Simon Berwin is leading Berwin & Berwin, maker of men’s suiting for more than 130 years, into a brave new post-Brexit era.
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As would be expected from the managing director of one of the UK’s most prestigious names in suit supplying, Simon Berwin of Berwin & Berwin is a snappy dresser, and he enters the wood-panelled board room of the company’s Leeds-based head office dressed in a finely crafted, vibrant blue suit.
“This one is a Baumler,” he says, proudly patting at the polka-dot pocket square on his chest, referencing the German suit maker the business bought in 2009. It is one of four brands – the others are Lambretta, Paul Costelloe and Daniel Hechter – that now form part of the company with the supplier arm of the business.
We’ve changed our sourcing, we’ve changed our design, our approach, our people – and the main thing is that we fight every day
From its roots as a Leeds tailoring firm, Berwin & Berwin has now evolved to an international formalwear supplier with networks and customers around the world. On the day we speak, Simon Berwin is celebrating exactly 44 years in the business, as part of the company his great-grandfather set up when he arrived in the north of England more than 130 years ago from Belarus with his wife, seven children and a sewing machine.
“It’s very Fiddler on the Roof,” he chuckles. Today the company has global turnover of £55m a year and 2,300 employees worldwide, who turn out 17,000 suits a week.
Berwin is the first to admit the industry has undergone some seismic changes over the decades. In more recent times, he has spoken plainly on matters such as Brexit, Sales periods and discounting, margin pressures and retailer-supplier relations – and has been impacted by the tumult first hand.
But with his honesty and tenacity, he has seen the business survive where many others have faltered.
“Leeds used to be the clothing centre of Europe,” says Berwin. “There were 40 suit manufacturers in Leeds when I first got here – on this very road they were five. There’s only ourselves and one other family that have stayed in the suit business.”
Berwin speaks of his early days at the company with affection, having joined in 1973 when the business focused selling its tailoring to independent retailers. “There were real characters,” he says, “David Coe in Ipswich, Melville Mitchell in Dundee, Leonard Rosenfield in Manchester and Arthur Sutherland in Derby. When they came to exhibitions, people used to chase around after them to try and get business from them.”
The industry at the time, he says, was characterised by a sense of friendship and conviviality: “There was a camaraderie and great relationships were built,” he says. “To me that’s always been a very big part of the business.”
“The camaraderie in the industry happens still, but in a different way now that so much happens abroad. In those days you went to a factory and saw things first hand,” says David Coe, owner of the Coes department store, who worked with Berwin & Berwin in the 1960s and 1970s. “Berwin had a very good factory in Leeds and they did the job very well. They were all gentlemen in the business, traditional tailors.”
As the years went on, Berwin & Berwin slowly focused more on elevating product, working with technical specialists in the 1970s and 1980s, to create completely new patterns for suits, change the internal trims and modernise the manufacturing process. It also increased its focus on larger retailers.
“When I took ownership of the business, I focused more on the retail groups,” he explains. “That’s who I thought would be the future of the suit business.” Berwin & Berwin went on to work with companies such as House of Fraser, Austin Reed and Moss Bros. Today, Berwin describes the company as a key formalwear supplier to most of the UK high street.
While Berwin adapted to a changing retail environment, he is critical of those who failed to innovate: “Life is about getting better and doing things in a different way, and with many retailers, people didn’t change and they just did the same thing every season. As others went under, our fighting spirit and persistence worked for us.”
In 1990, Berwin acquired its first brand – affordable luxury tailoring brand Daniel Hechter.
“It was a different route to market – we were hopeful of attaining a better margin,” he explains. ”It’s been good, but margins are being squeezed.”
Directional, mod-inspired formalwear brand Lambretta, the sartorial, commercial Paul Costelloe and German tailoring label Baumler have since joined the company as it expanded its branded arm. Between them, these are stocked in around 65 doors in the UK, including House of Fraser. However, the heart of the business remains with private-label tailoring, which still comprises around 70% of the business.
“We’ve changed dramatically,” he continues. “We’ve changed our sourcing, we’ve changed our design, our approach, our people – and the main thing is that we fight every day, and we fight to give the best products, and the best service, and the best communications. Some days it falls by the wayside, but then we pick up, dust ourselves down and we go again.”
One of the most profound changes for Berwin & Berwin was the closure of its UK manufacturing operations. Three factories were shut between 2000 and 2002, and production moved to Hungary, China, and more recently, Vietnam. When it comes to business decisions, Berwin is a realist, and while he is fiercely loyal both to his home town of Leeds and the UK industry in general, he is clear that the offshoring was driven by his relentless focus on product, and the UK market’s inability to keep up with its competitors.
“When I started my career, if you were sitting here, you’d hear the machines whirring downstairs,” he says. “Although we did improve our product in the UK, we didn’t improve it dramatically, and I can’t honestly sit here and say that it was a marvellous product.”
