Mackintoshes used to be about as exciting as a wet weekend. Now, they've had a sexy reinvention. Glenn Waldronis blown away
While most people have been cursing the recent run of poor weather, one classic British brand has been making the most of it. "Global warming has been very good to us," jokes Gary Bott, brand manager for Mackintosh. "Rainwear used to be a very seasonal product, but now it sells well all year round."
A drizzly summer is not the only thing the company has to celebrate. With the label working alongside many of the most respected fashion houses in the world, Mackintosh is experiencing something of a renaissance. In addition to an ongoing project with the hotly-tipped young designer Erdem, it has just launched its first ever ad campaign - a bold step for a 180-year-old label - and continues to attract a massive cult following in Japan. Meanwhile, the label is determinedly repositioning itself within the British luxury market - even if its very existence still comes as a bit of a surprise to some individuals. "It's amazing how many people don't realise Mackintosh is actually a brand - people often see it as just a description of the clothing," says Bott. "But, for the record, we produce the original raincoat."
With tradition and craftsmanship at a premium in the fashion world, the company's longstanding history is key to its current success. "We're the only people who still hand-make raincoats using the original methods," explains Bott. "All our coat-makers go through a three-year apprenticeship in our factories, and technical skill is very much at the heart of things." Created in 1823 by Charles Mackintosh, the inventor of waterproof clothing, the company's original product "had a tendency to go very stiff and smell". It wasn't until several decades later, when Thomas Hancock devised a process called vulcanisation (whereby rubber could be bonded with fabric), that the modern concept of the Mackintosh coat was born.
For most of the last century, the company concentrated on the manufacturing side, but in the late 1980s Mackintosh began working with major fashion houses, such as Hermès and Celine. In the mid- Nineties, when the company was on the verge of closure, it was bought by the 31-year-old entrepreneur Daniel Dunko. A sales executive who had trained as an apprentice on the Mackintosh factory floor, Dunko saw the potential for reviving the company as a British luxury brand. "It was Daniel who realised that we could build Macintosh back up again by developing strong connections with all these amazing designers," explains Bott. "Daniel was out there meeting people like Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs."
Today, it's a testament to Mackintosh's unique appeal that many of the world's leading fashion houses look to the brand to produce their rainwear. Although the company doesn't like to name names, Bott says that "any canny consumer can find out who they are anyway. And the fact that it always says 'Mackintosh' on the care label is probably a big clue".
This season's list alone includes the likes of Louis Vuitton, Gieves, Yohji Yamamoto and, in a first for Mackintosh, Balenciaga. It's an impressive roll call of designer talent for a relatively small British company. And right now, Mackintosh's own brand is also generating a great deal of interest. In a selection of warm, on-season colours (chocolate browns, bottle greens), the latest collection has a lighter, more casual feel than one might expect.
"Traditionally, the Mackintosh has had a rather masculine silhouette, quite boxy and Germanic," explains Bott. "We've deliberately softened it this season with cinched belts and buckle detailing." And if the Mackintoshes in the current collection aren't exactly to your liking? "We'll make one to your specifications," says Bott.
With more than 372 detail combinations available, customers are welcome to trawl through the Mackintosh archives in search of elusive vintage fabrics. "If we have at least three metres left of any cloth, then we'll make it for you," he adds.
It's this attention to detail that first attracted the rising designer Erdem Moralioglu to the brand. "I'd always been interested in rainwear and the fact that Mackintoshes are still hand-made is incredible," he says. "I also liked the idea that the shapes of the jackets haven't changed very much over the years. If you look through the archive, there's a link in the designs all the way back to the postman's uniforms of the 1920s, which is fascinating." A chance meeting with Bott led the former Royal College of Art student and two-time Fashion Fringe winner to collaborate with the label on his recent collections. Given his own brand of softly-layered girly glamour, it sounds an unlikely pairing, but Moralioglu argues it works very well. "For me, it's a question of contrast," he says. "I like the idea of something that's quite masculine and utilitarian contrasting with something that's quite light - mixing things that don't obviously go together. And with Mackintoshes, you can create these really amazing silhouettes. For fall-winter, we've designed these strange cocoon shapes, doing something quite graphic but also soft at the same time."
With his own collection delivering what he calls "opera coats crossed with hardcore butch motorcycle jackets", it's a far cry from the usual Mackintosh fare, but Moralioglu is more than happy exploring the company's rich legacy. "Going up to Scotland and learning about the Mackintosh archive has become one of my favourite parts of the collection," he says.
With just one factory in Cumbernauld, Mackintosh is determined to keep production based in the UK. "Although the industry is very small in this country, it's still possible to produce garments here," Bott says. "The ethical concerns are an important part of our decision: we don't want to work with any factories anywhere else."
Perhaps having a dig at other companies who market themselves as "quintessentially British" while outsourcing their production to the Far East, Bott says premium labels have an even greater responsibility to their customers than their high-street counterparts. "If you're a luxury brand, you should have some honesty and integrity about what you do," he says, firmly.
Indeed while many traditional British brands have been reinvigorated over the past decade - everyone from Burberry and Aquascutum to, more recently, Gieves and Kilgour - Bott suggests that mainstream success can come at a price. "It's interesting to look at how Burberry achieved success. It built the brand by taking ownership of the trenchcoat and the Burberry check," explains Bott. "The business is doing very well now, but it doesn't seem to be playing on its heritage so much any more and I hope it hasn't lost a sense of that. Right now, Burberry is quite generic: it could be Dior Homme, it could be Gieves."
With Mackintosh attracting a whole new customer base, Bott and Dunko are enjoying life. "We're slightly under the radar at the moment. We're a 'discovery brand' and that's what most small labels aspire to," says Bott. "We don't want to evolve overnight into something else and lose the focus of who we are. We have a unique identity."