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

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - Arts - STORY JONATHAN LOB­BAN PHO­TOG­RA­PHY JA­SON MICHAEL LANG

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

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