January 20, 2008

savile row, three years on.

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Thomas Mahon and I launched English Cut, a blog about the life of a small, Savile Row tailor, three years ago this week.

1. Our backstory was told pretty well in Robert and Shel’s 2006 book, “Naked Conversations”. A traditional English tailor [Thomas] and a blogging cartoonist [Me] live in the same remote, Cumbrian village. Being of similar age, we become drinking buddies in the same local pub. One evening over a few beers, during a particularly slow and impecunious month for the both of us, we hatch a fiendish plan. We joined forces to create a tailoring blog, englishcut.com. It gets noticed, big-time. Sales increase, big-time. Later, our friend, Dave Parmet in New York helps us land a major PR coup in The New York Times. Next thing you know, Thomas’ tailoring firm is being flooded with orders. That was over two years ago. Our order books have been pretty much full since then. We stopped taking on new customers a while ago.

2. We’re a small firm; there are just four of us. Tom doing the cutting, plus measuring and fitting the customers, Griff in his shed, doing the main sewing and alterations, Jenny helping Griff out with the alterations, as well as manning the phones and the admin… and me somewhere in the background, making sure all the “Evil Plans” we hatch stay that way.

3. We want to stay small. We don’t want to diversify. We just want to carry on making “the best suits in the world”, and that’s it. We tried scaling the business in other directions, but somehow it never worked for us, emotionally or otherwise. Hey, at least we had a go of it.

4. The phrase, “The Best Suits In The World” is actually not hyperbole. Our suits are way up there, in terms of quality. Sure, you may prefer the house style of other world-class firms, like Welsh & Jeffries, Anderson & Sheppard, or some of the Italian folk, but to say we’re not roughly in the same ballpark as them would be either intellectually dishonest, or just plain misinformed.

5. Our suits retail at about $4000.00. We could probably sell them for far more than that, we just choose not to. Some of our competitors in the same quality bracket are asking for three to four times that sum. Perhaps a long list of orders gives us more of a feeling of security and well-being, than charging an extra X-hundred-dollars per suit.

6. We commonly refer to the people who buy our suits as “customers”, though as the relationships deepen with time, that word no longer seems to do it justice. Words like “allies”, "collaborators" or “partners in crime” seem somehow more appropriate. Whatever business you are in, I think ideally, that's EXACTLY how one should feel about the people giving you their business.

7. Tom is very much the public side of the business. Of all our customers, I’ve probably met less than a quarter of them in person. I’m OK with that; I’m guessing that people in the high-end suit market would rather hang with the impeccably-dressed-and-well-mannered tailor, than hang with the scruffy, foul-mouthed cartoonist.

8. Though Tom is as hardcore “Savile Row” as you can get, we don’t have our own shop on the Row. Instead, we rent space at Number 12 Savile Row, depending on our customers' schedules. This practice has always been common for the small independents, since the very earliest days. The marketing dorks who prattle on about “Absolutely needing a prestigious Savile Row address in order to maintain the upmarket Savile Row brand” are devoid of any genuine interest or historical knowledge of actual hardcore Savile Row culture. Nor do they appear too clued up about a few hucksters that I won’t mention, who have paid full price for the Savile Row address, even though their work, shall we say, is pretty much on the substandard side. Besides, a big part of our business is with our American customers. To manage them, Thomas flies out to the States every few months and sees them in his hotel suite. New York, Chicago, Atlanta and San Francisco. A ten-day tour, 3-4 times a year. It works quite well for us. We’re lucky to have the type of customers who would rather see the money go into the suits, rather than the oak paneling and the high rents the already-rich landlords would demand from us. Frankly, given our customers' locations and schedules, I think the money's better spent on air fares. Like I once said to Tom early on, “The guys who demand that we shell out a quarter of a million dollars per year on rent for bad reasons, we don’t need as customers.” Luckily for the business plan, our customers also concur.

9. The big issue with this business is that there is simply not enough sewing tailors out there. We're very fortunate to have Griff and some WONDERFUL freelancers on board, but their kind are very thin on the ground. Since Griff joined the trade as an eighteen-year old apprentice over two decades ago, the world has moved on. Though I take some limited comfort that every other tailoring firm on the Row is having the exact same problem, long-term it's a real pebble in our shoe. It's not that we can't afford to hire an apprentice- we can- but to find a person who has the right cocktail of personal chemistry, stamina, talent and discipline to go down the whole ten year path it takes to make it to Griff or Tom's level, is harder than it looks. The only upside is, well, at least we'll never become a commodity.

