It wasn't until I stepped out into a dank winter rain and opened my whangee-handled, silver-collared umbrella, hearing the satisfying creak as the rosette slid up the rosewood shaft and raindrops thrummed impotently against its impervious tentlike canopy, that I realized what was wrong with Katherine Prior’s In Good Hands, the recently published vanity history of the leathergoods house and umbrella makers Swaine Adeney Brigg. In Good Hands contains doubtlessly meticulously researched histories of the original whipmakers Swaine & Adeney and the various makers it took over, along with photographs of some of the old merchandise (lots of whips, for those interested in the English vice), somewhat desultory descriptions of the recent history of the firm, and a few words of gentle hope for future prospects. What it lacks, and what is above all necessary in any of the godawful recent books fetishizing various men’s clothing and accessories labels, is enthusiasm and romance. Because in an age of cheap (if mediocre) everything, there is no rational justification for the hideously expensive heritage brand. We must have our dreams, debased and distorted from the real original though they may be.
It is ironic, in the end, that Swaine Adeney Brigg’s most coveted, dreamed-of items now are its umbrellas and its briefcases: one, the scepter of empire until quite recently redolent of British class associations, the other, in the words of professional purple prosodist Tom Wolfe, the “leather lunch pail,” a shackle of wage slavery, the metaphorical golden handcuffs made real in the form of nearly unaffordable heavy, thick bridle leather and sharply hewn brass accents. And Swaine Adeney Brigg was all about class, the equestrian class, from its beginnings as whip makers down to its use of no-nonsense tough bridle leather in its cases and small leather goods, even to its catalogs which only a few years ago featured ruddy-faced Hooray Henrys and the women who love them rather than the androgynes and ephebes wispily haunting the marketing of some of its St James’s neighbors.
Prior does a good job describing the company’s beginnings as whipmakers in Piccadilly whose clientele expanded to include British and foreign rulers, with the assistance of period illustrations of the firm’s wares and pictures of some of the most ornate work, some done for the international expositions which drove craftsmen to extremes of complication. The decline of coaching as the nineteenth century ended drove the firm to expand into supplying other items, including hunting accessories (through, among other things, its acquisition of the hornmakers James Köhler) and walking sticks and umbrellas with ornate handles. Some of the mechanisms pictured, such as a carved cockatoo head with opening crest and beak, are impressive if difficult to imagine using. It wasn’t until the middle of World War II that Swaine & Adeney made its most famous alliance, with the umbrellamakers Thomas Brigg. Regrettably, the postwar history of Swaine Adeney Brigg, which Prior describes as a time when the company strove to adapt to changing design mores and tastes in color, receives only a few pages of coverage. A brief mention of surges in popularity due to the use of a Swaine Adeney Brigg briefcase in From Russia With Love and a Brigg umbrella in The Avengers, and then we’re into the muddle that beset the company from the 1980s onwards. In brief, Robert Adeney, the last of the original family associated with Swaine Adeney Brigg, decided to expand the shop from its original, ancient location at 185 Piccadilly, which it had occupied for a sweetheart rent of 2,000 pounds annually, and to open a satellite location in San Francisco. Despite what must have been heroic efforts by Will, the San Francisco shop closed within several years. Adeney sold his stake in 1990, and a series of different owners attempted to make something of Swaine Adeney Brigg. Drastically increased rent due to the expansion forced the store to move, first to 10 Old Bond Street, and shortly thereafter to 54 St James’s, until, recently, that location closed too, with a German Ralph Laurenalike taking over the location to sell British-inspired fashions to the British. During this apparent dormancy In Good Hands appeared, describing Swaine Adeney Brigg’s new leadership under Norfolk businessman Roger Gawn, who has “a passion for preserving and nurturing traditional craft skills.”
So In Good Hands bears out my earlier thesis about the timing of the publication of luxury brand vanity histories. Gawn, its new owner, uses the book to announce his intention to dedicate himself to revitalizing Swaine Adeney Brigg. One glimmer of hope is the mention that the company has just taken over part of the old Aquascutum raincoat factory liquidated when that maker went out of business, and plans to use it to manufacture weatherproof clothing. In Good Hands? I damn well hope so. But Swaine Adeney Brigg is only now in temporary digs in the Piccadilly Arcade, with a flagship announced to open summer 2013 on South Audley Street, which is in the heart of Mayfair but not a heavily touristed retail street like those it has vacated.
