How to reinvent a traditional menswear brand
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
“Heritage” might be the most overused word in the fashion industry. Brands bank on it for authenticity, prestige and clout in an increasingly saturated market. It goes hand-in-hand with “craft” – another hackneyed term – whereby a brand’s legacy and expertise in a particular field, from tailoring to cordwaining, bestows upon it a reputation of quality, whether justified or not.
And yet, having heritage can work, triumphantly, in a brand’s favour. Some of the biggest luxury names are also the oldest – Louis Vuitton (established in 1854), Hermès (1837), Burberry (1856), Gucci (1921) – a resource that is leaned on for product fodder, as well as a kind of cultural currency among consumers.
In the case of some brands, however, legacy provides a challenge. “Heritage alone risks looking stuffy in the eyes of younger consumers, and somewhat old,” says Luca Solca, a senior research analyst at Bernstein. But if a brand goes too far in the opposite direction there’s a risk of losing its roots. “Finding the right balance is difficult,” Solca adds.
Dunhill, which this year celebrates its 130th anniversary, is one that has been adrift in recent years. Alfred Dunhill founded it in 1893 off the back of an existing leather saddlery business, creating a line of accessories for early automobiles, including leather overcoats and goggles, car horns, lamps and picnic sets. In 1904, he developed a pipe that could be smoked while driving, kickstarting a long association with tobacco: the brand made one of the first butane lighters in the ’50s.
Its association with tailoring began in the ’70s with the launch of a biannual menswear collection, and it notably dressed Frank Sinatra in a black tuxedo in the mid-’90s. In 2008, under a new CEO and the up-and-coming designer Kim Jones, the brand was revitalised, with Jones winning the British Fashion Council award for menswear designer of the year in 2009, before he left for Louis Vuitton in 2011. The next creative director, John Ray, leaned into the brand’s Britishness, creating collections that drew on David Hockney, Francis Bacon and the then Prince of Wales, but his designs failed to gain traction. In 2017, under new CEO Andrew Maag and creative director Mark Weston, Dunhill was again reimagined in a slick new light, showing at Paris Fashion Week with collections that included double-breasted jackets with off-centre fastenings, split-cuff trousers and puffer jackets. It seems customers didn’t buy it. According to Alfred Dunhill Limited’s 2018 and 2021 annual reports, annual revenue went from £49.7mn in 2017/2018 to £11mn in 2020/2021. Weston exited the business last October.
Another era beckons.
“Over the past 10 years we have experimented with various approaches to our creativity,” says Laurent Malecaze, who replaced Maag as CEO in January last year and has a more traditional vision for the brand. “Today, we have a clear understanding of our DNA and our values. It’s not about experimentation, it’s about a sense of self-knowing consistency.” Malecaze came from AZ Factory, which is also owned by Dunhill’s parent company Richemont. “The marketplace is noisy and cluttered, [and] Dunhill provides respite for those seeking pieces that outlive seasons and trends.”
That means scrapping the brand’s fashion shows in favour of salon-type presentations, re-establishing its founding principles of “Britishness, innovation, craftsmanship”, returning its visual identity to that of a more trad menswear house and rebuilding its presence in its home market. The first product launch under the new direction is a leather collection, 1893 Harness, which references its history in bridlery. The tote (£2,195) – which Dunhill hopes will become a style signature – is a sleek top-handle with horsey straps and buckles. “We have a bespoke leather workshop in east London and we drew on the skills of our craftspeople there to inspire the quality and refinement of this new family,” adds Malecaze of the range. A new creative director will be announced this year.
Berluti has experienced similar ups and downs. Founded as a bespoke bottier, or shoemaker, in 1895 by Alessandro Berluti, the brand operated as a family business for close to a century, with Olga Berluti making a name for its signature patina in the ’80s, before being bought by the LVMH group in 1993. Leather goods were added to the brand’s stable in 2005 and, in 2011, a full clothing line was introduced under then creative director Alessandro Sartori. Although initially a triumph, the brand’s menswear over the past few years has been beset with ennui: Haider Ackermann, who replaced Sartori as creative director in 2016, only lasted three seasons; and Kris Van Assche, who joined in 2018, received mixed reviews for his collections before leaving the brand in 2021.
