Would it be Li & Fung, or Peter Chan of YGM Trading group? As soon as rag-trade magnate Howard Tillman announced he was selling the British fashion brand Aquascutum last month, Chinese names have been pondering an investment in a slice of sartorial history.
While they deliberated the fate of the brand and its factory in Corby, Northamptonshire, every time I slipped on my much-loved Aquascutum trench – a water shield, a literal “aqua” and “scutum” in Latin – against the incessant rain that continues to pelt London this spring, I’ve felt a twang of sad nostalgia.
It’s not like the British aren’t used to this sense of wilted grandeur. Let’s face it; our old Rovers, our water works, our energy sector have long been snapped up by foreign companies.
But this feeling has never come in the form of such artfully tailored outerwear. It was something of a sad month for the trench. These relics of British-made industry. For me, Aquascutum has epitomised Britain’s dilemma; its locally made coats have been undercut by the mass-produced Chinese market but also had their brand and history purchased by a Chinese conglomerate.
And indeed, yesterday, the Chinese company, YGM Trading has agreed to buy Aquascutum for the rather underwhelming sum of (€18.6m).
Firstly, I should say that £15m doesn’t seem very much for such a tranche of history; and we’re talking dusty sartorial annals here. The company’s founder, John Emary patented the first chemically-treated waterproof fabric in 1853, and since then Britain’s monarchs and prime ministers like Winston Churchill have sported the trench coats religiously.
They were worn by soldiers in the First World War; Aquascutum manufactured a trench coat for the Western Front – its novel, removable, buttoned-in cotton lining was no doubt appreciated on the frontlines of one of history’s most muddy, dreadful, incessant conflicts. More uplifting, was Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay’s outerwear that helped conquer Mount Everest for the first time in 1953. They were wearing Aquascutum’s Wyncol D711.
The 161-year-old brand has dressed legions of diplomats, technocrats and military attaches. Starlets from Humphrey Bogart to Margot Fonteyn sported the tailoring on the silver screen.
But, critically, the aforementioned starlets, monarchs and explorers are less crucial to Aquascutum’s trajectory. In the globalised, rabid market of the 21st century, the brand’s main problem was that the aforementioned legions of celebrated figures no longer investing in their clothes.
Forty years ago it was mandatory that architects, lawyers, officers and dentists would go down to Regent Street – via Savile Row of course – and buy a trench and a blazer that would then last them a lifetime. Enter the era of fast fashion and this no longer happened. The fickle, transitory nature of the garment industry have changed our buying habits. And for reasons that are often not morally or politically intended, consumers are buying their clothes without even glancing at their provenance.
That means Corby and Northamptonshire didn’t stand a chance. Aquascutum’s heritage could and should have been preserved for the nation. The irony is that it’s being snapped up this week for the very venerable heritage that is likely to evaporate once its factories in Corby go, if they go.
The fact remains that Aquascutum’s wings were clipped years ago when the company’s royalty rights for the Asian market were bought by YGM in 2009.
It may be sentimental, but I’ve decided to wear my Corby-made cotton black, brown and cream Aquascutum check dress as a salute to the brand’s stab at revived glory. Here’s hoping YGM might keep Corby going.