THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
THE PURCHASE OF LONDON BESPOKE TAILOR GIEVES & HAWKES BY HONG KONG’S FUNG CAPITAL CONFIRMS THAT A NEW LUXURY TRADE ROUTE IS BEING FORMED ... NOT SO MUCH SILK ROAD AS SAVILE ROAD
As real estate goes in London’s upmarket Mayfair, it doesn’t get any more prestigious than No 1 Savile Row. Few addresses are more symbolic of the reach of the former British Empire. Home to Gieves & Hawkes’s predecessor, Gieves, since 1912, No 1 was previously the residence of ranks of the English peerage since at least 1674. The Royal Geographical Society moved here in 1870, adding an enormous maproom with glazed glass roof and rooftop astronomical observatory. From this mansion at the top of the famed Row — the world’s mecca for bespoke tailoring — the society plotted its foreign explorations to Africa, India and Asia. David Livingstone — he of “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” — lay in state here for two days in 1874 before his body was transferred to Westminster Abbey.
In terms of naval and military history, few Savile Row tailors have dressed more British sailors or infantryman in battle uniform than Gieves & Hawkes. The former Portsmouth-based Gieves supplied the uniform Lord Nelson died in. During the Crimean War it had a ship stationed in Crimean waters to outfit British naval officers on deck. Gieves’s eight-button naval double-breasted reefer jacket with back vent can be seen as the 19thcentury precursor to the blazer. Thomas Hawkes & Co was no less prolific. The London-based tailor outfitted Chechen and Prussian militia in the early to mid-1800s, and held the patent for the sabre-resistant leather Shako helmet and double-cork-layered pith helmet, which
“THERE HAS BEEN THIS MISCONCEPTION THAT NO ONE COULD AFFORD US IN AUSTRALIA, BUT IT COULDN’T BE FURTHER FROM THE TRUTH”
evolved into the World War II-era Bombay Bowler. Hawkes made swords and cuirasses for British soldiers, a lifesaving waistcoat in World War I and even spy suits made with buttons to hide microfilm.
It was into this bastion of British antiquity that the billionaire brothers Victor and William Fung stepped in 2007. The chairman and honorary chairman respectively of Hong Kong’s toy and garment leviathan, Li & Fung, supplier to Walmart and Target, came to No 1 to get outfitted on-site for Gieves & Hawkes bespoke coats and suits. Li & Fung’s Trinity Ltd owned the licence to distribute Gieves & Hawkes throughout Greater China, but the brothers had bigger plans. Their mission, ultimately unveiled in 2012 with the outright purchase of Gieves & Hawkes from Christopher Cheng’s Wing Tai Group, was to create a new global luxury route — not so much Silk Road as Savile Road. Through their investment arm, Fung Capital, Li & Fung last year bought fellow Savile Row heritage tailor Kilgour and former couturier to the Queen, Hardy Amies.
In fashion’s version of reverse colonialism, Li & Fung’s strategy, built in concert with Gieves & Hawkes’s Scottish-born managing director, Ray Clacher, is to export British tailoring heritage to China, the US, Middle East, and, ultimately, back to the Brits. Now, with the arrival of the company’s new three-year plan, a svelte and sellable ready-to-wear and accessories collection helmed by ex-Brioni designer Jason Basmajian, and thanks to China’s great tourism migration and a fast-developing domestic Australian market, the new Savile Road is making a permanent pit-stop Down Under.
It’s the first day of the Chinese New Year holidays and sitting in his Gieves & Hawkes office in Kowloon Bay, Hong Kong, Clacher declares himself “the only Gweilo” at work. But the 50-year-old has the preferred holiday destination of his local staff on his mind. “We know that Australia is one of the key destinations for the Chinese,” he says. “Certainly, most of my colleagues from these offices will be somewhere in Australasia over the next two weeks. We want to be part of that as well.”
Clacher says Australia’s domestic menswear market, worth about $5 billion and growing, plus Gieves & Hawkes’s ecommerce sales in Australia, have provided the impetus to open a stand-alone boutique in 2016, most likely in Melbourne. “There has always been this misconception that no one could afford us in Australia,
but it couldn’t be further from the truth,” he says. “Bearing in mind our cheapest shirts are £125 [about $230], Australian customers are certainly prepared to pay for it.”
