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Interview: Inside Turnbull & Asser

31-01-2017   


Paul Markevicius grabbed the chance by both lapels to learn more about Turnbull & Asser (T&A), a men’s traditional outfitters, resolutely English in character.

They pretty much had me at ’Good morning, sir’ by the silk-swathed manikins adorning the entrance to the new Global Headquarters at 14 South Street, Mayfair during the launch of their ’Deadly Dandies, Tea & Treachery’ collection for London Collections: Men. With guile befitting an espionage character from a classic British spy movie homaged in the T&A collection, I stealthily ambled…straight past the entrance. Myopic dufus meets Mayfair discrete.

t a interview 130 years

If you ask people who like to dress well (or imagine they do) about Turnbull & Asser, depending on age, parental influence or years spent hanging out in the specialist men’s outfitters region of Mayfair, ticking off the Beau Brummel check-list, then the recognition is usually shirts and ties and Jermyn Street. And at 130-years young this year, one of London’s pedigree British men’s bespoke, made to measure and ready-to-wear outfitters, known as shirt-makers of the English throne.

T&A were founded in 1885, by Reginald Turnbull a hosier, and Ernest Asser a salesman and set up in St James’s in the neighbourhood of gentlemen’s clubs and hi-end haberdashers. They flourished, relocating to their current Jermyn Street and Bury Street locations in 1915. Between 1920 and 1970 they grew into a clothier from a haberdashers and added sportswear. The Queen bestowed the right on Prince Charles to grant royal warrants in 1981, which he first gave to Turnbull & Asser, having been their client. In 1986 Ali Fayed, younger brother of Mohamed Al-Fayed bought Turbull & Asser, and renovated and modernised the Jermyn St store, without diminishing its old-world character. It’s a delicate balance, leveraging tradition but not being constrained by its inward-looking nature, particularly in an increasingly digitally-driven retail world. This is one of the key challenges facing not just T&A, but many of the established outfitters in Jermyn Street and Saville Row: how to remain true to one’s own history while cultivating new clientèle relationships for the future.

t a interview designer

Dean Gomilsek-Cole (pictured above), the personable head designer for T&A appointed 2-years ago, in the Mayfair headquarters and appointment-only showroom reminds me that it is only 130-years – a relative new kid on the block compared to some of the other Savile Row & Jermyn Street illustrious tailors. But no less important for that. When you consider that the pattern books include, just to name drop and catch a few chaps you might have heard of – Picasso, Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill (a whole window display and interiors devoted to him for good reason), Prince of Wales, Daniel Craig, Colin Firth and Taron Egerton. Yes, the archive is contemporary enough to include the acclaimed British Spy movie by Matthew Vaughan, Kingsman, as dressed by T&A. The story goes, the director’s father who just happened to be a customer of T&A, influenced Mr Vaughan junior to bring in his father’s dressing gown, a red silk moire weave, so that it could be reproduced for Colin Firth. No questions asked by this most discrete of gentleman’s outfitters. It’s fun hamming up with Dean the hush-hush intrigue associated with the British Secret service, as per the tongue-in-cheek style of the film. It’s also entirely in keeping with not taking themselves too seriously, providing a client perception that is far removed from stuffy associations with gentleman’s clubs and yesteryear nostalgia.

The irony is that they may have created and invented most of the proverbial old school ties in the first place. That they can also breathe new life into these classic styles is down to the perceptive ability and passion of Dean and his design team to take up the mantle for today’s and tomorrow’s T&A client. The classic jigsaw piece motif for example, is now 3-D, or broken to suggest a puzzle in motion being assembled. Much of the influence is drawn from the original archive, and with  ’original tie designs’ running into many thousands, he says, “it is not easy coming up with something new. Just when you think you have, you see in the archives it was originally created in the 1930s.”

A propitious tailoring alchemy brought T&A together with Dean, whose vision and sensitivities are in harmony with the traditions and modernism of T&A, ensuring the legacy is carefully managed. It is evident that this long tradition is respected by T&A’s design incumbent and architect of its future “I love the history, an element of story-telling in the collections and I want to lay down a new chapter for the archive, so that people looking back in years to come will see the transition.”

t a interview 15 16 collection

T&A AW 15/16

Dean joined very much on his own style terms and says he may haveruffled a few feathers with his appearance. Now, he would always wear a tie, but ignores ’ never brown in town’ as one of his shoe things along with his jeans. So you get a relaxed, waistcoat-jacket-and-tie-styled head designer, and refreshingly down to earth. Dean believes some of his 2-year tenure has been about demonstrating some new approaches and pushing the brand into new territories to his colleague’s, but at the same time learning what it means to be part of such a rich history.

