A sea change for YARMOUTH OIL­SKINS

Clothes prove­nance is now just as im­por­tant as knowing how and where our food comes from. The rein­ven­tion of a tra­di­tional East Anglian brand is right on trend.

EADT Suffolk - - NATIONAL TRUST - WORDS: Jayne Lindill Š PHO­TOS: Syl­vaine Poitau

In the roll of hon­our of East Anglian brand names Yarmouth Oil­skins might not be one you read­ily call to mind. But for over 100 years, a set of Yarmouth Oil­skins, made by the Great Yarmouth firm John­son and sons, were cher­ished by gen­er­a­tions of fish­er­men to pro­tect them from the worst that the North Sea could throw at them. They were is­sued to sailors on board mer­chant ves­sels and the Navy, and worn by her­ring girls all the way up to the east coast to the Scot­tish ports.

In fact, John­son’s brands were sold world­wide and not just to sea­far­ers. The com­pany sup­plied cloth­ing to the armed ser­vices, in­dus­trial work­ers and the leisure in­dus­try, em­ploy­ing, in its hey­day, up to 2,000 lo­cal peo­ple.

But the de­cline in the fish­ing in­dus­try, cut­backs in the Navy, even the loss of the min­ing in­dus­try – John­son’s made don­key jack­ets worn by min­ers – plus, dra­matic change in the UK tex­tile in­dus­try, strug­gling to com­pete with com­pe­ti­tion from over­seas mar­kets, led to rapid de­te­ri­o­ra­tion in the firm’s for­tunes. John­sons was forced to close some of its fac­to­ries, while the team of work­ers in the Great Yarmouth fac­tory, who once sewed oil­skins for fish­er­men the world over, found them­selves em­ployed to ‘cut, make and trim’, as the com­pany switched pro­duc­tion to mak­ing work gar­ments for other man­u­fac­tur­ers.

But that could all be about to change. The Yarmouth Oil­skins brand has been re­vived and re­launched in a range of high qual­ity, fash­ion gar­ments – clas­sic fish­er­men’s smocks in indigo and denim, cream and sub­tly striped over­sized work­ers’ shirts, rugged blue and tan engineers’ and driv­ers’ jack­ets. It’s tra­di­tional Bri­tish work­wear, re­freshed and mod­ernised, each gar­ment telling its own story about her­itage and style. Man­u­fac­tured to ex­cep­tion­ally high stan­dards, us­ing tra­di­tional skills, they’re the sort of clothes you want to own for ever.

The team be­hind the range are Nor­folk de­signer So­phie Miller and Suf­folk-based con­sul­tant Jackie McKel­lar, who share a pas­sion for qual­ity and a re­luc­tance to let an­other Bri­tish brand dis­ap­pear. They both have ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence in the tex­tiles and cloth­ing in­dus­try, par­tic­u­larly work­ing for sup­pli­ers to Marks and Spencer and have both wit­nessed the de­cline in UK man­u­fac­tur­ing in re­cent decades.

For them, the story is about turn­ing around a sev­enth gen­er­a­tion fam­ily busi­ness, breath­ing new life into an iconic brand and put­ting the con­sid­er­able skills of the Great Yarmouth work­force to more cre­ative use. It’s also about bring­ing to mar­ket a range of prod­ucts that speak vol­umes about the re­gion’s proud her­itage, and which chime with the cur­rent ap­petite for high qual­ity, Bri­tish-made, ar­ti­san prod­ucts with prove­nance. Sud­denly we’re ques­tion­ing the wis­dom of cheap, en­vi­ron­men­tally dis­as­trous, dis­pos­able fash­ion. In­creas­ingly, we want to know where our clothes come from, how they’re made, and we want them to last.

They are tak­ing the Yarmouth Oil­skins range to trade fairs and have scored suc­cesses with in­de­pen­dent re­tail­ers such as Seven Wolves in Nor­wich and Cahill in Colch­ester, as well as fur­ther afield in Frome, Som­er­set, Lon­don, Bris­tol, Ja­pan and Hong Kong. They have yet to se­cure a Suf­folk out­let for Yarmouth Oil­skins but no doubt it won’t be long. In the mean­time you can find them on­line at yarmouthoil­skins.com

ABOVE, LEFT AND RIGHT: Yarmouth Oil­skins are rein­vented as fash­ion gar­ments

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