The founder of the Tony Kutner and Forkbeard agencies got his big break selling underwear, and now has a London lane named after his family
Although you sell menswear through your two agencies, you’ve specialised in men’s bodywear. Was this a conscious decision?
No - I started out in womenswear following in my dad Bob’s footsteps. He was, I would say, the biggest agent in Scotland withhis agency N Kutner and Co. After a spell abroad I took a womenswear sales manager job in London at Emmanuelle Moustache [which later became Mexx] in 1984, and went on to head up French brand Jousse in the UK in 1985. In 1989 French Connection founder Steven Marks asked me to start a new menswear brand with him called Future Classics [which no longer exists], and then I set up my own company, Tony Kutner Agency, 20 years ago.
I started on the road in an old banger with a hole in the floor - a Triumph Acclaim - and it was a tough time. I did all right selling trousers and menswear. But my big break came about a year and a half later in 1995 when I saw in the back pages of Drapers Record that Hugo Boss required an agent for underwear. I thought it was the one area that lots of other people weren’t already competing to do. I like to do things under the radar - that’s always been my attitude.
Following the success of your eponymous agency - which saw you work with Delsiena shirts, among others - you launched Forkbeard Fashion Agency three years ago. What prompted this?
This is something fashion people don’t like to admit, but I’m not 20 anymore. I realised I couldn’t expand Tony Kutner Agency any further as everything I do with that agency is all about what I’m doing personally, and there’s only so much I can do. These things take up a lot of time, but your ambition doesn’t die. Forkbeard is all about me not being the front man because I’m getting to the stage in my career where I would like to think that not everything is about me. The name comes from Sweyn I Forkbeard, who was king of England, Denmark and part of Norway in the 11th century, and its brands include Danish label Matinique, Musto’s lifestyle collection, Nigel Hall and Hackett bodywear.
What’s been the most enjoyable part of your career so far?
Watching things grow. I love that over the years my connection with key buyers has grown and you get to know people over time. A lot of the people I helped unpack boxes with in department stores are now heads of their departments.
What’s been your proudest moment?
Being asked back to Hugo Boss. They let me go in 2003 but about four years ago I got asked back, but this time as a consultant rather than an agent. Since then we have more than quadrupled turnover of bodywear, swimwear, socks and nightwear.
What’s the best pearl of wisdom you’ve received?
When in doubt, just buy blue. That was about 20 years ago when I was working in menswear. A buyer from Brown Thomas in Dublin told me that as a rule of thumb - although for underwear it’s black - because for men there isn’t a better colour to wear.
What advice would you give yourself now?
Remember that it’s a business. I tend to get too personally attached, and that’snot always helpful.
The street leading to your agency showroom in east London has been named after your family. How did you manage that?
That’s true, it’s now called Kutner Close. It was previously called Winters Mews. My nephew came to see me and said: “If you own the lane, why isn’t it named after the family?” I went to speak to my father and there are not a lot of things you can give your dad when he’s 90, so he said: “You’ve not given me any grandchildren, so you may as well name a lane after the family.” So I called Islington council and it was renamed about three years ago.
If you were to work in a different industry, what would it be?
Journalism. I did it for four years at the Jerusalem Post between 1979 and 1983. I worked my way up - I did a lot of features writing, usually quite funny ones. They would send me to football matches to write up the atmosphere. But I did do some news, too.
What advice would you give to those looking to get into the fashion industry?
Everyone thinks it’s more glamorous than it really is, but it’s really hard work. I would say to anybody entering the industry, if you are unpacking a new collection at the beginning of a season and you don’t like that part of the job, then get out. Because for me, the most exciting part of the job is seeing a new collection. Nothing reinspires me like seeing new ranges, and I function on enthusiasm.