The Daks menswear design director came of age while working in Milan, but his love of British designlies at the heart of everything he produces and is a major element in the brand’s recent revival.
There can be few individuals in the industry as passionate about British design as Daks menswear design director Bruce Montgomery; it is a quietly and calmly expressed passion but it runs deep nonetheless. As well as his role at the London Old Bond Street-based heritage brand, Montgomery has served as chairman of The British Menswear Guild (he recently handed over the reins to tailor Oscar Udeshi, but retains the title of chairman emeritus), championing British brands to international buyers. He chairs a mentoring panel for Graduate Fashion Week and has also acted as an external examiner for the BA (Hons) Menswear fashion degree at Central Saint Martins College. You wonder how he fits it all in. “My priority is with Daks,” he says, “but I am a great fan of British design.”
He is equally passionate about British style, citing Jarvis Cocker, Steed from The Avengers, The Beatles and David Bowie as influences. “Bowie is just phenomenal, the way he went through all those looks and every one, bar a few exceptions, he pulled off,” he says.
In the past few years, while retaining its essence of classic timelessness, Montgomery has been injecting some of the off-beat British cool of his idols into Daks’ menswear and the brand’s image as a whole – his role stretches to influencing store interiors, press relations and marketing. In doing so he has started to attract a new generation of style leaders as customers, such as indie rockers the Klaxons and actor Richard E Grant. “He is less likely to buy something because it’s flavour of the month; that’s not the way he chooses his roles,” says Montgomery of Grant.
So it comes as a surprise that Montgomery cut his teeth in Italy and cites rebellious designer Franco Moschino as his ultimate icon. Moschino, for whom Montgomery worked in the late 1980s and early 1990s, made a name for himself by spoofing high fashion, sending outlandish creations, such as skirts embellished with plastic fried eggs, down the catwalk. He even appeared in his own womenswear ad campaign wearing a blond wig; not a tactic one could imagine Montgomery employing.
But on reflection it is not such an odd choice. Moschino’s creations may have had a crazy veneer but at their foundation they were impeccably crafted using the basic forms and traditional methods that Montgomery holds dear.
Besides, despite his controlled and reserved manner – while he is friendly and very willing to chat, his voice barely rises above a whisper during the interview – there is an adventurous side to Montgomery that becomes clear when he explains how he first found work in Milan. As a Northumbria University fashion design graduate with three years’ experience at Nigel Cabourn and Katharine Hamnett, he “trudged the streets” for a week touting his portfolio, and eventually walked uninvited not just into the Soprani building, but straight into the office of the late Luciano Soprani, who was on the phone at the time. “I was passing the building, security wasn’t on the gate and I just found myself in his office,” explains Montgomery. “I told him I wanted to show him my portfolio and he agreed to see me. He looked at it, called me afterwards and I started work.”
Having married and had a child in Milan, Montgomery returned to the UK with his family in the early 1990s and, after a stint with designer Jeff Banks, ended up at Daks in 1996. At that point the brand was part of the Daks Simpson Group and its iconic department store, Simpsons of Piccadilly, the influence for BBC sitcom Are You Being Served?, was still open in London. The brand was perhaps best known back then for its self-supporting trousers, its sports jackets and its house check, which was introduced in the 1970s and featured on the linings of macs, accessories and bags. It was a typical, slightly tired UK brand, as the likes of Burberry and Aquascutum were too at that time. Then, quite abruptly and probably on the back of the wave of Cool Britannia that was washing over the nation, British luxury brands became the next big thing thanks to the success of Rose Marie Bravo’s rejuvenation of Burberry in her role as chief executive.
Aquascutum and Daks were to follow suit, as did Pringle, Mulberry, Lyle & Scott and pretty much anyone else with a British heritage. Daks Simpson, at that time owned by Japanese group Sanyo Seiko Co, closed the Simpsons store in 1999 and focused its efforts on its clothing line in a bid to make the brand more relevant to future customers while retaining its existing clientele.
“It was necessary,” explains Montgomery. “Seven or eight years ago the market had a sudden change; it became younger and more directional almost overnight.” But the change didn’t perturb him. “I saw it as very healthy that all British brands had to upgrade. It made for a very strong British design movement.”
As part of the Daks revival, a flagship store was opened on London’s Old Bond Street in 2000 (it has recently been refurbished) followed by stores in London’s Jermyn Street, Edinburgh and Munich. The wholesale account base was revised and expanded and now stands at about 2,000 worldwide, with about 30 for menswear in the UK and more than 300 across Europe (of which 175 are menswear). Global sales are £500 million a year. The Far East, and Japan in particular, is a “phenomenal business for us”, says Montgomery, and one of the next significant targets is Russia, as well as the duty-free market.
This revival is in no small part due to Montgomery’s approach to menswear which, while modern, retains an emphasis on tradition and Britishness. Like Montgomery himself, the silhouette is slim. “It is very British with a slightly nipped-in waist with side or centre vent and a comfortable but neat armhole,” he says. Montgomery is a detail man and while they may be simple in form, the suits are packed with smart features such as shirt grips on trousers to keep the wearer looking neat.
