Discover how the Heritage Belt Collection began in this exclusive interview with Lucy McGrath, Co-Owner and Director Whitehouse Cox.
Lucy McGrath, Co-Owner and Director of Whitehouse Cox, is feeling rather content. After the turbulence of 2020, Lucy is pleased to announce the arrival of the new Whitehouse Cox and Ralph Lauren collaboration: The Heritage Belt Collection.
We caught up with Lucy and asked her to share her insights along with a little bit of history about the collaboration. Read on to discover the story behind the Heritage Belt Collection and how Whitehouse Cox’s long-standing relationship with Ralph Lauren began from a surprising, chance encounter.
Tell us about your background at Whitehouse Cox. How did your career there begin?
I joined Whitehouse Cox over 33 years ago (yikes!), originally to help look after the Next business account. This was during the period in the late 1980’s when Whitehouse Cox were making belts and small leather goods for Next. As a young woman in my 20s, I loved fashion and could see the opportunities this factory had to expand further into the fashion accessories business.
Whitehouse Cox was a very old family style business at the time, which hadn’t moved forward and was rather stuck with a customer base of small shops that seemed to diminish on a 6 monthly basis. I loved Whitehouse Cox and their beautiful products so when the company went through a very difficult period in the 1990s, I instigated a management buyout.
Whitehouse Cox is over 145 years old, how does the brand resonate with today’s world?
Whitehouse Cox has always produced beautiful products relevant to the time period. From producing bridles, stirrups and saddles for horses during the War, to giftware, dog collars, luggage and small leather goods more recently, our versatility allows us to meet the needs of the times.
Today, Whitehouse Cox continues to produce high end luxury items all handmade in England. We recognise the need for beautiful handmade products using the best possible leather and fittings, and our products fit that niche.
Handcrafting leather wallets inside the Whitehouse Cox factory
How has the brand changed over the years and what values have remained the same?
Whitehouse Cox originally made items for other brands. We were known for having the skills to transform an idea into a high-quality production ready item. Many Fashion brands came to us for a traditional English look as part of their collection. Whether that was hand studded belts for Calvin Klein or a casual jeans belt for Banana Republic, or suede tote and weekend bags for Ralph Lauren or leather goods for Symthson, Whitehouse Cox has helped many luxury brands bring their visions into fruition.
One thing has never changed, and that’s our ethos. We’re committed to only working with high end materials and never cutting corners. Each one of our products is special: special to the preparer who handmade it, to our quality control department who only want the best, and to our warehouse who carefully pack each item.
We know that the feeling of owning something beautiful is appreciated by our customers. The hours of work that go into one wallet with 7 or 8 different people in our factory having worked on that item, are a testament to our quality and to the beautiful finished items we make.
Our products don’t wear out, they wear in. That’s why we have collectors of Whitehouse Cox products all over the world.
When and where did Whitehouse Cox’s relationship with Ralph Lauren begin? What inspired the connection and how has it grown over time?
Ralph Lauren was in London visiting Harrods Pet Department when he noticed a bridle leather dog collar with a brass plaque on it that was left plain for the owner to engrave with the dog’s name. He loved the leather and the make, so he traced the collar back to Whitehouse Cox.
Soon after, Ralph Lauren visited the old Whitehouse Cox factory and started to work on transforming the idea of the dog collar into a belt. That was how Ralph Lauren first got into belts, and it became Ralph Lauren’s first belt style: a Bridle Leather belt with a brass plaque on it engraved with the wording “Polo Ralph Lauren”.
Whitehouse Cox worked for many years with Ralph Lauren until, as his belt business grew and the volumes became larger, Ralph Lauren needed to find other, larger scale makers. Nevertheless, the relationship of the two companies has always been strong. I myself have met with Jerry Lauren on two occasions and Jerry Lauren has always been a big fan of our style.
What values does Whitehouse Cox share with Ralph Lauren? What brings the two brands together?
Whitehouse Cox is a traditional English brand making beautiful products out of England using skills and tools which have always been used in the leather industry, we do not cut corners. Ralph Lauren is an iconic, classic brand whose ethos is chic elegance using the best possible resources with a twist of great design.
Where did the heritage belt collaboration begin? What’s the thinking behind it and what makes it stand out?
I visited the Ralph Lauren design studio whilst at a show in New York three years ago where I met with the design team to explain our past connection. We discussed how wonderful it would be to revisit some of the heritage styles we used to make. Shortly after, Jerry Lauren sent 10 of his all time favourite belts to our factory and we were delighted to see that 9 of them were all old Whitehouse Cox belts, which had worn beautifully with time.
We re-launched the Heritage Collection as a collaboration, a celebration of a special relationship between two companies and between like minded individuals that have a passion for beautiful products.
Tell us about the leather used. What unique qualities does it lend to the collection? What can people expect when they purchase one of the belts?
The leather is true English bridle leather. True English bridle leather is not the easiest to work with because it is a natural leather finished in the traditional way. It is hand coloured and various layers of wax are added during the finishing process which is a “food” to keep the leather soft and supple. When a white bloom appears on top of the leather, that is a sign of its quality. The bloom are the waxes that are applied into the leather coming to the surface. These are often seen on saddles or stirrups if they had been left hanging and not used over a period of time.
The bridle leather belts in the Heritage Belt Collection are made with the same quality. The bloom can be simply brushed back into the leather using one of the lovely leather covered brushes supplied or with a soft, cotton cloth. It is this white bloom that will ensure your leather belt stays soft and supple as the wax will help your belt burnish beautifully over time with use.
Anyone buying one of our belts will see how the belt becomes part of that person, it becomes softer but keeps its body and shape and it will be incredibly long lasting.
Seeing Whitehouse Cox’s logo alongside Ralph Lauren’s must be very special for you. What does the collection mean to you personally and Whitehouse Cox as a brand?
It is so special for me personally as it has been a long road to get here. I always remember going into the Polo Store on Madison Avenue while on trips to New York, and spending a long time looking at everything and loving The Purple Label collection. I bought a Ralph Lauren Purple Label black formal dress with white collar and cuffs, which I still wear at Christmas. Quality and style never date.
For Whitehouse Cox to be endorsed by Ralph Lauren is wonderful. I am especially very proud of our brilliant workforce in the factory. Without their skills and patience, we could not produce this level of quality.
Is there anything more on the horizon for Whitehouse Cox?
We look to a future where we continue our passion to work with beautiful materials, producing fine, handmade leather items made with the high skills we have in our trade. There is a reason behind the quality of our products. As with any beautiful piece made by hand – whether it be an oil canvas, a handmade ceramic vase or, of course, a Whitehouse Cox belt – the essential elements are skill, passion, time and patience.