The winner of this year’s Drapers Independents Lifetime Achievement Award has committed his whole career to creating impeccable menswear
Grey clouds roll in over Belfast Lough, creating a dramatic backdrop to the plush boardroom in Douglas & Grahame’s headquarters. It is undeniably beautiful, if a little bleak, yet the company’s former managing director Richard Finlay sits steadfastly with his back to the view. “It’s a distraction,” he explains.
Even now, on the cusp of full retirement after 48 years, Finlay is more focused on the business at hand than the stunning surroundings of the company’s premises in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland. But then, this commitment is what got him here in the first place.
Finlay was, until last March, managing director of the £20.5m turnover men’s and children’s wear brand house. After years of successfully running the business, in 2015 at the age of 66, he stepped aside to allow his younger brother Donald to take the reins. But he is still acting as a consultant and mentor to his 27-year-old nephew Adam, who is being primed to take over from Donald one day.
Everyone’s suit looked the same, the only difference was the cloth
The Finlays have been involved with Douglas & Grahame since Richard’s father Dixie joined the business in the 1945. At the time, under the leadership of founders Charles Douglas and Hugh Grahame, it produced bespoke suits from cloth, but later moved into ready-made clothing. When Douglas died in 1965, Grahame decided he didn’t want to carry on running the business without his partner, so he sold it to Dixie.
It was 1966, Richard Finlay was 17 and on the brink of leaving school when his father asked if he’d be interested in learning the business and helping him to run Douglas & Grahame. He was on course to study architecture at university but, having worked on the shop floor of McCalls of Lisburn during the school holidays from the age of 13, had also had some experience in menswear retailing.
“I got a real taste for the trade there,” he recalls. So he said yes and spent the next couple of years learning the skills involved in supplying menswear through apprenticeships at companies in the UK. He started off at a fabric production firm in Huddersfield.
“We went through the whole process of making cloth,” says Finlay. “I was fascinated with the way it was designed and put together.” He then joined a garment manufacturer in Leeds for a year, where he learned about the production of men’s suits. During that time he did an evening course in tailoring at Leeds Technical College, making his own suit from start to finish.
“It was quite exciting, the whole thing. At that time, Leeds was the centre of men’s garment production.”
We felt an Italian reference would convey the right connotation of the styling
When he returned home to Douglas & Grahame in 1968, which was then based in Belfast, he worked his way up from the shop floor, serving customers, handling stock and eventually joining his father to help with the buying, fabric selection and factory negotiations.
By this time, Douglas & Grahame had developed a reputation for classic menswear under its first ready-made brand Wellington. Being “a young person”, Finlay was allowed to develop some more fashion-forward suits and casualwear.
“When I joined the business it was very mundane,” he explains, laughing. “Everyone’s suit looked the same, the only difference was the cloth. One of the early additions to our fashion side was a pinstripe suit for a younger man, made in a slimmer cut, with a little flap on the breast pocket. We brought those in and it was unreal – off the shelf like snow off a ditch as we used to say. It was a great thrill to see the numbers and to know you’ve got it right.”
This new, more-fashionable line proved a success and grew, so it needed its own name and identity. Finlay, who had become managing director in 1979 after his father died, and Donald, who had joined the business in 1977, settled on Remus Uomo.
Remus Uomo autumn 16
“At that time we were very influenced by Italian couture and doing a lot of our fabric selection in Italy,” says Finlay. “We were impressed by the collections there. We felt an Italian reference would convey the right connotation of the styling. We came up with the name Remus Uomo and sometimes you just feel it sounds right. Uomo emphasised the Italian attitude.”
Remus Uomo is now the company’s biggest brand, representing 50% of sales. It performs very well for many indies, including Leaf Clothing in Newcastle, whose owner Brian Smith says: “It’s our best brand on formalwear. Unlike a lot of other brands they do stock lines with separate jackets and trousers, which is great. Full suits are fine for the fit, young groom but the father or father of the bride might need a wider fitting option so it’s fantastic that they allow you to buy separately.”
Douglas & Grahame has five core brands: Wellington, Remus Uomo, Douglas, Daniel Grahame, and boyswear and schoolwear brand 1880 Club. Douglas was introduced as an upmarket classic brand, and is now number two in terms of sales. Wellington is retained for the diehard customer and farming community, who favour a tweed jacket. Daniel Grahame was developed as a more affordable line.
This last came into its own during the organisation’s leaner years, after the credit crunch. On average, a three-piece suit from Daniel Grahame costs £80 wholesale, compared with £180 for a three-piece mix and match suit from Douglas.
We had a few years of great concern from a financial point of view
“When things were tighter, people who usually sold suits for £1,000 (retail) were selling suits for £700. Daniel Grahame kept us busy at a more competitive price.” Sales of Douglas have picked up again in the years since, as the economy has improved.
The financial crisis came at a particularly bad time for Douglas & Grahame, which had just invested more than £5m in the 250,000 sq ft Carrickfergus headquarters. Shortly after the team moved in in 2009, things took a turn for the worse.
Douglas autumn 16
“It was a very big project and we were looking to the future – but it came at a time when the business did contract, so we had a few years of great concern from a financial point of view,” says Finlay.
