Coat tales: A tradition of Barbour outerwear

Fitting for English weather, every prized garment by the raincoat manufacturer has some well-worn traditions sewn in.

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Coats from the venerable British manufacturer Barbour are designed for warmth and comfort ... and they share a colorful history as well. Martha Teichner has our COAT TALE:

It wasn't the scenic view that made Scotsman John Barbour set up his business along the English coast in 1894, just outside the northern city of Newcastle. It was the bad weather!

He decided there was money to be made manufacturing and selling clothing to protect people from the stormy seas and all the wind and rain -- heavy cotton clothing made waterproof by slathering it with oily wax.

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Waterproofing a Barbour garment at the company's factory in South Shields, England.

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Who would wear such a thing today? Actress Helen Mirren, in "The Queen," for one … not to mention the real queen; a roster of her royal relatives; and 007, in "Skyfall."

"And he looked great in it, of course, 'cause he's Daniel Craig and he's James Bond," said Helen Barbour, the fifth-generation Barbour involved with the family-owned company, now an icon of British industry.

And what happened to sales?  "Through the roof!"

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Daniel Craig in a Barbour "X To Ki To" Beacon Heritage Sports Jacket, in "Skyfall."

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In 2016 sales topped $264 million.

Dame Margaret Barbour, Helen's mother, took over the company in 1968, when her husband died suddenly at 29.

But as trendy and fashion-forward as the Barbour brand has become, old coats -- the more "lived-in" the better -- are the most prized.

Dame Margaret recalled, "The queen, for example, when she sent her long jacket back to us, we said, 'We'd like to present you with a new one, ma'am.' And her secretary said, 'Well, the queen would be very pleased to accept your kind offer, but she'd like her old one back, please, reproofed!'"

Reproofed, as in re-waxed and sometimes completely refurbished at the Barbour factory.

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Queen Elizabeth II, a fan of Barbour.

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Helen Barbour explained people do send their coats when they get so bad that they have to be reproofed or repaired: "Yeah, when they can part with them, you know, 'cause they love them. They sort of keep them for generations."

How many old coats come in every year for repair? "About 14,000 into here, and about 25,000 worldwide," Helen said.

Ian Bergin, who heads Barbour's menswear division, oversees the firm's 300-garment archive. He showed Teichner the oldest coat, dating from 1910, what he called "Uncle Harry's jacket."

"The tell-tale sign of whether it's been used for horse riding is the lining stops halfway down," Bergin said. "And the reason for that is, obviously the horse sweat travels up a cotton lining, so you'd stop the lining well before it hit the horse."

Why does Bergin collect these old Barbours? "You use them as a resource, really," he said. "There's so many lovely details on the garments, and I think people genuinely like buying garments that they feel have a link to our historic past."

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Treasured examples from Barbour's past.

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Think, actor Steve McQueen's motorcycle jacket.

"He wore our jacket," Bergin said. "So we have a license agreement with Chad McQueen, Steve's son, and we reproduce old pieces of jackets, similar to what his dad would've worn."

Which boils down to this: translating the aspirational into the actual.

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Classic Barbour garments inspire new designs for the company.

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In the Barbour design room, Teichner asked, "Do you just tinker with what you've already done, or do you come up with something really new?"

"I think it's a balance, isn't it?" Bergin replied. "In the U.K., we have an expression, 'Stick to your knitting.' So we stay close to what we are as a brand, but we kind of update it for a modern consumer."

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Examples of Barbour coats. 

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They borrow the look from jackets with some history. (Bergin, examining one prized piece, said, "For some reason, people don't throw them away!").

At Barbour, it is assumed that a worn jacket (like Teichner's) means a well-lived life.

       
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