LONDON — The London men’s calendar is shrinking as quickly as a merino knit in the tumble dryer with coed shows, direct-to-consumer strategies and financial and environmental concerns all changing the way designers and brands think about the catwalk.
Over the past few weeks two of London’s biggest names revealed they were quitting the men’s runway and opting for alternative formats: J.W. Anderson plans to fold its London men’s show into the February women’s outing, while Vivienne Westwood is acting on her environmental concerns with plans to e-mail editors a digital presentation of her fall 2018 coed collection. The designer had been set to show on the last day of London Fashion Week Men’s, which runs from Jan. 6 to 8.
Hot London talent Martine Rose will also be stepping off the catwalk and creating a look book and film for fall, while former London calendar stalwarts including E. Tautz, Casely-Hayford, Katie Eary, Christopher Shannon, Gieves & Hawkes and Matthew Miller have opted to focus on private appointments or events and showroom sales.
The real men’s wear action is increasingly taking place off the runway, with department stores reporting buoyant sales and M&A deals bubbling around rapidly growing specialist brands, some of which have never been near a show tent.
Men’s wear was among the best-performing departments on the first day of Selfridges’ winter sale on Dec. 26. The store, which raked in more than 4 million pounds in the first three hours of the sale, said men’s wear saw “unexpectedly high” sales growth, including footwear, which performed “well ahead” of expectations.
Harvey Nichols has also been seeing solid numbers. David Aquilina, head of men’s wear buying, said the store had robust sell-throughs on sale items and “a really strong reaction to the new season, especially in international designer collections and contemporary, with brands such as Balenciaga and Stone Island performing really well. Men’s wear is a growth sector for us, so we expect it to perform well in 2018.”
Liberty expanded its men’s department last August, adding 20 new brands including Canada Goose, Études Studio and OAMC in addition to a denim department, T-shirt gallery and a grooming service provided by Ruffians.
Other new grooming destinations in London include Tom Ford’s first stand-alone beauty store in Covent Garden, which has a room just for men staffed by a barber and a butler. Beast, another Covent Garden store, offers a selection of treatments for men and a mix of products ranging from established names such as Marvis to smaller ones including DS & Durga, Verso and Dr. Barbara Sturm.
So dynamic is the men’s retail space that in December, Patrick Grant, owner of the E. Tautz and Norton & Sons labels, opened a pop-up shop called Basement at the E. Tautz flagship on Duke Street, selling clothing by London men’s designers Lou Dalton, Mathew Miller, Alex Mullins and Louise Gray.
Grant said he wanted to set aside a dedicated space for his fellow designers who don’t have bricks-and-mortar stores of their own, and that he plans to take on more brands going forward.
Retail is thriving for the specialist men’s brands, too, names that rarely — if ever — show on the catwalk.
Adam Brown, founder of Orlebar Brown, the men’s swim and resort brand that has seen sales surge to more than 20 million pounds in 10 years, said that online continues to drive the growth of the business, while bricks-and-mortar stores are also growing.
Orlebar Brown has a new concession at Harrods, a permanent space in Bicester Village outside Oxford and four stores in the U.S., all of which have opened in the last 18 months.
Indeed, the brand has become so hot that it’s likely to find a buyer in the next months. It has been working since last summer with Cavendish Corporate Finance to explore strategic options and, according to The Daily Telegraph, could fetch 50 million pounds. Current shareholders include Venrex Investment Management and Piper Private Equity.
Cycling brand Rapha is another specialty name that’s streaking ahead following the sale of a majority stake in August to the U.S.-based RZC Investments headed by Steuart and Tom Walton, grandsons of the founder of Wal-Mart. The company, which launched in 2004, continues to be run by its founder Simon Mottram and is poised to diversify this year.
Last year Rapha reported sales in excess of 63 million pounds and has been expanding by more than 25 percent every year. It’s been a pioneer of experiential retail, operating cafes in many of its clubhouse stores where customers can sip coffee, eat cake (although not too much) and watch cycle races taking place around the world. Last October the brand opened a cavernous clubhouse space at Bicester Village.
Sarah Clark, Rapha’s chief marketing officer, said the company ended a strong year with healthy sales over Black Friday and the Christmas period. She said the brand was planning to expand more into the lifestyle arena this year.
“Our on-bike apparel will of course always form the backbone of Rapha’s range, but as we look ahead to 2018 we will be paying even further attention to products that fulfill customer needs to look great off the bike while performing on it.”
She added that Rapha would continue to put a big focus on community, pointing to the 80,000 cyclists who signed up to ride 500 km (311 miles) over the Christmas holiday in the Rapha Festive 500. “Activities such as this, and the connections generated through them, we see as the future,” as much as the products, Clark said.
There are more M&A deals to come. Charles S. Cohen, the American multibillionaire who last year bought two men’s wear companies, Savile Row tailor Richard James and Harrys of London, said he’s on the hunt for more British brands.
In particular, he said he’s looking for a leather goods company to round out his burgeoning British stable. “I’m looking for a company that is maybe older than Richard James — which is the ripe old age of 25 — another jewel that needs an injection of capital and new ideas,” said Cohen, who plans to open the first Richard James store in New York, on Park Avenue and 57th Street, at the end of February.
The 1,800-square-foot space, housed in what was once the tallest residential building in Manhattan, will carry all the Richard James ready-to-wear and offer bespoke and made-to-measure services.
“LVMH, of course, is the platinum standard for this, but what I’m doing is much more narrow. I’m not looking to roll it up and flip it — or anything like that. I’ve never done that with anything. I’m a big believer in walking slowly. Slow and steady wins the race,” he said.
Cohen’s bigger vision is to sustain small, specialized brands and get them to a place where they can complement each other. “These are companies that without someone coming along as a good shepherd, who knows what would happen to them? Britain has a lot of small silos. What I’m looking to do is create a curated collection of very fine British men’s wear companies.”
His vision for Richard James, whose co-founder and namesake James just scooped an Order of the British Empire award for services to men’s fashion in the Queen’s New Year’s Honors, is to create a one-stop shop for tailored clothing.
“It’s a tailored silhouette; it’s not for the rugby player. There’s a masculine elegance to it and we’re also going to move into sportswear,” Cohen said.
From a business perspective, Cohen believes there is a lot of potential for Richard James and other small British brands. “These businesses are profitable to a point, but they need an objective business view connected to them to create economies and efficiencies, to decide what works or doesn’t, what we’d like to try and what we shouldn’t do anymore.”