The B.Berwin Ltd factory on Rosebud Walk was a low building at the bottom of a hill, with a grand sign announcing its presence to a series of ramshackle sheds, a patch of wasteland, and a row of terrace backs.
B.Berwin was founded by Barnet Berwin, an immigrant from Belarus, who arrived in Leeds, “With one sewing machine and seven children,” says Simon Berwin, his grandson. “Like Fiddler on the Roof. They lost two children along the way.” On the dockside at Leeds fellow Jewish migrant Montague Burton — “the man, not the company” — was giving out cut lengths of cloth to refugees as they arrived. Barnet and family took some and started sewing. “That’s how they started manufacturing in Leeds. The plan was to move on to New York, but they became attached to Leeds and stayed.”
B.Berwin started by making raincoats, then uniforms for the war effort, then, like most of the other successful clothing factories in Leeds in the middle of the twentieth century, men’s suits.
By the time Simon came of age it represented everything the new generation wanted to leave behind. In the 1970s generations of workers still walked to the clothing factories down tight cobbled streets, but school leavers were less willing to follow their family to work on Victorian factory floors, when there were air conditioned office jobs in town, and brand new tower blocks to live in being built all around them.
Once a source of pride, Leeds’ clothing businesses were caught in a deteriorating limbo, their owners unwilling to invest in expensive modernisation while their products were falling out of step with changing fashions and sales were declining. The clothing factories felt like the past, but to Simon, they were his future.
“I don’t think I knew how else to make a living,” says Simon, with a laugh. “I was going to Leeds University, although I was never a great academic. I went into the business at the end of my exams, for two or three months, and by the time the results came out I was really engrossed in the business and enjoying it.”
After learning the business in London with Aquascutum, Simon returned to B.Berwin determined that Leeds’ clothing industry would have a future.
“There were a number of failing businesses, and none of them were talking to each other, because they saw the competition as being each other,” says Simon. “When actually the competition was other product areas, and overseas.
“When I first came into the business, I used to get in touch with a huge family business called Sumrie, who were very famous, and I used to say, we ought to talk, we ought to work together, there ought to be some collaboration. Nobody would talk to anybody. It never happened. And that’s exactly the reason: they were all in their own little shells, with their head in the sand. They should have collaborated, and then we could have ended up with three or four large, significant companies.”
Instead, the clothing manufacturing giants of Leeds shrank, or collapsed, or reinvented themselves as retailers or property investors, and the story of Leeds’ tailoring industry wrote its own ending.
“I guess there weren’t that many people of my generation that came into the business,” says Simon. “The older generation tended to just take the money and run, I suppose. They put the money in property, which is much easier. But not as much fun.”
Simon can smile when he says that, because Berwin & Berwin is unique among those old Leeds companies in that it still has fun, and still makes suits; better suits than ever, according to Simon, who is its managing director. He was the new generation, with new ideas, and if the old guard weren’t up for the fight, and new frontiers, he certainly was. Berwin & Berwin is still a Leeds company, but is now a worldwide operation, manufacturing in brand new factories in China and Vietnam.
“The quality is better, and I hate to say it, but I think the product that we make in China now is better than we ever made in Leeds,” says Simon. “It’s primarily because it’s automated, so it gives a fantastic consistency, and that’s really important in suits; that a line of a hundred suits look like peas in a pod. And that’s what we aim to do.”
Quality is now what Berwin & Berwin is known for; quality fit for outfitting the Great Britain Olympic team in London in 2012. That, and for being an old name from a great tailoring city, that has embraced change and embraced the world, and endured. ••