with a fantail added at the back to cover the saddle, along with leg straps to prevent them flapping around in high winds. They were double-stitched in crucial areas. Sleeves were given extra length, to protect the rider's arms. The coats could be rolled up and tied to the saddle if the sun suddenly came out.

They were so effective at keeping the wearer dry that comparisons were made with the parched bones of animals found after severe droughts. The term "Driza-Bone" was coined, and the company registered the trademark in 1933.

Once the design was perfected, it barely changed. The classic coat nowadays is almost exactly the same as in the 1940s. However, a more effective form of proofing was devised, with the exact mixture of oils kept a closely guarded secret. With the original linseed oil, it was discovered, the coats went hard and cracked during the summer months.

The company remained in the hands of Le Roy and Pearson's descendants for much of the 20th century. In the 1970s it went into receivership and was bought by a businessman, Frank Fisher, who – to general consternation – sold it to an English company, James Halstead of Manchester, in 1989. A decade later it returned to Australian hands, with its former managing director, John Maguire, joining forces with investors to buy it back. Driza-Bone was Australian again, to the great relief of Australians. Many of the country's best-loved brands have been taken over by foreign companies. Speedo swimming trunks, Ugg boots, Arnott biscuits, Vegemite spread, Bushells Tea and XXXX beer – all Australian inventions – are now owned and made by foreigners.

Driza-Bone perhaps had its heyday in the 1980s and early 1990s, when flights to Australia became affordable and films such as Crocodile Dundee, together with Neighbours and other soap operas, greatly boosted the interest in Australia overseas. The company began exporting coats. Back home, "city slickers" and weekend farmers joined traditional country customers.

After its debut at the Seoul Games, the Driza-Bone became part of the Australian sporting uniform, worn by cricketers and rugby players on international tours as well as by Olympic athletes. At the Sydney Games, even the medal presenters wore Driza-Bones. New products – jeans, shirts, jumpers – were added over the years, for drought is not a recent phenomenon in Australia, even if droughts are getting more frequent and more crippling. Driza-Bone coats for dogs, some of them fur-lined, have proved popular.

Stories and myths about the riding coat abounds. Farmers tell of Driza-Bones emerging intact from fires, being used to dam rivers, or keeping enraged bulls at bay. The coats are handed down from father to son and beyond, like family heirlooms. Two coats believed to have been worn by various owners for nearly a century hang in the Queensland showroom, a little tattered and in need of a fresh oiling but otherwise healthy-looking.

While the raincoat's fortunes have fluctuated, it has remained almost constantly in the public eye. Driza-Bones were worn in two recent stage shows, The Boy from Oz and Priscilla Queen of the Desert. They have been shown at Australian Fashion Week, and awarded a place in the Australian Fashion Hall of Fame, in Sydney's Power House Museum. During a visit to Australia in 2003, President Bush and his wife, Laura, were given matching fleecy Driza-Bones. Madonna bought a tiny Driza-Bone for her baby daughter, Lourdes.

During a recent meeting in Sydney of 21 Asia-Pacific leaders including the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and the Chinese President, Hu Jintao, there was fevered speculation in the Australian media about the attire that would be worn in their formal group photograph – usually the national costume of the host country.

Would it be Speedo swimming trunks and flip-flops? Quicksilver board shorts? Hats with dangling corks? No, it was Drizabones – custom-designed, with four different lapel colours (blue, red, yellow and green), representing features of the Australian environment.

Mr Williams' solution to the crisis, as well as diversifying, is to double exports, now 25 per cent of turnover. It's still raining outside Australia. Driza-Bone already exports to 40 countries, including Mongolia, where the coats are coveted by horsemen. Fully owned subsidiaries are being set up in Britain and the US, the two biggest export markets. Henceforth the raincoat will be the only item manufactured on Australian soil. The decision to continue making it in Queensland was based not only on nostalgia. Still central to the company's image, the Driza-Bone is marketed as an outback coat made in Australia.

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