How Michael Hill transformed Drake’s London from a tie specialist into an international menswear phenomenon.
Anyone who has recently put their foot in a high-end menswear shop is likely to have noticed the growing presence of the Drake’s London. In fact, just browsing through this magazine is enough to grasp the brand’s prominence. In just a few years, the company has moved up the ladder and is now widely recognised as one of the world’s most exciting menswear brands. Once serving as a tie subcontractor for other labels, Drake’s London now boasts its own collection of shirts, knitwear, jackets, trousers, jeans, outerwear and ties.
The man behind the transformation is the company’s charismatic design chief and CEO, Michael Hill, who took over the brand from its founder Michael Drake six years ago. Since then, the Brit has nearly doubled the turnover with the help of his partner, the menswear entrepreneur Mark Sho. So how did he pull this off?
Born into the textile industry, Michael Hill’s grandfather was a shirt maker, and his father, Charles Hill, was a tie maker and a partner of Michael Drake, before the latter founded Drake’s. Michael Hill was only 26 years old when he joined the company and, despite his young age, he soon became Michael Drake’s right-hand man.
“My second day at work, Michael told me: ‘Pack your bags, we’re going to Lisbon.’ It was the most amazing journey I’ve experienced. It was hard work, but so much fun. We were in close contact with both the clients and the weaving mills. I became familiar with the market, got to know the clients and learnt about the company’s history.”
Michael and Michael worked together for eight years, before the company founder had to retire. Michael Hill stepped in and gained support from menswear store The Armoury’s founder Mark Sho. “Mark believed in me and shared my view of Drake’s values.”
What was your priority once you were at the helm?
“The first thing we had to do was to open up a store. While expensive, we had to make ourselves visible. I soon found some premises near us, on Savile Row. I never planned for it to happen so quickly, but within six months we had our own shop.”
What did this mean to you?
“It played an important part in letting us build a business beyond that of serving other brands. For a long period, this was Drake’s main source of income, but now more and more companies are moving their production overseas, first to Italy and then to Asia. I still remember the day Ralph Lauren and Burberry ceased working with us. While painful, it was hardly shocking.”
So, all of a sudden you wanted to reach the end customer too?
“Definitely. Opening the shop was crucial in that regard. For the first time we had no choice but to meet our customers face to face.”
Shortly after this you purchased a factory in the English countryside.
“Once we had our own shop, we began expanding into new product categories. To begin with, we sold shirts made in Italy, but it didn’t sit right with us. It didn’t fit our background. We are British brand and we should therefore sell British shirts. That’s why we bought the shirt factory in Somerset.”
It is interesting that you, in contrast to most other players in the industry who move production overseas, invested locally.
“To me, it was very clear that if we manufactured our products elsewhere, Drake’s would lose its identity. We have to keep manufacturing in England; it’s that that our credibility is built on. The ties were already made in London. This is where are clients are and where are slippers come from.”
“They are the ladies who make the ties.”
Considering your background as a tie expert, did you find it difficult to learn the ropes of shirt making?
“I had to be humble. We had to learn from scratch and find a method that suited us. I wanted to make a classic formal shirt, but with a softer feel to make it more relevant and modern.”
Did you have it in mind to create a new style for a younger demographic?
“A bit, yes, because I belong to a generation that is different from Michael Drake’s. But it wasn’t so much about making it younger as it was making it relevant today. We didn’t bring out a lot of technical textiles. In fact, the first thing we made was this incredible tie made from ancient madder. This is possibly one of the most archaic things you can imagine, but we put our spin on it. We added a touch of Drake’s.”
What represents Drake’s style?
“It’s a bit softer and more relaxed compared to Savile Row, which is still pretty stiff and dressy. Our style pays homage to Michael Drake’s personality. He was a classic yet cool guy.”
As part of your success, your lookbooks have spread like wildfire on release.
“Yes, we’ve been lucky. But the more attention we get, the more thorough we have to be. We used to just get a mate and shoot some snaps of him in the factory, but for the last few lookbooks we’ve made a huge effort.”
You receive a lot of coverage on blogs. Is this something you actively work towards?
“No, the bloggers are actually the ones approaching us. I’ve noticed this appetite for knowledge. Guys, like Simon Crompton, have begun to research how and where products are made. Because we keep production local, it’s been easy to write about us.”
Why do you think you’re so successful right now?
“We had a trunk the other day and this guy who works at Google stopped by. He told us that he has seen a growing interest in craftsmanship and handmade products amongst his mates in the IT industry. I find that fascinating.”
That’s a good point. The more technology we get access to, the more important physical and authentic materials become to us.
“And the irony is that we use new technology to promote our old-fashion products. It’s the best of both worlds. I’m just trying to make the most of it.”