An optimist will look at COVID 19 as a opportunity. From the current crisis in fashion and retail will come the chance to snap up valuable brands at distressed prices. But, what makes a brand truly valuable?
Left - 1950s Teddy Boy in his classic Crombie coat
It usually starts with the name and whether it has any longevity, goodwill or future.
If that name has entered everyday lexicon then it is a very rare and valuable asset indeed. Joining the likes of Sellotape and Hoover, it rarely happens in fashion when a brand becomes the generic term, but Crombie is one such brand.
Meaning a formally tailored, three-quarters length covert coat with a contrasting velvet collar, the Crombie coat had recently become associated with the likes of Nigel Farage and Del Boy and a kind of dated city boy look.
J&J Crombie Ltd. was founded by John Crombie and his son James in Aberdeen in 1805, making it one of Britain's oldest brands. Starting as a fabric manufacturer, Crombie moved into making coats to supply armies in America and the UK during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Crombie lists Cary Grant, Winston Churchill, King George VI, Dwight D Eisenhower and John F Kennedy as distinguished wearers. From 1995 to 2004, Crombie also held the Royal Warrant as a supplier to the Prince of Wales.
A modern classic, a Crombie coat was retailing for around £900, but that is now on hold.
The brand’s home page currently reads, “In light of current world events, we have now fully suspended our retail, wholesale and supporting administrative operations until further notice. We will continue to monitor the global situation and hope to resume operations in the fullness of time. We’d like to thank our many clients for their custom and patronage and wish everyone a safe and healthy summer.”
Right - 1980s Car Dealer Arthur Daley in his Crombie
The brand has been up for sale for a while. It was formally announced in March 2020, when owner, Alan Lewis, 82, through his investment company, Hartley Investment Trust, told Drapers, “We are willing to divest non-core assets such as Crombie, which we believe would be of particular interest to a focused fashion business with the infrastructure to efficiently scale up this brand internationally, or to a retail chain looking to bolster its portfolio of unique intellectual properties.
“Crombie’s worldwide trademarks allow for expansion and diversification into a wide range of product categories, including cosmetics and accessories.”
Crombie has one store located at 48 Conduit Street in London which it sold in Nov. 2019 to a private Chinese buyer for £9.9 million with the intention of Hartley Investment Trust still occupying the building. Crombie’s turnover to the year ending March 2019 was £523,000, with a loss before tax of nearly £300,000, this was an improvement on 2018 when it was nearly £400,000 on a turnover of £430,000.
Hartley Investment Trust has interests in banking, property, energy, leisure and retail. Lancashire-born Alan J Lewis, CBE, a former Conservative Party Vice-Chairman told the Yorkshire Post in 2012, “I came here (Slaithwaite, West Yorkshire) and took over Illingworth Morris which was a public company, which was in trouble and owed the banks about £50m with 6,000 people employed and I turned it around from a substantial loss to a substantial profit and shares went from 13p to 186p.
“We concentrated on ensuring that we invested in the high margin business, low volume, rather than high volume, low margin business, so really concentrating on the quality end and the creative end of the business, and that made an awful lot of money.”
In the 1980s, the group was one of the world’s biggest wool textiles manufacturers handling almost half the wool imported into the UK. The Illingworth Morris group included up-market knitwear maker Hawico, worsted spinning operations Daniel Illingworth, suiting makers Huddersfield Fine Worsteds, chemical business Westbrook Lanolin, Woolcombers, Winterbotham Strachan & Playne (the world’s leading supplier of cloth for tennis balls and billiards tables), and Crombie.
Left - Three out of the four Beatles are wearing Tommy Nutter suits on the Abbey Road cover
Mr Lewis took the company private, making vast profits and a net lender to the money market – heralding the formation of Hartley’s investment banking division, Hartley Investment Trust, in 1983.
Hartley divested many of the brands with the implosion of the UK’s textile industry, turning many of the old textile mills into residential property and business centres, but retained the ownership of Crombie.
Another important brand Lewis owns is the iconic tailor, Tommy Nutter. In 2014, after a four year high court battle, Lewis agreed to buy the rights to ‘Nutters of Savile Row’ which left him free to use the Tommy Nutter brand.
The year before, David Mason's 'Nutters Holdings' won the right from the UK's Intellectual Property Office for the Tommy Nutter trademark to be revoked from J&J Crombie due to non-use. Mr Lewis was ordered to pay costs of more than £3,000. However, he appealed against the decision, arguing that he had kept the name in use. A spokesman for Mr Lewis said at the time, "Crombie owns the Tommy Nutter brand, and every season a range of Tommy Nutter branded clothing is available in Crombie stores in the UK."
Previously, Mr Lewis had been in talks to sell ‘Tommy Nutter’, a brand he had started with Tommy Nutter in the early 1980s when he had parted ways with business partner Edward Sexton and ‘Nutters of Savile Row’, to a subsidiary of Fung Capital - the private investment arm of the billionaire Fung family of Hong Kong. The deal never materialised.
Tommy Nutter produced a variety of legendary designs under his own name - including Jack Nicholson's Joker costumes for the 1989 Batman movie - while Crombie supplied him with the cloth. He died in 1992.
