Gieves & Hawkes’ Mark Henderson is putting British skills in the shop window via his New Craftsmen venture.
Behind the slick black wooden doors of The New Craftsmen’s Mayfair pop-up lies a treasure trove of British-made crafts, from printed textiles and scarves, to jewellery, ceramics and woodwork. I’m here to interview co-founder Mark Henderson, who is fresh from a trip to Hong Kong where he’d been wearing his other hat as chairman of Gieves & Hawkes to meet with the menswear company’s licensee there.
Henderson - who among his many guises is also a director of luxury trade body Walpole - is a busy man, and is gearing up for a meeting with landlords on Monday to try to secure a permanent Mayfair address for The New Craftsmen. The makers’ network, which has 12 investors and was established in 2012 with an investment of £200,000, moved into its current space in June but is set to move out of the Grosvenor-owned property at the end of September. In order to secure a fixed address Henderson is seeking a second round of investment of £1.2m, while
he also aims to increase the network’s number of makers to 100 from its current tally of 51.
“Once we’ve got that we can scale up. We want to have about 2,500 sq ft, that’s what we need in terms of giving us a decent showroom space,” says Henderson, as we sit down following a tour of the premises. “Mayfair is the home of luxury shopping and we think this sort of product belongs in luxury. It doesn’t all have to be logos. This is for people who are discerning. You’ve got virtually all of the big art galleries represented in Mayfair, plus every single brand in the world. So if you can get over the rent threshold it’s a fantastic location to start a business. But it is getting over the rent threshold.”
At present, The New Craftsmen’s accessories division includes mixed media embroidery designer Aimee Betts, embroiderer Anja von Kalinowski, scarf designer Charlotte Linton, jewellers Disa Allsopp, Lina Peterson, Ruth Tomlinson, Sia Taylor and Sarah Angold, leather brands Doe Leather and Tanner Bates, and designer and pattern maker Patrick Thomson. Henderson says he and The New Craftsmen co-founders Natalie Melton and Catherine Lock “don’t want to end up selling frocks. We want to sell a broad gamut of British craft”.
He adds: “We won’t go, I don’t think, for full clothing. I don’t think we’ll do shoes. Partly because I’d be in conflict with Gieves & Hawkes, because we have Carréducker [shoemaking duo Deborah Carré and James Ducker] at Gieves & Hawkes who I mentored for Walpole.”
Henderson is a keen supporter of upcoming talent and has chaired both the Walpole/LBS Innovation in Luxury Business Plan Competition and acted as a mentor on its Crafted programme, for which he worked with Carréducker and woven textile designer Margo Selby.
“In some respects it has informed my view, in that some people are grateful and respond to mentoring, but most of the people I was talking to really just wanted someone to get on and sell the stuff for them. It contributed to my decision to launch this business,” he says.
“Every other creative skill is represented. Painters have galleries, musicians and writers have agents, but on the whole most of the craftspeople in this country sell directly because there isn’t a system to put them forward.”
With hundreds of makers across the country to choose from, Henderson says he is focusing on “the people who have put the 10,000 hours in” and who have honed their craft.
But is this is a viable business, or just an art form? Henderson answers that he has been “pleasantly surprised” by the number of sales via the pop-up and The New Craftsmen website, which offers about 100 products at present and attracts 5,000 unique visitors a month, though he declines to reveal actual sales figures.
“It has to be a viable business. I think the opportunity to do something that is handmade and purely bespoke is significant, and we’ve had some encouraging commissions already, even though we’re hidden down a back alley,” he says.
“We wouldn’t have taken on shareholders if we didn’t think it was scalable, and we wouldn’t be going in for a second round [of investment] if we didn’t think this was scalable. But I’m sure it’s not going to be easy, it won’t be that simple. However, we’ve spent nearly three years working out how to do it.”
Henderson is also a trustee of the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (QEST), the Royal Warrant Holders Association charity that funds scholarships for craftsmanship. The organisation has about £3m under management and receives about 300 applications for its two seasons, spring and autumn, and then awards bursaries from as little as a few hundred pounds up to a maximum of £17,500 to about 30 successful applicants a year (see side panel).
“The aim of the charity is to give craftspeople the opportunity to go from being good to being great. It’s not about somebody who’s thinking about an apprenticeship, it’s about somebody who’s already proved they can do something really exceptional and then helping them get to the next stage,” he explains.
Despite reports of a skills gap, Henderson doesn’t believe that traditional craft skills such as tailoring, shoemaking or pattern cutting are under threat, citing that about 32,000 people are employed in craft-based work in the UK. And he doesn’t think it is the Government’s place to intervene. Instead, he says influential people in the industry such as himself need to band together to support the teaching of these skills with a focus on quality rather than on numbers.
And he did just that in 2004 when he teamed up with Gieves & Hawkes’ fellow Savile Row tailors Anderson & Sheppard, Dege & Skinner and Henry Poole to form the Savile Row Bespoke Association, with the aim of ensuring the craft survived on the famous street. And it has been successful - the organisation had a show at June’s London Collections: Men and today there are about 100 tailors working in Savile Row, he says.
Gieves & Hawkes itself is a business known for nurturing tailoring talent and normally takes on one tailor a year.
“We hope a tailor will have a 30-year lifespan and we have a workforce of about 30 bespoke tailors, so we pretty much need one a year. But we’ve got three now,” he says. When asked why Gieves & Hawkes has taken on three tailors this year, he smiles and says: “Investing in the future.”
QEST offers scholarships for craftsmanship. Three recipients explain how they have used the funding to help their careers
Hollie White - Cordwainer
Hollie White is studying for an MA in Fashion Footwear at Cordwainers at the London College of Fashion,
and received a bursary of £5,000.
She is also working as a freelance designer for Topshop, so has used the money to reduce her working hours and buy materials.
She says: “It’s not simply about upholding traditional techniques. Many of us are utilising new technologies and materials to develop new methodologies.”
Sarah Edwards - Leather goods designer and maker
Sarah Edwards has created two brands - Frances George and Made by Frank. She says: “I was attracted to QEST because of how prestigious it is and because of its focus on craft; I’m of the mindset that you can’t design something unless you can make it.” Edwards received a £12,000 scholarship that she is using to undertake seven courses in order to broaden her skills base.
Stephen Shoebridge - Tailor
After working in historic building conservation, Bristol-based Stephen Shoebridge made the decision to switch careers and began running a small workshop offering alterations and repairs, before moving on to a ready-to-wear range. He gained a £14,500 scholarship from QEST this year, which he is using to hone his tailoring skills by studying at the Savile Row Academy in London. “I applied the previous year but was unsuccessful,
so this time I made sure the financials regarding what I needed to do it were razor sharp,” he says.