I am not a fashionista; trends may come and go (usually over my head – metaphorically rather than literally speaking), however, I have always had an interest in good clothes, a discerning appreciation for timeless quality with a quirky confidence and natural assuredness that one aspires to in ones own appreciating years. One company that has always caught my eye, over those years, because of its relaxed but refined nonchalant elegance, is Drake’s London. Although a relatively young company, co-founded by Michael Drake and partners in the late 1970s, Drake’s has a reputation that belies its modest age. Specialising in men’s accessories; starting out at first with scarves and handkerchiefs and more recently including knitwear, hats and shoes, but still, as in the very beginning, most notably ties.
Drake’s is different to other gentlemen’s outfitters in that, as well as impeccable quality and commitment to craftsmanship of design and production – that similarly its British counterparts can also be applauded for – Drake’s style has what the style icons of the world, the Italians, call ‘sprezzatura’; which can be explained as a rehearsed spontaneity, a studied carelessness, a well-practiced naturalness, or as Mr Porter simply puts it “The art of looking as if you haven’t tried too hard to look that good.” Personified, it’s the exasperating friend we all have and are secretly a little jealous of; the quirkily handsome one that always looks well dressed but not stuffy, well turned out yet at the same time casual, well shod and yet unfussy.
Michael Drake retired in 2010 and handed the mantle onto his understudy, Michael Hill, himself born and bred within the tie industry, so, is the perfect heir to the Drake’s throne of relaxed formality. Michael has a genuine passion for clothes, a reverence to the heritage of Drake’s and the award-winning artisanship of creating quality pieces, using time-honoured methods from British designers, textile workers and suppliers, as well as carefully chosen materials from artisans further afield, most notably Italy. Michael is reassuring in his commitment that although with a change in ownership (Malaysian businessman Mark Cho now co-owns the company with him) and an opening of the Clifford Street store (conveniently located between Savile Row and Bond Street), the core values and practices of Drake’s will remain true; remaining the brand of choice for the traditional clientele as well as welcoming new customers as they discover the importance of eschewing dramatic imitations of quality, or fussy over-priced conservatism (with a small c!), but just substance without pomposity, in other words, the simple joy of “that’s a bloody nice tie!”.
Here, Michael will explain to us in more detail, just what makes Drake’s London so special…
Firstly, for those readers who aren’t familiar with Drake’s, please can you tell us about the company, your ethos and style?
Drake’s was established by Michael Drake in 1977 who started making and wholesaling luxury hand-printed silk scarves, followed by hand-made silk ties and then handkerchiefs, all from a factory in London, which has grown to become not just the largest independent producer of handmade ties in Britain but also a luxury clothing accessories company. We have gone to great lengths to keep manufacturing in London and to produce a very British product. The company was bought by Mark Cho and myself in 2010, and whilst there has been a change in ownership we have maintained the same ethos and aesthetic within our designs, maintaining the high levels of craftsmanship, the same commitment to manufacturing in England; in fact we have recently invested in a new factory in the appropriately named Haberdasher Street. We still make private labels for our wholesale clients, but through our recently opened store in Clifford Street, just off Savile Row, we now carry a range of tiewear, neckwear, jackets, shirts, outerwear and leatherwear, sourced mainly from the UK, but also Italy, which we can sell direct to consumers.
Essentially, we consider our design to be very English in style, with a European influence; so slightly relaxed, and a little bit informal, tasteful, and some would say a little less brash than other English brands. We’re particularly known for our use of colour, patterns and motifs.
What are Drake’s influences for new designs?
We draw heavily on our archive of woven silks and prints used over our entire history and we take a lot of inspiration from the archive. Classic menswear doesn’t really change quickly, so we’re not looking to make drastic changes each year. So, when we make new designs it’s invariably more about tweaking, re-interpreting and re-colouring old designs, to create new ones relevant for today, playing around with different textiles and fabrics. Sometimes changes are very basic, such as re-colouring on a more weather-friendly weight, such as wool for the autumn/winter collection, but silk for spring/summer. It some cases we are influenced outside of our archive, such as a tie in our autumn/winter collection in 2012 was inspired from the design on a 1950s bath robe that we liked.
We also take inspiration from the mills themselves. We use the same mills that we used when the company was first established, so there’s a long history of collaboration. The mills sit ahead of the design process, and when our design team go and visit the mills each season, the mills have already anticipated the general direction that we’re heading in and will suggest ideas that would be a natural evolution for us.
