At its factory in South Shields, where it produces its iconic waxed jackets, the lifestyle brand is dedicated to traditional craftsmanship.
130,000 to 140,000 Waxed jackets made each year in South Shields
600/2,000 Number of UK/global stockists
60 to 90 Minutes it takes to make one jacket
25 Jackets each machinist makes every week
The day before Drapers’ trip to Barbour’s factory in South Shields, a far more interesting guest had paid a visit: local Geordie Robson Green. The actor was searching for a jacket to wear on his Extreme Fishing TV show on Channel 5. Aside from getting the largely female workforce excited - he spent the entire afternoon happily signing autographs and posing for pictures - the actor’s choice says a lot about his loyalty to local manufacturing; he has proudly supported the Northeast throughout his career. In fact, Barbour’s link to the region is so strong that on the way to the factory, Drapers’ taxi driver asked in astonishment: “Do they have Barbour in London?” believing the lifestyle brand to be worn only by local farmers or fishermen and not giving a second thought to its strong fashion credentials across the UK and the rest of the world.
But “they” do indeed have Barbour in London and it is precisely this combination of traditional, home-grown craftsmanship (Barbour was founded in 1894) and a strong product that makes the brand so successful. It is, therefore, hard to imagine Barbour’s jackets being so popular with both the fashion and functional crowds if they were made outside the UK. Sales rose 20% to £89.8m in the year to December 31, 2010, with the UK market “exploding since 2008 and now making up more than 50% of total sales, up from one-third”, says managing director Steve Buck.
Buck admits that the recent trend in menswear for heritage brands has played into the hands of Barbour and contributed to that sales surge. He worries about what would happen if the popularity of the trend were to fade, but says: “We have the opportunity to maintain [the 50%]. And we’re pretty good at managing the business to go with trends.”
He adds that there is still “huge opportunity” for the lifestyle part of the business, which includes knitwear.
Almost 15% of total sales come from product made at the factory in South Shields, which manufactures Barbour’s waxed jackets. And about 75% of its waxed cotton is sourced from supplier British Millerain in Rochdale and 25% from Halley Stevensons in Dundee. Despite the rest of the collection being made in the Far East and Europe, where production is cheaper, Buck is adamant that the “fundamentals” of the brand continue to be manufactured in the UK.
“It’s very important from a brand point of view, but also from a company point of view,” he says. “It means we have skills within the business that we wouldn’t otherwise have. We look at things differently and have the skills to operate at a slightly higher level with our CMT partners because we know how many standard units it takes to make a garment - and how you cost it.”
But while Buck is supportive of UK manufacturing, he is also realistic about its limitations in the current climate. “Some 15 years ago, there used to be about 40 stitching factories in the area, but there’s no manufacturing base anymore. We’ve missed a generation [of workers]. It’s hard to justify investment,” he says. “But if there is support for it, it’s good for us and for the industry.”
Down on the factory floor, operations manager Dennis Ebdon tells Drapers about his succession planning structure, as a result of a common problem facing UK manufacturers: an ageing workforce. “At least the Government has helped by extending the retirement age to 107,” he jokes. “In the past 15 months, about 10 people have retired and it took us six months to replace them, but then only eight stayed on. The average age of our staff is 48.”
Ebdon firmly believes that vocational training should be funded by the Government, but in the meantime, Barbour trains many of its staff, the majority of which are its 116 machinists. “But it’s important that they understand the whole process of making a garment - cutting, sewing, designing it,” Ebdon adds, explaining that this is exactly what Barbour has done for its staff. “In a production line of 20 people, for example, if one is off sick, we need others to be able to do that job. Upskilling is key.”
So skilled is Barbour’s workforce that the company produces its jackets “right first time” 98% of the time. “If one stitch goes in incorrectly, you can’t do anything with it,” says Ebdon.
That skill is valued by loyal customers, who insist on bringing jackets they bought more than 20 years ago to Barbour’s customer service department to be repaired, instead of buying new ones, because they can’t part with the quality and fit of the garment. Some 13,000 items are handed over each year, sometimes with a repair price tag of £150. Drapers was surprised at the amount of jackets returned for repair regardless of their condition. “One woman sent us her husband’s jacket to be repaired as a 50th birthday present because he refused to throw it away,” says Jean Kershaw, customer services manager.
The repair service is not a profit-maker; Barbour breaks even on it, but says it is important for the ethos of the brand. Still, with the growth it is experiencing, it is wise to invest in and maintain the brand’s values. “Business has been incredible, the forward-order books for this autumn have been incredible. By the end of this year we will have grown between 50% and 60% in three years,” says Buck.