Everybody in the UK knows about Burton. Burton have stores on just about every high street in the UK, boasting over 400 stores in the UK and Ireland, apparently. They’re not really known for quality and style and, regardless of whatever their balance sheet may say, the company’s reputation seems to have been in decline for decades. It wasn’t always so, however.
The gentleman pictured is Montague Burton, a jewish Lithuanian immigrant who opened his first gentleman’s outfitters in Chesterfield in 1903. Burton genuinely worked his business up from nothing and by the 1920s had hundreds of shops and the largest men’s clothing business in the UK. What made Burton so unique as a business was not its success, indeed there is nothing especially compelling or exciting about massively successful companies, but the attention to detail and quality that permeated every aspect of its operations.
For a start, there were his employees. In the early years Burton bought clothes from wholesalers but it was not long before he had acquired factories and textile mills of his own. Of course, factories and textile mills in the early 20th century are generally known as nightmarish places – dimly lit, full of god-knows-what respiratory diseases, and with a sickly and overstretched workforce. Burton was something of an idealist, however, and became a true pioneer of welfare in the manufacturing sector. Not only did his staff work reasonable hours and receive respectable remuneration, but also enjoyed the perks of Burton’s fastidious attention to detail, such a rest rooms. No, not lavatories, but rooms where employees could go and lie down for an hour or two if they were feeling off colour.
Of course, the single greatest benefit to Burton employees must have been getting to wear an enamel badge like this:
I don’t know for sure what purpose this badge would have served, in fact I know nothing about it at all besides that it is consistent with Burton’s design from around the 1930s to ’40s. It even has the address of Burton’s Hudson Road Mill on the reverse to return it to in case of being lost and found. If anyone reads this and has seen another one of these, I would genuinely love to know about it.
But what about the customer? Every effort was made to optimise the experience of shopping at Montague Burton. The staff were exceptionally well trained (the shop assistants’ training manual and exams make for thoroughly entertaining reading) and the fixtures and fittings that adorned the shops were so classy through the ’30s and ’40s that they accounted for a fairly hefty slice of the company’s assets. As for the clothes themselves: because Burton were milling their own cloth the quality fo fabrics used in the brand’s heyday were far ahead of what you would expect from a ready-to-wear brand.
Burton often traded off the quality of its textiles and some ranges were marketed not by style but by the cloth used to make them, such as this black lounge coat from its Oceanic Serge line, which features a jazzed-up navy and gold version of the classic logo design.
Finally, there was the quality of tailoring and finish. Thanks to Burton’s employee welfare policies and rigourous training schemes, they were able to achieve a quality in their ready-to-wear garments that you would now see only in bespoke tailoring. Take the sharp body-coat tailoring of this morning coat, and the absolutely stunning detail in the lining, for example.
So, where did it all go wrong? It’s hard to say exactly. Burton remained a reliable and good quality brand for decades. Even many of their suits from the late ’60s and ’70s are pretty respectable, but it’s hard not to approximate the loss of lustre in their tailoring with the death of Montague Burton himself in 1952. Perhaps, with the loss of Monty’s own visionary leadership and personal drive, the wheels of the company slowly started to come loose, and the trademark attention to detail and quality (and indeed trademarks) was lost.
We definitely have more to add about Burton’s glory years, and you can expect to see images from their catalogues illustrating many of our posts (indeed, our current background comes from a slightly dodgy scan of a 30s brochure), but for now I will leave you with some recommended reading. Montague Burton wrote a book about his beliefs and practices entitled Ideals in Industry, which is easily obtainable on eBay and genuinely very interesting. Somewhat rarer is Montague Burton, The Tailor of Taste by Eric Sigworth, one copy of which is currently available on Amazon for £149.99. I find it hard to believe that the price reflects its appeal or desirability, given that in my own experience I was the first person to check it out of the University of Manchester library in over 15 years.
As a very final closing thought for any Conservatives who might be reading, just think about Montague Burton next time you consider objecting to eastern European immigrants entering the UK. You never know who you might be keeping out!