Conceived almost 200 years ago by a Glasgow chemist with an interest in rubber and turned into a fashion icon by stars such as Audrey Hepburn and Steve McQueen, the Mackintosh became the venerable British brand that lost its way. Next week, it seals a remarkable comeback with its first stand-alone store.
Combining decades of heritage and a new-found popularity among wearers more concerned with style than practicality, the brand once favoured by flashers and private detectives will move in a more luxurious direction with a shop in Mount Street in London's Mayfair, where it will rub well-protected shoulders with high-end stores such as Balenciaga, Caroline Herrera and Marc Jacobs.
While the new store is undeniably luxurious, the company has its roots in practicality. It was founded in 1823, by Glasgow-based chemist and inventor Charles Macintosh, who developed a solution of India rubber dissolved in the coal by-product naphtha, painted it on to cloth, sandwiched another layer on top and created the first rainproof fabric.
Macintosh patented his invention in 1824, after which factories began to produce the new "Mackintosh" – now spelt with a "k" – fabric. The first clothing item was a riding coat with internal leg straps to keep the coat from flapping.
The company's range of men's and women's raincoats, that range from slim,single-breasted styles to double-breasted, belted trenches, is now made by craftspeople who have served a three-year apprenticeship. It's still made in the UK in factories in Cumbernauld in Scotland and Nelson, Lancashire.
Those factories came close to closing in the Nineties, when the company suffered financial difficulties. The company was bought out by its Japanese distributor Tagi Tsusho in 2007.
Mackintosh isn't the first outerwear brand to become a fashion name. Burberry, whose coats have been modelled recently by the Harry Potter actress, Emma Watson, has become a global brand while other classic British coat-makers currently enjoying a moment in the fashion spotlight include Gloverall, Barbour, Aquascutum and Lavenham, which makes quilted, country-style jackets.
Mackintosh's high fashion credentials are bolstered by the fact that it makes outerwear for luxury brands such as Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Gucci, YSL and the Japanese designer Junya Watanabe.
Like Burberry and Paul Smith, Mackintosh's Britishness has given it a cult status in Japan. The new shop will feature a limited edition range by the cult French label Kitsune as well as a display of archive styles. As with other traditional brands – including Hunter wellies – Mackintosh will have to tread the fine line between tradition and innovation to keep consumers interested.
Independent News Service