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125 years of Barbour: Celebrating a style icon

Looking back on the remarkable success story of a classically British brand...

Today, its waxed jackets are considered a wardrobe staple by everyone from Glastonbury festival goers to the royal family – but the iconic Barbour brand actually originated from the small town of South Shields way back in 1894, when John Barbour set out to provide oiled cotton for agricultural workers and fishermen in pre-war Britain.

Now celebrating its 125th year and fifth generation as a family business, Barbour has ridden the wave of every cultural shift since its inception, and emerged more popular than ever — redefining the quintessential British outdoor worker’s attire in the process. To commemorate this remarkable anniversary, the Ridley Scott Creative Group – whose eponymous founder also hails from South Shields – has created a film directed by Antony Crook to tell the incredible story of how Barbour came into being.


From humble beginnings...

The Barbour story began 125 years ago, when John Barbour, an entrepreneurial Scotsman from Galloway crossed the border and opened the first Barbour store in the South Shields marketplace. He began selling oilskins and other garments to protect the growing community of mariners from the worst of the North Sea weather.  

Soon, this extended to farmers, labourers and shepherds who all earned their living outdoors and by the beginning of the next century, Barbour’s oilskins were well known throughout the UK.  

Early marketing strategies...

In 1908, Malcolm Barbour, John’s son who had always secretly wanted to be a journalist, introduced the first Barbour mail order catalogue. From this first 12-page catalogue in 1908, Malcolm expanded the business worldwide with orders coming in from as far as Chile, Hong Kong, New Zealand and the Falkland Islands. The catalogues included jackets, clothing and footwear for men, women and children and a range of accessories from sleeping bags to garden tools.

Going international…

In 1936, Duncan Barbour, Malcolm’s son and a keen motorcyclist, introduced the one piece International Motorcycle Suit — developed specifically for the 1936 International Six Days Trial (ISDT) event. Barbour International became a market leader in motorcycle clothing from the late 1930s to the 1970s.

In 1964, Steve McQueen wore a Barbour International suit as a member of the US team at the 1964 ISDT in East Germany — bringing the brand fresh A list status. The Barbour International suit was also the prototype for the Ursula suit which became standard issue for all submariners during the Second World War. 

Back to Barbour’s country roots…

John Barbour joined the business in 1964 and re-introduced the company to countrywear. He was also responsible for designing the iconic unlined Durham jacket before his untimely death in 1968. His wife, Margaret Barbour, who became a Dame in 2001, took over the business and in 1980, following several buying trips to France and observing the style of jackets popular on the continent, designed and launched the Bedale, Beaufort and Border wax jackets.  

These three jackets went on to make Barbour a household name in the late 1980s as customers began to wear their Barbour jackets in town as well as in the country. Dame Margaret also became the proud holder of three Royal Warrants, in 1974 from HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, 1982 from HM The Queen and in 1987, from HRH The Prince of Wales. To celebrate the incredible success of these original designs, Barbour will launch an Icons Re-engineered collection inspired by these vintage jackets in September 2019.

Time to celebrate...

Today, the mission, ambition and authentic character which first set Barbour apart remains at the epicentre of the company. For over a century, the brand’s understanding of and commitment to practical attire that stands the test of time has led it to design clothing which has been designed to be lived in, regardless of what that might look like. 

It has, by this simple premise, produced an equalising garment – which is why a Barbour hunting jacket is perhaps the only item which can be found hanging in the wardrobe of both a British dairy farmer and the Queen of England. Here’s to the next 125 years. 

125 years of Barbour: Celebrating a style icon


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