Cooper & Stollbrand is one of Manchester’s last remaining clothing factories. Directors James Eden and Michael Stoll discuss the future of UK manufacturing.
This industry used to employ 70,000 people,” says Michael Stoll, managing director of Cooper & Stollbrand, referring to the once thriving raincoat manufacturing district in Salford in Manchester.
He points through the window of his third-floor office in the Cooper & Stollbrand factory to various buildings that have now been converted into trendy flats and bars. There could hardly be more of a contrast with the slightly quaint and run-down Cooper & Stollbrand building.
“They all used to be factories,” he laments. “Now just 70 people work here.”
Jack White, the great grandfather of current owner James Eden, worked at Cooper and Stollbrand in the 1920s as a shmerer, which involved glueing together rubberised coats.
Stoll says: “When I started in the business in 1972, every millionaire in Manchester made raincoats. By 1984 nearly all of the raincoat factories were gone. By the 1990s there was virtually only us left.”
Eden recently bought back into the firm. The family sold it to Stoll in 1989, but in recent years it fell on hard times, and Eden’s fond memories of weekends and holidays spent helping out in the factory led him to reinvest.
Flying the flag
Although far from easy business, the factory today boasts an enviable client list, manufacturing largely coats for the likes of Ted Baker, Paul Smith, All Saints and Topshop and sourcing fabrics from a British mill in Delph, Manchester. “We’re flying the UK flag,” says Stoll.
Its ability to turn orders around quickly - “We can have fabric delivered on a Monday and the garments in store within a week,” explains Eden - and its outstanding skill in pattern construction is almost certainly the reason for its survival so far.
The factory produces between 400 and 500 garments each week and has a solid contract order business with the likes of the Metropolitan Police and Virgin. “They need to be able to order one-off sizes and we can do that,” says Eden.
But Eden says the future looks bleak. To keep prices to the high street competitive, Cooper & Stollbrand is feeling the pinch. The plan is to launch a wholesale men’s casualwear brand that celebrates the factory’s heritage. This will serve indies and overseas markets, with a fondness for British goods, such as Japan and the US, and give Cooper & Stollbrand a third string to its bow.
“It’s become prohibitively expensive to contract manufacture,” says Eden. “We need to start to capitalise on what we have got right here. And that is a big heritage and a strong concept.”
The brand, called PWVC (Private White VC), is a reference to the fact that Jack White was awarded the Victoria Cross during the First World War.
The first collection for autumn 10, a work in progress at the time of Drapers’ visit, focuses on 100% British wool boat-neck sweaters, shirts with jersey sleeves and waxed wool jackets - a fabric Cooper & Stollbrand invented. It has been overseen by ex-Dunhill head of design Nick Ashley, son of the famed Laura Ashley, as creative director. Wholesale prices are likely to start at about £50. Cooper & Stollbrand also plans to sell direct to the consumer via a transactional website and is planning to open a pop-up store in London in the run-up to Christmas.
“We are Britain’s bravest manufacturers,” says Eden, who has included that bold statement in PWVC’s marketing.
“Others have cowardly gone offshore but my grandfather was a pioneer of the trade. It really is unique to have all this here in Manchester,” he says, gesticulating around the factory.” l