New developments in the mill could be things like new yarns that we can use based on new technologies being developed or old weaving machines that have been resurrected. For instance, we’ve recently included a boude yarn in our collection of textured ties which we haven’t used before, which is one that was used by one of the mills back in the 1950s. Any new designs that we develop ourselves, or suggested by the mills, will be kept in our archive so we can refer to them at a later date.
Before joining the business, what was it about Drake’s that made you want to work for them early in your career?
I was very excited when Michael Drake asked me to work for him, for a number of reasons. The fact that I could be involved in the development of the products, working with mills, that are great at what they do, developing cloth and helping to put a Drake’s collection together was really exciting. That, and the fact that Michael was working with some really special shops around the world, and I would have the opportunity to speak with them, and learn from them, was a great privilege. It wasn’t all about being part of a ‘brand’ selling nice products either – Drake’s is a manufacturing company at heart, and there aren’t that many companies that still do that in the UK, so I was really close to the products being made, able to smell them, which allowed me to be immediately connected to the products. I couldn’t get that experience working elsewhere – sourcing the materials, manufacturing the product, sales; putting it all together. Michael really knew the business inside out, and for him to share his working life with me was a great experience.
What do you think are the main contributing factors to how successful the Drake’s brand has become?
On a general level there has certainly been a resurgence in menswear over the past seven or eight years, and I think men around the world are enjoying wearing a tie again, especially casually, where perhaps they weren’t ten or fifteen years ago. I think men are just more interested in menswear generally, which we can probably attribute to the proliferation of menswear forums and blogs. Where once people interested in clothes may have been perceived as feminine, this isn’t the case any longer, and people are more adventurous in their combinations, such as colour, for instance.
Specifically Drake’s? I think the fact that we’re seen as a distinctly British company is a big selling point for us. People like things with heritage and provenance, and the fact that we’re still manufacturing in London after all these years is definitely appreciated.
Do you think men are more conscious of their appearance than they used to be?
Yes, I think so. I would put it down to the internet mainly; the ease at which people can share images on different platforms such as Instagram and Tumblr means people can see what other people are wearing more readily. Also, online forums like ‘Styleforum’ allow men to gain greater knowledge about fashion and fabrics than they have ever been able to, and men have a thirst for knowledge! It works both ways, and companies can now offer products that men can wear more easily – stylish, rather than fashionable. It happens that Drake’s falls into this category, although we didn’t set out to achieve that – we just set out to create some classic and stylish items that you can wear, which were never meant to be trend dependent.
You have been involved in a lot of collaborations in recent years, why is that?
We’ve collaborated with the likes of Fred Perry, Comme des Garcons, Monocle, J Crew, Hodinkee and Private White VC in recent years, amongst others. It’s an interesting concept for us; people are aware of us, what we do, and the level of quality we aspire to, and it’s nice to do something with companies that share the same qualities and vision as us, but with a different style – Dover Street Market, for instance, is very urban, but there is mutual respect for what each other does. I suppose our position in the market has allowed us the privilege of working together with these great brands, and it’s nice to come together to create great things.
Is there a typical Drake’s customer?
Not at all. Our customers generally range from those in the early twenties to those in their mid-sixties, which is a huge range, but we have some customers outside this range as well. I recently met a family in our Clifford Street store that had flown in from New York; it was the 19 year old son that had specifically wanted to visit the store, not the father! Our customers seem to be getting younger, but we haven’t lost the original Drake’s customer, and that probably accounts for the wide range.
We also have an extensive range of fabrics; silks for instance – we have tussar silk, madder silk, shantung silk to name just a few, and this, coupled with the fact that we offer a wide range of items at different price points (ranging from a £1,300 overcoat to a pocket square for £50), means we have something for everyone that is interested in Drake’s. As far as geographic base of our customer goes, our brand seems to be really appreciated all over the world.
Why do you think that brands like Drake’s are so well received in overseas markets?
Well, the company was actually started as an export business, for international clients, that wanted the English look, and essentially the company still is an export company. Our products are very popular in Japan, South Korea and America, but especially in European markets such as Spain, Portugal, Italy and France.