Wherever practical, Montgomery uses UK mills for Daks’ cloth. He had been concerned at his shrinking options in this sector but feels more confident now for the future of those that remain. “It worried me about eight years ago – a lot of mills were closing. But those that are left I’m pretty sure will stay around.”
When it comes to footwear too, only British will do; Daks’ shoes are made by Northampton-based firm Grenson. And while garments are made throughout the world by licensees, he remains confident that British craftsmanship will always be in demand. “There’s always got to be a place for Savile Row and shoes from Northampton,” he says.
At no time has the desire for craftsmanship been as evident as it is now, in this era of crunched credit and rising living costs, believes Montgomery. People are spending more on less. Increasing fast-fashion fatigue (suddenly it seems wasteful to buy cheap clothes with a lifecycle of a few weeks, no matter how cheap) also plays into the hands of brands such as Daks, with all their connotations of durability and trustworthiness in terms of product.
“We’re in a funny moment,” says Montgomery. “There is still a lot of affluence and some people still want something cheap for Saturday to throwaway on Monday. At the opposite end, people are looking at bespoke in the sense of having everything personalised – or if not personalised having something that speaks of the quality of what they’ve bought.”
It is interesting, then, that Daks has decided to cease its Luxury line (the womenswear was designed by Giles Deacon), which has been showing on the Milan catwalk for six seasons. Spring 08 was the last collection. Montgomery, however, continues to design men’s ready-to-wear, and women’s ready-to-wear remains a key focus with an ambition to expand it. In men’s ready-to-wear, retail prices for a suit range from £375 to £700, compared with £800 to £1,200 for the Luxury line. “It’s very reasonable,” says Montgomery. “In fact it’s very good value for money on both ranges in terms of the qualities.”
Deacon’s line offered less value for money, perhaps, with a fairly simple skirt from the spring 08 line selling for £600 and jackets – albeit stunning ones – selling for more than twice that. This may go some way to explaining why the venture isn’t continuing (Montgomery doesn’t say this, commenting only that the board’s strategy was not to continue with the line and to focus on expanding women’s ready-to-wear, designed by Amanda Jack). But while it may not have always represented the best value for consumers, it did offer great value in terms of raising Daks’ profile. “The press was phenomenal and they all shot the product,” says Montgomery.
What both Luxury collections also offered was the chance to show in Milan, marking a proud return for Montgomery to the city where he honed his skills. But surely the ultimate aim for this ambassador of British design would be to show in London? “It has been talked about. I don’t see any reason in the future why not at some point,” he says with his usual reserve. “These things come down to the right moment.” And it will be a moment to remember if and when it does come.
Who is your fashion mentor?
Franco Moschino [founder of Moschino fashion house who died in 1994] was my mentor. Behind the jokes there was a very talented and serious designer.
Which is your favourite fashion retailer?
I like different aspects of the industry for different reasons, such as Herm賠for the sheer luxury and stores in Tokyo like A Bathing Ape that are just incredibly cool. Also I quite like the Apple store on London’s Regent Street, and Dover Street Market. I think curiosity shopping is how you make money.
What has been your proudest moment?
Standing on our own Milan catwalk. I had worked in Italy as a designer and I was very proud to take Daks there. Also, the British Menswear Guild event at Kensington Palace attended by the Duke of York where we promoted British menswear to the Russian market – that was very nice.
What is the best-selling product you have worked on?
In terms of commercial success it would have to be the Daks sports jacket. As a product it is very, very good and we’ve sold a phenomenal number of them.
What would be your dream job?
I probably would have gone into politics and promoted British design on a diplomatic level. I’m passionate about British design at all levels, from high street to luxury. Also I’m an armchair Newcastle United FC fanatic; it’s incredible that 52,000 turn up every week [to watch them] out of pure passion.
1996 Menswear design director, Daks
1993 Menswear designer, Jeff Banks
1987 Various design positions in Italy, including stints at Luciano Soprani and Moschino
1986 Designer, Katharine Hamnett
1984 Designer, Nigel Cabourn
A history of Daks
1894 Simeon Simpson sets up a bespoke tailoring service on Middlesex Street in London
1914 Simpson sets up his first factory on Middlesex Street
1929 The factory relocates to Stoke Newington, north London
1933 Alec Simpson takes over from his father and registers the brand name Daks – thought to combine the words ‘dad’ and ‘slacks’
1934 The self-supporting trouser with patented waistband is launched, as is a womenswear line
1935-36 Simpson opens the Simpsons of Piccadilly store
1948 A new, larger factory opens in Larkhall, Scotland
1956 Simpsons of Piccadilly granted its first Royal Warrant by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh
1976 Group managing director Johnny Mengers launches the house check using the colours camel, vicund black
1991 Sankyo Seiko Co acquires the Daks Simpson Group
1999 Simpsons of Piccadilly closes
2000 Old Bond Street store opens
2005 Daks’ Luxury womenswear line shows in Milan for the first time
2006 Luxury menswear line designed by Bruce Montgomery shown in Milan
2007 Old Bond Street store is refurbished