The Paris-based house is now working without a public-facing creative director, and it isn’t putting on fashion shows. Instead, Berluti is refocusing on shoes (both in traditional styles such as Oxfords and in sneakers) and leather goods, in a move that puts its heritage and proven product offering front and centre of the brand.
“Moving from shoes into apparel is much more difficult than vice versa,” says Solca. “Footwear is a ‘poor’ category, with a much lower average price. When a footwear brand asks a client to buy apparel, this normally implies a significant step up in the absolute amount of money the client needs to commit to the brand. It is easier for a brand to move into a new category when the average price of the new category is lower than the brand’s core business average price.”
A similar conundrum plagues Savile Row names that are rich in heritage but not so adept at change. The gradual casualisation of dress codes over the past few decades has wounded the street reliant on the sale of bespoke tailoring, although some have successfully adapted with the times. Anderson & Sheppard and Edward Sexton have demonstrated their business ingenuity by including ready-to-wear tailoring, knitwear and chinos in their offerings. Others have launched womenswear to expand their client base and – handily – appear more progressive in a traditionally men’s-only space.
Huntsman has offered bespoke suiting since it was founded in 1849. It still makes up the tailor’s core business, especially for menswear, but its fastest-growing categories are ready-to-wear, which is up 425 per cent in-store and 500 per cent online since 2019, and its bespoke womenswear. Taj Phull, the managing director of Huntsman, also credits a collaboration with the film Kingsman, in which a fictionalised version of Huntsman’s store at 11 Savile Row acts as a spy base, for helping to introduce the brand to a new set of clients. “We’re still keeping in line with what we do for our heritage, with our fit, with our design,” says Phull. “We don’t try to do anything outlandish and garish – we still keep the garment looking like a Huntsman garment.”
Isabel Ettedgui of Connolly, the former saddlemaker and leather supplier founded in 1878, says it’s not enough just to bank on a brand’s history, or stick to the same “ye olde British” tropes: “You have to look to the future. There’s a real value to knowing what you’re doing and doing it well, but I think you also need to broaden your horizons, broaden your demographic and try to incorporate modern design.”
Ettedgui’s reboot of Connolly came in November 2016, when she turned an 18th-century townhouse on Clifford Street, just around the corner from Savile Row, into a contemporary store doubling as an exhibition space. The brand offers leather goods, homeware and art alongside a ready-to-wear collection focused around a “shared wardrobe”, which is its biggest category. “It’s important to take the brand’s values, the history and the know-how, but you need to translate that in a modern way. And I think what the next generation wants, increasingly, is authenticity.”
Solca says one way traditional menswear brands can reposition themselves to stay relevant is to veer into an “elegant and casual” space. “The case of Ermenegildo Zegna – now more simply Zegna – is the epitome of this. Zegna [established in 1910] has moved from being a suit brand to being a more relaxed, but still elegant, menswear brand.”
Alessandro Sartori, Zegna’s creative director since 2016, has turned the brand’s shows into a parade of languid tailoring and fluid sportswear – and yet hasn’t ventured too far into fashion territory. A 2020 collaboration with Fear of God helped to set the tone for a new smart-casual way of dressing globally, and a follow-up partnership with LA-based The Elder Statesman will launch in September. Says Solca: “The vital ingredients for such a transformation are a strong creative vision coupled with the ability to change all aspects of the brand’s marketing mix.”
The greatest reward for heritage brands, then, seems to be finding a balance between old and new. In many ways, heritage is antithetical to hype – which trades in flashy, short-lived trends – but a combination of the two has proved a recipe for success. “Embracing this ‘new luxury’ has worked wonders for mega brands,” adds Solca. “Think of the 2015 Gucci revival, and the fortunes of Louis Vuitton with Virgil Abloh.”
As for Dunhill, Solca says reviving it “would probably require a significant reset across all key marketing levers: product, price and distribution”. Phull, meanwhile, adds that Dunhill’s recent marketing run-up to the Baftas, which saw the brand dress a coterie of young actors in slick yet classic eveningwear, was a positive first move. “It still makes excellent leather goods and needs to work in the direction of the [recent] week’s looks,” he says. Dunhill has its work cut out for it.