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Meet Douglas Cordeaux

Meet Douglas Cordeaux

We meet with the Managing Director of Somerset woollen mill Fox Brothers, to hear his story, the challenges posed by these tumultuous times, and why he's partial to a pair of Dovers in London Grain.
Words by Ben Browne | Photography by Harry Borden


Hi Douglas, presumably you’re in Somerset currently? That’s where you’re from originally?
I am, yes. I am from Bridgewater in Somerset, and I moved to London when I was about 18 to study Fashion Textiles at Chelsea College of Art. I couldn't wait to move to London. The college was based on King's Road in Chelsea, where the fire station is, and I absolutely loved it. I've always been in textiles, you see. When I was 16-years-old, I learned that you could make money from it and so I did the classic thing of printing T-shirts on mum's table and it all came from there. It's mainly been printed textiles since college, as I then became a screen printer for a long time and we made special prints for classic 80s brands like Bodymap.
When did you graduate and what did you go and do?
Gosh, I graduated in the mid-80s, I think. I then went on to become a textiles screen-printer and I soon worked out that I didn't want to work for anybody. So, I set up my own design studio and went on from there. I worked in-house with Pepe Jeans for a long time as a consultant and at various different studios. I did a lot with denim and I had a design studio called Wash Box and we did lots of innovative denim washes and appliqued work with textiles. This was a really exciting time, and we sold to people like The Gap and Ralph Lauren and all over the world.
So how did you come about reviving Fox Brothers?
I was working at Pepe Jeans at the time, and it looked like British manufacturing was in the doldrums. Then, there was this little ray of light that everyone started to jump on - heritage brands. One day I drove past Fox Brothers, thought about it briefly and carried on. A short while later, I had lunch with Jeremy Hackett and I told him that I was thinking about trying to save an underperforming heritage brand and see what I could do with it. He said 'what about Fox Brothers?', to which I responded that I recently drove past it. He told me that I shouldn’t go anywhere near the mill as it was a nightmare!


So what happened next?
The next time I was down in Somerset, I went in - I fell in love with the place. I walked through the doors and I heard the sound of Great Britain making stuff. Then you see the date above the door - which is really interesting. Then, you do a bit of research and you discover that they're doing nothing with their history. It just showed you that a bit of love and some marketing for a really fabulous product really, really helps.
So how did the Dragons’ Den’s Deborah Meaden come into the equation?
Oh, I've known Deborah for a very long time – since teenagers, really – as she’s also from Somerset. For about 15 years we were looking to do something together. We had some business relationships before with a skateboarding brand but always wanted to do something bigger. So, I rang her up, told her to come and take a look at it. We then invested in the business and later ended up owning it!
Brilliant. So, how were those early years then? Presumably pretty challenging?
We had two years of saving the place, ensuring that there was a succession and putting in a degree of customer service. We put in a small apprenticeship scheme in there and we wanted to make everybody happy, to be honest. I then stood back and thought 'what is this?'. We can't just make a loss-making cloth. We really needed to drill down into who our customers are and build relationships with them all. I then started to build a commercial business and build the brand once we knew we could service the customers by delivering on time and communicate with them properly.


Did you feel that you were building a brand or reviving a textile manufacturer then?
For the first few years, it was really saving a textile manufacturer. Then, it was another three years of reviving it. Since 2015, it's been pure brand-building and getting people aware of what we're doing. The last five years have been absolutely fantastic, whereas the first two were horrific!
From an overall business point of view, how are you feeling now compared to almost this time last year?
I was staring at the ceiling swearing back then. My biggest worry was that, because we were in mid-season, a lot of our financial resources were tied up in raw material. And that with shops and factories closed, large bulk orders would be cancelled. But we had very few cancellations and we worked with customers so we could reduce the order. That was a massive learning curve. The tailoring world helped out, too. China came out of lockdown and we serviced them. Next was Korea, which was good and the same goes for Japan.


That’s great to hear as it underlines the brand and customer loyalty you clearly have. Did you manage to escape from the turmoil of running a business?
I got away to Florence in August and I had this massive kind of awakening: no one was there. It was beautiful. I don't know what it was like in the 40s or 50s, but there were no tourists whatsoever. One of the biggest things that was honestly like a life-changing moment was seeing all those guys who sell those leather bags. They were all there but with no one to buy. They were all just standing there.  
So, I thought if we look at my business, we can't just stand there. We have to do something radically different.
A friend of mine has this incredible restaurant on the outskirts and it's literally three benches. so she couldn't operate her restaurant with any social distancing. But, she also has a hotel, and so she moved her restaurant to the top floor, which is next to the Ponte Vecchio. She had adapted her business straight away and that was really inspiring.

How’ve you then applied that to your business?
Well, I was so inspired by that trip, and we've been growing the brand for all these years, but let's grow the lifestyle. So, we have this big project called Fox Home, which at the moment is blankets, throws and cushions. We're working with block printers to make wallpaper and like in the past we've worked with the likes of Slowboy and Jessica Bird, we're now looking at working with a textile artist. So, when you eventually go onto Fox Home it will have a very different feel.


Amazing. On a more personal level, how has this period been for you? Your bike has been an escape for you, right?
I've been really lucky because I cycle. I currently live in the centre of Bristol, but I used to live next to the mill in a countryside setting. Last year I was training for La Marmotte, which is a big alpine ride in June, which I was training for with a few friends. I was out riding seven hours of the day – doing Cheddar Gorge and getting PBs and just motoring around really. It was the fittest I've ever been. I had some excellent quality thinking time on my bike, and I always made sure that I came back with one superb idea that I could write down on a piece of paper.
That’s a good habit. What did you come up with?
I'm doing this book called The Fox in My Wardrobe, as during lockdown it was something I could sit down and do. I'm mentioning the colour and the cloth of the suit but it's not so much about the construction. It's more about the experience, like for instance when you're in Naples and you end up in someone's house and you end up having a big argument about where's the best pizza in Naples. I just think that that's really interesting and the experience attached to it, rather than the size of the lapel.


We’ll need a copy in the shop! Speaking of your wardrobe, though, you have a pair of our Dovers. How are you getting on with them?
It's really nice to have a properly functional pair of beautiful shoes. The Dover in London Grain is great partly because they've got a great rubber sole and when I put the Dovers on for the first time I wanted to wear them immediately. It's almost like wearing trainers and I don't have to be too precious with them and I can polish them myself and I don't have to get that bloody glass finish on the toe cap.
What are your thoughts on the leather? London Grain has character, don’t you think?
There's a rustic look to the London Grain leather which I like, too. That's the other thing about British manufacturing as well, there's this whole rustic-ness to it and there's a massive difference compared to what Edward Green does as well – beautifully finished pairs of shoes, whereas lots of things that are made in the UK sometimes look like they've been made with a knife and fork. Whereas, Edward Green is that proper benchmark quality.

I always bring it back to what the Japanese do, as they've got the patience to make things incredibly well and take things to the next level. Edward Green has always remained there, they're a thing of beauty. That’s why the Japanese love them.

That’s great to hear Douglas. Lastly, what’s your prediction for this year?
I think it’s going to be extremely positive and I'm really looking forward to this. The start of this year has of course been quite bumpy, but I’m just concentrating on all of the positive opportunities out there as there will be so many. I think there's going to be a lot of deadwood that will be gone. I think the world did need to change, unfortunately, and things will be different from here on.
Thank you, Douglas. Cheers to that!


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