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The History of Barbour

Today Barbour is not only an internationally renowned name, but also shorthand for all that is refined, sophisticated and reliable, in the world of jackets and coats. With their story starting over a century ago, it is worth looking back at how the acclaimed brand of luxury clothing began and how it has progressed through the years, taking a moment to focus on some of the key events and developments which might shed light on the success of Barbour and the integrity of everything that it represents.

The Origins

First known as J. Barbour & Sons Ltd, the company was founded by John Barbour in 1894 in South Shields in the North East of England. He started the company initially as an importer of oil cloth, and yet in just twenty years the brand would be known across the globe as being one of the best in the business in the way of jackets and coats, with orders soon being placed internationally from buyers in Chile, South Africa and Hong Kong.

Crucially important to the development of the operation in this early stage was the role of John Barbour’s sons. Malcolm Barbour played an important role in widening the horizons of the company by producing their first mail order catalogue. This move propelled the status of the company from having local support and acclaim among the fishermen and workers of the North East of England for the robust and reliable outerwear, to the point then of being known and sought after worldwide.

Malcolm’s son, named Duncan Barbour, in turn had a huge impact on the creative pathway of the company, as he joined the setup in 1928 with a passion for motorcycling which led to many of the iconic staples of the quintessential Barbour style, jackets and coats which are still just as culturally vital today.

The Key Moments

It certainly was an important juncture of evolution when Duncan Barbour in 1936 put together the motorcycling range, not just in the sense that the public took to the designs, but also due to the fact that this initiated the brand being embraced by the British motorcycling world, with almost every team adopting the motorcycle-wear as their official clothing in the following twenty years.

Similarly, it was not only a reinforcement but also an invaluable advancement of the status of Barbour when in 1937 Captain George Phillips, unsatisfied with the standard-issue Royal Navy uniform for submariners, commissioned and paid for Barbour two-piece suits for the whole HMS Ursula crew. The design of what arose out of this collaboration, the Ursula jacket, was inspired by the motorcycling all-in-one, and itself then went on to influence later variations of the eponymous Barbour International biker jacket.

Later down the line in 1964, Barbour’s reputation as a brand intertwined with motorcycling culture was heightened to a new level of fame, as international superstar Steve McQueen decided to pick up a Barbour International Suit for the International Six Day Trials in what was then East Germany. Such an endorsement only served to prove beyond doubt that Barbour was now synonymous not only with motorcycle culture, but also with high style and a deep connection with the outdoor life.

The Pioneering Methods

Given that there was clearly so much support for Barbour from people not only looking for fashionable clothes but also requiring a level of practical quality, it might be appropriate to wonder just why it is that so many considered Barbour to be a cut above.

What is so unique about the company, and this was a case from a very early stage, is that Barbour is not so much characterised by this or that individual jacket or coat, but by the methods through which they make their jackets and coats. Sure enough, as it has been seen, certain specific examples of outerwear from their esteemed collection over the years have become especially iconic. Though, with that said, one of the core reasons for their success is the unique and complex waxed cotton method.

This method, which was once specifically formulated to withstand the elements for those who would wear the jackets and coats outdoors whilst working, was always retained alongside ever increasingly sleek designs. This has enabled the company to incorporate the original method into the current landscape of outerwear, which accounts for the everyday hustle and bustle of city life as well as the potential wind, rain and wet conditions of the outdoor lifestyle.

It is indicative of the unique value that their waxed jacket technology brought to the UK and the world that in 1974, Barbour received a Royal Warrant for Waterproof and Protective clothing from His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh.

The Recent Past, the Present and the Future

From the great marker of their achievement in the form of the Royal Warrant in 1974, Barbour have only gone from strength to strength, in fact receiving another warrant towards the beginning of the 1980s. It was at this point, building on their success, that Barbour released their Beaufort jackets, which duly took their place alongside the most iconic of their jackets in the history of the company.

For all the expansion though, the company retains its family values, with Margaret Barbour and John Barbour continuing the brand’s tradition of keeping a family member at the helm by appointing their daughter Vice Chairman in 1997.

Margaret has pushed the brand forward, introducing a vast array of knitwear, shirts, trousers, footwear and accessories into the fold. She was also in 2001 awarded for her work by being made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Today the brand is stronger than ever, and, with Barbour’s first international store having been opened in 2013, it seems like this rate of progression is only set to continue.


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