Gerry Ettinger’s contribution to the fashion world is celebrated in a new book - The Clothes on our Backs: How Refugees from Nazism Revitalised the British Fashion Trade.

“We think around 80,000 refugees came to Britain between 1933 and 1939,” says linguist and Imperial College lecturer Dr Anna Nyburg. “It’s not that big a number, but they have made a disproportionate impact on British life in different areas,” she adds.

Although much has been written on their contributions to academia, medicine and music, Nyburg is among the first to look at the refugees’ impact on trade, industry and fashion.

The whole concept of ‘design’ only really existed in Europe.

Anna Nyburg

“They came from a Europe that was very innovative - the Weimar Republic in the interwar period had been extremely creative and way ahead of the Brits technologically,” she explains. “The whole concept of ‘design’ only really existed in Europe,” she adds.

The book tells the story of various notable Jewish refugees, including: milliner, Otto Lucas (who made hats for Greta Garbo and Wallis Simpson, among others); Kangol and their famous berets - founded by WWI veteran Jacques Spreiregen and his nephew; Marks & Spencer’s hugely successful Head of Design, Hans Schneider, who re-imagined the brand - giving it universal appeal; and Pringle’s first full time Designer, Otto Weisz, who is credited with the creation of that wonderful British staple, the twinset.

Kangol advert from 1950s

“Gerry [Ettinger] personifies one characteristic that many of these refugees had, that he was entrepreneurial and flexible, he learnt four foreign languages,” explains Nyburg.“He thought - I’ll move and learn and export, keeping open minded, always adaptable and imaginative.”

“Ettinger also brought with him design and display,” she adds. “He came from Berlin and so knew the importance of exhibiting well and harnessing the power of the press. In the post-war period, people were keen for a bit of colour and show, and the refugees are credited with bringing vibrancy, texture and good design to Britain during this period,” she adds.  

So what was Gerry Ettinger’s story? How did this refugee become a men’s accessories legend?

Gerry Ettinger with members of his family in 1939

The Ettinger family had a military tailoring shop in Posen, but the city was handed to Poland after WWI leading Gerry Ettinger to move to Berlin, Nyburg explains. The Ettinger family had both business and craft in their blood.

Once in Berlin, Ettinger worked for a locomotive company before moving within the sector and being sent off to Rome. It was in this great Italian city that Gerry found a more fitting vocation for his lively, creative spirit. He produced films for a German company, featuring Marlene Dietrich amongst others, before moving to Paris to keep working in the industry, despite the beginnings of the war. By this point he had two foreign languages under his belt, but that wasn’t enough for this ambitious young man, who then took English lessons from actor Hubert Gregg.

Gerry Ettinger with actor Hubert Gregg in later life.

Armed with a cut glass English accent, Ettinger added a bowler hat, brightly lined suits and a dashing umbrella to his look - he was every inch the British gent about town. He began selling German leather goods to the likes of Harrods, Asprey and Fortnum & Mason - and G. Ettinger Ltd was born (1934). The war inevitably broke out in 1939 and, during the war, Gerry served as a dispatch rider in Devon, a propaganda distributor in Belgium, and was even offered a job with MI6 later on - which he declined, but which gives some insight into his linguistic capabilities.

Gerry Ettinger with his wife Elizabeth Ettinger in the 1950s 

In a drab and austere post-war period, Gerry Ettinger remained vivacious and driven, travelling to Germany to help rebuild the country’s film industry from a castle, Schloss Warenholz. He then headed to the Alps for a spot of skiing before returning to London, to a fortuitous encounter.

“Come here Ettinger!” shouted Mr Asprey across a West End street. “What are you doing? Come into my office.” With three foreign languages under his belt by this point, Ettinger then began to source materials from the continent in order to create the quality leather goods Asprey, and the buoyant post-war market demanded. G. Ettinger Ltd was re-born.

G. Ettinger Ltd first logo in 1934

The charismatic linguist packed up his case and began travelling with his wares, representing other brands on the continent. Not content with the plethora of languages in his pocket, Gerry set about learning Japanese, before marketing the Ettinger brand in the Far East. Ettinger now has a cult following in Japan and South Korea.

Gerry Ettinger on a business visit to Spain

Gerry’s elder son, Robert (the company’s current CEO) was sent off to Frankfurt to learn the trade, and also Germany - despite the war, Gerry still had strong ties to German culture.

Gerry’s global outlook was a crucial part of the company’s fabric and success. He created a company that reflected his own character - traditionally British, but with eye-catching cosmopolitan flair.

“Robert Ettinger is continuing what his father started,” explains Nyburg, “constantly adapting, looking further afield than others, embracing the challenge of trading in foreign environments, learning the rules of engagement and making a success of it.”

For a paperback copy of The Clothes on our Backs: How Refugees from Nazism Revitalised the British Fashion Trade, £15, please contact the author, Dr Anna Nyburg -