Tuesday, 8 May 2012

From Farm Yard to Fashion Item

Without a doubt the most successful United Kingdom export, used and copied around the world , is the ‘English country squire look’  complete with waxed Barbour jacket and the iconic rubber Wellington boots. Never mind that these items were originally designed to keep people warmish and dryish in a damp and cold climate.

The Wellington boot that started life as a humble, utilitarian piece of rubber footwear serving generations of farmers and stable lads well has now miraculously been transformed into an indispensible fashion accessory from Hong Kong to Rio de Janeiro. The boot allows you to muck around the barnyard all you want, leave the boots lined up neatly in the mud room and enter the house with reasonably clean feet. As school children in rural New England we used to wear the insulated version of those boots from October until April. Once we had a teacher new to the area who wanted us take the boots off before coming into her class with its nice clean floors. This attempt at tidy housekeeping lasted only a few minutes before she decided that the potential damage to the floor was less dangerous than the lethal gasses emanating from our thick wool socks that were changed perhaps once every two months.

The Basic Wellington Boot

No self-respecting country home would be without several pairs of these boots ready to clump around damp fields covered in knee-high gorse that hides mounds of animal droppings. Those city visitors who foolishly thought they could escape the mandatory freezing country-side rambles by leaving their boots at home are boisterously handed a convenient spare pair that bears the marks of many a forced march over the moors and highlands. It is made crystal clear that the path to that warming glass of whiskey in front of a roaring fire before dinner lies through the bogs and fields well marked with ‘public footpath’ signs.

Today, however, it is clear that the requirements of highlands and farm yards have moved to the wilds of Kensington, Knightsbridge and Chelsea in London as form surely transcends function. The weather can be warm and sunny, the streets dry, and not a barnyard animal in sight – but legions of London shoppers feel compelled to replace Ferragamo with Hunter as they trod the floors of Harrods and Harvey Nichols that can be as slippery and hazardous as any Devon moor. It is not just London that has succumbed to the dubious charms of high rubber boots. Smart shopping centres in places like Istanbul, where it may not have rained in three months, are filled with people showing off their latest English country footwear.

Makers of these boots have clearly grasped this phenomenon and now market their product in a wide variety of colours, heights, and size. Where once you had the bog-standard unisex green boot you now find pink boots, ankle high boots, polka-dot boots and patriotic boots with the Union Jack on them. Not to miss out on a trend, the French produce an up-market boot called the Chameau  that can be yours for about £300, or $470, compared to about $70 for the standard version. For sure, a very nice rubber boot. But still a rubber boot. The Irish also realized a good thing, and produce a boot with leather bands that also sells for about £300. As one shop keeper explained, the Dubarry are ‘much too smart’ to use for something as basic as farm yard work. Maybe they’re suitable for a trip to the horse races at Cheltenham, in the stands mind you, not the stables.

The Vital Dubarry Accessory -- Yours for about £300
The Chameau -- Another £300 Accessory

The proper English country look would not be complete without two other fashion items – the monster Range Rover 4X4 and the ubiquitous waxed Barbour jacket. Once upon a time Rover produced a utilitarian country vehicle called the Land Rover. It steered like a tank, seemed to have no springs, and had a transmission requiring both arms to change gears, but it could go anywhere. There was a certain cachet to owning a beat-up Land Rover, but now the city-dwellers prefer the Range Rover with all the mod cons like automatic transmission, electric windows, and comfortable seats. The fact that it completely occupies many of London’s smaller streets and guzzles gasoline in a country where gas cost about $9/gallon does not seem to bother anyone. They are the indispensible to establish one’s place in the daily school run, for the jaunt to the country house in the Cotswolds, or for lining the village green during the local cricket match.  Just don’t actually take them out into the fields.

This sort of unconscious cultural image projection is a much more pervasive and powerful marketing tool than any number of mind-numbingly boring trade fairs. Take the American West, for example. Cowboy hats, boots and chaps to protect your legs from thorns and cactuses are very useful items when actually riding in the wide open spaces of western America. But now, just like the Wellingtons, cowboy boots have become just another fashion item. Walk down the wild, open spaces of any London street and you will see legions of women staggering along in high heeled cowboy boots. They are often wearing wide-brimmed cowboy hats to shield themselves from the brilliant London sun.

Forget the trade fairs and brochures to market useful things like machine tools. Just re-play British TV classics like Upstairs, Downstairs  and Downton Abbey or American Westerns like Gunsmoke and Bonanza. Then your image-fulfilling products will jump off the shelves.

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