Business

The British are coming: Drake’s of London dips a toe into the US (and signals a new set of ambitions).

When Michael Hill, the CEO of Drake’s of London, relays to us the thinking behind his decision to commit to the US market with a six month Soho pop-up on Prince Street (and the early returns of doing so), he explains it the following way: “Our gut told us that we had a market in New York. That’s been proven to be the case.”

Wry and succinct, it’s quintessential British understatement at its most reserved. Yet if one were to dig deeper and unspool the true thought process behind the move, you would find that there were in fact legitimate business-driven grounds for taking such a real step.

Mr. Hill, in other words, is being more than just a little modest. This was anything but a gut decision. Drake’s, a men’s firm deeply rooted in traditional English tailoring with a contemporary twist, is by no means a tech-focused, data-driven operation like, say, a Combatant Gent. But when it came time to commit to setting shallow, temporary roots in New York soil from August 2016 to January 2017, that decision was a fully-vetted one — despite Mr. Hill’s subdued explanation.

Drake’s is in fact extremely familiar with the US, and with the New York market in particular. Started in 1977 by founder Michael Drake as a men’s scarf and necktie purveyor strictly sourced and manufactured in the UK, it celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2017. For the vast majority of those years — around 30 — it’s been selling in the New York area, and boasts wholesale accounts at some of the most prestigious retailers, Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman, among them.

Unlike wholesale, this was to be pure Drake’s — undiluted, uncut, straight from the source (and highly-concentrated, given the size of the Prince Street space).

The New York location, however, which opened on August 3, is their first stand-alone effort in making a real, fully-branded push for the US market with an eye towards permanence. With wholesale a healthy part of the business, Mr. Hill saw the need to bring the brand towards a new stage of maturity, the goal being to create a fully-conceived Drake’s presentation expressly for the US customer. Unlike wholesale, this was to be pure Drake’s — undiluted, uncut, straight from the source (and highly-concentrated, given the size of the Prince Street space). “We never really had a chance to pull a whole look together, given the limitations of the wholesale side of the business. So it was a chance for us to express that full look more,” he explains. “We’ve had a healthy spread of the products that are selling there, which is very nice to see.”

That is certainly good news, especially as the company looks to expand its stand-alone presence outside of London and the UK. Today, rather than over-saturating its domestic market, there’s an opening for the company to expand to key international markets. “We’d love to have a few stores all over England, but I’m not sure how viable that is for us,” Mr. Hill says. “Whereas maybe the more established global cities, perhaps they suit us better.”

England is, after all, a relatively small market, despite its modern luxury brand count. For a company as fiercely British as Drake’s, there’s ample opportunity to export its quiet, classy Britishness abroad — arguably more so than increasing market share in the UK. As such, they’re hoping to use the New York pop-up as a springboard for something more permanent there later, and they also have a similar pop-up in Tokyo planned for the spring of 2017.

The Drake’s Way.

Deliberately trend agnostic and slow moving, in an endearing way, Drake’s is a brand tailor-made and perfectly-equipped for autumn. It purrs during those cooler months that beckon for tasteful layering and handsome accessories. There’s a self-confidence, a quiet certainty of conviction, with how Drake’s presents itself, which Mr. Hill seems to recognize on some level (without stating overtly, of course). “I suppose when you’re doing your own thing, and your head is in that space, you’re not really looking too much at what the others are doing,” he says. “You’re doing to do what you feel is right in terms of what you believe in. Both in terms of what you love and what your customer will love.”

Yet in a world trending alarmingly towards casualness, the company is noticeably stubborn. The house style is rooted in formal wear, but made approachable with “a few softened edges”. It acts, also, as an antidote to this “casual creep”. The fact that as a men’s tailoring firm it even has its own kid’s line is all that needs to be said about its slightly contrarian attitude towards today’s new conventions. This is peak Drake’s.

In the six years since the buyout, they have doubled the business: Drake’s now brings in £8 million annually, or just over $10 million per year.

A Bold, New Focus.

The Soho pop-up is in lockstep with the brand’s increased ambitions since Mr. Hill purchased the company from his longtime mentor, Mr. Drake in 2010. He had been trying to buy the business for several years with little luck, and fortuitously met Mark Cho who was opening a new Hong-Kong-based menswear purveyor, The Armoury, at the time. Mr. Cho came to Drakes to have them make accessories for The Armoury, found out about Mr. Hill’s ambition to take over for the business, and asked if Mr. Hill would be willing to give it another go.

In the six years since the buyout, they have doubled the business: Drake’s now brings in £8 million annually, or just over $10 million per year. The team is focused on broadening the company’s global footprint, but the UK is still its largest market, and continues to grow. Outside of the UK, Italy, Japan, and the US, have traditionally been its strongest markets, and while that continues to be the case, business is also picking up in Hong Kong, Seoul, Russia, Scandinavia, and Canada.

Mr. Hill makes it clear that the brand’s new muscularity is to take nothing away from the foundation Mr. Drake painstakingly built over a span of five decades. “I’m always reticent obviously to say ‘We’re doing great things now; we weren’t doing great things before.’ I think part of the reason we’re doing some great things now, is because the company did some great things before,” Mr. Hill explains. His dream, post-purchase, was to preserve the core, while expanding the Drake’s world both in product offerings and in reach. “I suppose my aim, my dream, was to expand his amazing taste level, his great feel for product, and take that a little further. That’s all I’ve tried to do.”

And it’s just as well. It’s all too easy for heritage-minded brands to rest on their laurels and wallow in complacency. But bringing a brand up to modern speed takes a deft touch — and fluency in what came before. This is not to say that Drake’s pre-2010 was lacking; yet if anyone were the ideal candidate to give it a slight makeover, it would be Mr. Hill. He comes from the Drake’s culture, having worked there for nearly twenty years under Mr. Drake himself, and alongside his father who was also a partner. He understands the history, the philosophy, the pride of the brand; it is, almost quite literally, in his blood.

Rather than slowly eroding the soul of Drake’s, he and Mr. Cho understood that the best ROI would be to double down on what made it special. So they invested where it counts — manufacturing infrastructure, a smart long-term play. They erected a new factory and showroom in the same part of London where the old Drake’s factory used to be (staying in same part of the city and remaining loyal to the workforce was vital). A new production facility in Sommerset, to the west, was also built, allowing the company to produce its own shirts and manufacture its own fabrics.

Next came the product line, which was broadened to create a meatier, more robust version of Drake’s. The brand’s new sport coats, field jackets, pea coats, and sweaters, help to fill out the line and compliment the longstanding necktie and scarves business. Along the way, they sought to avoid adding just to add. Each new product came to be because it was either unavailable in the market at the time, or handled poorly. That edict is less rigid today but still remains an important part of the decision making for new products.

Still, there’s a very thin line that one must walk when expanding the scope of a brand like Drake’s. The firm caters to a loyal niche and is mindful of changing too much too quickly — much to the delight of its longtime customers. So when extending the reach in order to welcome new customers, it must be done in a way that doesn’t cause loyalists to march towards the Drake’s headquarters with torches and pitchforks. It’s a delicate balance that Mr. Hill has handled with the utmost care. The new company feels like it goes back to something, he says, and while they’ve certainly found new customers in the process, longtime customers also like the new direction.

As the new Drake’s continues to spread its wings to new corners of the world, perhaps the most important takeaway is this: At a time when informality seems to be metastasizing to all areas of modern life, Drake’s acts as a quiet statement against that trend. And as it continues to grow, it acts as a positive case study, proving that, yes, even in the late 2010s, being formal can still make for great business.

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