Frank Russell, the founder and owner of British outerwear brand Mansfield, whose nickname in the trade was 'king of coats', died last week at the age of 83.
Frank Russell, the founder and owner of British outerwear brand Mansfield, whose nickname in the trade was "king of coats", died last week at the age of 83.
Russell was the archetypal rag trade entrepreneur who built his business up from nothing into a brand that in its hey day in the 1980s regularly graced the backs of the likes of Princess Diana and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
At 6ft 1" and once an amateur boxer he cut an imposing figure in the industry. He was the son of an east end tailor who left school at the age of 14 to work in his father's workshop. Determined to better himself he took evening classes in pattern cutting and eventually secured a job as pattern cutter at upmarket firm Davids & Frost working his way up to head pattern cutter at the tender age of 18.
When World War Two broke out in 1939 he was called up and saw active service as a radio operator in Italy, Algeria, Morocco and parts of Western Europe. Russell was quickly recognised as being bright and during his time in the forces he was encouraged to learn to speak Italian, French and German which he used to great effect in business in later life, building a brand that was exported all over the world and which won the Queens Awards for Export two years running in 1965 and 1966.
When he was demobbed in 1945 Russell returned to the East End and set up a workshop of his own making garments for other companies. To make ends meet he taught pattern cutting at night. His son Paul recalls that after advertising his services in Drapers Record he once had to give pattern cutting lessons on a billiards table and often joked that after that all his coats were designed with six pockets.
His outdoor tailoring business grew and eventually he formed a joint venture with a buiness called Raphael Young which enabled him to open a factory turning out 2,000 garments a week.
But Russell was keen not to rely on other peoples' business for his livelihood and came up with the idea of launching his own brand and running it out of his offices. Paul Russell told Drapers: "It was a triangular shaped building that had two entrances one on Fort Street and the other on Stuart Street. So Dad just gave each business a different address with the outdoor work coming out of Fort Street and the Mansfield label from Stuart Street so people woud not realise they were connected."
"He came up with the name Mansfield because it was his sister's married name. The label went on to sell in department stores such as Harrods, House of Fraser, Selfridges and Liberty as well as overseas. He launched the Magic Measure coat a voluminous one size fits all cape like construction that went on to be a bestseller."
In the early 1970s Russell also successfully launched a separates range Cache D’Or and was the founder of the London Fashion Fair a pre-cursor to London Fashion Week. He also headed up the British Fashion Exports Council.
Paul Russell says that the rag trade was his father's life and that he was obsessed by what women wore and would even spend his Sundays sketching ideas inspired by things he had seen on the street or in shop windows.
He said: "Dad was a perfectionist about the business and was involved in every facet from the pattern cutting and design to the sales. He really could do it all and as an entrepreneur he expected a lot out of his staff. I worked in the factory for a couple of years and remember that if the pattern cutters found themselves with nothing to do when they knew he was coming on his rounds they would get out old patterns and re-fashion them rather than be caught at leisure."
"He was very much his own man and determined not be intimidated. I remember that when he went to meet the directors of C&A for the first time to sell his coats he was nervous so he took a brief case to the meeting to look more businesslike. He set it down on the desk and once a deal had been done one of the directors asked him what was in it. Dad opened it up and it was full of Mars Bars but when the C&A boss put his hand in to take one Dad rapped him on the wrist and said I don't think I've said you could have one."
"He was like that he demanded respect and was not going to let anyone no matter how important they were think they had the advantage."
After selling the Mansfield label called Blanes to a PLC he eventually bought it back and his son Jeffrey then went onto run it with Frank Russell's then business partner Barry Hancock. The label was finally shut down in the late 1990s.
Paul Russell told Drapers : "Mansfield coats were made to last and are still being traded on E-bay. Some of them are from the 1960s and have a label in that says designed by Frank Russell. Dad would have liked that he wanted his stuff to last and was obsessed by the quality of a garment."
When Russell retired he wrote a book about his life in the trade titled "A few Wrong Stitches". He was married four times and leaves three children Jeffrey, Andrea and Paul from his marriage to his first wife Daphne. He died on Friday morning and was buried at Bushey Cemetery in Hertfordshire.