Quintessentially British Brand with a Rich History of Manufacturing
Fox Brothers is a quintessentially British wool and flannel mill. One of only a few working cloth mills in the UK today, Fox Brothers provides an interesting insight into a British business which centres itself around British design and high quality craftsmanship.
In the summer of 2011, we worked with One Nine Zero Six, a new menswear brand. They commissioned Fox Brothers to produce a bespoke fabric that became known as Raw Flannel. We made a screen print for the launch of their first collection, which depicted a pattern inspired by Fox Brothers’ flannel.
In October 2012, we exhibited at a new design exhibition, Best of Britannia, which showcases new, British design. We met Douglas Cordeaux, one of Fox Brothers’ co-owners, who was exhibiting there as part of their new online retailer and complementary business, The Merchant Fox.
The Merchant Fox designs products with a rich provenance, both of maker and of material. Their collection is inspired by Fox Brothers’ mill and the artisanal production that has continually been practised there since its founding in 1772 in Wellington, Somerset.
Having started as a cottage industry producing military fabric, Fox Brothers has since transformed into a luxury woolen cloth mill, infamously housing the original creators of flannel. The Fox family were some of the earliest people to begin and develop the wool industry in Britain. During Britain’s Industrial Revolution, Fox Brothers was at its peak, employing over 5000 people. The Tonedale site was the largest mill in the Southwest and the hub of the Fox Brothers empire, which consisted of 9 other mills.
During the First World War, Fox Brothers focused on military fabrics, developing the ‘serge drape mixture’ which we now know as khaki. This is an example of the strong tradition of design innovation that can be found in military fabrics. Designers often find themselves transfixed by the transition from military to luxury. Other examples of this shift are wool melton and ventile, both of which One Nine Zero Six used in their first collection.
Fox Brothers have hundreds of volumes of business documents and samples dating back to 1772, comprising one of the finest collections of business records from that time. These textile archives are often used as reference points and as inspiration for The Merchant Fox’s design team. As designers with a particular passion for archives, we’d love to get our hands on these. We have been lucky enough to work with several archives in the past and they are always a great source of inspiration for any designer.
Made in Britain
Britain has a rich history of manufacturing fine materials. In a time when British manufacturing is at its lowest point, it is important to remember the exemplary values of businesses such as Fox Brothers.
They are quintessentially British, exhibiting sophistication, luxury and tradition, not only in their production and heritage, but also through its customers and contemporary resurgence. Fox Brothers had a collection of famous British patrons, namely English gentlemen of the twentieth-century. Sir Winston Churchill, the Duke of Windsor and English-born film star Cary Grant all sported Fox Brothers’ suits.
Many workers at the mill followed their fathers and grandfathers, inheriting skills, knowledge and craftsmanship. Fox Brothers have recently launched an apprenticeship scheme in order to recover soon-to-be-forgotten skills and pass on their craft to the next generation. As designers who have worked in many different areas of print, we welcome this approach. A good design idea is only as good as the craft behind it. We also know that innovation in design can only really happen with the knowledge of the crafts people. Without this, and consequently innovation, design won’t stimulate economic regeneration. Instead, we run the risk of decorating the world with useless tat that will eventually end up in landfill.
In 2009, business entrepreneur Deborah Meaden and textiles expert Douglas Cordeaux took ownership of Fox Brothers Ltd, in an effort to prove that they wanted to preserve its heritage. Having seen Deborah Meaden on Question Time, she seems like a woman of integrity and is clearly a good businesswoman. However, she also seems like someone who has sensible opinions on how to stimulate British business as a whole, who is prepared to put her money behind these ideas.
Now employing only twenty-four craftsmen, Fox Brothers has had to adapt to the relocation of high volume weavers to lower wage parts of the world and is now a much smaller, specialist provider of luxury fabric. Today it remains one of the few remaining companies to keep its production in Britain. At the centre of this company is British inspiration. Tweed, glen plaid and check, herringbone and gingham are synonymous with Britain. Yet potentially more rooted at its centre is design, and more specifically, British design. Its longevity as a business is a testament to its determination to preserve its British identity and the importance of design as a basis for business.
Photographs courtesy of Fox Brothers and The Merchant Fox.
Check out our Pinterest board ‘Lane’s Best of British brands’ for images of more inspiring British companies and their products.