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Will Forrester

As an American at a quintessentially British business, Gieves & Hawkes’ dynamic brand director is well qualified to explain its heritage appeal.

Gieves & Hawkes’ Savile Row store must be to the sartorial man what a sweet shop is to a child. Although not its target customer, I was fascinated by the shop’s nooks and crannies, luxury decor, product variety and general buzz of activity. Sales assistants breezed past wearing tape measures around their necks, half-empty glasses of champagne were scattered over appointment tables and staff greeted customers warmly, nodding “ma’am” in my direction.

The overwhelming sense is one of craftsmanship fused with impeccable customer service, devoid of the snooty air sometimes associated with luxury brands. “People are intimidated by luxury brands but the attitude we have here is of engaging with the customer,” explains Will Forrester, in an unexpected Florida accent. Surely the brand director of a 240-year-old quintessentially British business should say ‘ya’
a lot? But Forrester’s characteristic American drawl only adds to the warmth of the atmosphere in the store.

“This country is on fire,” he enthuses, as he shows Drapers around the store’s atelier for bespoke product in the basement, explaining that he has recently replaced an Italian supplier with a British one. Some 30% of Gieves & Hawkes’ sales come from “this room”, says Forrester, who is a staunch supporter of UK manufacturing and Drapers’ Save Our Skills campaign. The rest is split across the retailer’s own factory in Mauritius and Italian manufacturers, while about 70% of raw materials are sourced in the UK.

“[Customers] want the story. They want craftsmanship, loyalty and story-telling [from the clothes they buy],” Forrester explains. “They’d rather spend a bit more on something that has a story, quality and supports their economy. We have a trouser specialist, a waistcoat specialist. Our head cutter Kathryn Sargent is the first female head cutter on Savile Row. She wanted to be a Vivienne Westwood [when she joined] but she loved the science [behind pattern cutting] and stayed. She trained here.”

Back upstairs, Forrester shows off Gieves & Hawkes’ new “rooms”, which were unveiled in April. These include a bespoke footwear room co-branded with shoemaker Carréducker “to validate the speciality”, says Forrester; a blazer room; a barber shop in association with Gentlemen’s Tonic; a VIP lounge and gallery, housing historic Gieves & Hawkes product; and a gift room of vintage and antique pieces, run as a concession by London antiques dealer Bentleys. “I don’t know what half of this stuff is,” Forrester exclaims, pointing to an object in the gift room. “Is it a tea strainer? A moustache cleaner?”

He adds: “We want to be an emporium of gentleman indulgence; we’re not afraid to move ourselves up [into the luxury sector].” For autumn 11, the entry price point of a suit will rise from £695 to £800. “We’re doing less Sales and have stopped in-season promotions.”

Selling patterns

But part of this move is a reaction to consumers’ buying patterns, with Forrester admitting that shoppers are buying less but at a higher value. In the Savile Row store, £2,000 suits sell better than those priced at £800, while the opposite is true at the retailer’s branch in Bath. He says suit sales are up year on year and suits are the biggest-selling category for Gieves & Hawkes. “It could be because we have the fit right or the inventory or the prices, but we’ve definitely increased our suit sales,” he says. And maybe he’s right, but another reason is likely to be the trend in recent seasons for smarter dressing across menswear, not to mention a rejuvenated, cooler Savile Row.

Flamboyant designer Ozwald Boateng has a store across the road, while Norton & Sons, which owns menswear label of the moment E Tautz, is a few doors down. “I bow down to E Tautz,” says Forrester, welcoming Savile Row’s diversification.

He says he’s not worried when I mention that Toby Bateman, buying director at luxury menswear etailer Mr Porter, predicts denim will be an important trend in menswear for spring 12, after saying he was expecting to see it on the international catwalks more than ever before.”I love denim,” Forrester laughs, batting away the implications a more casual-led item might have on a tailoring business. But in practice, Forrester is less dismissive; he believes footwear and accessories will overtake suiting in terms of sales in the near future. “You don’t need a lot of suits,” he explains, but says shoppers will buy multiple shirts, belts, cufflinks, shoes and so on. “And casualwear will get bigger too - casualwear is very important to us. You want to wear bright red cords? We’ve got them here.”

For Gieves & Hawkes’ spring 12 casualwear collection, Forrester backs the retailer’s “washed cotton jackets, regatta-style parkas and striped cashmere sweaters”, adding that washed linens, classic chinos and a more worn-in feel will be key for next season at Gieves & Hawkes. If last week’s edition of menswear trade show Pitti Uomo in Florence is anything to go by, it might be another season before we see a full swing back to denim across the menswear market, with chinos and shorts being two of the standout product categories from most brands.

What the future holds

Despite sales falling from £17.2m to £16.7m for the year to December 2009, Forrester’s “gentleman’s emporium” strategy and product diversification appear to be paying off since the third quarter of 2010, according to chief executive John Durnin. “[We are] now showing signs of strong and sustainable recovery. We are quietly confident,” he says. This year’s sales are up 5% on the previous year, and up 30%at the Asia Pacific business. In the UK, the retailer has 14 stores and concessions.

And the future? Forrester says he won’t rule out a return to wholesale (which stopped four years ago), but such plans aren’t currently in the pipeline. He is also entertaining the idea of entering the US market via department stores, saying there is a strong luxury menswear business Stateside - however, again there is no time frame as such. But you sense that if Gieves & Hawkes did go down that route, there would be no better man to lead the move, given his US roots and position at an iconic British retailer. “I was on Oprah talking about the royal wedding,” Forrester says, his eyes bright and a big smile across his face. Talk about fusing one traditional institution with another.


CV

2008 Brand director, Gieves & Hawkes
2005 Director of merchandising and planning, Burberry
2003 Director, vertical retail inbound supply chain, Polo Retail Europe
2001 Senior director, wholesale, Polo Ralph Lauren Europe
1999 Vice-president, retail development, Polo Jeans Co, Ralph Lauren New York
1996 Senior director, retail and design, Polo Jeans Co, Ralph Lauren New York


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