Q&A with Yarmouth Oilskins

If there’s one item of clothing that we adore here at Casual Cultures, it’s a Smock, and one brand who absolutely nail it consistently is Yarmouth Oilskins. We spoke to Sophie, Lead Designer, from one of our favourite workwear brands, about tradition, her love of smocks and a cracking story about waxed jackets. Enjoy!

Welcome Sophie, how are you?

All good thank you. Navigating two children off school while I’m working , but so are a great deal of people, I’m not complaining. We’re fortunate to be in the countryside in Norfolk so it’s a great backdrop for lockdown.

You’re the designer for Yarmouth Oilskins – for those who may not be aware of the brand, can you give us a bit of background?

Yarmouth Oilskins have been designed and manufactured in the East Coast town of Great Yarmouth since the company began in 1898 . It’s a 7th generation family-owned business, and as a result has remained fairly untouched and well preserved throughout it’s history . The business initially began to serve the Port of Great Yarmouth and the related trades , manufacturing and selling mostly protective maritime clothing , and ship’s chandlery. Throughout it’s history the business has remained in Great Yarmouth , to this day we continue to manufacture in our own factory on the quayside. The factory manufactures for several British brands alongside our own label.

I joined the company in 2017 and we re-launched the Yarmouth Oilskins brand , with the specific intention of using our archive of card patterns and traditional sewing techniques to produce a collection of timeless coastal workwear, celebrating our heritage . Many of the products we make are taken directly from workwear styles that we’ve made over the last century. I’ve been very careful not to make change just for the sake of it , and to respect the heritage, as a result our clothes use traditional sewing methods, materials and they fit in the way they would have done 60 years ago. We are lucky to have occupied the same building for over 80 years, meaning there’s so much history left untouched to explore . As a designer it’s like a treasure trove to discover.

We are proud to work with other British suppliers and manufacturers where possible, and to be part of the rejuvenation of British clothing manufacturing. We are fortunate to own our own factory, which means we can measure production to demand and thankfully only make what we are confident we can sell . This means that we don’t ever have big surpluses or the need for reductions and sales. We also don’t produce seasonal collections. We might introduce a new style, or drop a style based on popularity, but we don’t get into having new collections each season. We are expecting our pieces to last a lifetime, so it seems ridiculous for us to expect customers to replace a piece with a new version every 6 months.

Since 2017 we have grown awareness of the brand with a carefully curated selection of retail partners throughout the world, whilst also selling directly via our own website .

Just how big of a part does Great Yarmouth manufacturing play in the brand?

The town and it’s history is pivotal to the brand. I grew up 5 miles North of Great Yarmouth, and I’m passionate about it, it’s my home town! Many are familiar with the ‘Blackpool of the East’ moniker, and know the town well from childhood seaside holidays, but I find much more interesting the history of the Port and it’s cultural seafaring and trade heritage.

The fact that we still manufacture here is one of the key drivers in the story of the label. In the 90s I saw first-hand so much UK manufacturing move overseas in order to compete on price and efficiency, and the devastating gap left behind in those communities whose lives revolved around those factories. It’s a miracle that Yarmouth has remained sewing and survived all of those economic pressures. Today we see ourselves as custodians of the factory and the brand, and with that comes a responsibility to secure it’s future. We care passionately about the economic future of our town, the creation of jobs here and the success of other local businesses.

Where did the name originate from?

The name Yarmouth Oilskins has been used for all of our waxed products for at least 100 years . We are fortunate to have a few of the very original waxed overcoats in our archive, all bearing the Yarmouth Oilskins label and the iconic globe logo with the ambitious strapline “Sold Throughout The Word”. Although many of the workwear products we make are not waxed, the ambition has always been to re-introduce wax proofing to the range, which we did last year with the Hooded Smock.

There’s an ironic story about the invention of Yarmouth Oilskins, in 1880 our founder John Johnson travelled to New Zealand and saw first-hand experiments using paraffin wax for waterproofing. The paraffin wax was much more practical, less stiff and drier than the linseed oil used previously. He returned to England and started making the Yarmouth Oilskins “NZ Proofing” range. Unfortunately, he failed to patent the idea and shortly afterwards Mr. John Barbour of South Shields also discovered the same process, the rest is history!

Talk us through your thinking process, from design through to construction.

As a designer it’s so important for me to work hand in hand with the factory and to design pieces that can be made within the capabilities, whilst achieving the aesthetic I want. I’m also very aware that a design has to be both commercially viable and profitable. That comes from years working as a designer for big labels.

I’m really fortunate that the factory is here on my doorstep and I have a great working relationship and a shared goal with Sharon the factory manager, together we achieve what is best for the factory and the brand. I have worked a great deal with overseas factories, sending designs via email to the other side of the world , but thankfully nothing beats sitting with the machinist and pattern cutter and working out a construction solution, or experimenting with details face to face.

