Pictured above: Michael Hill (left) and Michael Drake (right) work with a customer at Pitti Uomo.
An Interview with Michael Hill of Drake's
by Derek Guy of StyleForum, Put This On, and Die, Workwear!
Here is the second half of our interview with Michael Hill. You can find part one here.
Derek Guy: The tie trade is flooded with cheap Chinese-made ties of low to average quality, and many producers are being squeezed—not only do they have to compete against cheaper goods, but they also face more demanding distributors and retailers. With a company like Drake's, where you focus first and foremost on producing the best products, where do you find your market, especially in these tough economic times? Has selling directly to the customer helped?
Michael Hill: Historically, we've always relied on our wholesale business, which was mainly with Barney's, Selfridges, Bergdorf Goodman, Isetan and Beams in Japan, etc. That was our core business and we've always exported very well. However, I always felt that we were somewhat underappreciated at home, in the UK, and could do better here. If we were going to do that, however, we had to lead a bit more, put our look together, and show it to people. In other words, we had to retail it directly to the customer. We started doing that with the website, which proved to us that it could work. Following on that, we opened the shop. I think, essentially, we've worked to show people that we had a look that we believed in, and that look is different from what other people are doing. I think that has helped us a lot, and slowly but surely, we've been able to build a market here at home as well.
DG: Have you found running both a manufacturing business and retailing business challenging in any way?
MH: Oh, definitely. We've been running the manufacturing business for a while now and we know it well, but retail is a new business for us. I think we have to be humble about that and admit we're still very much learning. It's very exciting but it's also very different from what we're used to doing. We're now all a bit more pressed on our jobs. I suppose I had a little bit of retailing experience from my time at Richard James, and James Priestley, who heads up our retail side of things, helped run New and Lingwood's shop years ago. But I still think it's a very different thing. It's been challenging and I hope that as we learn more, the extra workload will become a bit more comfortable. The feedback so far has been positive, however, so I hope we're doing the right things.
DG: You also manufacture ties for other companies. Is that a significant portion of your business?
MH: Increasingly less, I would say. We'd like to hold on to all of our private label business and many of those companies are old and valued customers. But over time, I think we not only wanted to move on, but I also think we had to. That was just the way things were going. We still have fantastic private label customers, but I think times are getting more difficult. In order to stay fresh and move along, I think we had to be more proactive about selling our own brand.
DG: What were some of the pressures that made you focus more on building your own label rather than manufacturing for others?
MH: I think it's just harder for British neckwear brands to survive nowadays. If you walk down Jermyn Street, how many ties can you find that are made in England? You'll find some, to be sure, but increasingly more and more, tie production has gone to Italy, and now ultimately China. If that's how people are choosing to source, we simply can't compete. We're certainly not going to change the way we manufacture. We're proud to make our products in London and we believe it's the right way.
So that meant that we had to start selling our own ties rather than making them for other people. Of course, we certainly still manufacture for others when we can, and when others still believe in our way of doing things, but sadly, there are fewer and fewer of those characters around. In another sense, however, I think there's been a reaction against those who have tried to source elsewhere. I think people know we're expensive, but they also know that we don't have an extortionate margin. It's rather expensive to handmake a tie in London, but we're not necessarily charging any more than people who are making ties of inferior quality in China.
DG: Have you seen improvements in the tie manufacturing trade in China, however? Are they catching up in skill?
MH: I really don't know because we handprint all of our cloth in England, weave 90 percent of our cloth in England, and make everything by hand in London. We've never gone to have a look at what's going on in China. I suppose I shouldn't be disparaging toward China, since I'm not really in any position to comment on what's happening there. For all I know, they could be making ties every bit as good as ours. That's not what I'm really referring to though. I'm more referring to the fact that we make things in London simply because we've always made things in London. The people who make our ties all live in London, near our factory, and they're the ones who make our ties what they are. So we couldn't make our ties anywhere else anyway, even if we wanted to, because then they wouldn't be Drake's ties.
DG: You've talked about Drake's export markets. Have you found any regional differences in taste between the Italians, English, Americans, and Japanese?
MH: There's a noticeable difference. In Italy we sell a lot of printed ties, but in Japan and America, we sell more wovens. We've always been the most successful in Italy, which is a bit ironic to us since Italy has such a strong textiles and neckties trade. We also see a difference in how the markets respond to designs and colors. Seventy percent of the ties we produce are made in navy blue. I suppose that has something to do with how popular we are in Italy. Navy blue ties are fairly standard there, and it's a very easy color to wear. We sell them very well in other countries as well, but they're particularly popular in Italy. Also, textured cloths go to Japan more than anywhere else. I don't think we sell those as much in America; there we sell flatter silks. Having said that, we've now started selling grenadines in America, but it perhaps took a little longer for that to happen.
DG: Do you have an opinion on the essential ties a man should own?
MH: I suppose I think about it in terms of what I always reach for in the morning. If you have a spread of five ties, I would say you should have a real ancient madder; a navy blue grenadine; a wool challis in burgundy or bottle green, perhaps with a dark color motif; a repp tie, fairly regimental-based in color; and a silk knit. You can wear any of these with lots of different things and get lots of variation. In general, dark colors are easiest to wear, so they should all be on the darker side of the spectrum. Those would be my staples.
DG: Do you have advice on how to best take care of ties?
MH: At the end of the day, I roll mine up, leave it rolled over night, and hang it the following day. I would never dry clean a tie. I think that would make it lose its luster and three-dimensional shape. I suppose we have the luxury of being able to have our ties reslipped at our factory if they get out of shape. I must say though, I'm not particularly hard on my clothes; I tend to look after them pretty well. I very rarely have a tie reslipped or remade. I did recently for my navy blue grenadine because I tend to wear it a lot, and because of the nature of the loose weave, it can pull away from the slipstitch. But that was after about 3 years of wearing, so I got a lot of wear out of it, that's for sure.
DG: I didn't know you could reslip a tie like that.
MH: Yes, you can. Sometimes, a good customer will bring ties back into the shop, and we'll give the ties a press, put a bit of life back in, and take all of the creases out where the tie is constantly knotted and reknotted. We'll also reslip the tie with a fresh interlining just to give it back its body and shape. I suppose a tie is done when spaghetti has fallen down the front, but if the silk is still good, it can always be reslipped and relined.
DG: Do you have anything you'd like to leave our readers with? Myths that should be dispelled, overrated rules, or any last thoughts?
MH: The only thing I always say is that of course there are rules, and it helps to know the rules in order to break them, however subtly one intends to do that. But I always stress that whilst we have all these rules, one should have a degree of spontaneity and intuition, and even individuality, about how we wear our clothes. So yes, most of us like to have a dimple in our ties, but that isn't the only way, and there are certainly other far more important things in life. So long as someone has their own take on things and is enjoying it, I think that's the most important thing. I think we can sometimes get a bit too huffed up about these things and I suppose in some ways, following the rules too closely can make things a bit boring.
DG: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me about ties, Michael. I really appreciate it.
MH: Thank you, Derek.
Again, thanks to Manfred Busch and Thomas Busch of b&l textile trading Co Ltd for their help with this interview, and to Mark Cho from The Armoury for sending me photos.