In the world of menswear, it’s hard to think of a more glorious address than No 1 Savile Row. Huntsman at No. 11 may be bigger; and, having recently celebrated his bicentennial existence, Henry Poole may at no. 15 calls himself “the founding father of Savile Row”; but Gieves & Hawkes at no. 1 occupies the graceful William Kent building that has become a visual metonym for Savile Row tailoring.
Recent press, however, has made painful reading for Gieves & Hawkes and for those who like London dressmaking. Earlier this year, Hong Kong-based Trinity Group, the owner of Gieves & Hawkes, Kent & Curwen and Cerruti, was liquidated. Trinity’s controlling shareholder is Shandong Ruyi, a large Chinese group of companies that was once described as the Chinese opponent of LVMH. Even if this comparison ever held (doubtful), it certainly is no more: in 2020, the firm failed to make mortgage payments. Poor governance, over-expansion, underinvestment, political changes within China and inevitably the pandemic have all been cited as contributing to the group’s problems, and the well-known Savile Row firm is the biggest victim.
Speculation about the future of Gieves & Hawkes abounds. Some of the more extreme scenarios being speculated about are that Marks & Spencer could buy the name, or that the historical archive of uniforms and militaria could be auctioned off.
To deflect with a luxury junk sale would be a disgraceful end to what is not only a world-renowned clothing company, but centuries of British history. Gieves & Hawkes only came into being in the mid-1970s, when the two cutting houses joined forces, but the roots run deep into Britain’s past. Between them were Gieves, who attracted the navy, and Hawkes, who did the same for the military, tailors on appointment at the Pax Britannica (or Britain at its most imperialist and colonialist, depending on your view of these things). The forerunner of what became Gieves attracted Nelson for the Battle of Trafalgar, where, it is said, the abundance of glittering gold braid made the doomed admiral an easy target for enemy snipers.
James Gieve liked to stay close to his customers. His firm had its headquarters in Portsmouth, and he set up a yacht as a floating tailor and sailed to the Black Sea to take orders from the naval officers who served in the Crimean War. The firm’s garments were as innovative as its sales techniques, including a waistcoat that served as a life jacket, with an inflatable section and a bag for a brandy bottle to help the wearer stay warm while waiting for rescue.
By the early 20th century, 98 percent of naval officer cadets were equipped by Gieves, and since the Senior Service was intimately connected with the royal family, kings, princes, and dukes were among Gieves’ clients. It was Gieves who made the RAF uniform worn by the future George VI on his wedding day, ditto the famous “boat cape” in which the queen was photographed in 1968 by Cecil Beaton. The tradition has been passed down through generations of Windsors: Gieves, Gieves & Hawkes have now made an RAF uniform for Prince William, as well as the white tie he wore when he was photographed for the cover of Vanity Fair in 2003 in celebration of his 21st birthday.
Hawkes was also a favorite with the royal family from the days of George III. In 1912 it became responsible for the supply and maintenance of the uniforms worn by the royal bodyguard. As Gieves made Nelson’s uniform, so Wellington was a patron of Hawkes, especially his military headdress.
The two names would come together permanently in the 1970s against a backdrop of decolonization and shrinking armed forces. Gieves finally closed its Malta branch in 1972; two years later it bought Hawkes and in the company’s palace-like premises at Savile Row no. 1 withdrawn.
By the turn of the century, Hong Kong-based Wing Tai properties, which owned the building, had taken control of the business. In 2011 there was a re-launch as a big luxury male emporium cum bazaar featuring Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen-style wallpaper and third-party brands including Carreducker shoes and Gentlemen’s Tonic hairdressers.
Shortly afterwards, in 2012, G&H was sold to Trinity, its licensee in China, in a deal worth reportedly worth up to £ 60 million, and the brand was re-launched with a sleek dramatic overhaul of no. 1 and a new management team that includes Chief Creative Officer Jason Basmajian, who was lured from Brioni.
“It felt a little old, and I felt it lost a bit of its luxurious positioning,” said Basmajian, as he spent his time at no. 1 over the phone remember. “The question I asked myself was, ‘How do you create the modern Savile Row gentleman?’ There are other brands, like Tom Ford, that kind of pull that legacy and do it in a different way. We were not as jet-set or necessarily as smooth as those kinds of brands. I have always wanted to keep the British accent, but have an international language that uses those military clues in terms of colors and materials, but modernizes the cut. ” Basmajian was later sent to launch Cerruti again. “Then Trinity sold a majority stake to Ruyi and that’s when it started to unravel.”
Business has certainly declined significantly since its peak in 2010s. “Peak G&H distribution was 122 independent stores or concessions across China, Hong Kong and Taiwan in 2013. By June 2020, there were 40 outlets across the region. There are currently five outlets in the UK: no. 1 Savile Row, Birmingham, Chester, Bath and Winchester, ”says Mark Henderson, former CEO and chairman of Gieves & Hawkes. He is still an advisor, cherishes a penchant for the company and believes there is a market for what Gieves does.
“About half of our business is tailor-made and tailor-made, which is doing well in light of the circumstances. In November, we went to the US with our trunk show and took a quarter of a million pounds worth of orders on a trip that was just over a week long, which is not bad. ”
And it is in this direction that Henderson sees a possible future for the home. “I think the future is around made-to-measure clothes. It does not necessarily have to be appropriate, although the order books at the minute for fitting are very strong. Future ownership is critical. I very much hope it will be a long-term investor, with a belief in well-made, custom-made menswear with a British heritage. I would like to see us bought either by a good high quality group or a long term private investor. I think in the short term the focus will be on the UK business – we have a small footprint in the UK but they are quality stores. I was pleasantly surprised by the level of business that comes in for tailoring, made to order and tailored to British clients who want beautiful tailoring. ”
“Good tailoring is transformative,” agrees Basmajian. “It just feels great. It’s powerful. It gives you confidence. Power dressing is not a misnomer. ”
And besides giving confidence to the wearer, there is still something of good tailoring that keeps it going. It remains to be seen whether the same can be said for Gieves & Hawkes.
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