Written by Simon Ruel, Altitude Sports writer.
Translation: Reilly Doucet
Barbour: The Famous Brand You Know the Least About
“Keep driving, they'll disperse.” I complied, pushing through the fear of running over a sheep.
The instruction came from Angus, our cheerful guide, who taught me how to drive a Land Rover over the rugged terrain of the Perthshire Highlands. That last day of my trip delivered the perfect last moments to experience the world that has incubated the aesthetics and functionality of Barbour coats.
A coat as eternal as its natural habitat
Location: some 1,000 meters above sea level, overlooking the Scottish countryside, with Barbour's classic coats in their home environment. As I scanned the vast green expanses below, I thought about how rare it is to create something as unchanging as the plains and mountains that birthed it.
That week, I rediscovered a brand I thought I knew. Barbour is more than classic British style. From its proletarian origins, it's a brand that has remained relevant through the ages to today, where it stands as the prestigious signature we know, while making constant efforts in sustainability.
If there's one thing Barbour has always done well, and which counts today more than ever, it's its classic waxed cotton coats, which are a true model of durability. Behold, the humble portrait of this indestructible garment and its manufacturing process, modern for over a century.
Blue blood, green mindset
Upon arriving at Barbour's offices in South Shields, on the south bank of the Tyne in northern England, one can notice the Royal Warrants of Appointment, which certifies that the company dresses members of the royal family. It sure does set the tone.
Gary Janes has been the Design and Development Manager at Barbour for almost 20 years. The coat he showed me is affectionately nicknamed Uncle Harry's Coat. It dates back to 1910, when Barbour products were weather-proofed with oil. Today, they're made with cotton waxed by Halley Stevensons, a Scottish brand that became bluesign-certified in 2021, and which has been around since 1864.
The final product is soft and breathable in the heat, but stiffer and more windproof in the cold. And above all, it fits perfectly with Barbour's environmental vision.
History told by tartans
I sat with Helen, Dame Margaret Barbour's daughter, under a painting of the Barbour Beacon, the legendary lighthouse that appears on some of the brand's labels. She went on to tell me about a trip she had taken to Edinburgh in the early 1990s, in which she had discovered, in a tourist store, that the tartan used by Barbour was not exclusive to the brand.
My curiosity was piqued, and the next day I boarded a train to Edinburgh to meet Douglas Kinloch Anderson. He was the president of the Scottish family company that Barbour had commissioned to develop a tartan of its own, in keeping with the origins of its name. Kinloch Anderson still supplies Barbour with its tartan today (and the Royal Family with their kilts).
Douglas told me that the origins of the Barbour name date back to the 13th century. Its unique, elegant tartan is inspired by the West Scottish coast from which it emanates. It made me realize that we don't always realize how deeply rooted European brands like Barbour can be, in a culture that suddenly seems so ancient, from my North American point of view.
Wear, wax, repair, repeat
It was hard to believe just how many coats were in the repair centre, right across the street from the brand's offices. Many had clearly been worn a lot, over many years. But Barbour coats age well: they're robust, but they also display their signs of wear and scars with utmost elegance.
At the waxing station, I met the expert in the field, Neil Travis. The team recommends one waxing a year. It was really relaxing to watch Neil at work: “Waxing coats is like my meditation,” he told me. Well, you'd hope so, because Barbour waxes over 60,000 coats globally a year!
The brand really does offer one of the most responsible and sustainable choices available: a coat made in Europe, with top-quality materials, that will be worn again and again, repaired and re-waxed, and passed on from generation to generation.
A country uniform of many sorts
Back in the workshop, it was fascinating to travel back in time with Gary, from one design to the next. I was so impressed by his encyclopedic knowledge of each one, and the super-specific needs they each meet.
Fishing, riding, motorcycling... Throughout the ages, Barbour has multiplied the variations of its coats with a great deal of pragmatism, always insisting on quality, durability, repairability and ease of maintenance.
When you consider that these ideas are now number-one concerns of any self-respecting eco-responsible brand, it becomes easy to admire and appreciate how they've always been part of the Barbour identity.
That said, as old as the company is, Barbour's image didn’t become truly solidified in the fashion world until Dame Margaret Barbour took the helm in 1968, according to Gary. Among other things, she changed the game by introducing women's models to the collection, as well as the now classic navy blue colour. The ultimate accolade came in the 1980s, when none other than Princess Diana was spotted wearing a Barbour coat.
On the first evening of my stay, I instantly fell into the local culture, dreamily contemplating the generous Sunday Roast (veggie version!) offered to our table at the Träkol restaurant in Newcastle. It seemed the only option after arriving early in the morning and spending the day taking in the city by myself.
South Shields, near Newcastle, occupies a central place in the history of Barbour. It was there that John Barbour set up shop in 1894 to be closer to the vast working-class population of this industrial epicentre, supplying oilcloth and clothing to sailors, fishermen, farmers, shepherds and any other workers earning a living outdoors, no matter the weather.
I now understand that this is where their understated elegance, which we value so highly, comes from. From that determined, down-to-earth character. From that inimitable authenticity.