I think in markets like Italy and France, where there is more of a conservative establishment that is very international, men take a real interest in clothes and fashion, and they appreciate the quality and craftsmanship of the products they buy. There are more independent retailers in those countries, and men spend more time choosing what to buy to achieve the sophisticated look. The ‘made in Britain’ factor is very important to them, and they want to incorporate what they imagine to be the quirky, individuality of the British male into their style – this notion of ‘conservative with a twist’. But craftsmanship and quality are universally appreciated, not just in Italy and France, and that’s why we are popular all over the world; the Japanese, for instance, whether they’re traditional or trendy, like the quality of our products, and they also like the fact that it’s popular with the Italians.
Not so much in the Britain, but in America, Japan and Scandinavia, I think men are more willing to take a risk in the way they dress, such as wearing tie and pocket square combinations; although I feel that is starting to change in Britain.
Also, I think, it’s because our range is quite large, but it’s not so large that it’s overwhelming; just enough that there’s something for everyone, in all corners of the globe. Our floral ties and bow ties are very popular in Japan, and our tartans and plaids are popular in America, but grenadine ties, for instance, are universally popular. Many of our products aren’t weather dependent – such as our ties and pocket squares – so we don’t need to change the fabric depending on which overseas market we are wholesaling to; this wasn’t a conscious decision on our part though.
Do you think the younger generation has an appreciation for the tradition of British textile manufacturing and investing in quality over quantity?
I believe so. People really appreciate the fact that it’s the materials, as well as the product, that are being made here in Britain, but also elsewhere in Europe, such as Italy. As there are so few items being made by hand any more, people view it as a luxury to own something that is handmade. They view it as a nice counterpoint to all the technology they’re using in other aspects of their lives. Take the grenadine silk that we use for our ties – they’re woven in Como, Italy, on old shuttle looms from the 1920s – there’s only six of those looms left in the world! I can really a see a change in the younger generation, acknowledging and respecting companies that aren’t simply outsourcing manufacturing to the Far East to make something as cheap as possible.
Offering custom ties is quite unusual; what prompted you to start doing this, and can you explain how it works?
The Drake’s bespoke option was created for people who like customising and personalising their style. Our ties are normally manufacturing in one length and width – 147cm long, and 8cm wide – which sits between the lines of the classic width, but slim enough to be worn by younger customers, who prefer a slim looking tie. However, there are always some people who are much taller, shorter or broader who feel that the standard dimensions aren’t quite right for them, and so we provide a bespoke option where customers have a choice of length, width, tipping style and lining. These are not extreme changes, maybe a centimetre here or there, so only very subtle. Having said that, people don’t generally find anything wrong with our collection, but it’s an option for the rare cases.
What’s next for Drake’s; are we going to see more collaborations, opening of stores, greater product ranges?
The past few years since we opened our Clifford Street store has been exceptionally busy for us. We’ve launched our factory shop here at 3 Haberdasher Street, so it’s possible for customers to buy end of season lines. We’ve also acquired Rayner & Sturges, the readymade and private label shirt makers, and our intentions there are to continue offering private label shirts as well as relaunching the Cleeve brand, which Rayner & Sturges own, as a shirt line for Drake’s.
We will gradually expand our product range if we see something that we feel could be put into future collections, but we need to be comfortable it fits our requirements of quality, reputation and craftsmanship. We will also continue to collaborate with the likes of Fred Perry, J Crew and Mr Porter, and hopefully with others as well. Whilst we are ambitious, and would like to open additional stores, we are more the slow-burning types, and like to do things at our own pace.
Finally, for someone like me who doesn’t have much of an appreciation for ties, can you give any tips as to choosing a tie to wear?
A tie is so important in terms of the overall outfit, and is more symbolic than utilitarian. I’d always recommend a hand-made tie, rather than one stitched by machine, as hand-made ties are three-dimensional. Choosing a tie shouldn’t be complicated, but I’m generally influenced by the style of jacket being worn, the jacket’s lapels and the shirt being worn. Some ties, such as a madder-print tie, can be worn with both a tweed jacket as well as a tropical weight wool jacket, whereas a linen tie ought not be worn with a tweed jacket. If I want to wear a particular tie, then my outfit will revolve around that. A safe option is to wear a navy blue tie (whether silk grenadine, silk knit or wool-silk blend); it’s considered a classic, and you don’t rally have to think about what it goes with, and this colour accounts for a high proportion of the ties we sell.
Thanks to Michael Hill for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. All images © Drake’s.