The rebirth of the Mackintosh fashion label

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IT'S THE smell that hits you first – glue, with topnotes of rubber – on opening the door of the Mackintosh raincoat factory in Cumbernauld. Along with a blast of Rihanna from the radio, it snakes out through the gap and draws you into the plant where a Scottish success story is working away at weathering the recession. Mackintosh.

The very name is synonymous with the product. It's a description that has become a generic term, but it's also a brand. If it rains you reach for a "mac". Not a "Burberry" (if you're lucky), an "M&S" or a "Primark" but a mac, albeit probably not one of the original handmade versions with a Mackintosh label that sell for upwards of 300, but a mac none the less. The name says it all.

It's been saying it for nearly 200 years, since Glaswegian chemist Charles Macintosh (the k crept in later) invented the process of rubberising cotton in 1823. He sold the cloth on to various tailors who made it into the hugely popular 100 per cent waterproof coats, one manufacturer being the company, set up in 1895, that became today's Mackintosh.

A true mackintosh coat is made from this rubberised cotton and is completely handmade with the seams glued rather than sewn for a completely watertight seal, explains managing director Daniel Dunko at the Cumbernauld plant.

"We are the only manufacturer of Mackintosh raincoats that we know of. We stick to the original method using rubber from Malaysia, made into a spreadable liquid, applied to rollers then spread like a sandwich and baked and vulcanised in a big oven. There are copies, for example Goretex, which uses the same principle but we use rubber which is better than a synthetic."

For a century or so, the mackintosh industry flourished, but the development of cheap PVC imitations meant that by the mid 1980s it was in trouble.

While the masses bought cut-price machine-manufactured macs, the Cumbernauld-made Mackintosh continued as the aristocracy of outerwear, for those who could afford it. Kate Moss has one. So do Ralph Lauren and the Queen.

Enter local boy Dunko, who had started as an apprentice coatmaker at the factory in 1983. By 1995, with the company about to go under, he was appointed sales director and within five years had bought it and become managing director.

Inspired by the heritage of the product, he aspired for something beyond the factory floor and built it up from a business on its knees to one that today competes with the like of Marc Jacobs and Lanvin.

Dunko is the glue that binds it all together, the one who has built up the brand by pushing it in Japan, Italy, France and the US while at the same time, from its base in Cumbernauld – not Paris, Rome or Milan – seeking out collaborations that have seen the 60-strong team making coats for the likes of Comme des Garcons, Gucci and Hermes.

Not only do these collaborations bring in the funds to help Mackintosh develop its own line, they also provide a huge marketing platform.

"We moved away from industrial clothing to focus on fashion and our own designs," says Dunko.

"In the 1970s the work was all uniforms for British Rail and the Metropolitan Police but they were going for cheaper alternatives. We had to build Mackintosh as a brand."

Dunko also realised the women's market was more lucrative than the men's. "Men will buy one or two pieces every few years, but women like to vary colour and style, so from 2000 we moved more into ladies coats," he says.

Admitting to owning between ten and 12 coats himself, today he's sporting a sharp blue wool jacket made in Shanghai by a Hong Kong tailor, highly polished English leather shoes and a Tag Heuer Carrera watch.

It's not that he's flash or ostentatious, rather that he appreciates craftsmanship and design, and knows a good thing when he sees it. Unassuming in manner, yet passionate about the products made in his factory, he moves with ease between factory floor and board room, championing the artisans he includes himself among.

The youngest of four sons born to a Ukranian father who arrived in Scotland at the end of the Second World War and a Scottish mother, Dunko was brought up in the new town and went to the local comprehensive. "My three brothers were brought up in Partick where my dad worked in construction, but we moved to Cumbernauld 44 years ago when I was one, to get a garden. It was great growing up here."

In 2007 Mackintosh was bought by Tokyo firm Yagi Tsusho, which also owns Barbour, another heritage brand undergoing a revival. The investment has funded Mackintosh's new flagship standalone store in the prestigious Mount Street in London's Mayfair. Rubbing waterproofed shoulders with Louboutin, Balenciaga and Vivienne Westwood, the two-storey shop showcases classics from the Mackintosh archive as well as its current collections.

"To grow the equity of the brand we have to be more visual and London is number one for global appeal, ahead of New York, Paris and Tokyo," says Dunko. "It's a catalyst to push forward and expand, create more apprentices and grow the business further," he says.

A recession might seem a difficult time to be selling handmade coats at 300 a pop but as the downturn bites into our spending power, analysts report a trend for buying products that last.

"There's a resurgence of brands and makers of quality products," says Robert Gillan, associate head of the school of design at Edinburgh College of Art. "You can buy a coat for a few pounds that will fall apart after a few months but with a Mackintosh you are spending that amount of money because it's never going to wear out or go out of fashion. You're buying an heirloom.

"Other designers and companies like Louis Vuitton recognise the quality of Mackintosh and want to buy into it, even if they are putting their own labels inside. It's about the craftsmanship, the heritage, the unique quality of the fabric, the way they are constructed by hand, and it's fantastic to know there are still craftsmen that can make things like this in Scotland."

