Inspired by the Past, Looking Forwards to the Future
With his first collection now in the shops, Gieves & Hawkes’ creative director John Harrison ponders the ethos and inherent style of Number 1 Savile Row
Article by Rupert Watkins Photography by Andy Barnham
There’s no doubt there’s a mystique about Number 1 Savile Row. With its naval tailoring heritage, spacious premises – and the world-famous street sign just outside its door – Gieves & Hawkes is certainly the highest profile firm on the Row and the only one of the area’s illustrious tailors to have made to jump from specialised tailoring to style brand.
With this heritage – dating back to 1771 on the Hawkes side of the house – and name recognition, there certainly could be an element of pressure in driving the firm forwards. For creative director John Harrison though, it’s a return home – he first worked for Gieves & Hawkes in the early 2000s – “having been here before, I understood the ethos, the soul of the brand and what it represents.”
Gieves & Hawkes has been under the Hong Kong headquartered Trinity Group since 2012 and the group has invested heavily in this most quintessentially English brand. “I was keen to return; there had been a vast amount of good work done and I felt there was an opportunity to re-invigorate its Englishness and naval heritage,” remarks John. The firm has in recent years hugely expanded in the Far East, there are now almost 50 stand alone shops in the region. With that expansion had come a perception it had begun to stray from its roots. As John points out, “we have incredible archives we can call upon, we could do season after season inspired by these alone.” With ever evolving tastes John has also been keen to impart more individuality to collections, “I wanted to stress a very English colour palette – again reach back to what makes Gieves & Hawkes what it is.”
John is eager to establish stylistic consistency from season to season and work off Gieves & Hawkes core DNA utilizing what he describes as “consistent identifiers” such as the firm’s crown logo or “1771” icon as much as the label. The house label is now very slick and minimalist though, especially given the Royal Warrant’s marketing allure in the East, the writer admits to hankering after the older blue labels where all three warrants were displayed – visually busier on the eye but perhaps grander and very identifiable.
Over the past decade, there has been a clear shift to less structured and casual clothing. John refers to the traditional house cut as, “powerful – it clearly shows its military past with a strong shoulder and lean, longer coat with a slightly larger lapel.” Keeping this silhouette is important but John has used lighter canvases to keep the English outline whilst keeping on trend with, “looser and more elegantly comfortable clothing,” as he puts it. John is also driven by the desire keep the item relevant to today’s consumer, “Gieve’s tailoring clientele is incredibly diverse – from 18 to 80 – but from a collection and design point of view, I focus on the aspirational 35 – 45-year-old and seek to keep the garment relevant moving forward – what will that customer potentially want a decade down the line and will he still be wearing that item?”
Tailoring remains Gieves & Hawke’s main emphasis; the house does both US and Far Eastern trunk shows and offers a popular made to measure option. As John points out, the price gap between bespoke and made to measure is substantial and well-documented; given the level of individual choice and detail it offers over ready to wear it is unsurprising to hear John indicate he is keen to expand made to measure. Whilst currently focused on more formal suits and jackets and sitting in its own department, the house is introducing a made to measure service for their shirts and John hopes in future seasonal collections, a core number of designs will be offered at a custom-made level.
With so many stores – and their Trinity Group owners – in the Far East, Gieves & Hawkes has developed extensive knowledge of that market and its trends. Unlike the UK where sales are roughly 70:30 in favour of formalwear, the Far East is more akin to 55:45 in favour of casual clothing. John comments the Chinese remain heavily drawn towards very branded goods, “however, they are learning to embrace the understated look. The Chinese want individual pieces, we find limited runs to be very popular.” Many in the Far East still look to Europe for iconic brands and the pinnacle of western style, “there is a softer, glossier look to many European brands that chimes with what Chinese believe equals luxury.” Nonetheless, made to measure has proven very popular in China, given the climate (especially in Hong Kong) lighter fabrics are sought after though Gieves & Hawkes has found their basic house block out there need to be a bit shorter and narrower across the shoulders. As many warranted British brands have found, the connection with Royalty and the status imparted upon those firms by the Royal Warrant has been a key tool in marketing, reassuring and attracting a new audience.
In a global marketplace, John comments there are several major challenges the house must answer. The first and biggest one is finding the balance between a new generation wanting ever more casual garments and upholding and driving forward the very raison d’etre of British tailoring, “we must appeal to that broader evolving market that sees less need for formal clothing. Yet there will always be that requirement for more formal wear and we are the world leaders at it.” Over his career, (he has worked at Reiss and James Purdey & Son as well) John is struck by the ever-increasing speed of innovation. Not just in the garments, though Gieves & Hawkes now uses technical fabrics in about 15 per cent of its outerwear, but in the speed of communicating a brand’s values, heritage and ethos. John doesn’t believe in the old school runway show, “just outdated” but he sees the future in multi-faceted formal and informal marketing, “a house such as us has to meet the expectations of a huge range of potential customers and ensure the connection between online to real world and visa versa is seamless. Our new customer must be able to follow our story across formats right the way up until they come through that shop door. Or leave the shop and be able to continue that relationship with us online.”
Initial sales indicate that John’s first Autumn Winter 2018 collection has been well received by customers old and new in all the house’s six UK shops, “the suits and chunky knitwear has seen a lot of interest.” He sees Gieves & Hawkes continuing to be that rare being – the go to brand – offering both the formal and casual end of the wardrobe in a relevant and exciting manner. Work has continued on Spring / Summer 2019 and planning begun on next year’s Autumn / Winter book with John keen to push the aforementioned consistency of design whilst slowly tightening and polishing the kernel of each collection. With the building at Number 1 continuing to prove a huge asset and the instability bought on by a rapid turnover of creative direction now seemingly behind the brand, the way appears clear for John to take Gieves & Hawkes forward both at home and flying the flag for British panache and tailoring expertise in Asia.
Enquiries: Gieves & Hawkes, 1 Savile Row W1S 3JR / 0207 4342001 / other UK stores Bath, Chester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Winchester / www.gievesandhawkes.com/