Drapers meets designer Oliver Spencer to chat about the changing menswear market, building brands and the future of fashion retail
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Oliver Spencer is on passionate form when Drapers meets him on Lamb’s Conduit Street in Bloomsbury, where his eponymous menswear label has a studio, shop and head office. Describing himself as a “shopkeeper through and through”, he speaks eloquently on everything from the challenges facing the UK high street to the menswear market’s current vogue for brash, branded sportswear.
“Within five years, the whole model, the way we work, the way we do retail, is going to change,” he tells Drapers in the basement office. “It is going to happen in that short a period of time and it’s all going online.
“If you follow the FTSE 250 and look at all the fashion retailers, the ones with a serious online business are the ones with a good share price. The ones that are not taking ecommerce seriously are in the bin. The future is online: the future is having your groceries, your clothes, all delivered.”
Spencer is well placed to talk about the health of the British retail industry: he heads not one, but two thriving brands.
Spencer started his career in fashion after graduating from City and Guilds of London Art School in 1991, selling second-hand clothing from a barrow at London antiques market Portobello Road. In 1993, he moved into making his own waistcoats after he was given the chance to raid the seconds rolls of Sudbury textile mill Stephen Walters & Sons. This was the start of eclectic men’s and women’s formalwear label Favourbrook, which opened its first store on Jermyn Street’s Piccadilly Arcade the same year.
Anyone who thinks that they can do ecommerce without putting lots of hours and lots of money into it is wrong
A starring role for the brand’s waistcoats in 1994 smash hit romantic comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral after the film’s stylist stumbled on the shop helped put the business on the map. Today it has three London stores. Contemporary menswear label Oliver Spencer followed in 2002 after friends began asking for a range of more casual clothing.
The label is known for a relaxed spin on tailoring that keeps customers coming back season after season. The designer collaborated with artist Wolfgang Buttress to turn London Fashion Week Men’s venue The Store Studios at 180 Strand into an immersive wildflower meadow for his spring 19 catwalk show earlier this year, where key pieces included utilitarian checked jackets and relaxed trousers. Retail prices range from £45 for a basic T-shirt to £700 for suede jackets. The brand has more than 100 stockists around the world, including Mr Porter, End Clothing, Matchesfashion and Harvey Nichols.
There are also five Oliver Spencer stores across London, each of which Spencer says brings a different customer to the brand. From well-heeled big spenders in Notting Hill to creative types in Shoreditch, the spread of stores helps attract a diverse customer base, although he hasn’t ruled out opening stores outside of the capital.
Danielle Grantham, menswear buyer at Harvey Nichols, says she has seen Oliver Spencer’s collections go from “strength to strength”: “The great thing about Oliver Spencer is that the product is so versatile and diverse. It encapsulates the contemporary, smart-modern aesthetic that Harvey Nichols’ customers love, and it consistently offers luxe fabrics at a competitive price point.”
Fiona Firth, buying director at Mr Porter, agrees: “Oliver Spencer’s designs provide a modern and relaxed take on tailoring. Combining smart design elements and easy-wearing fabrics, the collections showcase versatile pieces that cater to our global Mr Porter audience.”
I would have a rough time running a business that was leopard skin with diamanté on the front
Spencer is “totally embracing” ecommerce in today’s changing retail landscape. Online sales make up around 60% of the total, although he stresses that creating a compelling ecommerce offer is not easy and that there is still very much a place for well-executed stores. He declines to give exact figures but says ecommerce sales are up 27% over the past 12 months, while retail store sales are up 4%.
“Anyone who thinks that they can do ecommerce without putting lots of hours and lots of money into it is wrong,” he argues. “There is still that perception that ecommerce is easy to deal, with and it’s not. It’s not cheaper than owning a shop – in fact it’s probably more expensive than two shops but it takes double the money, so it does pay off.
“Yes, there is a place for shops, but they can’t be basic any more. They’ve got to be about great service, they’ve got to be a point of community and they’ve got to be about shopkeepers who go out there and get the best product in.”
Man of the cloth
Spencer’s first love, he says, is textiles. Provenance is an important part of Oliver Spencer and Favourbrook, both of which are designed in London and made either in the UK or Europe. Inspiration for his designs can come from anywhere – perhaps from his house on the coast of the Isle of Wight or simply cycling around London between stores.
