Liberty Freedom brings celebrity fashion to Lancashire
Designer Upender Mehra took a failing Bolton business and turned it into a label loved by celebrities. Amanda Griffiths reports
It’s the kind of coverage that any designer craves. You open the newspaper one day and there’s a fashion icon like Madonna, starring back at you from the page wearing one of your designs.
That’s exactly what happened to Beaver of Bolton designer and owner Upender Mehra. Although the jacket in the picture was never officially named as one by the Bolton-based country clothing company (because of the star’s ties with another clothing firm) he can still claim the songstress to be among followers of the brand as well as some of the younger members of the Royal Family.
In fact Madonna-fever spread through the mill in Bolton after the superstar ripped the lining in her coat and sent it to Beaver to repair: ‘As it went through the factory all the girls especially wanted to smell it,’ laughs Upender.
Celebrity following or not, Upender has certainly transformed the business in the last few years.
‘I took over the business about eight years ago,’ he says. ‘Its weaknesses were also its strengths; everything was done in-house but that didn’t mean those people were the best for the job. The way we work now is to employ people who are specialists.
That’s a team of 28 machinists in Bolton and Manchester as well as pattern cutters, buttonholers and a ‘passer’ who checks each item.’The headquarters is a treasure trove of patterns, fabrics and orders waiting to be delivered. It was some of these patterns from the early days of Beaver of Bolton that provided the inspiration for Liberty Freedom, the younger sister of Beaver:
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‘Historically Beaver of Bolton goes back to the 1960s with its core in traditional country clothing and we’re still known for that. ‘At the height of their success there was a huge export market all over the world, especially in America, Japan and Italy,’ says Upender.
‘In New York you could go into Maceys and ask where to find a Beaver jacket and you would be directed to the fourth floor. They were producing 50,000 pieces a week for the Italian market alone.
‘Liberty Freedom is the antithesis of Beaver of Bolton,’ says Upender.‘It’s more edgy and aims to give people city style.
‘I developed the range within eight weeks. The Duchess of Rutland basically said I could have a free stand at the game fair at Belvoir Castle, the biggest in Europe with around 100,000 visitors each year, as long as I had a new range to show; and Liberty Freedom was born. I took some of the older Beaver designs and chopped around with them and went from there.
‘When we launched, it was supposed to start with menswear, but ladieswear just took over,’ says Upender. ‘I find that women are more experimental and more excited by the clothes they wear than men. Men are much more conservative so it’s only this year I’m happy that we’ve got a great menswear range to show retailers.
‘In fact, one was so keen he wanted to buy the prototypes, which weren’t exactly right. I said that to him and he said that’s exactly why he wanted them, because they are truly one-offs; the start of the range and a piece of history in the making.
‘The key thing for us with Liberty Freedom is making that crossover into main stream retail. We’ve had a great reception in the Northern Quarter in Manchester city centre where people can see the garments and touch the fabric in the shop.
‘People want something different and well-made; the trouble is in a recession buyers play it safe but then no-one buys it because the shops are full of things that are too similar. Then, because the last collection didn’t sell they play it even safer. It’s a vicious circle; you have to take a risk, especially in a recession.’
We use the Union Jack not simply because we’re based in Bolton but because we use local manufacturers too.
Upender is no stranger to risk taking. He and wife Tracey left Birmingham as teenagers to get away from family disapproval at their relationship, with little cash in their pockets. After studying for his fashion degree at Manchester Polytechnic, Upender had a few jobs in the industry before approaching the bosses of Beaver of Bolton to give him a job.
‘I’ve been in the industry for 22 years,’ he says. ‘When Foot and Mouth hit it wasn’t just the farmers that were hurt; the country clothing market also took a hit and Beaver of Bolton was literally going into receivership.‘That’s when, by chance, I had the opportunity to buy the business. �I’d been talking to the previous owners, my bosses, about a full buy-out before that. The timing wasn’t perfect, but sometimes you have to react proactively and take a chance.
‘About 95 per cent of what we do is done in England,’ he says. ‘That’s crucial for me. I despise the bigger brands for taking production abroad rather than supporting the British manufacturing industry. Our fabric is made in Delph, and is named after places I’ve lived - Hulme, Mosside, Clayton and Gorton. The lining comes from Leeds - I’m a Leeds United fan so needed to get a Leeds link in somewhere; and the buttons are produced in Birmingham, where I grew up.
‘My first job was at a rainwear factory in Ancoats. At the time Manchester was full of factories doing similar things and then people started shipping production abroad. Within about six months I saw factories closing and hundreds of people losing their jobs as production moved abroad.‘I find it really frustrating when I see companies using the Union Jack to promote their ‘British brand’ when its all been manufactured abroad. We use the Union Jack not simply because we’re based in Bolton but because we use local manufacturers too.’