What we have here, if sold together, are two of Britain’s greatest sleeping menswear brands. One traditional, loaded in history, the other, a pioneer and icon of tailored fashion, but both heaving in icons from statesman to superstars. Confucius once said, “The gem cannot be polished without friction” and, while it would take substantial investment to bring these menswear two brands back, they have a natural sparkle and value most brands don't.
Buy TheChicGeek's new book FashionWankers - HERE
Without doubt the most famous menswear street in the world, for the uninitiated, Savile Row could be something of an anti-climax. While the name is known the world over as the home of male sartorial elegance, the reality of the street is something quite small, higgledy piggledy and with little on show to inspire or buy. It’s a mishmash of designer brands, traditional tailors and workshops, and empty shop units.
Left - Drake's new Savile Row store
A small side street behind elegant Regent Street, Savile Row has become much bigger than the place itself, and while brands desire to be able to put Savile Row in their addresses and on the sides of their bags, it can a difficult place to make money. There just isn’t that much traffic.
While nothing new, the street has seen something of a brand churn of late. Chester Barrie is closing down, Hardy Amies disappeared and the short lived Abercombie Kids store in the old Beatles’ Apple building is being pushed back into the larger Burlington Gardens store over the road while it turns itself back into offices for their European business.
I was recently invited to drinks at the Kilgour store on Savile Row and while on the way over I wanted to check out the new Drake’s store which had taken over from Alexander McQueen’s menswear store.
One of the bright spots of British menswear, Drake’s, the colourful accessories and preppy menswear business, has just moved around the corner from Clifford Street to a larger space and has built up a strong brand with locations from New York to Tokyo. Here, the new store has cosy striped window-type seats and an entire library of books. It looked like the kind of place you’d want to hang out in, or, heaven forbid, want to spend time in. It's welcoming. The product isn’t cheap, but it’s done properly.
Contrast this with the Kilgour store, which looks like a designer Swiss morgue, and these two juxtapositions perfectly illustrate the new mood in retail design. One reeks of personality and is overflowing with the owner’s touches, while the other is strict to the point of being a retail vacuum.
There was a time, a few year’s ago, when the majority of Savile Row brands were being snapped up by Chinese conglomerates. Fung Capital, the private investment vehicle of the Fung family that controls Hong Kong sourcing and apparel mega-corporation Li & Fung, bought the most including Gieves & Hawkes, Kilgour, Hardy Amies and Kent & Curwen. While they splashed the cash and moulded each for a particular type of customer at the beginning, things have become tougher and they show a tiring of interest. They placed Hardy Amies into administration in January, while selling to Trinity, another Chinese group, the Italian/French tailoring house Cerruti who cancelled their catwalk show and stopped the designer collection’s entire production.
What looked like little, individual outfits on London’s Savile Row often had hundreds of branded stores in China, invisible to outsiders, but they’ve all become quite bland and lacking personality with no clear direction with a continual revolving door of creative directors or in-house design teams. All these brands have become faceless.
Another new bright spark on Savile Row is the new ‘J.P. Hackett No.14 Savile Row’ store in the elegant townhouse Hardy Amies restored. The new Hackett store is warm and welcoming, and is saying “come in”, “make yourself at home” and “relax” with its homely yet elegant interior by designer Ben Pentreath with input from Jeremy Hackett.
Right - Inside Kilgour Savile Row
What Drake’s and Hackett both have is a figure head who is involved and makes decisions and menswear has always latched on to these men who lead.
Michael Hill, the current creative director of Drake’s, who is responsible for the brand's full wardrobe offerings, has a great eye and taste, while Jeremy Hackett has nearly 40 years of experience in the vintage menswear trade and then creating his own eponymous label. And this is what it all comes down to, people. You need a singular, strong vision to offer direction and also a domestic homeliness.
Stark, cold and soulless retail spaces are being replaced by the perennial idea of a traditional shopkeeper welcoming customers into their worlds. Admittedly, Hackett previously had a store on Savile Row which didn’t work, but this new bespoke concept is hoping to elevate the standard Hackett product and, moving the wholesale showroom from Bond Street and combining it with retail, will probably see them save money while in a stunning Georgian townhouse which will look good the world over.
Savile Row can be so much better and it’s always worth remembering what you thought on your first visit there. These two recent additions are adding some colour and Britishness to a street which had become something neither designer nor tailored.
Savile Row needs to hold onto what is good, but also be open to try new things. In 2016, Westminster Council said only new stores will only be allowed to open if they do not replace “bespoke tailoring uses”; “sell bespoke, unique, limited-edition or one-of-a-kind products”; and are “complementary to the character and function” of the zone, but that doesn’t mean 'The Row' should be stuck in a timewarp.
Left - Inside the ‘J.P. Hackett No.14 Savile Row’ store
This isn’t about just preserving Savile Row, it’s about making it more successful. It should be welcoming to all British brands and not look down on commercialisation. The skills that have survived this long will continue to survive and these two new additions show its about individuals going back to the idea of being a nation of shopkeepers rather than anonymous 'brands'.
BUY TheChicGeek's new book - FASHIONWANKERS - HERE