“I design the clothes that I love. I would have a rough time running a business that was leopard skin with diamanté on the front – it’s just not my gear,” he explains. “I develop a textile and then put it in a garment. I don’t develop a garment and then find a textile for it. I do it the opposite way from a lot of designers, because I love the construction and the texture.”
We make in England, but we only make in England if it is the right product for the right factory
Around half of Oliver Spencer’s winter collection and 30% of its summer range is produced in the UK. The rest is made in Porto, northern Portugal. Sustainability is an increasingly important consideration: from spring 19, all core shirting and jersey T-shirts will be made from organic cotton.
All the stores switched to green energy suppliers last year, and the amount of packaging used will be cut by 30% for autumn 18.
“We make in England, but we only make in England if it is the right product for the right factory. It depends on the product and the time of year. Certain factories are good for certain things,” Spencer explains. “We do it because I like an easy life – that’s as good an answer as any. I get a better product and I get more flexibility. If I want something, I can get it made quickly and that’s really key, it is all about flexibility.”
Spencer has mixed views on the health of the menswear market. On the one hand, he argues, it has been in “fabulous condition” over the past 10 years as male shoppers have begun to pay real attention to how they dress. But on the other, he warns against building fashion businesses, particularly independents, solely around the industry’s ongoing obsession with street- and sportswear.
“I feel at the moment that menswear is in a dangerous spot, because it is being sold down this street- and sportswear model with badges all over everything. It is absolutely not good enough to build your business around a trend, because it won’t be all about sportswear in four years’ time, or even three. You need to build your business on a sustainable narrative that goes on and on.
Menswear is in a dangerous spot, because it is being sold down this street- and sportswear model with badges all over everything
“Shopkeepers who go out there and spend loads of money on big sports brands are just inviting competition – they are getting involved in a market that already has tons of players in it and, at the end of the day, what’s your point of difference? Independents have to buy in an independent way. They have to be better at understanding the customer and better at sourcing. You can’t buy the same brand when three other shops sell the same thing in your town.”
The brand has a strong following among shoppers, argues Bob Kennedy, owner of Harrogate independent Porters Menswear: “Oliver Spencer offers something unique and different – it’s solid and consistent. It has its own look and is very obviously Oliver Spencer when you see it. The brand is recognisable and people like it because it is clean: it’s not heavily branded but fans of the label know it straight away. The brand builds on old favourites by adding new tweaks and twists.
“When men find something they like when it comes to fit and style, they keep coming back because they know it suits them.”
Spencer’s interest in the future of the retail includes supporting the next generation of young fashion talent. He has been a mentor for Tu Sainsbury’s Menswear Scholarship, part of Graduate Fashion Week, for the past two years. Spencer will meet regularly with this year’s winning graduate, University of Leeds’ Molly Hopwood, to help her shape a capsule collection that will then sold by Tu.
Anna Clarke, head of design for Tu, says: “Oliver is such an aspirational designer, and we feel incredibly lucky and privileged to be working with someone who the menswear team at Tu often reference for trend direction and colour inspiration. We see Oliver’s clothing as being obsessed with every detail, yet creating wearable, interesting and timeless ranges.”
Spencer warns that young designers and brands face an uphill battle when it comes to creating businesses that can stand the test of time: “We’ve got to support the next wave of talent because who knows where we’re going to end up, or what’s going to happen out there?
“I think it’s very tough to start [a fashion business] because in my opinion it takes so much more money than it used to. We’re also living in a ‘hype’ world, so you might get yourself hyped up and everything goes well on social media in the beginning but it’s the crashing-off, the hangover after, which is the big problem for me. There are so many traps out there at the moment – one moment you’re a star and the next moment you’re not. You’ve got to be able to ride those waves and your cash has got to be able to ride those waves as well.”
Continuing to grow and improve Oliver Spencer’s ecommerce offer will be a key focus going forward, as will driving the brand’s business in the US market, particularly on the west coast. The brand is in around 21 international markets, of which France, Germany and the US are key.
Spencer is a passionate advocate of good retail. A clear focus on what his customers want and obsession with quality have helped the designer reach the top of his game.