I was curious to discover where Dean’s interest in making clothes started. He seemed to relax into memory lane, as if at this moment during his tenure at T&A with the recent AW15 collection under his belt, he could relate some of its history to where it all began for him as a designer. “I was sewing from the age of eight. I was always trying to make new ’Action Man’ outfits and copy the ones I couldn’t afford, though I don’t think my mother appreciated my obliterating the rubber gloves to get a new ’divers suit.’ ”

Dean learned about fit at an early age. His first suit, a 16oz chalk-stripe suit inherited from his father, was altered by him at the age of 14, along with his blazer and trousers, unnoticed by his classmates, but picked up on by the older boys, appreciating his flair. He was always going into charity shops, seeing the potential in things and what he could do with them, having first observed the fine fabric and workmanship that made the garment stand out. Where did the skills come from? Dean says, “yes, it probably was Flo Clough, a local woman in her late 50’s who came to the village school in Surlingham (6 miles outside Norwich) in the 70s, where everyone, boys included, were required to sew. (What a great idea!) I was probably the only boy who enjoyed it,” he remembers. He was forever looking at ways to improve his own style “watching Top of the Pops, imagining styles from bands like The Jam, but I never thought in strict terms of fashion, just clothes I would wear.”

The principles Dean lives by in the industry he works in, are appropriately described by him as time travelling  – looking at the celebrity-studded history, appreciating the value of the archives within the vast tie collection at T&A and trying to extend it. “For Richard Branson, the tie is a symbol of conformity, (and in his company likely to be unceremoniously snipped). I value the symbols of camaraderie in the old-boy network and want to put a positive spin on it. If you were to actually sit down and speak with these guys, they are extremely knowledgeable.” Old-fashioned virtues contrasting with a generation who may believe they are owed a digitally-cosseted design future by birth.

Dean was reminded of an incident of how a new tie design offered a departure point by chance, while still remaining faithful to the design that had inspired it. ‘The Broken Club Stripe’ (instantly evoking The Four Feathers British film nostalgia) involving an ex-military client living in New York who had damaged his tie. As is the case with almost all of their customers, there’s a loyalty towards T&A for everything. They explained they did not make this particular striped tie any more, but agreed to repair it. Somehow the repair came back with the fault woven into it. They were aghast but the owner loved the innovation, heralding the launch of a set of tie designs that “play with the stripe, breaking it and creating dissonance” but still true to the original design aesthetic. One elderly client donated his fine silk shirt collection back to T&A, in a box labelled simply Garment 57, with a hand-written note explaining T&A would be the only people he knew who would know how to look after and make the best use of them.

Dean is currently working on a new shirt design, taking the silhouette of what’s known as a pirate collar, adding four pockets (like ties, it is devilishly difficult to create new shirt designs). “To me, there’s a history and a romance to be observed, without it being stuck in the past. History acts as a springboard. New ideas are hard to pull off, but with more modern technology, finer yarns, better finishing, all taking the designs to new places keeping the intricacy of weaving and maintaining the blood-line of the shirt.”

Dean respects the wisdom from techniques learned from traditional weaving, using an emotive bloodline descriptor, and passionate about finding new textile patterns and pushing the people he works with to be creative. “I remember when I first started designing shirts, hand painting gouache, laying down strips of card, using hand-looms. Now, working with a weaver I can create CAD imagery that looks like it is woven. I put my faith in the suppliers I work with, it’s a very intimate relationship and ultimately what we produce should uphold the traditions of the British industry and be of great quality.”

Dean wishes in some ways they could go back to the days of some of the old style clothing like rain wear, with today’s solutions, and say to some of the great seafarers like Robin Knox-Johnston. “I’ve got some great waterproof and breathable fabric for you to wear,” knowing that in their day, the science wasn’t really there to make the fabrics breathable. “It’s good to have the look of a traditionalist, but with the hidden science in the fabric, we can now make things bacteria and stain resistant. These are the things we continue to explore with our weaving partners.”

A number of T&A’s innovations came out of military connections and research, working with companies like Fox Brothers, in Somerset, who supplied clothing for the First World War (a traditional English woollen and worsted manufacturer since 1772). T&A have Fox flannels created just for them in unique colour-ways, on display as dress coats designed as part of the AW 15/16 collection. “What you see is the historical context but also a very contemporary one in styling and the fabric design.” 

