Taking a Savile Row legend global
For all that it’s seen as a bastion of steadfast, stiff-upper-lip Englishness, Savile Row has always been a place of shifting sands. Tailoring houses have hopped from one address to another, others have swallowed up their failing rivals, new blood has appeared regularly to shake up the establishment while other tailors have come and gone.
Take Gieves & Hawkes: one of the grandest, greatest names on the Row, occupier of the splendid premises at No 1 Savile Row, particularly famous for its naval and military tailoring and its royal clientele. In fact, until 1974 it was two separate businesses – Gieves on Old Bond Street, Hawkes & Co on Savile Row. An IRA bomb did for the Gieves shop just as the two firms amalgamated, the new company bringing four combined centuries of sartorial history together in the old Hawkes & Co shop.
Jump forward three decades, and the sands have been all over the place. Bought in the 90s by a Hong Kong billionaire, the company grew to 25 shops in the UK and almost 100 in China, the latter doing steady business while the homeland operation foundered.
Enter John Durnin, appointed as CEO a year ago with an ambitious two-stage plan: shore-up the UK business, and then take Gieves & Hawkes global. Part one of the strategy has been done – the 25 collectively loss-making UK shops have been reduced to 15 profit-making shops, designs have been overhauled, management restructured and the Savile Row HQ given a massive makeover. The latter development includes the introduction of concessions for complimentary businesses – bespoke shoes, vintage gifts, a grooming salon – and a new showcase for the magnificent military outfits from which Gieves & Hawkes derives so much of its history.
“Getting your home right, whether you’re a family or a business, is incredibly important,” says Durnin. “I want Gieves to be an emporium of wonderful services, something that most brands don’t bother doing. You’ve got the core of the business, which is bespoke and ready-to-wear suits, but I want to add on other interests and make it a fantastic, interesting experience when one comes into the store.”
It’s certainly that. In one room, the expansive, marbled booths of the Gentleman’s Tonic grooming salon come with their own flatscreen TVs; round the corner, bespoke shoemaker James Ducker sits in a glass-fronted booth surrounded by lasts and leather as he fabricates £2,000 footwear; a sales room on the street side is crowded with the vintage luxury bric-a-brac of stylish antiques specialist Bentleys, ranging from beautiful ancient luggage to an ejector seat.
Meanwhile, an inner sanctum at the back of the shop has been converted to specialise in selling just blazers – a celebration of Gieves & Hawkes’s naval tailoring history, and a signifier of the changes Durnin is making.
“When I joined, we were selling just one blazer at £400,” he explains. “Now we’re selling 18 blazers, ranging from £850 to £2,500. People are not coming to No 1 Savile Row for an opening price point blazer. We’ve now got the widest choice in London, at a price point justified by the quality of the cloth and the craftsmanship.”
If Gieves & Hawkes’s three strongest suits are its heritage, its strength in bespoke tailoring and its flagship premises, Durnin might well be its fourth. While he says his strategy for reinvigorating the brand fits onto one piece of paper, its noticeable that his eye is on every detail, down to the cut of the ready-to-wear suits or the antique objets that decorate the shop.
Importantly, he is not a man of the Row: he spent the previous two decades living and working in luxury business in Asia, most recently overseeing Alfred Dunhill’s Asian operation from Hong Kong.
“One of the things I noticed over here is the way the English underestimate themselves,” he says, Gieves and Hawkes being his case in point. He considered the brand to be seriously underdeveloped. “We’re sitting here with this business with a genuine, extraordinary provenance, wondering if the rest of the world will be interested in it. Of course they will be.”
And that doesn’t just mean suits. Durnin is introducing casual wear – “great, luxury weekend wear” as he describes it – as well as leather goods in collaboration with renowned English bag designer Bill Amberg. It’s this mix of fine Savile Row suiting, luxury fashion and multi-purpose shops that he intends to take to new markets, with plans for shops in America, Japan and Asia Pacific.
Durnin is well aware that there are those who tut and frown at such ambition and change. “I haven’t been in the UK long enough to be tainted by those kind of views, and I’m not interested in it,” he says. Moreover, a trip down to the shop’s basement cutting rooms, where a hubbub of cutters, seamstresses and apprentices work their highly-skilled magic on suits and uniforms of every persuasion, shows the extent to which the bespoke heart of the business is thriving.
“There are 20 tailors down here, it’s my favourite bit of the building,” Durnin says. “You’ve got artisans down here, and they’re the reason that once you’ve had a bespoke suit you can’t go back. It is a real treat, something people aspire to, and that’s how it will continue.”