Custodian of Barbour for five decades, Dame Margaret Barbour is recognised throughout the industry for transforming the traditional British brand into a global fashion phenomenon, making her a fitting winner of the Drapers Lifetime Achievement accolade.
“She is highly regarded by her contemporaries for her Britishness, regal charm and unashamed pride as the owner of a company that represents the crème de la crème of British outdoor clothing,” says Dame Margaret Barbour’s close friend, Julian Blades, owner and founder of Newcastle-based independent Jules B, which stocks Barbour.
“She is fiercely proud of her heritage and has a tough, no-nonsense northern spirit. I applaud the way she is a great ambassador and poster girl, not only for her company, but also the north-east.”
Indeed, Dame Margaret, the septuagenarian manufacturing matriarch of Newcastle and Barbour’s chairman of 46 years, received the honour of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2001 for services to industry in north-east England – and this is the reputation that precedes her. Even the taxi driver sings her praises in his strong Geordie accent as we approach a small trading estate in South Shields, where the company’s factory and head office reside.
Dame Margaret, as I am politely reminded to call her, has been custodian of the Barbour legacy for half a century. Under her stewardship, the British heritage business has been transformed from a waxed jacket company into a world-renowned name with three royal warrants – from the Duke of Edinburgh in 1974, the Queen in 1982 and the Prince of Wales in 1987. Celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, it has grown from 100 staff to more than 1,000, all the while making a huge contribution to the UK fashion and textile industry.
“Love at first sight”
Founder John Barbour, a Scotsman from Galloway, started the business selling oilskins to the fishermen of the Victorian north-east of England in 1894. His son, Malcolm, joined in 1908, along with his brother, Jack, and produced the first Barbour mail order catalogues.
Third-generation Duncan Barbour entered the fold in 1927. He died in 1957 shortly after returning from World War II. His wife, Nancy Barbour, Dame Margaret’s mother in law, was then left to take over the Barbour reins.
Dame Margaret is immensely proud of this rich heritage and so insists that Drapers takes a tour of her office, which is chock-full of Barbour archives, awards and family photographs, before the interview begins.
Dressed in a bouclé Giorgio Armani suit paired with heels by Zen London, and sapphire and diamond earrings, she leads the way around the maroon and chestnut-coloured room – until she stops and points at an image of a handsome young man with dark hair and deep brown eyes.
“That’s my John,” she beams.
She is referring to her late husband John Barbour, Nancy’s son, who sold country clothing and motorcycle wear for the company when she first met him in 1964. Dame Margaret, originally from North Yorkshire on the outskirts of Middlesbrough, was a school teacher in London at the time.
“I met John after a Twickenham rugby match in London,” Dame Margaret smiles. “It was love at first sight.
“At the time he told me he was a commercial traveller but didn’t mention which company he worked for. One day he gave me some tickets for a motorcycle exhibition in Earls Court he was working at. To my amazement I saw the words ‘Barbour’. I recognised the brand straight away and soon realised who John was – I couldn’t believe it. Most people had a Barbour jacket in those days.”
The pair decided to move back up north, where they married in 1964, before they had their only daughter, Helen Barbour (vice-chairman since 1997) in 1966. But while on holiday in Mallorca in 1968 John died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage, aged 29.
With a young child and no background in running a business, Dame Margaret was left with a big decision to make.
“I was suddenly left with a small child and the majority shareholding of this company that had been going for nearly 75 years,” Dame Margaret says. “I had to decide whether to continue the business or not.
“However, I made an immediate decision to carry it on because John was fourth generation and so passionate about Barbour – and I too had become very involved with his love of the brand.”
Just three months after John’s death, she joined the board of directors to continue her husband’s legacy.
Because of my knowledge of textiles and dress making, I was able to bury myself in the Barbour business
Thankfully, says Dame Margaret, she had always had a strong interest in fabrics, fashion and the trends of the day. Growing up during the war, she was brought up “rather frugally”, and as a result started to make her own clothes from the age of 12.
“I used to get on the red bus and go to a big market in Stockton in Durham. All the dealers in Leeds used to come with their remnants of wools and cottons, which I would buy and make my own clothes with – usually for the school dance.
“I even bought some beautiful pure silk and embroidered fabric, and made my own wedding dress with my Singer sewing machine for when I got married at 24,” she says, pointing proudly to a photograph in her wedding album, before joking that that particular fabric did not come from the Stockton market.
“Because of my knowledge of textiles and dress making, I was able to bury myself in the Barbour business, learning how jackets were made and where we got the cloths from.”
Dame Margaret says she threw her grief and energy into Barbour, spending time working in every department – from the factory to accounts to the stockroom – and speaking to customers to understand the business in which she had previously had no involvement from the ground up.
“I went to trade shows in Milan, Germany and Paris, and saw what other people were doing. They were playing with styles, colours and that’s where I learnt an awful lot and decided I wanted to bring the Barbour garments forward.
When we introduced blue for the first time, Barbour became high street, not just country clothing
“I just thought, ‘We can do so, so much better.’ And that’s where my ambition began.”
