A Coat Less Ordinary
From the upper reaches of the Himalayas to the backs of speed boat legends, Grenfell clothing has an enviable history of supplying the adventurous and daring
Article by Rupert Watkins Factory Photography by Andy Barnham
It all started with a demand for windproof but breathable fabric. Dr (later Sir) Wilfred Grenfell had worked on medical missions in some of the most remote and weather-ravaged parts of Northern Canada and the Arctic throughout the first two decades of the 20th century and had continuously seen the need for a fabric that could keep out the vicious winds and driving snow but still allow perspiration to dissipate. Thomas Haythornwaite had established a weaving mill in 1908 and in 1922, his son Walter, met Grenfell and heard of his requirement.
Creating such a fabric was not easy; the fabric would clearly need to be extremely dense, so dense in fact the yarn had to be dyed before it was woven. “It’s all about the weave of the cotton,” Mo Azam, the current managing director, remarks. The resulting cloth was sent to Grenfell in Newfoundland for evaluation. It proved exactly what the demanding physician had been searching for and he suggested to Haythornwaite it may have further commercial potential. The cloth was named in Grenfell’s honour and so the firm began.
The good doctor was not wrong and extremely quickly Grenfell established itself as one of the main outdoors brands not just in the UK but in North America as well. By 1930, the firm had a concession in Macy’s New York. It was found on the backs of society skiers but also on the aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, speed boat and Formula 1 legends Donald Campbell and Sir Stirling Moss. Grenfell recently came into ownership of an archive book collected by its then North America sales representative, the grandfather of the presenter who found it during an attic clear out. It clearly shows the rapid success, shop window displays from New York to San Francisco and sheer range of garments Grenfell made – from women’s and children’s ski wear to fur lined expedition and climbing kit. Also clear is the close collaboration with Abercrombie & Fitch – now sadly a husk of its former self and the tweenies go to brand for loungewear, this esteemed US brand actually made its name as the outdoor fitter of choice found on the backs of Golden Age Hollywood stars and Ernest Hemingway.
In the UK, Grenfell supplied august firms such as Cordings in Piccadilly and created its first iconic Harrington jacket in 1932 for the then Prince of Wales (late Duke of Windsor), beating other declared inventors of this quintessential casual jacket by some years. The firm supplied both the Army and RAF during the Second World War and its fabric was used in the tents for the British attempt on Everest in 1933. In 1958, the firm received its Royal Warrant – though it has now lapsed, the re-born firm’s new workshops were re-opened by Princess Anne in early 2018.
However, after riding high from the 1930s through to the end of the 1950s, the tide begun to change and by the 1980s, the firm had been sold to a Japanese firm who placed the brand name in abeyance. In the early 2000s, Mo’s father – who had already built a reputation to produce luxury British outerwear in London for the likes of Burberry and Aquascutum, was approached by the then owners of Grenfell to produce and sell in the UK. In 2002, Mr. Azam bought the Grenfell brand back to the UK with null turnover in the hope to re-invigorate the brand.
After several years researching the brand and its remarkable history, Grenfell was relaunched in 2016. Though the old Grenfell had made both men’s and women’s wear, the re-launched brand has so far concentrated on menswear. “We want to re-establish ourselves as the outerwear brand,” Mo states, “we want to keep the DNA running through the iconic styles, many of the original models have been re-released with only minimal changes and anything new we’ve introduced must relate back to the brand and its ethos.” Two collections have been introduced since the re-launch and, gratifyingly, Grenfell is once again supplying Cordings with a shooter jacket as old collaborations have fresh life breathed into them. Mo has identified the new Grenfell customer as being in their mid-30s or older, “someone who respects classic style and the history and quality we represent. We’ve found new customers often do extensive research before coming to us.” All Grenfell’s garments are currently made to order though Mo remarks clients are happy to wait as it means they get exactly what they want and adds a personal touch for each customer knowing the coat is being made especially for them.
The new Grenfell range is divided into four major areas: overcoats, trench and raincoats, field/ country coats and casual jackets. In the firm’s re-launched guise, many of the models carry an up to date fit – a little more waisted with a more tailored silhouette – but Grenfell still also offer their classic traditional fits as a separate range. All pieces are classically and timelessly elegant, the Campbell rain coat or Kensington trench coat will look slick over either a smart City suit or casual jacket and jeans whilst their Marlborough and gaberdine Shooter field jackets should be on the shortlist for those seeking to invest in enduring country wear. In late 2017, the brand introduced a range of merino wool overshirts.
The Grenfell workshop in Leyton has a small team of 30, some of whom have worked for Mo’s father for decades and includes a family team of two brothers and an uncle. Having built up a textile manufacturing business, the workshop Mo’s father originally owned was in Bow however with more space required, in 2015 father and two sons came across an ex impound warehouse being sold off by the Met Police. “We found ourselves working seven days a week for seven months to re-furbish the workshop floor,” recalls Mo with a smile, “but importantly it gave us a blank canvas to lay out our production tables as we wanted and it gives us huge room to refine and expand.” As many of the staff were local to Bow and when the new workshop opened Lea Bridge station had yet to become operational, for the first few months, Mo, his brother and father bused their staff from the former location to the new each day.
Rather unusually, each machinist makes each garment complete – less some detailed button hole stitching that is centralised. This level of complete textile skill is now rare, and Mo explains how new staff are mentored and checked by the senior artisans. Grenfell garments are quality checked three times as they are manufactured; given the made to order nature of the brand currently the yearly output is in the region of 6,000 pieces.
With Grenfell’s emphasis on the best of British manufacturing, it is unsurprising to learn that the brand is sought after abroad; Mo remarks they are 85 per cent export driven. Equally unsurprising is their popularity in Japan, “we have a very good image over there,” Mo says, “they love the very sartorial style.” After Japan, the US, France and Italy have proven ready markets, but the UK remains a challenge with many department shop buyers still set in their procurement habits.
The future though is bright for this re-vitalised classic brand. Mo mentions they are considering a factory shop and they hope to introduce a small women’s collection at some point in 2019. The firm has managed to locate and obtain over 1,000 Grenfell patterns for its database so there is a strong archive the team can refer to. Those seeking a more off-piste outdoor brand but one with a stunning story and quality running through its products should head here.