With the thundering crash of the Edinburgh Woolen Mill retail group towards administration this month, several casualties made the headlines. Up to 26,000 jobs at risk. Hundreds of potential Peacocks store closures.
But perhaps a more surprising name pulled from the wreckage was Jaeger, the once-loved, now-dormant heritage British brand, which I for one had forgotten had been bought out of administration previously in 2017 by the now-wobbly Edinburgh group.
In the mix of ailing and stagnant retailers owned by the group, Jaeger stands out. It was once a jewel in the crown of British fashion, worn by Princess Diana and Audrey Hepburn. No wonder Mike Ashley, the shrewd Sports Direct chief executive, is apparently circling to swoop in and snap it up.
Jaeger’s history is illustrious and makes it a brand worth saving. Founded in London by Englishman Lewis Tomalin in 1884, the original ‘Dr Jaeger's Sanitary Woollen System Co Ltd’ sold knitted wool long johns to the likes of Ernest Shackleton, trading on German Dr Gustav Jaeger’s theory that wearing natural fibres next to the skin offered ample health benefits.
“Jaeger was founded on a very anti-fashion ethos,” explains Amy De La Haye, a London College of Fashion professor and co-curator of the 2009 exhibition which marked 125 years of Jaeger. “At a time when the fashion was corsets and bustles, Jaeger was advocating a style of dress that really isn’t very different to that which we wear today. It was an incredibly modern attitude, wearing garments that were unstructured.”
In the 1920s Jaeger repositioned itself as a fashion company, making stylish sportswear for women who now wanted to play tennis or croquet. In 1956, Jean Muir was appointed designer, Norman Parkinson and David Bailey shot the advertising campaigns, and Jean Shrimpton modelled. The Young Jaeger boutique offered a slightly more sophisticated look than the rest of the Carnaby Street stores in Swinging London.
De La Haye describes an impeccably kept archive now held in the Westminster City Archive Centre, which any new owner would be foolish not to visit if attempting to take the brand into the future.
“They have an extraordinary heritage to draw upon,” she explains. “Jaeger was incredibly innovative in the fields of fashion advertising and merchandising - they commissioned whoever were the leading illustrators or photographers of the day. Going into the archive we found a treasure trove of catalogues that went right back to 1884. Then we realised it was the staff who had lovingly packed them away, even during both world wars. That legacy was preserved perfectly, which is rare, and a testament to how well the company looked after its staff.”
Yet an issue which the brand has continuously attempted to tackle over the decades is the perception that Jaeger is for “older ladies”.
Stuart Stockdale, hired as creative director in 2008, was charged with refreshing the brand for a younger generation (as were most designers, including Jean Muir, who came before him). During Stockdale’s tenure, Jaeger enjoyed a revival, staging the brand’s first catwalk shows at London Fashion Week, attracting the Duchess of Cambridge as a new fan, and being tipped by the press to ‘do a Burberry’ - another once-dowdy British brand which had managed to become cool again.
“I was very interested in working for the brand because of the amazing heritage and the chance to bring that forward,” Stockdale tells The Telegraph. “The aim was to celebrate and bring back the greatness and do something to attract a younger customer into the brand. They had a loyal customer base but they were getting older - it was the same problem really as they had in the Sixties.”
When Stockdale left in 2012, no prominent new creative figurehead was appointed to pick up the reins. Owners Better Capital entered a legal battle with creditors, and the brand collapsed into administration in 2017. Under the new Edinburgh Woolen Mill ownership, things seemed to be stabilising financially - many boutiques were closed, leaving only best-performing stores in prime locations such as Brighton and Harrogate. A new flagship in London’s Marylebone neighbourhood was planned for spring 2020. Then, of course, the coronavirus crisis halted that.
There is, as ever, a spectacular irony in the way that fashion repeats itself. In 2009, Telegraph writer Linda Grant commented; ‘...the idea of any celebrity under the age of 90 wearing Jaeger was risible. Jaeger was an old ladies' brand, what your mother bought in the 1950s and 1960s, and remained loyal to because it represented Britishness and 'quality'.’
How funny that ‘Britishness’ and 'quality', then the dirty-words associated with dated fashion brands, are now two of the most sought-after values among shoppers in 2020. Post-pandemic, selling timeless clothes, well made, and from natural materials should be a winning retail formula.
Stockdale says that now is Jaeger’s best chance in decades for resuscitation - so long as the heritage is put in the right hands.
“Generally fashion business models have been flawed in recent years - and Jaeger is one culprit of this,” he says. “With the growing competition on the high street, they’ve been trying to compete with the lower price end of the market, when they should be rising above it. Brands place their orders with the factories for a thousand garments, knowing they might sell 400 full price and the rest heavily discounted. It’s not sustainable.”
The new owner, whether it’s Ashley or another party, Stockdale says, will also need to recognise the value of manufacturing in Britain once again.
“It has to be done the right way,” he says. “It can’t be bought and run in the same way as it is now, or turned into a discount brand, it will never work. Jaeger needs to go back to its roots, celebrate its heritage, and make things in Britain again. If they are to succeed, now is the time.”