The Armoury CEO Mark Cho on modernity, brand building, and acquiring Drake’s of London.
Armoury founder Mark Cho’s projects are characterized by a ravenous, curious, and detail minded approach, fueled by constant travel between New York, London, Hong Kong, and Tokyo.
HONG KONG — Mark Cho is an entrepreneur, menswear devotee, founder of the Armoury and a co-owner of the storied British brand Drake’s. He takes a modern approach to sourcing interesting artisans in the world of menswear, and has invigorated a category — bespoke suiting — that can sometimes be construed as stuffy and staid. He’s a champion of an international, melting pot approach to clothing; think: Japanese tailors creating in a Neapolitan style, as opposed to the typical schools of English or Italian. His projects are characterized by a ravenous, curious, and detail minded approach, fueled by constant travel between New York, London, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. Colin Nagy caught up with him to discuss his world.
1. While many storied menswear institutions seem stuck in the past and catering to an older moneyed generation, The Armoury feels hyper modern. Talk about your intention in building the brand.
Our shop can still be summarized by our original tagline: “International Classic Artisanal Clothiers”. We source brands from everywhere. We deal in classic style. We specialize in small production factories or individual craftsmen. We advise our customers on how to build a wardrobe rather than close quick, individual sales.
I think certain aspects of what we do are very modern and certain aspects are the complete opposite.
A lot of the choices we make stem from one of our core mission: to promote classic style and to keep it relevant. Keeping it relevant means we must be modern when necessary.
What do we do that’s modern?
Our stance when it comes to suppliers. Traditional menswear shops have often been too focused on solely an English or Italian look and using brands from those two countries. Our stores are in International melting pot type cities, we want our sourcing to reflect that.
Our overall style and presentation. Trying to present tailored clothing as something that isn’t just formal or for work, but just a beautiful and wearable aesthetic with a lot of love and care going into the product. We purposely try to eschew a lifestyle presentation, avoiding imagery like playing polo on horses, lounging in your private jet, etc. Instead, we promote ourselves as a group of people and a sensibility that can be both more relevant and more able to allow the wearer to make choices for themselves rather than buy into a prescribed look.
What do we do that’s old fashioned?
We are definitely not “there’s an app for that” people. We are old school, hands-on service type people. We dig around archives and dead stock looking for great stuff. We stay in constant contact with our favourite customers. We like to build a relationship with them and a wardrobe for them.
2. How do you source partnerships? What is the criteria and what are you most excited about?
We look for a few things. 1. Classic style. 2. Working directly with production, (with very few exceptions) not with a brand/designer. 3. High quality, small volume, handmade wherever possible. We source by travelling, searching and relying on some referrals. We typically commission or buy pieces for ourselves first before we come to a decision.
Right now, I’m excited about Jean Rousseau’s collaboration wallet that I designed with them, called the Winston Wallet.
Also, got a new bespoke trousermaker coming to New York called Pommella, Our house model is an interesting take on how to do a waistband closure using metal D-rings. It’s pretty subtle but is a nice nod to old Ghurka style trousers and also how Frank Sinatra used to wear his belt off center, fastening at the side.
3. Talk about the process of buying Drake’s and what you’re been doing to it over the past few years. Also, where does the brand fit in the universe now compared to where it was?
There wasn’t much to it. I was buying from them and I loved the product. I met [CEO Michael Hill] and we understood each other. He had offers from people before but they would have shifted the brand downmarket and into very casual items and then look to make money on licensing. I wanted to keep the production, keep it British and keep it real, so I was a logical choice as a successor. It was a wonderful, healthy company that was making money and making its own products, I was and still am absolutely in love with the company. Michael and I met to discuss around April 2010 and had closed the deal about two months later.
I am very lucky to work with Michael who at the time was [Drake’s founder] Michael Drake’s right hand man. Michael has a brilliant sense for design and an overall aesthetic. What we’ve done over the last 7 years is realize that aesthetic. We started with a retail store in 2011 to physically manifest what the Drake’s look is. Then we acquired a shirt factory in 2013 so we could make more things in house and in the UK. The website has seen several iterations and is one of our biggest channels. As we became more sure of ourselves, we added categories and we have a rich collection with multiple channels to sell it out of. We have two stores in London, one in New York and one in Tokyo as well as a strong wholesale business. Michael has not only taken Michael Drake’s ideas and continued them, he has evolved them.
4. What are you most excited about in menswear right now? What sort of designers or artisans?
What I am currently most excited and focused on right now is product development at The Armoury. Seven years in, having built great relationships with craftspeople and suppliers, we are drawing on their expertise and doing more exclusive product than ever. I think we are bringing a unique take on menswear and it is coming as exclusive and well thought through collaborations between us and our partners. The Armoury has matured and I think we are slowly but surely refining our exclusive product range.
5. You’re regularly between Hong Kong, Tokyo, New York and London. How does this inform your outlook and how you are building the brand?
Travelling a lot keep me on my toes. Frequent changes in scenery make you appreciate how different each of these cities are and how best to approach a varied audience. From simple things like understanding “New York needs more raincoats” to dealing with our best customers in person and on a very personal level. Our customers are very international people and their time is precious. We try to approach them with things that are not only special but also thought out in the context of their lives.
In terms of building The Armoury, we are not aiming to have many stores. A handful worldwide. I think if we could open one more Armoury within three years, I’d be very happy.
As for Drake’s, we are growing at a steady, healthy clip and what we do can be scaled at our current pace of growth.