NEW YORK — The Upper East Side of Manhattan is a far cry from the docks of northeast England, but that’s where J. Barbour & Sons Ltd., a century-old British brand that catered to seafaring men in its early years, has planted a store to...
NEW YORK — The Upper East Side of Manhattan is a far cry from the docks of northeast England, but that’s where J. Barbour & Sons Ltd., a century-old British brand that catered to seafaring men in its early years, has planted a store to sell its waxed cotton jackets.
Women’s outerwear and sportswear — introduced last year — are featured, along with Wellington boots and hardy outerwear in the Barbour by Peter Elliot store — the brand’s first U.S. unit and eighth worldwide — at 1047 Madison Avenue. That’s a long way from South Shields, England, where the company has been based since 1894.
During last week’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, Dame Margaret Barbour, chairman of the company, said, “America is very important to us.” Developing the business here is a priority, but she is reluctant to pinpoint expansion plans, preferring to take a wait-and-see approach. In some respects, that’s how the brand has flourished into a $70 million operation, somewhat quietly.
Save for the occasional product placement, such as with Marcia Gay Harden and Kevin Bacon in “Mystic River,” the company relies on its customers, many of whom have had their jackets for decades and have had them refurbished more than once. In honor of her Silver Jubilee, Queen Elizabeth II accepted a new coat from the company, but also asked that her old one be returned after it was spruced up, Barbour said. As boys, Princes Harry and William were known to have their coats lengthened instead of replaced as they grew taller.
For its new location, Barbour has teamed up with Eliot Rabin, owner of three Peter Elliot stores nearby that are known for their fanciful window displays and customer service. He and Barbour executives pulled the 1,800-square-foot store together in six weeks.
It was 27 years ago that Tom Hooven, who was then a Barbour salesman and is now general manager of Barbour’s North American arm, walked into one of Rabin’s stores trying to sell a few coats. “I said to him, ‘What is this thing that smells so bad? That thing stinks, but it sure has a lot of panache.’” Rabin said.After testing out six, which sold in a few days, Rabin has carried the brand in his store ever since.
First-year projected volume for the store is $2 million, with women’s accounting for about 40 percent of that figure, Rabin said. In the next few months, more selling floor space will be dedicated to women’s apparel. Barbour generally attracts three kinds of customers: those who use the product for its intentions, those who like the aesthetic and fashionistas. The third component should be the most influential in the new store, Rabin said.
“I told them the women’s apparel needs to be more urban than horsey,” he said. “This is the Upper East Side. A lot of people might eat duck, but they won’t shoot duck.”
Despite numerous offers, Barbour said she is intent on keeping the company privately owned. That’s something that differentiates the store from “people at the other end of the street,” said Rabin, referring to Madison Avenue’s many designer stores owned by large conglomerates.
Barbour prefers to invest in its own company to finance its development, Barbour said. “We’re very proud to say we’re still a private, family-owned company that is an international brand,” she said.
The company maintains 22 percent of its shares in a charitable trust. A teacher by trade, Barbour immersed herself in the business in 1968, when her husband, John, died at the age of 29.After rising up the ranks from receptionist to the post of chairman in 1972, Barbour became the first person not born into the family to run the company.
“I just felt this was my mission to keep this going. I call myself a custodian,” she laughed.