Rich in History: Woolrich’s pioneering use of wool Avaunt explores Woolrich's long history of functional and durable fashion

America in the mid-19th century was an exciting place. Though it would soon be plunged into a bloody civil war, the country was also hard at work expanding its scientific status and developing its industrial reach. Innovation was everywhere, especially in the clothing industry, and people flocked from around the world to join the creative gold rush.

In 1830 John Rich II left Liverpool for Pennsylvania; there he quickly founded Woolrich, a wool-based clothing company producing practical garments for the local workers. Rich was an entrepreneur and just 15 years later he set up one of only two completely self-sufficient woollen mills in the United States at the time.

Woolrich was a high-tech business: using wool to make clothes was considered innovative. As Andrea Canè, Woolrich Europe’s creative director, says, “It was without doubt the best material available for the outdoors and protecting people from the elements.”

Woolrich Woolen Mills

Woolrich’s Chatham Run mill, which still stands today, was revolutionary for its time. “It performed the entire process of wool-making, from receiving the raw wool to blending the types of wool together, from carding the wool to weaving the cloth, and from dyeing to dry-finishing the fabric,” Canè explains. “At one time the Woolrich mill even had its own flock of sheep and the washing of the wool was done with the water from the Woolrich reservoir.”

Times have changed but the ethos behind Woolrich remains: “We try and combine the brand’s historical identity with a contemporary interpretation of iconic Americana. What makes us unique is the fact that we sell garments with a purpose. Everything is done for a reason,” he says. “Our sophisticated take on military, outdoor and utilitarian styles results in a collection of outerwear and sportswear that redefines American style with worldwide design influences,” says Canè.

Here, redefining means bringing the clothes up to speed, in terms of technology as well as aesthetics. Still, there are a few Woolrich signatures that have hung around since day one: “The buffalo check, especially in the red and black shade, is one of Woolrich’s iconic patterns and it represents Americana outerwear all over the word.”

Though today Woolrich produces a wide range of apparel and accessories – including footwear – and works with a variety of fabric, wool is still the material that symbolises the brand and its history. “Back then wool was the best fabric at keeping people warm when they needed it. Woollen clothes were the original breathable outdoor technical garment.” Over time technology has helped to develop new materials that have taken the role of wool but the value and quality of wool as a natural product has stood the test of time, and it’s still an essential part of the Woolrich wardrobe for AW16. “For this season we are launching a parka available in Loro Piana Storm System. This is our way of paying homage to wool and the woollen traditions of the company,” Canè says.


TIMELINE

1830
Having emigrated from Liverpool, John Rich founds a woollen mill in Plum Run, Pennsylvania.
1880-5
Production of clothing for recreation and leisure begins.
1998
WP Lavori in Corso launches the Woolrich John Rich & Bros collection.
2016
Birth of Woolrich Europe and global retail network continues to expand.


However, it’s the Arctic parka that most people associate with Woolrich. “The original Arctic was introduced in 1972 for the workers on Alaskan pipelines. It’s designed specifically to keep the body warm in temperatures well below freezing.”

The Woolrich Factory in Chatham Run
The Woolrich factory has been in the same location since it moved to Chatham Run in Pennsylvania in 1845. The original building, having survived a fire in 1901, is still part of the factory complex today.

I ask the Bologna-based designer whether there are a few specific pieces that define the brand: “Yes, the Gore-Tex Mountain jacket and the No Fur parka. The first one is part of our Teton collection and is made up of modern technical materials, and the latter really builds upon the quality, the technical performance and the traditions of Woolrich’s Arctic parka, which is the third garment I would highlight – though the No Fur version adds a more contemporary, urban dimension to it.”

To have been groundbreaking amongst the pioneers of the mid-19th century is very different from what it takes to achieve a similar status today, where people buy clothes for another climate, literally and figuratively speaking. But, as Canè attests, Woolrich has grown up alongside its customers: “It has helped us to define the way in which entire generations think about our brand. Woolrich is worn by people who love comfort, functionality and durability with a sophisticated, contemporary touch.”

For Canè there’s no doubt about the challenges that lie ahead for Woolrich, and what it will take for the company to stand the test of time for another 186 years. “The real difference in the outdoor clothing industry today is the emphasis placed on design, as well as on presenting something technical and performance related in a stylish way.”


Words: David Hellqvist

This is an excerpt from issue 4 of Avaunt, on newsstands now. Subscribe to Avaunt or buy a single issue now.

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