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    Design classics: the enduring appeal of British icon the Original Montgomery

    Andy Myring, design director at The Maverick Group, is fascinated with enduring design. In the first of a new series, he talks to Nigel Calladine of Original Montgomery, the oldest surviving company making duffle coats for the Royal Navy.

    The duffle coat could only ever have been British. It was cheap to make, provided all-weather protection, and used fabric available from the home islands. It was instantly recognizable thanks to its oversized shape and iconic saddle yoke at the shoulder. I sat down with Nigel Calladine to talk about the past, present and future of this design icon.

    Andy Myring (AM): So, Nigel, where does the name 'duffle coat' come from?

    Nigel Carradine (NC): Some fabric came from the town of Duffel in Belgium. The name stuck, even though there is little evidence that much Belgian fabric was ever used. The reality was that most fabric for duffle coats (and for uniforms) was actually made in England, mostly by mills in Batley, Yorkshire.

    AM: Why Batley? Why England?

    NC: A recycled fabric process was created around 1812/13 in Batley. Recycled fabrics were much cheaper than virgin wool.

    AM: How did the design for the duffle coat come about?

    NC: The first duffle design, the Asymmetric, was developed by the Admiralty in the 1850s, though timings are really unclear, and it soon became popular across Europe.

    The original duffle was an asymmetric folded front design with three toggles. The asymmetric design was to allow greater movement as sailors were still reefing sails back in the 1890s. It had an oversized hood to go over a hat, and a double layer of shoulder panels to keep rain away and for carrying items around the ship. The original garment weighed 4kg instead of 2kg like today.

    This design was specified by the Admiralty and was made by a number of factories including the Ideal Clothing Company of Northampton, the precursor of Original Montgomery.

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    AM: Is there a difference between the first duffle and the modern version?

    NC: Yes. The modern duffle is an amalgam of workwear – the second-generation donkey jacket and the original duffle. Take the hood and toggles from the first duffle, and add ten inches in length, et voila, the modern duffle.

    AM: Why is the duffle so prevalent in historic photographs of the military?

    NC: The duffle was the first coat that was worn by all ranks of the British Armed Forces. Whether you were an Admiral or engine room stoker, you wore the same duffle.

    General Bernard Montgomery wore a duffle from WWI onwards to show he was a general who understood his men. The fact it became a symbol of the “crazy gang”, the forerunner of the Special Air Service (SAS), only enhanced his image.

    AM: Why don’t duffles from WWII have the wearer’s name marked inside?

    NC: Because the coats were shared. One set for each watch – three watches per 24 hours. Sailors grabbed the coat from the wearer coming off watch.

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    AM: What happened to the duffle after the war?

    NC: While orders for uniforms reduced towards the end of the war, duffle production continued. After the war, we flooded Europe with coats. These were shown alongside pictures of Bernard Montgomery, now a Field Marshall, hence Original Montgomery.

    AM: Why were duffle coats still around well into in the 1960s?

    NC: Because they are almost indestructible. Cotton gets holes but recycled wool is sterner stuff. 

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    AM: What’s currently the largest market for duffles?

    NC: Italy remains one the largest markets for the humble duffle – but over there, it’s called a 'Montgomery'. Every Italian fashion brand sells a Montgomery.

    AM: Why does most duffle coat fabric now come from Prato in Italy?

    NC: After WWII, the UK closed all the recycling factories, mainly around Batley, and relocated; gifted all the machinery to heavily bomb-damaged Prato.

    The Italian and EU governments have invested heavily in Prato, which now recycles more old fabric than anywhere in Europe. The water used is returned to the River Bisenzio even cleaner than when it runs from the Apennines source. This means duffle fabric, if recycled, is one of the best examples of how fashion needs can be fulfilled while being kind to the planet.

    AM: Why is 'Britishness' important to you?

    NC: We are part of a family business, British owned, with British values and British quirkiness.

    Trust is really important to us and part of being a British brand is being able to trust the people and the company that you do business with.

    AM: Do you deliberately fly the flag for Britain?

    NC: Our very name celebrates a great WWII war leader, a man who became inextricably linked to the humble duffle coat. We don’t put flags on our products, but we put British history into them.

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    AM: How important is sustainability?

    NC: Where we can, we use either recycled fabrics or at least those that are sustainable. Recycled fabric is a part of our ecological commitment.

    AM: Why should people buy an Original Montgomery duffle coat?

    NC: We offer the very best in British design and craftsmanship. Our iconic duffle coat is handmade using traditional construction methods along with the finest raw materials.

    We've now introduced premium recycled wool into 95% of our toggle coats to reduce our impact on the environment. Our wool fabric is given a special finish for a softer touch and yet remains extremely durable.

    Montgomery products are made to last a lifetime – when you are done please pass your coat to someone who needs it. Duffles look even better with age!

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