In the Shadow of London Bridge, Ties Lurk
Having been focused on the US and Far Eastern markets for their first 15 years, Seaward & Stearn ties are now starting to become better known in this country
Article by Rupert Watkins, photography by Andy Barnham
There are many excellent British brands that operate under the radar in this country but enjoy widespread recognition and a dedicated following abroad. Seaward & Stearn is one of those companies. Founded by Gary Seaward and Mark Stearn, the pair aim to bring a modern and bright edge to the best of English tie making.
The two met whilst working at Turnbull & Asser; like all wonderful ideas, “Seaward & Stearn was born over a coffee” Mark recalls. He himself had worked for Charles Hill, the tie makers, until they were bought out by Turnbull & Asser in the early 1990s. Moving to the Jermyn Street shirt and hosiery makers, Mark ran the wholesale part of the brand until 2003. At that point, like many, Mark began to ponder, “did I want to move on, embrace a fresh challenge and do something I had long wanted to do?”
For its first 15 years, Seaward & Stearn has utilised its founders’ excellent relationships with retailers in the US and Far East, “you have to channel your resources and energy to precise effect – hence our focus on these areas” Mark comments. Their ties are now stocked in just under 80 stores across the States, ranging from smaller boutiques to a number of famous department stores. “The US customer does seem to be moving back to more intimate speciality stores,” Mark comments “people want that level of service – that willingness to go that extra mile.” Gary very much takes the lead in driving sales on the other side of the pond. As well as being stocked in the major Japanese boutiques, Seaward & Stearn also run two trunk shows in the country each year. Interestingly, Mark remarks that they see a younger clientele in the Far East; the Japanese adore the artisanship behind the brand, having always embraced exceedingly dapper and precise dressing.
As well as the business side of Seaward & Stearn, Mark loves creating the actual product, “I love the initial development stage of putting a collection together – when ideas and possibilities are fresh in the mind.” Within the wider industry, Mark does fear that there is not enough creative talent at the moment, “there are some excellent what I call “selectors” who can pick a trend, a design, but few who can envision and create the entire picture from scratch.” The average size of a Seaward & Stearn collection is between 80 and 100 ties. There are certain perennials, “some classics always sell, spotted ties will always remain popular.” From the beginning, purple and pink have been the brand’s signature colours.
When it was founded, Seaward & Stearn were initially based in Surrey but then moved to London within two years as both Mark and Gary wished to be at the heart of the action. They have been in their small workshop tucked down a side street in the shadow of London Bridge ever since. Walking in, you are confronted with the marvellous organised confusion that seems to go with many artisan firms. Rolls of silk of every hue and texture are stacked up to the ceiling, ties and shirts are piled up in every direction and there is that very unique air of restrained concentration that you find in many a craftsman’s workshop. Certainly, the firm is doing well – the building bugles at the seams. “We are a family at Seaward & Stearn,” Mark proudly enthuses. There is a small team of 25 and many of the employees have been there from the very beginning. One of the team has worked with Mark for almost 30 years from Charles Hill right through to Seaward & Stearn. With her wealth of knowledge, she helps train up the latest generation of tie makers.
New additions to the team can take up to 15 months to perfect their art. Mark aspires to run more structured and defined apprenticeship schemes in the future. Like many, he remains uncertain that the recent burst of official support and blasé attitude of some people in the British craft world masks a problem that much of this training could be too little too late.
Only more recently has the firm begun to comprehensively go after the British market. “It is different,” Mark muses. “To get a grip, you have to have a name.” Given the numbers of well known, well established men’s brands, coming over to the UK is a very different proposition. Seaward & Stearn has made ties of behalf of a number of famous English firms but over 2016, they relaunched their own website and very deliberately pushed hard on social media to begin to gain UK traction under their own name. Mark feels one of the issues facing the firm’s expansion, “is the relative lack of luxury goods stores in the UK.” It is a very different boutique environment than say, in the US. Their British based e-commerce is now starting to take off on the back of their social media drive. Over the next couple of years, the firm is planning to look at the small number of genuine luxury men’s stores to roll out their unique products in before looking to approach some of London’s department stores.
Despite being in a seemingly more casual age, Mark remains irrepressibly confident in the continuing appeal of classic dressing, “we are not in any way fashion – we are style, which is more timeless.” He feels in some ways the menswear market has retained, and even actively returned to, traditional standards and values. Seaward & Stearn already sell a lot of wider eight and eight and a half centimetre ties and Mark feels, after years of rather skinny ties, there are signs of a strong return to more classically proportioned neckwear.
In a stylistic world where large conglomerate backed brands appear ever too prevalent, it is wonderful to see such a firm thriving. Challenges certainly remain, as Mark believes a constant concern is finding the right people at the right time in the company’s evolution, “there are very few businesses like us left any more”. There is thus an important and potentially fragile corporate sartorial and artisan memory that must be preserved. Seaward & Stearn though certainly lives up to one of its co-founders’ views that “when you go out into the market you need that extra bit of inspiration.” With their modern sleek designs, allied to their deep understanding of men’s ties, this small firm tucked away in the shadow of London Bridge certainly offers that.
Enquiries: Seaward & Stearn, Kamen House, 22 Magdalen Street, London SE1 2RH / 020 74039770 / www.seawardandstearn.com/