But over and above the evolving tastes of Australian men, it’s the travel habits of Chinese nationals that are influencing international luxury’s approach to Australia. Just as in the 1970s and 80s, when brands followed the upwardly mobile Japanese around the world, building boutiques wherever they lay their heads (and wallets), the prolific and big-spending Chinese are influencing luxury expansionist strategies. Clacher calls the strategy “showing respect to the travelling Chinese”, which means that any brand that has established itself in China needs to set up in Europe, Britain, the US, Middle East and now Australia.
“It’s not that the Chinese are just going to Paris, Milan, Geneva and London,” says Clacher. “They’re travelling the world. And the thing is, if they walk through a shopping mall and see all the brands they know and love and they don’t see you, then you don’t exist. That’s the message to the board here at Trinity on behalf of Gieves & Hawkes. Now is the time to push. Certainly [the Chinese] are not the only wealth around, but they’re definitely the most prolific.”
Clacher has observed the influence of China’s consumer tastes on luxury brands through the ownership transition from the Gieves family to Wing Tai Group in 2002, followed by Wing Tai to Li & Fung in 2012. During this period Gieves & Hawkes has built 113 stores throughout China and has 12 new openings on the way this year. The firm has also refurbished No 1 Savile Row, will launch another store in London this year and has
“THE CHINESE ARE TRAVELLING THE WORLD AND IF THEY WALK THROUGH A MALL AND DON’T SEE YOU, THEN YOU DON’T EXIST”
bought back its US master licence. “We need to have a good balance between East and West,” Clacher says.
Clacher concedes Gieves& Hawkes’s rapid ascendancy over recent years is thanks to China, where the company “rode the dragon back of the economy” from 2008 to 2010, opening about 30 stores a year. “It was too good an opportunity at a time when the UK and Western economy was going backwards ... I don’t think there is a luxury brand around the world that would be where they are without China ... China has been a great ride over the last 10 years. China has fuelled people’s desire to get serious globally and is helping us do a lot of other things.”
The “other things” Clacher refers to is Gieves & Hawkes’s transition from a pure bespoke tailoring firm to bespoke plus ready-to-wear plus accessories. “We always struggled as a brand to be a casualwear brand,” says Clacher. “We will always be a suit company that sells casual wear, not a casual wear company that sells suits. However, when we do a polo shirt, what’s a Gieves & Hawkes polo shirt? If we do a blouson, what’s a Gieves & Hawkes blouson? I’ve felt that over the last four or five years we’ve been producing those garments for the market, but really based on what the market’s asking for, rather than designed by Gieves & Hawkes.”
To solve the problem Clacher hired ex-Brioni designer Jason Basmajian to be the brand’s new creative director. Basmajian has unequivocally nailed the brief. His recent Gieves & Hawkes autumn-winter showing in January at London Collections: Men received all the rights plaudits, with headlines of “Old Brand New Tricks”. “If you really want to be the beau of the ball,” The Times reported, “Gieves & Hawkes shows you how.”
It must be noted that not everyone has jumped on the bandwagon. James Sherwood is a Savile Row historian and author of Thames& Hudson’s Savile Row: The Master Tailors of British Bespoke, and in 2007 curated an exhibition on the Row in Florence for Pitti Uomo. He is a vocal critic of Savile Row’s overseas expansion. “The fact that international companies are aggressively buying up Savile Row is not to be applauded,” says Sherwood. “How can one talk about buying British or Made in England when the profits are going East?” Sherwood concedes that Savile Row has always had to “follow the money”.
“Henry Poole was bankrolled by the US market and still is to a degree,” he says. “In the early 20th century the Russian royal and aristocratic clientele made the Cundey
From left: a gentleman outside the Gieves & Hawkes store at No 1 Savile Row, London; Gieves & Hawkes historian Peter Tilley
The Gieves & Hawkes workroom at No 1 Savile Row hand-makes about 800 bespoke suits and coats each year, including uniforms for high-ranking British military officers