All shirts, pyjamas and boxer shorts are made at their factory in Gloucester with its own charming personnel stories including Beth and Kat – twins who started working there at 16 and are still there at 60. T&A had a long and at times exclusive supply relationship with the Thomas Mason mill in Lancashire, bought by the Albini mill family in 1992. Dean is extremely happy with the fact that it is Dr Silvio Albini, an Anglophile, who is “doing a wonderful job looking after the archive”, (acquired also when they took over the mill) and visits each year to Albini in Bergamo.

Dean sees the smaller manufacturers as potentially vulnerable, not just to the vagaries of economic cycles, but by being sucked into the whimsy of fashion that instantly makes them dependent on a precarious and inevitably short-lived fad. “How do you try and protect yourself against this?” I asked. Dean believes that by having more arms to the business, being able to respond faster to customer demand and having a stable base (of clients, products and service providers) is key. “We work with Vanners (weaving silk since 1740, based in Sudbury) and Stephen Walters (Silk Weavers for nine generations, weaving since 1720, also based in Sudbury) and I push them to innovate. The smoking jackets and dressing gowns on display, (designed with cunning ‘story-based motifs’ hidden within the designs) are all tie silks, produced full width so they can be made into clothing. I see the pattern on a bigger scale in my head working, and try and inspire them to produce the same thing.” 

He unequivocally states, “the factories need to move on.” Dean actually means they need to push themselves, take the good elements and focus on the areas with more longevity. Fashion in his mind “needs to be deciphered, every brand needs to be relevant today and to the consumer, from the date we opened in 1885, 130-years ago, to now.”

What new elements are finding their way into the T&A branding and marketing mix? Inspired by a long-standing and recently hyped film association, they are creating a series of films from the sketch to the actual garment about the personalities involved. “People aren’t just buying a shirt, it has been touched by many people along the way, there’s an emotional transaction and transference taking place, and we are looking for imaginative ways to communicate it.”

The films will appear on a T&A micro-site for the discerning buyer, who wants to know exactly how his clothing is made. Which will only increase with the ease of access and marketability of individual garment tailoring information. Along with the films, the e-commerce side of the business is being overhauled, making it far easier for the customer to buy online, and to ensure the brand image is properly positioned, not simply trading off its past glories. They have a blog, “Off The Cuff” and an active presence on Facebook and Instagram. Dean was very happy with the team behind their online marketing, helping to drive overseas business development in markets like Australia, Japan and Russia, where the British brand has traditionally done well. “But of course, bespoke still requires a fitting in the boutique for all the right reasons. We even have customers flying in from the US, preferring to be fitted in London, for the genuine experience from the source, even though we have a presence in New York. We also have something known as “stock special” – a semi-customised service for shirts, with lots of collar-cuff combinations.” 

T&A have plans to open new stores in Mayfair and the World Trade Centre, and will have four stores in total. They do not have the ambition to open store after store because they want to maintain exclusivity and a traditional intimacy, and carefully control the quality of in-store presentation. “We don’t want to make the portfolio much larger, we want to keep it more intimate and to ensure we get the house look and feel right first.” I mentioned some of the bigger brands expanding with multiple-outlets in certain markets, (Paul Smith for example has 250 + outlets opening in Japan) and Dean’s concern for these brands is “how long before the tail starts wagging the dog and the brand begins to disintegrate?” He re-stated the fundamentals governing T&A’s strategy, “we are a British brand and have a very English sensibility to what that means. Of course there are nuances in how we position ourselves in different markets, but the fabrics and styling have to be strictly regimented, otherwise the whole reason for being T&A disappears.”

That said, Dean is keen to point out that T&A has its own identity “we were the peacocks, producing Cossack shirts, kipper ties, the new kids on the block and only 130-years old. Peacocks don’t fit in with the crowd.” A playful deference to sophisticated male style and ostentation, with a hint of The Spy That Positively Adored Me about it, showcased on the day of the LC:M show was explained by Dean as I took in the stunning collection of silk and wool styling on dressing gowns, ties, scarves, pocket squares, jackets and coats. He clearly is on a mission, with adroit flair for taking traditional fabrics and styling to new places to create new looks, “to bring eccentricity back to the surface, showing the quirky nature of English life and to have fun while doing so.” 