The above barely takes us halfway through the book. The rest is almost as thanklessly dull to read as it must have been to compile and write: separate chapters on the various entities Swaine Adeney Brigg absorbed, including the somewhat inferior whipmakers Zair, the abovementioned Köhler, Brigg the umbrellamakers, the hatters Herbert Johnson and the trunkmakers Papworth. This structure impedes any attempt at a broader narrative encompassing all of these entities beyond their summary treatment in the first chapter.
I regret that despite separate chapters devoted to their discussion, there is little memorable content about Herbert Johnson, Brigg, or Papworth in In Good Hands. It’s regrettable since they have given rise to so much of the modern mythos of Swaine Adeney Brigg, from Steed’s whangee-handled Brigg sword umbrella (which I still would thrill to find; the non-Brigg copies I’ve seen are forgettable) and Herbert Johnson bowler to the crazy trilby (or is it fedora?) Jack Nicholson sported with a Tommy Nutter suit to crown his transformation into the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman, to Tom Baker’s floppy, furry Doctor Who hat, to the legendary solid gold bowler a Nigerian prince ordered. Not to forget, of course, Indy’s bullwhip (from Swaine Adeney), the umbrella missing murderer Lord Lucan left with Brigg for repair a week before he disappeared (which accompanied Swaine Adeney Brigg through several moves), or Lucien de Rubempré made good/A Suitable Wardrobe pinup Alexis de Rédé fleeing Europe in 1939 with only his Brigg to his name. Not all of this, of course, can be conveyed with words, but what you can’t put into words, you could put into pictures, and there’s unfortunately few interesting photos of Herbert Johnson’s, Brigg’s, or even Swaine Adeney’s postwar creations or associations.
This book’s failure to connect with the reader lies both in its lack of evocation and its inability to convey what makes Swaine Adeney Brigg relevant or interesting now. At the end of In Good Hands are a few words, without pictures, on several recent leathergoods commissions, preceding a single-page collage of small pictures of Swaine Adeney Brigg leathergoods that look so suspiciously familiar I wonder if they were simply pasted in from the company website. Yet from my own experience I know that Swaine Adeney Brigg’s goods can perform today, and find the missed opportunity to communicate relevance to the reader deeply disappointing. Beyond the glorious comfort of a carefully hand-stitched Swaine Adeney briefcase handle or the bulletproof (I know I’ve been throwing that word around a lot in recent pieces, perhaps in defense against, not of, Second Amendment rights) heft of their leather, Swaine Adeney Brigg leathergoods can adapt today – certain briefcases are made with special newspaper pockets designed to allow them to fit onto Pullman suitcase handles or are padded for laptops, and indeed the firm can customize orders, as they did with my umbrella. And while the Internet snipes at Brigg umbrellas or anything that it can tar with its Neapolitan neophilia, despite their occasional wonkiness they’re made like tanks. Unlike tanks, they’re surprisingly light and sturdy, and in my experience (others may differ) none have ever turned inside out in a strong wind, once in high winds even requiring me to remember rusty windsurfing techniques to make it down the block.
Despite my briefcase’s durable usefulness, I confess its purchase was inspired, like, I imagine, those of many Swaine Adeney owners, by remembering reading about Q branch “ripping out the careful handiwork of Swaine & Adeney” in Bond’s briefcase in the novel – and film – of From Russia With Love to replace them with the weapons of the modern covert executive. That inspiration may be as flat and colorless as the sets Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg pranced on in the 1965 season of The Avengers, but we still did, do, dream of, like him, drawing a Wilkinson sword out of our Brigg to offer her a flower. And that romance, no doubt, fuelled the fantasy of the non-British men like me who bought Brigg umbrellas and kept the dream and Swaine Adeney Brigg alive.
I do hope Swaine Adeney Brigg is now in good hands. It would be a rude awakening if it went the way of many other old shops and makers discussed here.