If you enter almost any country home you’ll find a Barbour jacket lurking in the cloakroom or hanging from a hook in the wash kitchen, perhaps a Beaufort, or a Border. Chances are it’s been in the possession of the owner for some time, they wear well these Barbour jackets, and they do their job. That’s one of the reasons why since its humble beginnings in 1894, in South Shields, Barbour has grown to be one the most recognisable international brands in the world.
To determine the other reasons for Barbour’s success requires a little more delving about in the archives.
Barbour has been, and continues to be wholly family owned, though, unlike many family companies when it comes to succession gender has never been an issue. A woman first shared the reins back in 1939 at a time when women only appeared in the Board Room if they were pushing a tea trolley. Nancy Barbour there by proxy, guided by her father-in-law Malcolm Barbour, and there to represent her husband Duncan who had been called to war, however her presence made an impact and set a precedent. With the result that in 1964, after Malcolm and Duncan had both passed, and in a move that can only have been considered radical, she formally became Chairman.
Operating as a family business, and retaining complete control over decision making has allowed Barbour to make such radical choices and to respond rapidly to market changes in a way that companies beholden to shareholders can only dream of.
At Barbour decisions have always been made at the top but with great respect and knowledge of the entire workings of the company.
In 1968, following the sudden death of her husband, John Barbour, aged 29, Dame Margaret Barbour took his place as Managing Director. Describing the circumstances of her succession she said, ‘I was suddenly left with a small child and the majority shareholding of this company that had been going for nearly 75 years. John was fourth generation in the business and proud of it, and I felt that it was my mission to continue the work he’d already started by establishing new jackets, and looking to extend what was really an oiled cotton for seamen and farmers.’
She worked tirelessly in all departments of the firm, did her market research, scouted for talent and formed a new board. The result of her efforts was the introduction in the 70’s of the 3 jackets that really made the Barbour brand: the Bedale, the Beaufort and the Border.
To this day, Dame Margaret remains as Chairman and together with her daughter, Helen, who is the company’s Vice President, the radical shape shifting continues.
In search of rejuvenation and new markets, Barbour now collaborates regularly with big name contemporary designers such as Alice Temperley, Anya Hindmarch and Japanese designer Tokihito Yoshida – a strategy that seems to be working well for them; in 2011 sales rose to £123 million from £89.9 million in 2010.
So well in fact that their new market have been dubbed the Hackney Farmers, fashionable townies personified by celebrities such as Fearne Cotton, Kate Moss and the Arctic Monkeys – a member of whom once wore a Barbour jacket at Glastonbury and has been noted as a Barbour aficionado ever since.
It remains to be seen if the Hackney Farmers are in for the long haul, trendy folk are by definition fickle, they must follow the trends and what was in one season can’t possibly be in the next. So we hope that Barbour remain loyal to their core, the people who buy Barbour because they know it will last them a lifetime, that when they need it, it will be there hanging on its hook in the wash kitchen waiting like a loyal hound.
See the Barbour website for a detailed timeline of the company’s history.