I asked about apprenticeships and training. Having studied at Nottingham and valuing his training, Dean understands the importance of appropriate skill sets. “You don’t necessarily need to go to fashion school, it’s about understanding cut and look and house style: ergonomics and tailoring are two things that go together.” T&A are currently working with the London College of Fashion, on a modular-based extra curricular program, on a brief they set for the college, The Year of the Shirt which includes jewellery design for cuff-links and tie pins. This involves T&A specialists going to the college, giving workshops and talks and helping to develop student’s knowledge and an inside on the professional hi-end market. “It’s important connecting with students, even if they haven’t heard of Turnbull & Asser and no reason why they should necessarily.”

Another boy’s-own beguiling feature within the T&A annals not only deserves its own publicity but practically writes it itself.  It was a privileged introduction to the archival history of this, most great of British men’s outfitters. Up some reassuringly time-worn creaking polished stairs of the bespoke fitting rooms of T&A, in 23 Bury Street, (off Jermyn Street) I met the gracious and effusive Martin Wise, brought out of retirement to catalogue the archives of T&A. It was as though he had been given an access all areas pass to outfitters heaven, smiling about the glorious task he had been gifted. And with what unfolded, I felt I had been given the pass for a few precious, unforgettable moments.

Having retired from T&A in 2002, he received a call in 2004 asking if he would be interested in coming back for a special project to go through the old records. “Archiving literally meant sorting and cataloguing information in boxes kept in a room containing all sorts. Letters from royalty, presidents. We have promotional material going way back, images, stock photos, wholesale customer records.” Martin had brought himself up to speed adapting the same archiving software Harrods had used AD-LIB, similar to that used by the Imperial War Museum for the task.

I was far too impatient however to wait for a chronological treat of who’s-who in bespoke heaven. I wanted couture sound bites, and met a gentleman willing to indulge me. I was in a room that held the history of many of the world’s most famous people, their dressing habits, preferences, sizes, types of orders, frequency and volume, mostly men – and some women also as buyers for their husbands, partners and for themselves “wives followed husbands, and in those days T&A used to do ladies blouses.”

“We are really talking about different people. People who move in different circles and who behave differently. Buying forty hand-made shirts to be sent to a particular location where they spend a few weeks of the year.” Martin gave me a closer perspective of the role T&A played in the late 60s and 70s as one of the top men’s stores of the time. When they had a sale it was a really big deal, comparable on a smaller scale to the Harrods Sale, for the discerning male who knew the quality they were buying at discounted prices with the legendary queues stretching down the block. Often Quaglino’s restaurant opposite was hired to cater for the numbers, and photos show a string quartet hired to play during the sale period. “There was a famous incident when Lord Snowden and David Frost were refused entry into a New York club because they weren’t wearing ties. They were wearing T&A ‘Cossack style’ shirts. Overnight this style of shirt, (a sort of turtle neck with button at the back) became famous.”

In some respects, and it is all about respect, some of the T&A history is best kept where it should remain, in the best traditions of gentleman’s tailors – between the client and his (her) tailor only. Journalistic licence and the public domain allows us to take some of this history and update it. Some estates are categorical in their steadfast refusal to make public the details of certain celebrities’ measurements. No inside on the inside leg for these boys. But you need to visit and soak up the atmosphere, to allow your imagination to flourish while you stand where the greats once stood.

The highlight for me? Undoubtedly, the pattern book parade that Martin had kindly assembled for me as a tantalising titbit of their archive of famous personalities. When you visit, you will see autographed photos of Stephen Fry, Ronald Reagan, Daniel Craig, Jason Statham, Walther Mathau (by all accounts a hilarious character off-screen also), Hugh Heffner in a dressing gown (of course) and the list or parade really does go on, to include sportsmen, politicians and loyal, long-standing customers with their own shirt bags. The things you won’t see, the ‘Day Book’ in February 1968, a veritable Lords and Ladies, society and celebrity ‘who’s-who’, the Pablo Picasso swatches for his shirt collars, a ‘Zephyr shirt (meaning cool breeze and a quality lightweight weave) or the pattern book envelopes. One that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up simply had the names, Ringo, George, Paul and John in blue pencil on the front. Inside the envelope, written on the pattern block, were the same names, in the same order, denoting the sleeve length of each of our treasured, iconic Beatles, measured not far from where I was standing.

www.turnbullandasser.co.uk

By Paul J Markevicius




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