boat shoes timberland Drought dries up raincoat market
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The aroma of oilskin wafts across the room as a dozen women bend over sewing machines, stitching the legendary waxed cotton raincoats that have kept Australian stockmen “dry as a bone” for more than a century.
But the atmosphere at the Driza Bone factory in Queensland is sombre. Last week chief executive Rod Williams flew up from Melbourne to deliver the news that half of the workforce had to go. Twenty seven people are looking for new jobs.
The problem is rain or, rather, lack of it. Australia is enduring its worst drought. No one is buying raincoats. The long riding coat on which Driza Bone built its reputation is being pushed into the background as the company tries to drum up interest in less “weather dependent” products.
Traditionally associated with the Outback, Driza Bone is now aiming at the urban market. Its summer 2007 collection includes leather jackets, polo shirts and board shorts. Quite what the rugged men and women of the Outback make of this change of direction by one of their best loved clothing outfitters is unclear.
Generally teamed with moleskin trousers, elastic sided boots and an Akubra hat, the Driza Bone has come to be seen as the national costume. At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, the Australian team marched into the stadium in bright yellow Driza Bones.
“The company has been making stockmen’s riding coats for all of its existence, and that has become challenging, because the continent is getting drier and drier,” says Williams. A Sydneysider who used to run Timberland in Britain and bought Driza Bone two years ago, he is as closely attuned to rainfall as the Meteorological Office. “I can track the rainfall across Australia by how the phone rings the next day,” he says. “If it rains in Dubbo [a New South Wales country town], my stockist in Dubbo will call and order some more coats. It’s that direct.”
Much of Australia is in its seventh year of drought. “We’re subject to how the bush is feeling, and all our customers are suffering,” says Williams.
While the job cuts were devastating, they were not a shock, says Pippa Grove, the chief operating officer. The machinists had watched the factory space shrink. They had worked shorter hours at management’s request. They knew it wasn’t raining.
Driza Bone started life when Scottish sailor Edward Le Roy worked on the Windjammer ships that took wool and wheat to Europe and manufactured goods to Australia in the late 19th century. To protect himself from the rain, wind and cold in the Roaring Forties, he used old canvas sails to create a coat, waterproofing it with linseed oil and wax. Other sailors liked it, so he made some more.