10. We've had our down time, as well as our up time. The first year was a lot of fun. It was terrific watching the brand grow from nothing, and Tom's name spread far and wide along the internet. But eventually this online word-of-mouth translated into sales, and lots of them. The onus of the firm switched from the marketing, to the making. Which is how it should be, though once we reached this point there wasn't a lot for me, as marketer, to contribute. My involvement in the firm plateaued there for a while, as we thought about how to take the company and our relationship forward. Now we're back on track, while we make plans to launch the second phase of the company over the next year. The plan is to grow the English Cut brand without compromising our hardcore, small business ethos. Without changing the current size of the firm [Maybe we'll add an apprentice or two, but that's about it]. After over a year of back-and-forth between us two, we finally came up with a fiendish plan for Phase Two. I'm more excited about the business than I've ever been.

Posted by hugh macleod at January 20, 2008 7:37 AM | TrackBack
Comments

Has the story ever appeared as a documentary on TV?

Jamie

Posted by: Terinea Weblog at January 20, 2008 11:59 AM

Oh no! Blue Monster cuff-links ... :-)

Posted by: phil jones at January 20, 2008 12:25 PM

As I've often told you, I think English Cut is my favourite Gaping Void project - the one from which so many ideas, analogies and insights can be drawn. It's good to read that new things are afoot.

Posted by: John Dodds at January 20, 2008 1:05 PM

As the great-grandson of a tailor (and a blogger), I love this post. Our family business was at the other end of the market. Their specialty was making new pants that were a perfect match for absolutely any suit, for the workers who couldn't afford to replace the whole thing. Banner Pants, Milwaukee, 1900's - 1940's.

Posted by: Andy Sernovitz at January 20, 2008 1:41 PM

I love this--it's the corollary of the Meatball Sundae. Sometimes old and new, if they're combined thoughtfully and intelligently and if the company is agile enough, work together beautifully.

@phil, I'd buy those.

Posted by: Sonia Simone at January 20, 2008 4:17 PM

This message is so timely for small business. These lessons as well as the strategy a Savile Row tailor uses could be used by those of us with small garden centers. I have talked extensively on why "small is cool" and this post helps confirm my beliefs.

Posted by: trey at January 20, 2008 4:28 PM

Congrats Hugh!

That cartoon's awesome.

Posted by: Hrishi Mittal at January 20, 2008 7:15 PM

Congratulations to you and to Tom, Hugh. This is wonderful. I love the old world craft/artisan feel of the statement being made here, beyond the suits. Do they make any suits for ladies? :-)

Posted by: vicequeenmaria at January 20, 2008 7:55 PM

Terinea, a half-hour TV documentary of English Cut was made just before Christmas. As soon as it's out [on the internet, or otherwise] I'll let y'all know.

Posted by: hugh macleod at January 20, 2008 9:46 PM

i've always loved the English Cut story. and i love even more that it was a premeditated attempt to work the media!

Posted by: vinny warren at January 21, 2008 5:26 AM

Hugh:

The story of English Cut has always been fascinating. I remember a few years ago, you were blogging about English Cut when it was just an idea. It has been truly amazing to watch it grow.

Seriously, this would make a great case study for an MBA program. If nothing else, it's really a "feel good" story. I've passed along the story of English cut to god-knows how many acquaintances. Talking about a social object. . .

Posted by: keith at January 21, 2008 2:46 PM

Great stuff, Hugh - more power to you, Tom, and the rest of the English Cut crew. I still aspire to someday afford one (several!) of Tom's suits.

Mine are hardly original insights, but here's what I love most about this story:

--The union of very old and very new. As the other commenter said above, the opposite of a Meatball Sundae.

--The fact that you went and DID it. What I mean is, the commenter who said it would make a great MBA case study is probably right ... but it's an even better inspiration to go DO something, not as a case study, but as a real-world intervention into what's possible in a highly tradition-bound industry.

Posted by: Tim Walker at January 21, 2008 11:12 PM

What happened to the apprentice - Chris was it?

Posted by: Lisa at January 22, 2008 9:06 AM

Lisa, yes, Chris was his name. Sadly, we had to let him go. He was a great kid, keen, determined and hardworking, but from what I understand, he just didn't have the natural ability for it. It's like being a musician. You either have the chops, or you don't. A pity, we really liked him.

Posted by: hugh macleod at January 22, 2008 9:19 AM

Thanks for the reply, looking forward to seeing the TV doc. My advice to clients about business blogs will go from a 50 step guide to watch this video. Now blog!

Jamie

Posted by: Terinea Weblog at January 23, 2008 12:23 AM