During the years of the first World War, M.Cooper (Overalls), which by then employed over 600 people, halted production of workwear and began making uniforms, kit bags and rucksacks for the British Army. In 1937, a new factory dedicated to the manufacture of denim was opened in Stratford, with the business reporting a profit of £1,000 by year end. The outbreak of the second World War in 1939 led Morris Cooper to split the business into two: one arm continued making workwear, while the other concentrated on producing military uniforms, battle fatigues and flight overalls. M.Cooper (Overalls) eventually became one of the armed forces’ biggest supplier
Morris Cooper died in 1940 and his son, Harold Cooper, took over the business upon his return from active service in the RAF. He set about modernising the company and building on its wartime success, switching focus to casual wear and denim production, and taking advantage of the introduction of clothes rationing to increase competitiveness. As part of a re-branding strategy, the company was rechristened, with Harold adding a version of his wife’s family name, Leigh, to his own to create Lee Cooper.
Lee Cooper jeans were adopted by the youth counterculture of the 1950s and 1960s and Harold capitalised on this association by sponsoring a Rolling Stones tour and working with Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin. The company caused a degree of moral outrage in 1953 by introducing the zip-front to women’s jeans, and commissioned a series of bold publicity campaigns, some of them incorporating fictitious designers such as the Italian ‘Alfredo Angelous’ in order to appeal to subcultures such as the Mods, who favoured continental style.
The late 1970s saw expansion of production, with the company opening factories in Ireland, France and Tunisia, and by the mid 1980s these facilities were producing between 40,000 and 45,000 garments per week. During this time, annual turnover grew to more than £100 million. In 1989, the Cooper family sold their majority stake in the business, and since then Lee Cooper has become a ‘lifestyle’ brand, operating in more than seventy markets across the world. In 2008, the company celebrated its centenary.