It became the must-have outerwear thanks to endorsement from the top. Words Delwyn Mallet.
Here’s your starter for ten. What did Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Graham Hill and the Queen’s corgis all have in common? Answer: they all wore Gannex coats, a fashion staple of the British upper and middle classes in the 1950s and ’60s. The corgis had their own specially tailored garments, presented by entrepreneur Joseph Kagan, who had invented the waterproof Gannex fabric.
Kagan befriended Harold Wilson, who was rarely seen outdoors without his Gannex mac. He also persuaded the Duke of Edinburgh’s valet to order his-and-hers Gannexes from Harrods, thereby securing much-coveted Royal Warrants and guaranteeing acceptability among the hunting, fishing and shooting set.
Wilson gave Gannexes to other world leaders – Nikita Khrushchev, Lyndon Johnson and Chairman Mao Tse Tung among them – and Formula 1 ace Graham Hill kept the pit-lane chills at bay with a Gannex over his baby-blue Dunlop race suit.
Kagan was born Juozapas Kaganus to Orthodox Jewish parents in the Lithuanian capital of Kaunas in 1915. His father ran a textile business, and World War One made him very rich as he supplied field-grey cloth to the Kaiser’s army. After leaving school, Juozapas was sent to Britain to study textiles at Leeds University but had the misfortune to be back in Lithuania when World War Two broke out.
Under the Nazi occupation he was interned in the Kaunas ghetto and put to work in a local foundry where, with the help of a very brave Catholic gentile, he was able to avoid transportation to the death camps by constructing a tiny box room in the foundry’s roof. There he hid for nine months with his wife and her mother.
By 1946 he had made his way to Britain. He settled in Huddersfield, where he anglicised his name and set up Kagan Textiles to make rough blankets. Then, in 1951, he invented the fabric that would make his millions.
Gannex consisted of an outer nylon layer bonded to an inner layer of wool with insulating air trapped between the layers, resulting in a lightweight, waterproof and warm garment. Following his father’s example, he secured lucrative contracts to supply garments to the military and to police forces in Britain and abroad. But perhaps his biggest coup was to get the rising political star and much-photographed future Prime Minister Harold Wilson to be his more-or-less permanent model. It later transpired that Kagan Textiles had been paying Wilson £100 per month ‘for technical advice in respect of Gannex sales to the USSR’.
For years suspicions swirled around both Wilson and Kagan that they were too close to the Soviets. MI5 kept a close eye on Kagan on account of his friendship with an official at the Soviet Embassy, fellow Lithuanian Richardas Vaygauskas, who was eventually unmasked as a KGB agent and deported.
Kagan was awarded a knighthood by Wilson in 1970 for his support of the Labour Party, and he was made a baron in Wilson’s controversial 1976 resignation honours list. Embarrassingly, two years later Lord Kagan was charged with theft from his former company and went on the run with his 23-year-old mistress, eventually landing in Spain where so many Brits of dubious character had found sanctuary. Unwisely, he made a trip to Paris where he was apprehended, betrayed by a tipoff from a vengeful ex-mistress (he had apparently accumulated around 40 of them).
He was convicted of false accounting and theft, given an enormous fine and sentenced to ten months in prison. He was also stripped of his knighthood, but he retained his peerage and continued to sit in the House of Lords after his release.
Gannex coats were never the most flattering of garments. The fabric didn’t drape the body in a sympathetic manner but instead created a roughly human semi-rigid space which the wearer occupied. By the free-flowing 1970s, the Gannex was falling out of fashion and its manufacturer eventually went out of business. Both Wilson and Kagan died in 1995 but until just a few years ago you could have quaffed a pint at the ‘Pipe and Gannex’ pub in Knowsley Village, Liverpool, in Wilson’s old constituency. It, too, has now followed the famous coat into history.
Prime minister Harold Wilson leaves Parliament in his favourite coat, perhaps a little long in the sleeve, to a backdrop of popular Fords.