Dunhill’s menswear revolution: from the old guard to the avant-garde

Can Dunhill – this quintessentially British menswear label – reinvent “discreet sophistication” for the 21st century? Nick Scott talks to CEO Andrew Maag and creative director Mark Weston about finding the sweet spot between heritage and innovation. Portrait by Richard Grassie

Dunhill creative director Mark Weston (far left) with CEO Andrew Maag in the company’s new Mayfair headquarters
Dunhill creative director Mark Weston (far left) with CEO Andrew Maag in the company’s new Mayfair headquarters | Image: Richard Grassie

Shortly after he took up his position as Dunhill’s creative director in mid-2017, Mark Weston – a man whose hunger for stimuli is pretty much insatiable – was flicking through some vintage photographs of the British capital when he happened across a black and white tableau, captured one lunchtime in the late 1970s at Langan’s Brasserie in Mayfair

At a small table to the right of the shot, Michael Caine – by then in his mid-40s, a debonair establishment figure in sharp clobber and horn rims – is sitting opposite two men (probably silver-screen big brass). In the foreground, sitting around a much larger table, are the Sex Pistols: probably at the tail end of their late teens, distinctly ex situ, incongruous with the wine glasses in front of them, bristling with contempt. 

“That image says so much in terms of Britishness,” says Weston. “We’ve had lots of conversations about what Britishness is, and it’s very complex. I don’t think it’s a cookie-cutter concept. I think it is a lot about attitude. That kind of tension between two different worlds is what we’re putting together at Dunhill. Luxury in the British sense has a slight irreverence, an ease to it. It’s not overly polished or uptight.” 

Andrew Maag, who joined Dunhill as CEO in early 2017 after a 10-year stint at Burberry (where Weston also served as senior vice president of menswear under Christopher Bailey), agrees. “This is a great duality that makes sense, because we have an existing customer – we’re a 126-year-old brand – but to bring it to the future and be relevant is our driving force,” says Maag. “Relevance is so important, and yet we want to be respectful of our past and leverage it in a way that we can use it as part of our voice. It’s about weaving our DNA in, as opposed to completely abandoning who we were and starting over.”

The “new Dunhill” ethos is encapsulated in an internal motto: “Old guard meets avant-garde”. Of course, applying a modern twist to a brand’s heritage is no reinvention of the proverbial wheel when it comes to deciding a luxury house’s philosophy. So how does it stand up, in real terms, at Dunhill? 

The brand certainly has more right than most to peddle that oft-overused word “heritage”. For those late to the party, Alfred Dunhill was just 21 when his father Henry handed him the reins of his saddlery business, just as the London motoring bug was taking off towards the end of the 19th century. Initially purveying automotive paraphernalia such as car horns, overcoats, goggles, picnic sets and dashboard instruments, Alfred christened his loyal customers – the kind of cashed-up Edwardian aristos upon whom Kenneth Grahame based Mr Toad – Dunhill’s Motorities. The company even made Bobby Finders: driving goggles with binoculars hinged to them, enabling the gentleman motorist to scour the road ahead for policemen before putting his foot down. Over the ensuing decades, a reputation for furnishing debonair gentlemen with leather goods, fragrances, butane-gas lighters, suiting and dinner jackets was cemented – with James Bond’s endorsement from 1962 bolstering the brand’s quintessential British reputation. In short, the “old guard” part of the new company aphorism is there for the taking. But how are they doing with “avant-garde”? Weston’s first runway show for the house involved, as one would expect, luxury materials, classic cuts, safe-ish tones and tailored garments – but with more than a dash of what-the-hell élan. Wet‑look puffa jackets were juxtaposed with Jermyn Street-esque shirts, while sharply cut suits were paired with white trainers. 

From left: Dunhill wool trench, £2,195, silk shirt, £425, and silk trousers, £350. Wool/cotton and leather coat, £2,195, silk trousers, £350, silk scarf, £295, and leather tote, £2,095. Silk coat, £2,495, silk shirt, £425, silk/wool trousers, £595, and silk cummerbund, £1,995
From left: Dunhill wool trench, £2,195, silk shirt, £425, and silk trousers, £350. Wool/cotton and leather coat, £2,195, silk trousers, £350, silk scarf, £295, and leather tote, £2,095. Silk coat, £2,495, silk shirt, £425, silk/wool trousers, £595, and silk cummerbund, £1,995

Cut to the brand’s autumn/winter 2019 collection, and Weston has found a more harmonious approach to this old-meets-new dichotomy: a traditional navy chalk-stripe jacket (£1,595) is given fresh intrigue with an off-centre fastening and turned-up lapel, paired with matching navy chalk-stripe trousers (£425) with split hems; a black silk evening top coat (£2,495) is styled with a navy silk band-collar shirt (£425), black silk/wool track pants (£595) and a brown silk cummerbund (£1,995). Weston’s time at Burberry is evidenced by his eye‑catching outerwear – most notably, a pale-check car coat (£2,195) with a contrasting black leather collar, and a vibrant navy wool trench coat (£2,195) with a large louche collar and double storm flaps at the front.

“What we’re doing is almost an antidote to sportswear, which I think has become so saturated,” explains Weston. “You can get T-shirts and jeans anywhere. I’d say this is Dunhill’s moment to actually redefine sophistication. Embracing the masculine in a contemporary way is not about being nostalgic – it really is about taste. There is an element of menswear today that I think is kind of gimmicky, whereas who we are and what we stand for comes back to this kind of discreet sophistication.”

