IT’S A LONG RIDE FROM BUSHMAN’S NECESSITY TO INTERNATIONAL LUXURY. R.M. WILLIAMS’ OWNERS HAVE APPOINTED A TAILOR TO REINTERPRET THE BRAND WHILE EMBRACING THE TOUGH BEAUTY OF THE ORIGINAL.
“Old bushmen don’t need saving,” Reginald Murray Williams wrote in his autobiography, Beneath Whose Hands. “They mostly have had their share of hell and the only thing they crave is a loyal mate.” R.M. may have been talking about the aversion he and his fellow bushies had to travelling evangelists and their religious dogma, but much the same could be said of R.M. Williams, the boot and apparel dynasty he founded in the Flinders Rangers in 1932.
After decades of financial flux the company was rescued in 1994 by former News Corp boss and friend of R.M., Ken Cowley, who reprivatised the “Bush Outfitter”. After an initial 49.5 per cent acquisition by LVMHbacked L Capital in 2013, the latter purchased the brand almost outright in 2015 (local shareholders, including Hugh Jackman, reportedly still own minor shares).
The L Capital acquisition meant that R.M. Williams would be saved, at least in a fiscal sense. The question remained, though: how much of a “loyal mate” would the cashed-up but foreign-owned L Capital be to what is arguably Australia’s most iconic heritage brand?
Pretty loyal so far, as it turns out. At the time of writing L Capital is building an additional bootmaking workshop in Salisbury, Adelaide, to cater to anticipated global demand as it expands the business to the US, UK and Scandinavia. That’s a boost of confidence for R.M. Williams’ skilled and multigenerational Adelaide workforce, many of whom have been working there for decades.
To reinforce its fashion credibility L Capital invested in Melbourne-born, Savile Row-trained Jeremy Hershan to be the brand’s new head of design. The grandson of a Viennese tailor who emigrated to Australia before World War II and the son of rag traders, Hershan admits “the art of tailoring is in my blood”. He did his apprenticeship under the cutters at Gieves & Hawkes at No. 1 Savile Row, then worked at British heritage brands Aquascutum and Dunhill, where he was senior designer.
It arguably wouldn’t have worked had L Capital helicoptered in a hipster designer from Europe to take a blowtorch to R.M. Williams. Australian Justin O’Shea did exactly that to Roman-born Brioni last year, attempting to make a heavy metal bracelet from a silk purse. Shea’s short stint as creative director at Brioni proved that, if anything, trying to change a heritage brand’s DNA is futile.
“I was given the keys to the archives, the keys to the business in that sense”, says Hershan, “so it was really about reinterpreting the brand. It’s all there. It just takes someone with the right background and skills to interpret it and make sure that it’s contemporary. It’s not about replicating a garment stitch for stitch from the past. There are plenty of brands that do that. But for me it’s about reinterpreting the past and making sure they are more contemporary.”
One of the first things Hershan did after returning to Australia in November 2015 was book a flight to Adelaide. “I wanted to go out and spend time in the workshop and meet the master craftspeople,” he says. “Here at R.M. my design process starts from the ground up, so I very much delved into materials and finishes ... just trying to understand the capabilities within the plant, and what their specialities are.”
Hershan, who wore his brother’s hand-me-down R.M. Williams boots on the job in London, admits that seeing the firm’s 150-odd boot-making artisans was an “emotional” experience. “It was awe-inspiring just to see master craftspeople who hone one particular practice, one particular motion, one process. And they are so passionate. There are people that have been working there 40 years who really are masters of their craft. It was extremely inspiring for someone like me who has such an appreciation for craft.”
After spending time at the workshop, where there are up to 90 production stages for each standard elasticsided Craftsman boot, Hershan headed to the address he refers to as “ground zero”. Percy Street is the home bought by R.M.’s father, a horse man, in the 1920s, and where R.M. first set up his commercial workshop. Today it’s the brand’s museum, with archived product dating back to the 1930s. “I just rolled up my sleeves for two days and began pulling out pieces that I thought would inform the future of the brand,” Hershan says. “As a great lover of heritage brands, it was a major drawcard for me. The most inspiring aspect of a brand with any history is their archive and it’s the best possible starting point for the design process. It’s a little bit clichéd, because there are plenty of brands around the world with lots of history, but what was appealing to me was that it’s a very unique history that R.M. Williams has. I’m a great lover of vintage product and vintage menswear and there are details within some of these garments that are truly unique to the brand.”
One garment Hershan picked up was the original leather drover’s coat that R.M. made in the 1930s. Hershan turned it inside and out, noting the beautiful pocket detailing, the stitch count, the linings and the subtle curves — all very much born from function, for stockmen and women hopping on and off a horse.