As Holbeck flat cap company JW Myers faces closure Phil O’Connor faces a Yorkshire future bart ‘at.
The news about the crisis at JW Myers broke around the turn of the millennium. It seemed almost unbelievable. The company, based in inner city Leeds, has turned out the familiar flat cap for 110 years exporting to 22 countries. They have fought against the vagaries of fashion for years as us young tykes turned away from the traditional headgear. They have seen it all, from straw boaters to baseball hats, and with a few nifty new ideas stayed in business.
The firm was taken over a decade ago by the Cumbria firm Kangol, and this seemed like the deal that would take the firm into the 21st century. Kangol, specialises in berets were big enough to market, to finance new ideas and to expand. Despite all this, it looked as if the old flat cap was history. Like Dickie Bird, our famous flat cap wearing cricket umpire, it had had a long magnificent innings. 110 not out. The light fading and the overs were over.
But the flat cap was in surprisingly good hands. Kangol was a company with a fine tradition too. Founded in 1938 in Cumbria they had a huge market amongst workers, members of the British Armed Forces and legions of golfers. The Angstood for Angora, the ol for wool and the K for euphony. In the states the name was always mispronounced as Kanga, and the now ubiquitous Kangaroo logo leapt forth.
Then the Hip Hop world in New York got a hold of it. 80’s rappers like Doug E Fresh and Run DMC were strolling around in broad daylight with what looked suspiciously like their dad’s hat on. Then LL Cool J came on strong with a terry cloth Bermuda on his nut, and suddenly the cap was back – worn with as much jewellery as you could get from Rattner’s or you could prize from the neighbours VW.
In the early nineties it was the Spitfire model, made of an angora-wool mix called furgora, that caught stateside imagination. Still we sniggered. By now though Kangol were doing serious business and wide boys in Britain were soon catching the drift. Liam Gallagher of Oasis was moseying around in his coolest sneer, a Kangol covering the head. The cap suddenly fitted. Suddenly we all want one.
Finally epiphany. The hype went into overdrive with Quentin Tarantino’s filming of an Ellmore Leonard novel, Jackie Brown in ’97. Miramax, the film’s distributors used the Kangol Spitfire as promotional items. On the screen the gorgeous Pam Grier as the title character and gun-toting Samuel L Jackson were conspicuously Kangolled, wearing the thing backwards so we could see the logo throughout the movie. Majorly cool, Kangol profits soared yet again.
The hype continues in the persona of Phillip Bloch, Hollywood’s hippest style guru. His signature style is the Kangol flat cap, which he wears constantly, in fine old-bloke tradition. Bloch is so hip he’s dislocated. Sandra Bullock, John Travolta, Will Smith, Jim Carrey. You get the idea. Definitely not the kind of names you normally see in Ayup’s pages. No-one speaks the words “you look Fabulous” in quite the same way. The flat cap is so right-now-dot-com it is unbelievable.
So how come JW Myers, flat cap makers to the glitterati,, (albeit one step removed) are in trouble? The Guardian quotes Kangol MD David Heyts as saying that a move to production in Panyu, China would be the logical step. He told the paper that the factory in Holbeck, employing just 40 people, is losing his company over £100,000 a week. This, friends, is serious losses. Even for a company putting the flat cap back on young heads.
So after the foundries, the pits, the mills and the weavers, it seems the little guys with the big traditions are hitting the wall too. Like Rover and BMW. The big guy won’t take the losses. Won’t get their top notch highly paid marketing gurus back on the plane from Hollywood and New York to work out a bold new strategy. Won’t step in for fellow countrymen when profits are at stake, and you can pay Far-Eastern workers 20p to make a $29 dollar product.
But you never know. This might have been a “Salad Cream” stunt. Tell the people that the old traditional product is about to cease production, reap huge publicity, then change your mind and play the hero. It happens. You never know.