We are such a small team so we all cover a variety of roles, I’m lucky to manage our Instagram which puts me very close to our audience and gives a really good insight into our customers likes. With such a wide archive to draw on it would be easy to get carried away and want to launch new products all the time , and run an increasing number of lines, but I’m also very aware that we are a small brand and that being focussed at the moment makes sense.

Where do you draw inspiration for the brand and products themselves?

I’ve always had a passion for denim and workwear, and believed in style that lasts a lifetime, not transient with every season. I believe in carefully buying well-made pieces that I’ll still love in years’ time. There’s a beauty in quality made, functional pieces, designed to last. I love the appeal of a garment travelling through life with you, taking on the patina of your travels, “Companion pieces”. I have an old Muji herringbone chore jacket bought on Oxford Street in the early 90’s. It’s been everywhere with me and bears the battle scars from a leaky pen and scuffed cuffs, but they make it all the more special . That’s what I try to achieve with Yarmouth Oilskins. When you buy one of our garments it’s going to be with you for a while, and hopefully become a well-loved companion. It is made to last, and to get better and better with age , to develop a patina unique to you and how you wear it.

Why do you think coastal workwear is so popular at the minute?

I think workwear is enjoying popularity as people are waking up to the idea of sustainable responsible consumerism, clothes lasting more than one season, and turning their backs on fast turn-around disposable fashion. The durability and practicalility of clothes with a function, designed to be hard wearing and long lasting has obvious appeal. Coastal workwear particularly has such a great aesthetic, knitwear, waterproofs, and an amazing palette of navy, ecru and yellow. Fishing was a dangerous job , and the clothes had to be functional and practical to endure the elements.

What product are you most proud of and why?

It has to be the Hooded Smock. We only launched it halfway through last year, although it has been the intention to re-introduce wax to the range since the beginning. It has wide appeal, and nearly always sells out as soon as we put more stock on the shelves. It took a great deal of time and effort to develop the product, and a long time for our machinists to become familiar with stitching such a different cloth. Thankfully the more familiar the factory becomes with a product the more efficient we become, which is great in this instance as we have now made several repeat production runs, such is it’s popularity.

Have you had any experience within fashion in the past, to help guide your decision making with Yarmouth Oilskins?

I’ve been lucky to have a long career in fashion design working for a broad variety of brands, with diverse manufacturing sources. I started my career designing women’s tailoring in Italy for Max Mara Group, and then returned to England to design for Marks & Spencer supplier Dewhirst. It was during my 13 years at Dewhirst that I saw manufacturing shift from factories in the North east and South Wales (incidentally the Hiut Denim factory) to North Africa and Asia. I then switched to work for adidas, and worked on some amazing high profile projects for London 2012, Brazil World Cup, UEFA Champions League and FIFA.

What clothing brands are you fans of and do you ever use these for inspiration for Yarmouth Oilskins?

I think it’s sensible to be aware of what is going on in our sector and to have an awareness of other brands treading the same path . In terms of looking to other brands for inspiration that’s not really something I do , because our heritage is such a driving force there’s really no need to look elsewhere for ideas. I love following some of the French Brands, Champ de Manoeuvres and Bleu de Chauffre have a great aesthetic. I’m also a sucker for a cowboy, so RRL and Pendleton are big favourites of mine.

How big of an impact has COVID had on the label?

Last year was a crazy year for everyone, but thankfully, so far, we have managed to navigate the pandemic and continue to trade successfully. The forward order book for the factory for 2021 is looking heathy so we are in a good position. It may be a combination of Covid-19 and Brexit, but more people are looking to manufacture and buy closer to home which has worked in our favour. During the first peak we were able to turn some of our production over to manufacture PPE and help to make masks for many local hospital trusts. We are very keen to secure the safety of the factory for our workforce , and have introduced measures to limit the risk of infection and keep our workers safe.

Have you seen a change in the buying behaviours of your customers?

In terms of the brand, 2020 was a great year for us with increased awareness and great online sales. Our social media has been really important with great engagement, a reflection of more people at home scrolling. I try to make sure that we tell the story of the brand and give an insight to our heritage with our Instagram and that it’s not just about selling – nobody needs that . We don’t take the success of 2020 for granted, and continue to work hard to have an even more successful year in 2021.

What does the rest of 2021 have in store for Yarmouth Oilskins?

We’re looking at introducing a new lighter weight waxed cagoule, a summer weight version of the current Hooded Smock. We’re also looking at developing several other new pieces, that we’ll introduce gradually over the year. We have some exciting colabs coming up too with other brands and businesses who fit well with our aesthetic.

Finally, can you summaries the brand in only 3 words…

Better With Age!

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