The company got through it, thanks to the support of its customers and loyalty of the staff.
Finlay says he managed to avoid making any compulsory redundancies: “The staff were very understanding and we were very open with them. Our financial advisers said: ‘You’ve got to do this [make redundancies], your sales are falling’. But, while a lot of people were not as busy as they’d been before, we couldn’t do without them. We lost money for a few years, but luckily the business had been around long enough to sustain that.”
It was 2014 before it felt like they’d come out the other end, Finlay says. And it is now back in rude health. For the year to 31 May, the company expects to post a pre-tax profit of £1m.
Attention is now turning to how it can expand its own retail. Douglas & Grahame launched the first company-operated Remus Uomo store in Belfast in 1995, followed by one in Glasgow; it also has two franchise stores in Galway and Ballymena, County Antrim. The company handled its own retail expansion very carefully, says Finlay: “We focused on locations in cities, as most of our customers are in provincial towns. We were anxious that our customers not be upset with us. A minority did express concern, but have subsequently found it was beneficial.” The firm is currently eyeing locations for a Remus Uomo store in Dublin.
Finlay insists, however, that Douglas & Grahame will always be honourable towards its wholesale customers. The business has 400 stockists, the majority of which are in the UK and Ireland, although it does have some in Russia, New Zealand and mainland Europe.
Whenever a product was nicely folded and looked well, it was a lot more appealing
“We’re fortunate here in Ireland to have a very strong independent menswear sector,” explains Finlay. “Some of them are phenomenal businesses, especially given the size of their shops. It amazes us.” Among the initiatives it has introduced is an extranet, which allows key retailers to access stockholding information. It has also just launched a new B2B site for wholesale customers.
Next on the agenda is the relaunch of the ecommerce site for Remus Uomo. Finlay admits he was sceptical about online retailing for a long time. “I genuinely believed suits, which form a big part of our business here, wouldn’t really sell on the internet. People want to try something on, to feel it. But the indications are that that’s been a mistake. It’s all about convenience now. People are doing their shopping at home at night.” Ultimately though, ecommerce is something he is happy to let the next generation worry about.
Younger brother Donald took over from Finlay as managing director in March 2015, but Finlay is still there two or three times a week consulting with Adam on a part-time basis. Despite sitting with his back to the view, it is clear he’ll miss the place. “It’s really rewarding when we get a summer’s day and the guys and the girls are outside enjoying their lunch in the sunshine. That we could never have done in the city.”
He also takes a lot of joy in helping Adam, who has been in the business for four years now and this year joined the board.
“[Adam] is a very sound young man, I’ve great joy in passing on my knowledge to him. It’s always very difficult for a family member to come into a business with a lot of the mature management around. He slotted in extremely well and gained the respect of one and all. I feel very confident he’ll take the business forward in a successful way.”
Despite being on the verge of retiring after such a long time in the business, Finlay’s passion for menswear is still palpable. When Drapers visits he is proudly wearing a navy Douglas & Grahame number.
“I’m into more of a younger person’s suit than maybe I’d be credited with,” he grins.
Stock in trade
Thinking back to what captured his imagination about menswear in the first place, he says: “It was identifying what people liked and what sold or didn’t sell, and the presentation of things. I was, in my early days, responsible for refolding and putting stock away while others were trying to sell it. Whenever a product was nicely folded and looked well, it was a lot more appealing. I was interested in colour and matching shirts to suits or ties to shirts. I found it quite intriguing.”
He notes that his creative nature and ability to draw was a great help. “I was able to go to a factory about a design I wanted and, rather than just tell them in words, give them a sketch. Something as simple as the shape of a lapel – if I emailed a company now, or in the old days sent a fax or a letter, and said I want a three-inch lapel, every factory would have come back with a different shape. We wanted to have a specific shape and have it the same with factory A and factory B.”
Paul Galvin, owner of Galvin Tullamore, says this attention to detail is distilled throughout the business: “Remus Uomo as a brand, the business generally, it focuses on the minutiae, from the buttonholes to the thread. I’ve often heard stories of them in the office until 3am poring over details.” On Finlay specifically he adds: “He is extremely professional, honourable and hardworking. He has brought an awful lot to the menswear trade.”
Finlay has indeed worked incredibly hard throughout his life, helping to build Douglas & Grahame into a sustainable business with a long-term future. Perhaps now, he can finally spin his chair around and drink in that view.
Douglas & Grahame through the years
- 1924 - Douglas & Grahame is founded on Great Victoria Street, Belfast
- 1945 - Dixie Finlay joins
- 1964 - First menswear brand Wellington developed
- 1956 - Richard Finlay joins after undertaking apprenticeships in the UK
- 1973 - Douglas & Grahame starts to expand, developing a presence in Scotland
- 1977 - Richard’s brother Donald Finlay joins
- 1991 – Douglas & Grahame launch Remus Uomo, a range of Italian-inspired menswear
- 2002 - The firm develops showrooms and offices at Shenstone in Birmingham to facilitate iits UK market penetration
- 2009 - Moves HQ to Carrickfergus, Country Antrim