With the support of TV Dragon Deborah Meaden, Fox Brothers’ managing director ensured the survival of the Somerset mill. Now he wants to secure its long-term future.
Savile Row tailoring is not about elitism; it’s about handcraft and everything that goes into it,” says Douglas Cordeaux proudly. “The farmer that looks after the sheep that provides the wool for the cloth, is just as important as the tailor that makes the suit, and it’s about making people aware of that.”
Cordeaux is a former design director at Pepe Jeans and has a long history in the fashion industry. Drapers met him at Fox Brothers, the mill he jointly owns with lifelong friend Deborah Meaden, star of TV show Dragons’ Den.
Based in the small Somerset town of Wellington, Fox Brothers is something of a rarity as the only working weaving mill left in the west of England. During its heyday, the mill, which was founded in 1772, employed somewhere in the region of 5,000 people and was even the last private company in England to issue its own legal tender – such was its influence in the local area.
Today, Fox Brothers employs just 24 people, so is not the manufacturing force it once was but, that said, that’s still more than the 18 employees who worked there when Cordeaux and Meaden bought the mill at the end of 2009.
And, while the workforce may still be relatively small, the customer base is quite the opposite. Fox Brothers weaves cloth and flannel for some of the best known retailers and brands in the world. Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Aquascutum, Jack Wills and some of the top names on Savile Row are all customers. Not to mention the fact that Brian Smith, the mill’s on-site tailor, was voted one of the top 10 bespoke tailors in the world by Millionaire magazine.
Both born and bred in the West Country, Cordeaux and Meaden were passionate about becoming involved in Fox Brothers and safeguarding the area’s remaining textile manufacturing centre. “Yes, this is a business,” says Cordeaux. “But it’s also about preserving and recognising what we actually do – looking at a much bigger picture. It’s about the area and the individuals that we want to secure a future for. If this mill was to go, it would be a huge shame and would leave a huge hole in this part of the country.”
With that in mind, the pair acquired the mill from the previous owners in late 2009, rescuing it from potential closure due to financial difficulties. “The first week after we came on board we talked about the need to get apprentices involved in this business,” says Cordeaux.
“The workforce was crying out for young people to share their knowledge with, and now is a critical time because if we wait another five years a lot of these skilled workers will have retired and we’d have missed the opportunity.
“People and businesses that are looking to bring production back [to the UK] are already running into problems because so much of the skills base has gone or moved into other industries.”
Fox Brothers now has two full-time apprentices. One, Robert Kennedy, had studied fashion and textile design at a local college but had been seeking employment for two years after finishing his course. The other, Kirsty Gibbs, came to the mill initially on a work experience placement and was then asked to stay on as an apprentice.
“It was quite a grey workforce when we took over and they’d be the first to admit that, but they’re much more excited now,” says Cordeaux. “You put just two young people out there [into the mill] and it changes the whole dynamic.
The apprenticeship that Kennedy is undertaking is unique in that it is being run in conjunction with one of Fox Brothers’ clients, lifestyle retailer Jack Wills. “They [Jack Wills] are very keen on making as much as they can in the UK. They themselves will admit that sourcing from China doesn’t feel right anymore,” says Cordeaux. “So this scheme was something we put together with them and Rob will spend some time getting to know the cloth and how it is made, and then spend some time in London with Jack Wills, almost as their man on the inside who has a true understanding of the cloth that goes into their products.
“This sort of apprenticeship forms someone who is going to go out there with a complete picture of how cloth is made, and that’s absolutely invaluable.
“Who knows, if this goes well, there is every reason why we might look to do something similar with some of our other customers, whether that be someone from Savile Row or maybe even someone from the interiors industry, as we also make cloth for interiors.”
As a business that has been going since 1772 it is no surprise that Cordeaux is incredibly proud of Fox Brothers’ heritage. However, he is keen to promote British heritage as something long lasting and not just the “flash in the pan” that he is worried some retailers see it as.
In November, Cordeaux and Meaden launched The Merchant Fox, an online, own-label venture selling British-made luxury goods with provenance. Wherever possible, an element of Fox Brothers cloth is incorporated.
“There is a lot about heritage brands at the moment to the extent that it has got a bit silly really, with people almost trying to invent a heritage because of the trend towards heritage brands,” he says.
“Even Polo Ralph Lauren will say they’ve got heritage, which they do, but they didn’t even start until the 1950s. Fox started in 1772 – that’s real heritage.”
2011 Fox Brothers takes on two apprentices. The Merchant Fox website is launched
2009 Deborah Meaden and Douglas Cordeaux acquire Fox Brothers
1914-18 Fox Brothers receives the largest single textile order during the First World War, for 852 miles of khaki cloth
1901 Fox Brothers is credited as inventor of the dye to create khaki
1772 Fox Brothers is established
Q&A with apprentices Robert Kennedy and Kirsty Gibbs
How easy was it for you to get your apprenticeships with Fox Brothers?
RK “I was looking for employment for two years after I finished college. It’s finding the right things to apply for that is difficult. Most of the people from my college course still haven’t found jobs yet.”
KG “I didn’t know anything about this sort of industry before I came here on work experience – I didn’t even know what cashmere was. So for me it was about getting to know the job, and now I wouldn’t ever want to work in anything else. I love it.”
What are your roles here?
KG “I work as a quality control and production assistant, which basically means I’m checking things are being done to the right quality and I look out for any faults.”
RK “I work on the looms but my apprenticeship is also with Jack Wills, so it means I’ll also go to London to work in their head office, looking at more of the design side and what they do with the cloth.”
How long was it before you began working on the machines?
KG “You get loads of help when you first start, and you watch someone else and then start to pick it up. When I first got here I never thought I’d be able to do it because it looks so complicated, but everyone is really helpful and I’ve already learnt so much during my four months here.”
RK: “I shadowed someone for a good couple of weeks before I was let loose on the looms, and even now there are always people around to ask if you’re not sure about things.”