Benjamin Preiss and Henrietta Cook January 7, 2012
THE sprawling factory is long closed, but the sturdy machines that sewed Fletcher Jones trousers for generations of Australians still whir in Warrnambool homes. Lorraine Pola has one. It's been serviced just once since she bought it in 1988.
The machines are the legacy of a company that once stood for quality and workmanship. After almost a century in business Fletcher Jones fell into administration last month, but in Warrnambool the legend of the brand and its namesake founder lives on.
Ms Pola, a former Fletcher Jones employee, remembers the daily ritual of knocking off when more than 1000 workers spilled into the streets. ''If you had to do any shopping [you had to] get it done before Fletcher Jones closed,'' she says. ''The street would be flooded, particularly on pay day.''
She watched sadly as the famed Australian brand crumbled, with administrators closing a third of its 45 stores - even its last Warrnambool shop. A final offer for the sale of the company, which employed 3000 people across four factories in its heyday, is expected in coming weeks.
But Ms Pola's gunmetal grey Brother sewing machine still hums in her sunroom, where she runs a bridal gown business.
She started working as a machinist at Fletcher Jones at 16 and was greeted by friendly faces, ''a warm feeling'' and the smell of siroset - a chemical used to set pleats.
Workers revered Sir Fletcher Jones and Ms Pola says the company had a policy of employing indigenous and disabled people. ''He was very much into humanity,'' she says. ''We had people in wheelchairs, people with cerebral palsy, one girl was profoundly deaf.''
She fears his legacy as a philanthropist is being forgotten amid news of the crumbling business.
The revolutionary businessman lived in a two-bedroom cottage in Warrnambool and rewarded employees with shares in Fletcher Jones. By the 1970s staff owned more than 70 per cent of the company. He greeted employees in the morning and mingled in the canteen queue.
But now the factory is a shadow of its former self. The walls of the once bustling canteen are plastered with graffiti and glass litters the floor. A mouldy stench has replaced the smell of siroset. The only sign of life is shoppers browsing through an antique market that occupies part of the factory.
It was a slick operation when Jack Caple was a trouser production manager who oversaw the creation of 1000 pairs of slacks a day. The spritely 93-year-old, who still wears ''FJ'' trousers, was Fletcher Jones' first ''rehab employee'' after World War II.
''Mr Jones picked me up after the dawn service. He used to stutter and said 'h-h-h-hop in the car Jack', and he brought me out here.''
The Rat of Tobruk had a 33-year career with the company, starting as a machinist, slightly embarrassed to find himself surrounded by women.
''This place was loaded with machines, it was full of life,'' he says, scanning his dilapidated former workplace.
Mr Caple describes Jones as a savvy businessman who planted extravagant gardens to please councillors who worried the site would become an eyesore. The factory and its postwar gardens are now heritage-listed.
Born into a Methodist family in Bendigo in 1895, David Fletcher Jones had a severe stutter and left school at 12. He had an impoverished upbringing and was deeply moved when people left plucked chickens at his family's doorstep.
After returning from World War I in 1918, deemed unfit to work, he began selling bespoke clothing from the back of a horse-drawn wagon in western Victoria. Demand for his tailored wares grew and in 1924 he opened three shops in Warrnambool and one in Hamilton.
Sir Fletcher Jones died in 1977 and his son David became managing director.
The Dimmick family bought the company in 1995 and 10 years later the factory closed.
Mr Jones jnr died last month, just 36 hours before administrators took over the crumbling company.
Economic geographer Sally Weller, whose book with Michael Webber Refashioning the Rag Trade traces the history of the Victorian clothing industry, says poor branding compromised the business.
The Dimmick family made an ''ill-advised'' decision to sell the garments in discount outlets, Ms Weller says. ''Discounting put the brand into direct competition with cheaper imports.'' She says the company should have focused on a niche market with a ''middle-class respectability''.
When the Hawke-Keating government scrapped protective tariffs in 1991, the company changed forever. ''Fletcher Jones closed manufacturing plants and shifted to offshore sourcing while retaining some local content,'' Ms Weller says.
The company's dedication to workers also reflected strong earnings, she says. ''The company was making a good profit and its brand was associated with the welfare of its employees.''
Former employees say they were crushed when the factory closed its doors. ''They acted like it was the end of the world,'' Mr Caple says. ''At the time it was a real goldmine for Warrnambool. People had money and bought their homes and educated their children.''