Maag – who was named on Walpole’s Power List of the 50 Most Influential People in British Luxury earlier this year – believes that profound cultural shifts underlie their task. “The codes have changed and the uniforms are gone,” he says. “There’s such a spectrum from which men can choose how to be now. We offer those choices from a style point of view, rather than a trend.” He references, as an example, Dunhill’s unlined track jackets (£1,095) in goatskin suede (“We don’t do hoodies”), while both men cite the brand’s Duke bag as being emblematic of the new regime. This style is part of a revamp of Dunhill’s leather offerings, made in deference to the label’s formative years, and is a hybrid tote/weekend holdall. One model (£2,295), emblazoned with the famously elongated logo first introduced in 1937, was inspired by a picture of Frank and Barbara Sinatra at an airport in the late ’70s. “It’s kind of woven into this coated canvas,” says Weston. “What I love about the design is you can trace it back to a specific moment.”

It’s this ardour for originality that sees Weston spend a vast amount of time poring over Dunhill’s (thankfully diligently kept) archives – another recent result being the Aquarium capsule collection, released this year in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the nature-inspired lighters, carved from Perspex, that the house launched in 1949. The collection features birds and fish on patterned lounge shirts, reversible bombers and leather goods. “I think ‘recontextualise’ is the word,” says Weston. “It’s not about being a slave to the archives, but there are so many beautiful things in there, so much storytelling to be done.”

The brand’s current bestsellers include a polo shirt (£250) in off-white pure cotton with a long, contrasting placket, and the Radial Runner sneakers (£445) in Italian technical nylon with a suede and cowhide trim, with cleated soles and heat-bonded tape around the toe, heel and laces. Shoes, the brand says, are now its fastest-growing category.

In tandem with Dunhill’s new creative direction is a fresh business strategy – in particular, a seismic shift in the company’s corporate culture, as epitomised by the new four-floor Mayfair office space, designed by the interior architect Linda Morey-Burrows, in one corner boardroom of which our conversation is taking place. No staff member has their own set work station. Never mind eradicating silos – here, design, merchandising, HR, accounting and all the other departments aren’t even separate. “It’s just a better, more innovative way of working – eliminate emails, eliminate departments, have everyone collaborate together. It makes us smarter, faster, more fluid and more connected,” says Maag, showing us around a zone peppered with boards of design clippings and fabric samples and sound-tracked by companionable hushed bustle. The company, he says, looked at 20 different locations across London before settling on one that would facilitate this new modus operandi. 

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It’s genuinely radical – and an antidote, perhaps, to a sustained period of rudderless disorientation, blighted by constant senior personnel turnover. Is it fair to say that Dunhill spent around a decade in the creative and commercial doldrums? “You’re absolutely right,” says Maag. “I look at it as a period when the brand lost its focus. It drifted and it began to fail. We’ve jokingly called ourselves a startup, in the sense that we’ve rebooted.”

Key to the new approach is “right-sizing”, based on Maag’s belief that previous regimes’ expansion plans were ill-conceived. “There had been expansion plans that were in wrong locations and wrong spaces and too many stores, particularly in Asia.” Maag’s sniper, rather than scattergun, approach has seen Dunhill open new boutiques in Beijing, in Wangfu Central, and in cities like Wuxi and Xi’an, and the almost 100 outlets it now has globally also include three new ones in Korea, one in Lee Gardens, Hong Kong, as well as key openings in Ginza, Tokyo (where it’s created a “really cool bar that represents a cross between Blade Runner and The Shining”, according to Maag), Tsum, in Moscow, and Dubai Mall. It has also forged retail partnerships with the likes of Harrods, Galeries Lafayette, Mr Porter, Matchesfashion.com, Saks and Nordstrom. “The centre of gravity moves and you’ve got to move with it,” says Maag. The example westerners might relate to most is the decision to move the New York boutique from Madison Avenue to Hudson Yards. “Having such a strong foundation allows us to take risks, and we take lots of risks. It’s really fun. We jump, jump, jump.”

Both men clearly feed from each other’s boundless optimism. The only reservation about Brexit they express today, for example, concerns the relationship between eclecticism and creative energy, as embodied by this year’s collaborations with Chinese influencer Mr Bags and Japanese digital artist Kenta Cobayashi. “We have about 170 or 180 people of 29 nationalities in these offices, and that mix of cultures is what makes London so great,” says Maag.

As to how this change of guard is playing out commercially: Dunhill’s parent company Richemont, whose stable includes Cartier, IWC Schaffhausen, Montblanc and Roger Dubuis, is tight-lipped about individual houses’ performance figures, although it states an increase in Dunhill sales in its latest report. Consensus among the menswear intelligentsia, however, is that this illustrious brand has been given a long overdue shot in the arm. “Dunhill has taken a dynamic next step in its history,” says Simon Longland, head of menswear at Harrods. “In a very short time, the direction and the collections have been transformed, establishing new house codes drawn from the archives… The momentum increases each season as they become embedded.” Longland describes the reaction to the newer collections among Harrods customers as “consistently positive”. 

As for what a middle-aged Michael Caine and the seminal punk band in their prime would make of it all? One can only speculate. But revitalising this storied menswear brand for the modern era is a noble endeavour; it feels only right to wish them the “Best of British”.

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