Founded in 1940 by Isaak Donner and Frank Myers, the company was designed to produce quality men’s shirts from a small, fourth floor, corner room of a building in Wakefield, West Yorkshire. With cotton supplies in famine through the war and only delicate viscose rayon materials available, the company sold shirts to those women of Britain performing the tasks in factories, previously held by men who had been sent off to fight the war.
By 1946, the company had taken over the entire building transforming the space into a vast shirt and blouse manufacturing facility, positioning themselves as a key player in the men’s shirt market. Having identified that the majority of men returning from the war were accustomed to wearing loose-collar shirts so that the whole shirt didn’t need replacing when the collar wore out, the company introduced a patent that Isaak Donner’s family had developed prior to the war, changing the shirt industry forever.
The patented shirts were designed in a way that the collars could be easily removed by pulling on a tab sewn into the collar attaching seam. Each shirt came supplied with a complimentary replacement collar which could easily be sewn into the place of the removed collar. The new product was an instant success and as the shirts had two collars and in some cases two sets of cuffs, the company was called Double TWO.
At the beginning of the 1950s Double TWO were approached by ICI representative, Dr Rex Winfield, who had spent his time during the war developing a new man-made fibre, Polyester. Working with Dr Winfield, Double TWO developed a warp knitted construction allowing them to use the material to manufacture and launch the world’s first man-made fibre shirt.
Following the successful introduction of the man-made fibre shirt and with all other products selling well, Double TWO desperately needed to expand its production facilities in order to meet demand, and in 1952 the company bought a staggering 8 acre site to the south of Wakefield which would be Double TWO’s new home.
The new, big, open plan production area enabled Double TWO to bring specialist consultants from all over the world to install the latest production systems, the most modern machinery and the most efficient piecework systems enabling the workers to earn more than double their previous earnings by being able to produce more garments. A rigorous quality control system was implemented to ensure that the vast increase in production quantity did not result in an inferior production quality. By now Double TWO had expanded from the original Isaak Donner and Frank Myers to employing over 500 people and producing 800,000 shirts per year.
In the late 1950’s, Double TWO introduced the world’s first ever blends of natural and man-made fibres, adding strength as well as shrinkage and pilling resistance to their cotton/wool blend, known as Frend. In a time when central heating was considered very middle class, warm shirts were a very large part of the clothing market.
In 1963 Isaak Donner’s son, Richard, joined the business to drive Double TWO's growth into the market. Shortly after Richard joined, Double TWO launched a new product called White Light. It was a cotton shirt, with a percentage of polyester blended into the fabric for the collars and cuffs to give them extra strength. The fabric was treated with a special resin to give it superb non-iron properties and after just six months, White Light had become the brand leader.
As the years moved on and fashions evolved the demand for colourful and patterned shirts grew. Double TWO had developed whole shirts made of a blend of polyester and cotton with extra hard wearing properties, enabling Double TWO to finally retire the complimentary collar proposition from their range.
People’s tastes continued to evolve and by the 1970s wild prints, jacquard and lace became the height of fashion. Identifying a new gap in the market, Double TWO launched That Shirt by Double TWO, a young fashion product with a slim fitted body and two removable darts on the back.
By introducing so many new and innovative products into the clothing market, Double TWO had significantly increased their sales revenue and in 1968 made Wm Sugden & Sons Limited, a large clothing manufacturer from Barnsley, South Yorkshire, their first major acquisition. Wm Sugden & Sons Limited had historically been a key supplier of work wear and jeans, taking Double TWO into a whole new area of the clothing market. Over time Double TWO’s polyester/cotton fabric was incorporated into the work wear range and proved an instant success with consumers.
The jeans were made of strong blue denim and were sold under the brand name Jet,available in a number of styles and sizes. Double TWO used the power of their existing brand and reputation along with new advertising campaigns to develop the Jet brand into another successful division of their business, introducing another revenue stream for the company.
With the ongoing success of the core Double TWO products along with an expanding work wear division and jeans division, the company made it’s second major acquisition, L J & M Refson Limited, a women’s work wear manufacturer from Sunderland.
By the end of the 1980s a group holding company was formed called ‘The Wakefield Shirt Company’, owning Double TWO Ltd, Wm Sugden & Sons Ltd and L J & M Refson Ltd along with a number of other smaller businesses acquired over the years. By now the group had gone from the original Isaak Donner and Frank Myers to employing over 1,500 people across six factories and selling over 3,000,000 shirts per year in over 40 countries of the world.
The growth of ‘own label chains’ such as Next, Marks & Spencer and The Arcadia Group by 1993 saw the decline of independent clothing shops and smaller department stores which historically formed the majority of Double TWO’s customer base. In response, Isaak and Richard Donner planned to launch their own retail chain. With earlier experiments on the High Street proving unprofitable, The Wakefield Shirt Company’s attention was focused on a different type of retail strategy.
Having paid close attention to the success of the Freeport ‘Brands For Less’ concept in the USA The Wakefield Shirt Company joined Sean Collidge, opening stores at all 6 of his UK sites. By strategically selecting compatible brands of trousers, knitwear and ladies co-ordinates the company attracted a wide audience to its stores and had soon developed its retail footprint to 23 stores nationwide, supported by a large number of concessions in mill shops and department stores.
In 1994 the Donners were also approached by David Gummery and Chris Lockwood with the idea of developing mini clothing department stores, on an outlet basis but not necessarily on outlet sites. With garden centres and entertainment parks proving to be the most robust locations ‘Leading Labels Limited’ was formed and matured into another very successful business for The Wakefield Shirt Group, before selling their shares five years later.
In 1995, Richard Donner’s son, John Donner joined, his father and grandfather in the 3rd generation family business. Isaak Donner died in 2000 but to this day Richard and John continue to run the company, making it one of the very few original family run branded clothing companies in the world.
Since joining the business, John Donner has been instrumental in driving new brands to enter the company into new areas of the clothing market including Bar Harbour - leisure and casual wear for a mature consumer, Old Salt - a fashion lead proposition for a younger consumer and Paradigm - a 100% cotton fabric with excellent non-iron, wrinkle free properties.
In 2007 the company received an award for ‘Innovation’ for their development of the Paradigm range and in 2013 was a proud winner of The Queen’s Award for International Trade, with over 42% of production being exported to over 40 countries around the world. Upon receiving the award Richard Donner said:
“We have received many awards over the years but The Queen’s Award is our most prestigious one and I thank all of our staff for their hard work and determination”.