It’s an iconic brand that started out in the early 1900s cladding the working man in denim, and then took jeans off the farm and out of the factory and onto the high street. Through canny marketing, this great survivor of the fashion business made jeans the uniform of choice for teenagers in the 1950s and ever since.
But the name of this company isn’t Levi Strauss and the base of operations is a long way from San Francisco. Lee Cooper jeans were born in the very heart of the old East End rag trade in Petticoat Lane. Here, in 1908, Morris Cooper and Louis Maister took on the lease of a rundown factory at 94-96 Middlesex Street, with a very distinct business plan in mind.
Morris and Louis had already been around, having left their hometown in Lithuania to set up business in South Africa. Morris was a gifted tailor, both the men worked hard, but the elaborate waistcoats they were producing would only ever sell so many. The pair realised that there was more business and a greater availability of skilled and affordable labour in London. With the huge influx of Jews and their tailoring skills from Eastern Europe, Whitechapel was clothing half the world in the early 1900s. Their plan was to make workwear in the East End and export it back to South Africa, where they knew there was big demand going begging.
By the outbreak of World War I, Morris and Louis had 600 employees, but exports and long sea journeys were looking less appealing with the threat of U-boats, so the resourceful pair pursued contracts to make uniforms for the army. A combination of Morris’s tailoring skills and Louis’ business nous saw the company thriving. Wars end of course and so do lucrative contracts, and as the 1920s dawned times were tough for M Cooper (Overalls) Ltd. Louis decided to leave and Morris focused his product lines on rugged workwear (products that even the General Strike couldn’t kill off) and a bold experiment in high-quality denim jackets and trousers. Over in California, Levi Strauss had recently moved from their denim overalls to producing the first modern ‘jeans’. Morris Cooper always kept an eye on what the Americans were doing and he wouldn’t be far behind.
War would again change the direction of the company, with Morris dividing the business into two in 1939. Workwear and denimwear would continue, but alongside the company went back into battle dress and flying overalls for the RAF. The owner’s brilliant pattern making won military contracts and made the company rich, as it became one of the military’s biggest suppliers.
But just as the company soared, tragedy struck. Morris was killed in a car crash and with his son Harold away on active service with the RAF, it was left up to other members of the family to keep the business afloat. In fact, mismanagement would almost sink it, and when Harold returned to Whitechapel he was horrified to find the family firm on the brink of collapse.
The new boss swiftly cleared out the people who had driven the family firm to the edge and determined to save the company. He remembered years later that it was “pride and wanting to save my father’s name” that drove him, as much as any desire to enter the rag trade. But he swiftly showed his father’s canniness in propelling the company in a new direction. Rationing was killing traditional tailoring, with a man’s suit costing 26 ration coupons. You needed just one to buy a pair of jeans, and the downmarket workwear quickly became not just a pragmatic choice but a fashionable one.
By now, Harold had opened a factory in the huge new housing development at Harold Hill – his workers would be the thousands moving out from East End slums to a greener life in Essex. By now, Cooper’s was Britain’s biggest denim brand but it needed a label. Harold, looking across the Atlantic to Levi’s and its association with rock ‘n’ roll, cowboys and stars such as Marlon Brando and James Dean, decided to modernise his brand. From now on, the jeans would be labelled ‘Lee Cooper’ with his wife Daphne’s maiden name of ‘Leigh’ suitably Americanised.
In the fifties and sixties, 80 per cent of British workwear was made by Lee Cooper, but the counter-culture was far more interesting. Levi’s, Lee and Wrangler still hadn’t arrived in Britain, so the teddy boys ripped their cinema seats clad in Lee Cooper, and when the mods and rockers battled on Brighton seafront, both were clad in the same brand of jeans. It was a trend that would continue through the hippies and punk to the present day – when youth cults no longer exist, but just about everyone, of every age, owns at least one pair of jeans.
Jeans weren’t Harold Cooper’s only innovation. He was the first to introduce front-zipped slacks for British women. Many were outraged at this ‘tasteless’ style. He personally oversaw bold publicity campaigns, with big, full-colour ads in the press. He even dreamt up the fictional designer Alfredo Angelous, appealing to the Mods’ snobbish love of all things Italian.
By the 1980s the company was making around 40,000 garments a week and its annual turnover exceeded £100 million. Harold sold his majority share in the company in 1989. By that time he had been caring for Daphne for nearly 25 years; she had been wheelchair bound since the mid-sixties. The tireless Cooper built his wife a single-storey home in North London and the two enjoyed regular trips to the opera, the theatre and out to dinner. Six months after the couple’s 60th wedding anniversary in 2005, Harold suffered a stroke and Daphne died the year after. Despite everything Harold was still working at Lee Cooper until his death in 2008, at the age of 90. Lee Cooper is still going strong, and a stroll down any high street in the world confirms that denim isn’t going away. It’s a story that owes as much to austerity and ration books as rock ‘n’ roll and the American West.