As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the reasons that I happened to be at the MRket trade show was to interview Billy Neville, a long-time fixture in the world of men's retail, dating back to his days as the proprietor of "The Rogue and Good Company" store in Jackson, MS. Currently the principal at Neville & Associates, Mr. Neville was attending the show in his capacity as a consultant to Grenfell, the British heritage brand which has been selling outerwear made from its eponymous cloth since 1931.
Grenfell's roots date back a bit further to 1923, when Mr. Walter Haythornthwaite, a Burnley mill-owner, produced a cloth in response to the explorer Sir Wilfred Grenfell's description of the difficulties in finding the right fabric for arctic clothing - he was looking for something that was light yet strong and weatherproof as well as windproof, while simultaneously allowing moisture from the body to escape. After using Mr. Haythornthwaite's creation, Sir Wilfred wrote, "It is light, durable, and very fine looking. It really has been a boon to us all and I think the public should know of it; they will be grateful, I know." He went on to say, "We use it constantly . . . on the ships, on the planes, on the sledges, and motoring. It does not wear out and we cannot afford to take chances . . . much less , dare; we recommend it to anyone." Of course, Mr. Haythornthwaite's invention is today known as Grenfell Cloth.
Some of the wonderful coats on display at the Grenfell booth.
The unique properties of the cloth apparently stem from two basic points: (1) the cloth is made from the very finest cotton by master craftsmen; and (2) the cloth has an exceptionally close weave (no less than 600 single threads to each square inch. It is that compact weave which gives the cloth its windproof, water-resistant, and long-wearing qualities. And that weave has remained unchanged since the fabric was invented. In addition, Grenfell cloth benefits from modern advancements such as the use of yarn dyes, which provide added depth and permanence to the colors in the greatly extended shade range.
Mr. Mo Azam of Grenfell.
Mr. Neville explained a bit of this history during our brief conversation, and then introduced me to Mohammad Azam, the proprietor of Grenfell, who in turn introduced me to his son Mo. The younger Mr. Azam was quite generous with his time, and went out of his way to show me a variety of outerwear pieces manufactured with and without the Grenfell cloth. At the helm of such an illustrious, storied company, one can see how easy it might be to fall back on one's laurels. But the younger Mr. Azam struck an excellent balance between a healthy respect for the Grenfell tradition and a desire to expand the company's product base beyond the "classic" styles. The result is a collection of clothing that is grounded in the classics while still maintaining a contemporary flair.
Classic doublebreasted trench coats.
This mix of old and new was readily apparent in the outerwear models on display at the Grenfell booth. To be sure, there was a healthy dose of classic single- and double-breasted trenchcoats, (none of which would be out of place at J. Press, Boyd's, or Ben Silver, American stockists of Grenfell outerwear). This may owe something to the Azam family's impressive familiarity with the Grenfell archive, an excellent resource for outerwear styles and designs. At one point, Mr. Azam showed me a hooded mountain jacket designed by the company for Harrod's in the 1950s in a vibrant red Grenfell cloth - the design was simple but refreshing, and looked like it could have been made from a sketch that was done last week.
A classic doublebreasted trench and orange toggle or duffle coat.
But there were also models with a more stylized - dare I say fashionable - feel (not surprisingly, these designs are quite popular in the ever-current Japanese market): single- and double-breasted raincoats with a slimmer and shorter cut that served to complement the classic look, toggle or duffle coats in a variety of bright colors, the classic Harrington jacket in Grenfell cloth, and a hooded rain jacket that reminded me of the Barbour/To Ki To collaboration (but with a cleaner, more refined appearance perhaps achieved by substituting Barbour's waxed cotton with the Grenfell cloth).
The classic Harrington jacket in navy Grenfell cloth.
All of which is to say that, after years of misdirected marketing efforts by the previous owners of the Grenfell brand, the company now finds itself uniquely positioned to cater to the demands of a global marketplace that has never strayed too far from its fascination with British heritage brands. As the Azam family and Grenfell continue to identify the opportunities available to a company that can provide quality clothing (made at the company's factory in London) to the contemporary streetwear market as well as the classic men's style audience, the future indeed looks promising for the purveyors of Mr. Haythornthwaite's Grenfell cloth.