British fashion brands have made a comeback. Once, labels such as Barbour, Gloverall and Hunter were the exclusive preserve of the landed gentry – or at least someone who owned a couple of stables. However, thanks to the Middleton and Delevingne sisters (among other unrelated stylish faces), British heritage fashion has made its way back into editorials. And as well as the heritage labels themselves finding renewed interest, iconic elements of the classic British aesthetic are being reproduced on the catwalks, too.
Battle of the trenches
When discussing British heritage fashion brands, Burberry is likely to be the first name mentioned. Founded in 1856 by Thomas Burberry, the label has evolved from a producer of reliable outdoor attire to one of the most notable fashion houses on the globe. The creation of Brit, London, Prorsum and Runway has made Burberry one of the most sought-after invitations at LFW. But it’s the trench coat that remains the label’s iconic piece. Although it’s updated for each new season, the ultimate design stays the same. Employing fresh faces like Emma Watson, Cara Delevingne and Suki Waterhouse for campaigns, Creative Director Christopher Bailey brings a dynamic element to the label’s classic coat.
While Burberry may seem to have the monopoly on outerwear, there is another heritage label that has equal claim to the original trench. Aquascutum began as an officers’ outfitters, providing waterproof wool during the Crimean War and, later, trench coats for soldiers in both world wars. The London-based label opened its doors in the early 1900s to provide sharply cut tailoring to everyone from the suffragettes to Cary Grant (what a front row that would have been) and while the label cannot claim to have the same dynamism of Burberry Brit, or high-fashion elements of Runway, many appreciate the high quality of its trench coats.
Famous friends and faces
Practicality is not, usually, of great importance in the fashion sphere – which is why, when Barbour and Hunter became sought-after British heritage brands, it jarred with the industry. But, thanks to a handful of high-profile names and a certain – notoriously wet – music festival, they have become (British) summer staples. Although Miss Moss’ choice of footwear for Glastonbury in 2005 may have made headlines, it’s the continued wearing of Hunter boots by Alexa Chung and Poppy Delevingne that has kept the brand in the fashion world’s consciousness. Since 2012, the heritage label's global acclaim has seen US sales overtake those in the UK – which is sure to have more to do with the Instagram-optimised LFW shows than muddy festival fields.
While Hunter has successfully redesigned itself as a fashion label, Barbour opted to take a different route. “We’re not a fashion brand, we’re a brand that’s in fashion,” says Paul Wilkinson, Director of Global Marketing. Once again, Alexa is at the heart of this sudden fever for Barbour jackets, along with the Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen (i.e. the 00s version of Brit Pop). Collaborations have worked successfully for Barbour, with the label teaming up with industry giants such as Land Rover and Adidas, as well as offbeat independents like Soto Berlin.
It would be remiss to ignore the impact of Vivienne Westwood on iconic British heritage style. Her use of distinctly English elements such as tweed and the Union Jack to create a punk aesthetic revolutionised the way the world views British fashion. Despite the anarchic undercurrents, Westwood is overtly proud of her patriotism. Season after season, she reworks traditional fabrics for Vivienne Westwood Red Label, offering a unique take on heritage style.
The late Alexander McQueen was another designer who lifted the lid on the rebellious aspect of British nature. David Bowie wore a number of Alexander McQueen jackets on tour, including the infamous Union Jack coat on the cover of Earthling. And the dress that the label's Creative Director Sarah Burton designed for Kate Middleton and Prince William's wedding is guaranteed to go down in history.
British fashion brands have been taken up by new designers, too. While labels like Oliver Spencer and Palmer / Harding lack the history and stature afforded to Burberry, they’re employing the same design ethos. Oliver Spencer, in particular, rejects the peacock elements of fashion in favour of a more typically British sensibility. His catwalk for AW16 ruminated on shades of brown with tweed detailing – while also evoking a Tom Baker-esque aesthetic. And it doesn’t get much more British than Doctor Who. At Palmer / Harding, models showcased oversized knitwear in earthy hues and exaggerated, boxy silhouettes that may have, in their early stages, been influenced by Queen Elizabeth herself.
The longevity of British heritage fashion brands could be due to their classically cut tailoring or built-for-all-weather practicality. It’s more likely, however, down to their taste for adaptability and innovation – typically British qualities, in other words. Whether calling in favours with the latest 'It' face or collaborating with international names, these stalwart heritage labels survive and excel in the fast-paced fashion arena.