Obituary: Harold Cooper

Born London, March 5, 1918. Died November 7, 2008, aged 90.


Manufacturer of the ubiquitous Lee Cooper jeans, Harold Cooper took over his father’s factory and turned it into a multi-million pound business.

His influence was so far-reaching that a 1993 exhibition at the Barbican Centre on the 1960s London art scene featured two works by abstract artist Richard Smith entitled Lee 1 and Lee 2, based on the iconic label.

Harold Cooper took over when his father, Morris, was killed in a car crash in 1941. But he had to wait until he was demobilised in 1945 to revitalise the now languishing business.

Tailor Morris Cooper left Lithuania to make waistcoats in South Africa but moved on to the more profitable British industrial market, setting up M Cooper Overalls Ltd in London’s East End in 1908.

He expanded fast, making army wear and kit bags in the First World War and re-embarking on this line at the start of the Second World War. The factory moved to Stratford, East London.

Harold was the fourth of Morris’s five children. After leaving Haberdashers’ Aske’s School, then in North West London, he trained as a surveyor until war broke out and he enlisted in the RAF. It was the near bankruptcy of the business by an in-law, who was quietly paid off, that spurred him to restore his father’s work and reputation.

He took the cheap but hard-wearing denim that was the staple material of workmen’s trousers and used it for casual wear. It was an inspired move in an era of shortages — clothes came off ration in 1946 but were expensive and in short supply. It was still an age of personal tailoring and dressmaking.

The 1950s saw the genesis of the profitable teenage market. Leaving school at 14, young workers spent their money on fashions heavily influenced by Hollywood idols Marlon Brando and James Dean, and American rock’n roll stars like Bill Haley and Elvis Presley.

These men wore the denim jeans seen earlier on American servicemen out of uniform, on cowboys in Western films and, previously, miners in the California gold rush, though the original wearers were Genoese sailors.
Harold Cooper saw an opportunity in youthful leisure wear and responded with gusto and flair. His first contribution was the revolutionary step in the mid-1950s of repositioning the zip on women’s jeans from the side to the front. Despite initial shock and even outrage at the pioneering unisex sartorial move, the change was soon adopted by all jeans manufacturers.

He used pop stars, fictitious Italian designers and innovative advertising to keep his brand in the public eye. In the late 1960s he made the transition to general fashion, with leisure shirts and jackets for “Him and Her”, children’s wear and dressing gowns.

He streamlined and expanded production, with techniques learned from visits to the USA. With factories in Holland, followed by Ireland, France and Tunisia, he expanded sales worldwide through licensing deals.

In 1958 he went public as Lee Cooper. Lee, with its connotations of American brands Levi’s and Lee, came from the maiden name of his wife, Daphne Leigh, whom he married in 1945. He retired in 1983 and in 1989 sold his majority share, although a grandson is still involved.

His decision to withdraw was motivated by his wife’s health. In 1965 while they visited India, she contracted viral encephalitis, which left her wheelchair-bound until her death in 2006.

Harold devoted himself to her and saw that she led a full social and cultural life. Because the United Synagogue would not then admit people in wheelchairs to services, he left to join the (Reform) West London Synagogue.

Their charitable trust, formed three years before Daphne’s illness, gave enormous support to Jewish and medical causes, particularly for the disabled. Harold’s devotion to her continued even after a severe stroke three years before his own death.

He is survived by his daughter Sally, son Michael, and five grandchildren.

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