Stories / November 2019

Grenfell: East London's most pioneering brand

Managing Director Mo Azam gives Lee Osborne behind the scenes access to the Grenfell archives and manufacturing facility in London’s East End. He explains how his father negotiated the brand’s return to its British roots and how a chance DM led to the acquisition of an incredible company heirloom

Christian Barker’s recent piece Man of the Cloth which appeared on this website spoke in eloquent detail about medical missionary Sir Wilfred Thomason Grenfell’s search for a fabric that could withstand the extreme conditions he’d encountered on his expeditions to help the needy folk of the Labrador Coast, Newfoundland. After a chance encounter at a talk, where Grenfell himself, as chief speaker, threw down the gauntlet to the local weaving community, the wonder cloth as it became known was eventually woven at Lodge Mill in Burnley by Walter Haythornthwaite. He was struck by Dr Grenfell’s words, “that you could not keep a statue warm by putting a fur coat on it; clothing must be windproof but also must breathe.” He gladly accepted the challenge and invented a fabric dense enough to repel the elements, whilst being permeable to perspiration.

“Grenfell cloth exploded on to the scene when it first became available to the general public in 1923,” says Grenfell Managing Director Mo Azam as he talks me through the company’s 96-year evolution, referencing a wall-mounted timeline featuring a succession of black and white imagery held in the archive section of their manufacturing facility, a former Metropolitan Police forensics laboratory, in London’s E17.

“It quickly became the fabric of choice”, reveals Azam, “rather like a Gore-Tex of its day – it was a new way to weave cotton. It was technical, lightweight, weatherproof and ultimately very breathable.” It became the go-to cloth for a whole host of leading figures of the great outdoors – indeed, Grenfell’s archives read rather like a who's who of brand ambassadorships, long before the term had even been coined: In 1926 American naval officer and explorer Admiral Byrd embarked on a mission to fly over the North Pole in a Grenfell Cloth flying suit. It lasted fifteen hours and fifty-seven minutes, covering 1,335 nautical miles, with Byrd remarking that his suit was the finest cloth he had found for his escapades; British racing motorist Sir Malcolm Campbell who broke the land and waterspeed record in the same year, 1964 - did so wearing Grenfell cloth racing suits while American aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart was attired in a Grenfell flying suit when she became the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1928.

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