AN OLD Barbour jacket has the pattern of your life in it,” says Ian Bergin. “People you’ve met, places you’ve been...”
It’s clear from chatting to him that’s it’s a brand he’s lost his heart to.
“Some brands are ‘love brands’,” he says with passion. “Brands that we feel will bring something to us. Barbour is the kind of brand that people have in their hearts.”
The 47-year-old head of menswear at South Shields-based Barbour has certainly made sacrifices to take on what is considered a dream role for many a fashionista.
It’s easy to see just from our opening chit chat about our respective children that Ian’s a true family man.
But he’s made nearby Tynemouth his Monday to Thursday home, leaving behind his wife Lynne Yeo, 47, and their four teenage daughters (which is as expensive as it sounds, he assures me with a wide grin) in his hometown of Nottingham to take on the role.
On a Friday, he makes the trip back.
“I get to Tynemouth and it’s very quiet – all I can hear is the ticking clock,” says Ian, who can often be found pounding the pavements of the pretty seaside village in a bid to keep fit.
“I think it’s a great area with a really rich history. The people also have warm hearts.”
Many moan about a 20-minute commute to work, so Ian’s efforts seem quite extraordinary.
“It’s amazing what you get used to,” he says.
But being part of the rag trade was not always part of Ian’s plans.
“I didn’t study fashion at all. I studied politics at the University of London, which actually comes in quite handy!
“I then worked on building sites as an electrician and paid all my debts off and thought that I needed to move to London to get a ‘proper’ job.”
Ian’s so-called proper job was as a management consultant.
“When I started I realised this was absolutely not for me. I was given a plastic briefcase. I packed it in on the first day. As I walked through Covent Garden on the way to get the Tube I passed the Paul Smith store.”
In a twist of fate Ian saw that they were advertising for a member of staff, and so he popped in to investigate further.
“I got on really well with Paul and initially I handled all the footwear.”
His new-found career in fashion then went from strength to strength, quickly going on to handle a clutch of Paul Smith stores in London as well in New York, Japan and Milan.
Ian, originally from Stockport, was then offered a job at the Paul Smith HQ in Nottingham taking care of the firm’s licence in Japan before landing a directorship at the British label famed for its coloured stripes. Does it bother him that he’s never had any formal fashion training?
“I think if you’re immersed in a product – and are surrounded by people who know the business – you very quickly have a schooling in the industry. You can also learn a lot on the job,” says Ian.
“I’ve always liked clothing. I think I was lucky working with Paul Smith during that time period.
“I learned an awful lot about products and business – how to run a business and how to make money from what you do and the realisation that you can still be nice to people.”
In 2000, Ian set up a business with two friends called 3 Fold Design, which acted as design consultants for big brands such as JCB and Burberry. They also launched their own brand, ONETrueSaxon.
After six years they decided to sell the brand on and acted as consultants to the new company, Pentland Brands.
But after around three years Ian says he ran out of steam.
“We kind of came to the end of it. When you sell something it’s not quite the same. It was yours, now it’s not.”
It was then that Ian was head-hunted for the Barbour role.
“I thought I’d like to ‘do’ something with them. I got on well with Steve Buck, the managing director, and thought ‘Why not? I quite fancy a change’. They are nice people to work for and work with.”
He’s now been there for just over two years and is still loving the fresh challenges it brings, looking after a design and technical team who use their know-how to create beautiful menswear pieces including bags, shoes, accessories, hats, scarves, gloves, outerwear, shirts, tees and trousers.
“My job is to push the collection forward and make sure there are lots of different points at which you can buy into the brand,” says Ian.
“You have your 65-year-old guy where the price is important. He’s not after cheap, but he will want a lot for his money.
“Then you’ve got the average guy who wants something nice. That customer is becoming much more savvy.
“Then you have the heritage customer who is interested in fashion. They want a high level of detail in their clothes.
“Right at the top you have the aficionado who will want you to reproduce a prized archive piece,” explains Ian who has consistently tapped into what Barbour’s customer base is after, managing collaborations with Japanese designer Tokihito Yoshida and old buddy Paul Smith, the results of the latter landing in stores this winter.
“I think I have brought a lot of ideas to the table,” says Ian.
“And there are exciting things in the pipeline that I think are very, very interesting.”
South Shields is loved by its loyal inhabitants, but they’d be the first to admit fashion capital it is not. Does that hinder him?
“The company was founded in 1894 by John Barbour and it’s always been based in South Shields,” says Ian.
“It is a family company and our chairman, Dame Margaret Barbour, is the fourth generation.
“When you work in clothing and fashion, a lot of it can be a bit of a rag trade.
“But there are a few fashion brands that you really want to work for, like Barbour.
“The brand is lovely, the history is lovely and the story is lovely.
“I think that will pull people up to work in South Shields. And once you get used to the travelling it’s fine.”
He added: “Barbour was always kind of a real product for people who needed stuff to work in and those with an affinity with the countryside,” says Ian.
“The big trend in the last five years is values-led consumption and it seems that the feeling is going to last.
“You have never had people throwing their Barbour away.
“Jackets come in and they’re 50 years old. They are re-waxed. It’s a lovely part of the business.
“It is a coat now that everyone can wear – an iconic British look that’s pretty classless. And this is the type of thing a lot of brands really strive for.”