In 1973, she was made chairman. In the 10 years that followed Dame Margaret was responsible for designing and launching three new waxed jackets: the Bedale (a short equestrian-style jacket), the Beaufort (a mid-length jacket) and the Border (a longer jacket), borrowing elements seen during visits to France. They transformed Barbour into a household name and remain bestsellers today.
Then in the late 1980s Dame Margaret introduced the navy blue colour into products, which at the time were only produced in olive and sandstone. This was Barbour’s first foray into fashion and on to the high street – and a departure from its “country green” ethos.
“When we introduced blue for the first time, Barbour became high street, not just country clothing. Even men in the city started to wear Barbour. A big step was when we opened our first [concession] in Harrods in the early 1990s, which was the first shop we had outside of South Shields. That’s when we started to realise how much demand there was.”
I realised we had suddenly become a fashion item, which we never had been before
In 1994, the year Barbour opened the Harrods concession, the business had just one retail store in South Shields. The company was unable to provide a figure for how many wholesale accounts it had at the time, however the Barbour business’ turnover was around £74.9m.
Along with her daughter Helen, Dame Margaret then commissioned kilt and Highland dress manufacturer Kinloch Anderson in the late 1990s to produce an exclusive Barbour tartan called Ayrshire to use on jacket linings, to reinforce the brand’s credentials. The colours of the tartan were chosen to co-ordinate with the main base colours of the jackets – at that time, navy, olive and sandstone. The tartan is still used today.
Over the next 30 years, Barbour grew significantly to 36 standalone stores worldwide, 17 of which are in the UK. It has around 1,300 wholesale stockists globally, who stretch from fashion Independents – such as Jules B and The Highlands Store in London – to department stores including John Lewis, House of Fraser, Harrods and Selfridges. In the year to 30 April 2018 turnover increased by 9.2% to £185.3m, while gross profit increased by 14.5% to £109.5m. Operating profit increased by £5.4m.
Dame Margaret says one of the biggest challenges during her tenure was realising that by elevating the products, the company had become a fashion brand.
“I realised we had suddenly become a fashion item, which we never had been before. I recognised that we needed professional people, and that we needed special designers.”
Among her more recent recruits are Hobbs head of design Nicola Brown (née Page), who joins as head of womenswear next month, and head of womenswear, Paget Billingsley, and director of menswear Ian Bergin, who joined from Zalando and Paul Smith respectively in 2015.
Now sold in more than 40 countries worldwide, Barbour remains unique: timeless clothing that is both practical and stylish, and appeals to all ages, whether it is urban or country living.
The Barbour business has given me a very, very happy life. I don’t want to give it all up just yet
“Dame Margaret is clearly an astute individual,” says Indu Gilani director of Barbour stockist The Highlands Store on Regent Street. “She has made many forward-thinking decisions and has ensured that as a brand, Barbour has remained current. It is not just a brand that offers quality outdoors wear any more – it has diversified to become a fully fledged fashion label.
“She is an inspiration to businesswomen everywhere.”
Douglas Kinloch Anderson, executive chairman of Kinloch Anderson and former national president of the Royal Warrant Holders Association, who has known Dame Margaret for more than 25 years, agrees: “The textile industry has been incredibly difficult over the last 25 years, but Dame Margaret is an exception to that rule.
“She has had the courage to make the right decisions at the right time to move the company forward. She is a very determined, sensible, intelligent woman indeed.”
Dame Margaret believes the key to Barbour’s success is its focus on quality, handmade products. Her advice to other retailers is to stick to “sustainable, quality products that last”.
She adds: “Nowadays retailers are using a lot of viscose, making cheap clothes, which people can afford, but I hate. I’ve always gone for quality – like Caroline Charles or Armani – but less quantity, like the French woman do. Barbour products are worn and loved for years on end. We don’t use cheap fabrics or outsource to low labour-cost countries but still produce products that people can afford.”
Barbour products are worn and loved for years on end. We don’t use cheap fabrics or outsource to low labour-cost countries
Dame Margaret says she is still involved with the product development and attends all the board meetings, but mostly spends her time running her charitable trusts. She founded the Barbour Trust – now the Barbour Foundation – in 1988 to support charitable causes, cultural and community projects and women’s groups primarily in the north-east.
In 2000, Dame Margaret and Helen established the Nancy Barbour Award – an annual programme within the Women’s Fund to recognise organisations helping women to play a more active part in the community, particularly those who work with a disability.
The fund now makes awards to local charitable organisations recommended by Dame Margaret. Then in 2012, the pair opened the Barbour Academy for textile apprentices at the firm’s South Shields factory. To date, Barbour has donated more than £20.3m to worthwhile causes.
Dame Margaret has long carried herself with the resilience of the waxed jackets that have been her life for so many decades. And, although she is less hands-on these days, she still comes into the office at least three times a week and has no plans to hang up her waxed jacket just yet.
“The Barbour business has given me a very, very happy life. I’ve travelled the world – I was in Tokyo last autumn and recently came back from Bologna. I don’t want to give it all up just yet.”
She adds: “Inevitably, I will have to step back at some point, but my grandson, [sixth-generation] John Barbour Humphrey, has just joined the business, so I am keeping my fingers crossed that he will take the reins and keep the family business that I am so proud of going.”