This is something Berwin is particularly passionate about, and he is forthright in his insistence that the days of large-scale UK manufacturing are over: “There may be some niche manufacturing, but there will never in our lifetimes be serious manufacturing in the UK again.
“In Leeds, we’ve witnessed that Burberry were going to open a factory and that’s been put on the back burner. The wages are too high, and there is not enough experience in manufacturing.”
Just 48 hours earlier, Berwin touched down from a visit to his factories in Vietnam, where the business now operates around 50% of its manufacturing, and Berwin is ardently supportive of the international, global nature of business.
I believe in globalisation and scale, and people want to go back to being a little colony island again
“It is a global market, so if you only look at the British high street and think about British customers, then you’ll go nowhere,” he says. This, he adds is one reason he became involved with Baumler, which the company bought in 2009. “For many years we were jealous of Baumler’s product,” he admits. “I would never have imagined that I’d be sitting here saying we own that business. Now it is a growing and profitable business, making the most beautiful product.”
Although the success of Baumler is evidently a source of delight for Berwin, recent years have been far from easy for the company. The demise of Austin Reed, for whom Berwin & Berwin was the main supplier, hit the company hard and resulted in a pre-tax loss of £1.1m for the 12 months to 31 December 2015. Financial results for the following year are yet to be announced and, while Berwin is confident the company is bouncing back, he concedes that it was a difficult time for the business.
“When you deal with big customers, once you’re in, you’re in. There’s never a good time to get off. There’s the amount of money they owe you, the stock you’re holding for them, the pipeline and there is never a right time,” he says.
The effects of this, combined with the collapse of Jaeger in April 2017, for which Berwin was also a supplier, and currency fluctuations around the Brexit vote, made recovery particularly difficult, and Berwin says this amalgamation was “almost impossible to survive”.
“It’s been a long, hard journey, but it’s about ticking each box slowly as you move forward,” he explains. “We are moving on from it, but I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t been one of the darkest periods of my career.”
Berwin’s antipathy for Brexit is intense: “It goes against everything I believe in. I believe in globalisation and scale, and people want to go back to being a little colony island again. I think it’s small minded and destructive.”
“A decision to reverse Brexit would be second only in my world to winning the lottery,” he continues. “In the short term we’ve had to take a hit on our profits, because we have been unable to pass the cost increase on product onto our customers. So to some extent, at some businesses we’ve had to buy at subsidised prices.”
The pressure of Brexit has compounded one of Berwin’s other key concerns in the sector, that of retail margins, and he describes retailers as “scared” to charge the true price for items.
“Retailers should invest in product, so they can justify increasing the price point, and then margin,” he argues. “Nobody can say the consumer asks for a suit at £79, we just make it available to them. We are our own worst enemy.”
These pressures notwithstanding, Berwin is remains incredibly proud of his business, and commands a huge amount of fondness and respect from others in the industry.
“He’s a pretty exceptional person to work with,” says Irish designer Paul Costelloe, whose suits have been produced by Berwin & Berwin since 2006. “He’s the last of the great textile people, and he knows when it’s right or wrong without hesitation. He’s certain of his own opinions and you have to respect that because of his experience – he’s certainly not wishy-washy. I think he’s a unique, wonderful, difficult person.”
“I have known Simon for 20 years and in that time he has been one our country’s most passionate proponents of quality manufacturing,” adds Peter Ruis, CEO of Jigsaw, who worked with Berwin at John Lewis and Ted Baker. “He has been a one-man PR machine for the greatest menswear design: the suit. Its ‘death’ seems to be ushered in every few years only for Berwin & Berwin to lead the counter-charge yet again.”
“He’s the hardest working men I’ve ever met,” says Sarah Greig, who worked with Berwin as a menswear designer at House of Fraser, and is now Berwin & Berwin’s head of commercial. “He has such a colourful character, and he’s so passionate about the business and suiting. He teaches me and everyone who works with him a lot every day.”
Berwin has also managed to uphold a familial heritage within the business. His father, Malcolm, now 90, is still in the business most days. His son, James, 21, has recently graduated from university and is to enter the business in early 2018, so it is clear Berwin hopes to keep the business in the family.
He cites the wider family atmosphere in the company as one of the driving factors in his enthusiasm for business: “People make a massive commitment for us, and it’s a responsibility – not a responsibility that is a burden, but one that gives you pride. You look at the families that depend on you which used to just be in the UK, but now in Hungary, Germany and around the world,” he says. “That’s a responsibility, but it’s also something that gives me an enormous amount of pride.”
The industry is certainly tough, and through his time at the business Berwin has overseen some huge changes, good and bad. Nevertheless, for Berwin, it always comes back to product.
“I’m so lucky,” he says. “In that although there have been difficult days, I’ve been lucky to be involved in a business where I’ve been able to make a difference, and I’ve always loved the product that’s involved.”