Today there are two strands to the business, whose 120 staff in two factories – the other is in Lancashire – produce 12,500 handmade macs a year; the own brand line and the designer collaborations.

There is also Mackintosh Philosophy, a diffusion brand, selling more affordable lines in Japanese department stores. Mackintosh has always been popular in Japan and Dunko sees the brand's success there as leading the way for its revitalisation back home. "We went out of the UK because we couldn't find a market for our products, whereas the Japanese consumer likes well made things with heritage.

"Sub brands create revenue to fund the main brand and, to survive and make things that are iconic and unique, we need funding from other brands.

"We have followed a path similar to Paul Smith, building up a business in Japan then seeing it come back in the UK. Sales are increasing in the UK – our turnover here is 5m – as well as internationally, and we hope to build more standalone stores in future," says Dunko who also plans to introduce the diffusion brand to the UK.

But back to the glue. Big dods of it scooped by index fingers from huge pots on workbenches, spread along the coat seams.

A perfect line every time. No wonder an apprenticeship lasts three years No wonder the coats are expensive. Hand made is labour intensive and it costs.

Dunko picks up a coat to demonstrate the unique nature of each one, pointing at the very tip of a lapel. "Some people make them slightly more pointed than rounded," he says. We're talking infinitesimal differences, but it's this attention to detail that sets the real thing apart from the fakintoshes.

In here, they're all the real deal. Rails of coats include ultra-trendy hooded jackets for Comme des Garcons and rows of bestselling Mackintosh own lines such as the sleek silhouetted Duncan, that accounts for 25 per cent of all sales.

Rolls of fabric line the walls, one stack labelled "Herms cloth" another bearing the famous LV initials. There are neons, checks, spots, lace prints, zebra stripes, and more sensible navys and taupes.

More gems await up a metal staircase on the mezzanine where the archive is stored. Patterns and coats date back 100 years, plus there are examples of the collaborations from a sleek Oswald Boateng number to an original 1930s John Wayne-style horse coat, still available today.

There are Balenciagas, Dior, YSL – all inspiring today's collections.

"We've worked with a variety of designers," says Dunko.

"One of our most prevalent customers being Louis Vuitton, thanks to a connection we made with Marc Jacobs in the 1990s. We've also worked with Erdem (Moralioglu] for the past few years and I'm sure he's going to be a design director of one of the major fashion houses. We want to build our profile and become a true iconic brand but have to recognise that people like LV make it happen.

There's a line between taking yourself away from being a manufacturer to being solely a brand and at the moment we are both, with 35 per cent of our work being our own designs. We'll continue with both, because that's our success.

"We still have some manufacturing left in this country and could build it up again with heritage brands and iconic products. We have a chance to start investing in people and skill and I hope we can take the opportunity. That's why it's important to work with students at the Scottish Academy of Fashion to get an interaction going between academia and industry."

As for me, I've already fallen in love with the Junya Watanabe-designed parka-style jackets for Comme des Garcons, when a stunning fawn Prada collaboration catches my eye.

Or there's the pea green Eyre, with its cinched-in waist. I'd say I was giddy from the glue except the air in the factory is replaced three times a day by air conditioning. Just as well I can't afford any of them. Retailing at upwards of 300 – for Mackintosh own brand – if it's a Louis Vuitton version you want – well, I don't like to rain on your parade, but you won't see much change from a couple of grand.

"So what is Dunko like as a boss?" I ask one of the coatmakers, who all average 15 garments a week, taking responsibility for a coat from start to finish.

"If it wasn't for Daniel there wouldn't be a Mackintosh," says one. "It would have disappeared. He had the insight to carry on the tradition and get us working with Dior, Katharine Hamnett, Gucci …"

Praise indeed. Is this guy Dunko's brother or something?

Indeed he is. It's his older sibling Mescho, or Michael, who got him his first job on the factory floor. Dunko explains: "My brother worked here and suggested I try it, so I got a job as an apprentice. I liked the creativity of physically making a coat, and from time to time I still do it, although as far as the rest of them are concerned I'm a lot slower."

Walk around the factory and the family links continue, as does length of service; longevity doesn't just apply to the coats, although the average staff member is only thirtysomething. Linda Morris, a machinist is now 37, and has been there for 20 years.

"My cousin got me in. I love what I do and it's great when you're making coats for Louis Vuitton; it's a wee change to get a different style."

Garry McLean, 30, who has been here for eight or nine years, also has his cousin to thank for the job. "They're a great bunch to work with. Also, it's something to be proud of and it's encouraging the business is still going after all this time, with a new shop opening."

McLean is a Duncan wearer. "Classic black. People ask where I got it. That's one thing, working here, I'll never be short of a coat."

As I leave the buzz of the factory and the smell of the glue behind me, stepping out into the industrial estate, the future looks bright for Mackintosh. It looks like rain.

Mackintosh, 104 Mount Street, London ( Mackintosh products are also stocked in House Of Bruar, Perthshire; Walker Slater, Edinburgh and Rossi Menswear, Glasgow