Pictured above: Michael Drake (left) and Michael Hill (right)
An Interview with Michael Hill of Drake's
by Derek Guy of StyleForum, Put This On, and Die, Workwear!
It has been said that Drake’s offers English taste the way the Italians or French might imagine it. Generally speaking, English producers tend to make ties in either very conservative or slightly flashy designs. Drake’s, on the other hand, produces ties that are rooted in a classic, conservative British sensibility, but also carry a bit of flair and artistry, in the way that an Italian or a French man might wear his British clothes. The formula has proved very successful. In the company’s 30-year history, it has built a reputation among the cognoscenti as being one of the best tie producers in the world.
A few weeks ago, I had a chance to interview Michael Hill, Drake’s managing director and chief designer, while he was at the company’s factory in the East End of London. We had a chance to talk about his history, the neckwear business, and about ties themselves. Enjoy.
Derek Guy: Let's begin by talking a bit about your background. Did you formally study fashion? How did you get into designing ties?
Michael Hill: I went to the London College of Fashion, which is where I got my formal academic training. Before that, however, I worked at a few silk mills in Italy and at Drumohr, all of which gave me some very valuable work experience. While I was at the London College of Fashion, I started working at Richard James on the weekends and holidays. Richard has been credited with having dusted down Savile Row's reputation as being old and fusty. I was very excited by that, so I joined him. There were just four of us at the company at the time, and we worked out of a small shop on Savile Row. After I graduated, I stayed with Richard and ran his wholesale business for the next 6 years. I then joined Michael Drake at Drake's, and am now in my eighth year here.
DG: And how did you meet Michael?
MH: While I was at Richard James, Michael was doing the tie collections for some of the tailors on Savile Row. At the time, Robert Godley left Drake’s to start working in America. So Michael gave me a call, having remembered what I was doing and being a fan of Richard. I suppose he also thought to ask me because years ago he worked with my father. They had a tie company together called Hill and Drake, so I've known Michael since I was a small boy. It's a bit uncommon to be making and designing ties, but I suppose Michael knew that I had an affinity. My interest came not only from my time at the university and working with Richard James, but also just having very much grown up in that world.
DG: When you were working with Richard James, were you designing ties or just running the wholesale business?
MH: I was just running the wholesale operation. But since it was a very small company, everyone was very hands-on and you got a good oversight for everything that was going on. But no, I wasn't designing ties, and that was one of the main reasons why I was excited to join Michael. I was ready to start designing textiles and thought I would enjoy doing it. I didn't have any formal training, but I suppose from having grown up in it, and having a big interest in art and design, I thought I might be OK at it if I worked hard enough. Hopefully that has proved the case.
DG: Given the popularity of Drake's, I think it certainly has. So do you design all the textiles for Drake's then?
MH: Yes, but we have a team as well. I work with Kathryn Rickards and Stephen Linard. I oversee everything, however, and am very hands-on—I go to the mills, design, and color, but I have a lot of help from Kathryn and Stephen, both of whom have been at Drake's for much longer than me. They have a very good grounding in the business, and I think it shows when we're sitting down and putting everything together.
DG: Can you explain what goes into the design process, both on the artistic and technical ends?
MH: There are two major starting points. The first is Drake's fantastic archive of our 30-year history. I lean on that a great deal and take a lot of inspiration from it. As you know, classic menswear can move very slowly, and I'm certainly not trying to make any drastic changes each season. When I head into the archives, I tweak and recolor the old designs, and come up with new designs that are influenced by the old ones, in order to create a story that's relevant to the time we're in today, but still very much part of our history.
The other starting point is at the mills themselves. I'm working with the same mills that Michael worked with when we started. So there's a long history between us, and since the mills sit ahead of the design process, they can sometimes anticipate the general direction that we're headed in and suggest things that would be in our natural evolution. Their suggestions are often about things such as new yarns we can source, new technologies on the horizon, or old weaving machines that we can get up and running again. So some of these design innovations are coming from the mills more than me trying to invent, from just my own head, what I think a nice weave would be. It's all very much a two-way process.
If you look from season to season, our designs never move drastically, but they do progress nicely and slowly. When you go through the design process, you very naturally come up with fresh takes, either on things we've found in the archive or things we're working with mills on.
DG: Can you give us an example of a tie design that was influenced by something a mill suggested?
MH: Well there's the boucle yarn this season. That's a very old yarn that we've never used before, but one of the mills used it in the 1950s. We've been able to go back and work with it again. It's an old yarn, but it just seems relevant again now that we're coming out with so many textured ties.
We're also now able to weave a jacquard into grenadine. Our grenadine dates back to 1928, and was originally woven on these old wooden shuttle looms. We got some of that technology up and running again, and now we can weave a spot or motif onto our grenadines. That gives us some new and very simple designs, but nice ones nonetheless.
DG: Do you find these things—the boucle ties and motif grenadines—to be popular, or are they more for a niche customer?
MH: You know, it's funny; in recent seasons, our shantung silks have sold incredibly well. I added them to the collection because they just somehow seemed nice again, but I didn't expect that we would sell lots of them. On the contrary, however, it's been one of our best selling fabrics in the last season. You can be very surprised. Even our big four-knot grenadines, in solid colors, have become some of our best selling ties in the shop. We do that unlined, handrolled, and in 7 cm and 8 cm widths [about 2.75 and 3.15 inches]. We started them a couple of years ago for Dover Street Market. I thought it was great back then, but again, I didn't expect to sell lots of them. I thought they would be more for the niche customer who really gets it, but it seems like everyone does as well.
Those are probably the best examples. I think the boucles are very nice, but I don't expect to sell them in the same numbers as our shantungs and grenadines.
To be continued. In the next installment, we'll talk to Michael about the tie business and ties themselves. Additionally, a special thanks to Manfred Busch and Thomas Busch of b&l textile trading Co Ltd for their help with this interview. Thomas Busch has taught me a great deal about neckwear, and I owe him a great debt for his time. A special thanks also to Mark Cho from The Armoury for sending me the photos we've used for this interview. His store continues to be a source of inspiration.
Edited by dieworkwear - 1/5/12 at 7:07am