Taking Flannel into the 21st Century
Having been milling flannel since 1772, Fox Brothers & Co has a history to be proud of – and the firm’s embracing social media to see that its story reaches far and wide
Article by Rupert Watkins, photography by Andy Barnham
Walking into Fox Brothers & Co’s mill in Wellington, Somerset is like stepping back in time. From the bales of yarn to the wood panelled office and cutting room of their Merchant Fox premises, the sense of weaving lore being passed from generation to generation is a powerful one. However, to assume the firm is in any way stuck in a sepia-tinted past would be a grave mistake. Chatting with Douglas Cordeaux, one of the owners, it is clear that Fox Bros is a constantly evolving and thriving concern.
The firm has specialised in flannel since it opened in 1772. Over its 240 year history, Fox Bros has, amongst other things, supplied over 8,000 miles of khaki cloth for the War Office during The First World War at the height of that conflict producing 70,000 pairs of puttees a week. Their cloth has been worn by such 20th Century luminaries as the Duke of Windsor, Winston Churchill and Cary Grant.
Today, according to Douglas, their staple remains that very English mid-weight, 10 – 11 ounce flannel. Their most iconic and popular pattern remains a grey chalkstripe but he remarks that Prince of Wales check and birdseye are also in high demand. Five percent of Fox Bros output is milled from English wool; the remainder from superfine Australian merino.
Fox Bros has a strong following in the Far East, especially South Korea and Japan. “There is far more of a tailoring tradition than you might think over there,” Douglas remarks. “The tailors and aficionados are also very modern; sleek, immaculate and passionate.” This leads to another point that has become critical to Fox Bros’ recent success – the region’s tailors are young and very media savvy. In an environment where some more traditionalistic firms in the UK still don’t quite “get” the power of online media, the Far East’s sartorial dandies and style scribblers embrace and relish the speed and flexibility social media offers.
Off the back of these Instagram dapper obsessives, Fox Bros themselves began to run their own page. “When we first had the idea, people here were rather wary,” recalls Douglas. “A lot were saying that surely cloth just sells itself.” However, such has been the surge in interest, custom and actual profit from it that Douglas has no hesitation in now stating, “social media, particularly Instagram, has completely re-booted our business.” The two staff at their Wellington headquarters who now run the firm’s social media accounts thoroughly enjoy themselves and even now, continue to relish the comments and feedback their various posts gather.
In turn, this social media buzz leads to opportunities; Douglas travels frequently to do trunk shows alongside various tailors. This develops to further social media exposure as Douglas is able to chat directly with the devotees of the various tailors and thus raise Fox Bros profile. “You have to drive to make our business relevant” he comments. Talking directly to the ultimate customer enables him to be a very visible face of the cloth company and through the tailors the company stocks, he meets many new clients asking specifically for Fox Co flannel; that personal touch pays dividends.
Tailors remain a critical part of Fox Bros business but Douglas points out much of their work is with the French and Italian wholesale markets. This means that, although flannel has very masculine connotations, many brands come to him to use Fox Bros suitings for women’s coats.
As Fox Bros’ profile has grown internationally, many aficionados have made the pilgrimage to Somerset to visit the company. Subsequently, the Merchant Fox has grown as an adjunct to the company, offering both Fox Bros cloth and a carefully selected range of elegant accessories all made in England. The firm has its own in-house bespoke tailor; Brain Smith offers weekly appointments in London as well as their county home. Currently, he is training up Fox Bros’ next generation; Boo is currently learning all aspects of the bespoke art under Brain’s careful eye. Douglas certainly sees re-invigorated interest in bespoke and craft; “People are once again buying back into these skills.”
This is fuelled by Douglas’s belief that menswear has become far more interesting and vibrant over the past few years. “It’s about being able to create something special; with bespoke or made-to-measure, there’s that individuality. You can choose the details.” Fox Bros does offer a fully bespoke process in collaboration with Anderson & Shepperd. Once the process is complete and delivered, Anderson & Shepperd will record the result as your family cloth.
With this renewed surge of interest and desire for the bespoke, the hand crafted and the unique, Douglas sees a bright future for both Fox Bros and the firms it supplies. Given the small size of the company – a 32 strong workforce – he feels that, compared with the much larger continental mills, Fox Bros, “really is able to punch above its weight.” With their assured handling of social media Douglas feels they have embraced the digital future but warns that there remain pockets in the British craft industry who sometimes resort to thinking things used to be better. “Some still need the confidence in a global, digitised world to put their shoulders back and believe in themselves.” And be prepared to shout about it – in a thoroughly modern manner Fox Bros does.
Enquiries: Fox Bros & Co, Tonedale Mill, Wellington, Somerset TA21 0BA / 01823 662271 / http://foxflannel.com/