Much like bootmaker RM Williams, Aussie label Driza-Bone is inseparably associated with the outdoors. It conjures images of hard men working even harder land. But well before the label’s tough oilskin coats ever became popular among stockmen and farmers, they earned their reputation offshore.
In the late 1800s Scottish sailor Emilius Le Roy, based in New Zealand, came up with a novel use for old sails: recycling them into waterproof anoraks. Le Roy coats quickly became popular on the sea for their ability to keep sailors “dry as a bone”, though the brand name inspired by this phrase wasn’t adopted until the 1930s. But while Le Roy’s invention was ideal for ships, its waterproof coating – highly flammable linseed oil – made it nearly useless on land, where working men huddled around campfires at night.
Enter a fellow named Thomas Pearson, who took a consignment of coats to Sydney and reworked the proofing process in his shed in Manly. He ensured the material wasn’t flammable and could withstand the harsh Australian sun without cracking. This process is still used today at Driza-Bone’s factory in Brisbane – though we assume it’s been automated, modernised and upscaled dramatically. More modern styles are produced at a second factory in Melbourne.
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Over the years the label has been owned by British motorcycle company Belstaff and the Melbourne-based Lempriere family (which has strong ties to the wool industry), among others. For now, it’s run by the Australian-owned Propel Group and headquartered in Melbourne with the company’s other iconic outback clothing label, RB Sellars.
Through all this, the Driza-Bone has never lost its historical association with the working man. And that’s who it’s always catered for, despite many women taking a shine to its hardy coats. But no longer. The debut winter 2019 women’s collection is a tight edit of quality knitwear, scarves and outerwear in a range of dusty, earthy colours, from a burnt terracotta to a dusty steel.
“We believed, looking at all the data, there was a significant female audience out there,” says Propel Group CEO Keith Evans. “And the brand could stretch into women’s outerwear relatively successfully.” He’s right – women represent more than half of Driza-Bone’s total sales since the May, when the line launched. “It’s blown us away,” Evans says. “We thought it would be good but we didn’t think it would be this good.”
Close observers of the fashion industry may not find this so surprising. The outback is very much in. The latest school of “utility dressing”, led by the resurgence of American outdoor specialists such as North Face and Patagonia, has seen high-performance gear shift onto the fashion pages helped by collaborations with brands such as Apple and Supreme.
“There’s a new-found excitement about spending time outdoors,” Evans says. “Lifestyle changes and a new interest in health and wellbeing is where we see it. Getting out there and walking in the hills, getting the dogs out. Patagonia, Canada Goose – there are some great brands doing some amazing things at the moment. We want to be part of that.”
The process of designing for women wasn’t just a matter of adding a few extra seams here and there. It was back to the drawing board for head designer Sherron Anderson, who pored over research and customer feedback to craft the right cut and fit. The popular waterproof men’s Andover Anorak, for example, has been recut with all the practicality you’d expect from the label. “We’ve taken the same generic attributes of the Driza-Bone product – the cape, the square pockets and the fabrics – and then we’ve created a product that specifically fits the female body form,” Evans says.
This new line could be just what Driza-Bone needs to crack the big one: the US. “The overseas market likes Australian brands as there’s a high belief in their quality and [the] integrity of product,” Evans says. “Driza-Bone is another one of those iconic Australian brands, like RM Williams, that are particularly strong overseas. We see the opportunity for Driza-Bone to follow in that order, to take advantage of the Northern Hemisphere winters.”
Succeeding in that market, though, requires a level capital that Driza-Bone just doesn’t have. Last year the label put itself on the market in search of a larger buyer such as LVMH, the French company that currently owns RM Williams, Louis Vuitton, Bvlgari, Dior, Fendi and dozens of other luxury alcohol, fashion and cosmetics brands.
“We’ve had some interesting offers [but] the right suitor hasn’t come along. Maybe we were a little bit early,” Evans says. “We will kickstart the process again in the next month – that’s breaking news.”