Changing gear

An aristocratic player in global motorsports is about to launch a luxury clothing line. Simon de Burton talks to Lord March about the business of sustaining the Goodwood estate and why his collaboration with Belstaff is an “obvious fit”. Portrait by David Ellis

Charles March in front of Goodwood House, wearing the new Gordon version of the Trialmaster jacket, £550, from the Goodwood Sports & Racing by Belstaff collection, with a 1935 AC car designed by his grandfather and a 1936 BMW R5 motorbike
Charles March in front of Goodwood House, wearing the new Gordon version of the Trialmaster jacket, £550, from the Goodwood Sports & Racing by Belstaff collection, with a 1935 AC car designed by his grandfather and a 1936 BMW R5 motorbike | Image: David Ellis

It was odd seeing the Earl of March and Kinrara playing the role of an unusually suave commissionaire outside one of Mayfair’s swishest private clubs, meeting and greeting fashion journalists as they rolled up in a fleet of chauffeur-driven classic cars laid on for the occasion. But once inside Robin Birley’s much-hyped 5 Hertford Street, the reason for Lord March’s slightly incongruous presence among a sea of trendsetters, style pundits and skinny-hipped male models at January’s “London Collections: Men” quickly became apparent – he’s embarked on the first significant collaboration between one of England’s great aristocratic families and a luxury clothing brand.

Model wears wax-cotton Woodcote jacket, £475, cotton jersey Collins sweater, £175, and stretch‑denim Chichester jeans, £175, all by GSR by Belstaff
Model wears wax-cotton Woodcote jacket, £475, cotton jersey Collins sweater, £175, and stretch‑denim Chichester jeans, £175, all by GSR by Belstaff

The Goodwood Sports & Racing collection comes from the house of Belstaff, the once thoroughly British garment manufacturer that was the first to incorporate cold, clammy, pungent and not-always-very-waterproof waxed cotton into outerwear back in 1924. Nowadays, Belstaff makes most of its product in Italy and is owned by the giant, Swiss-based luxury group Labelux, which bought it in the summer of 2011 for a sum rumoured to have been north of £86m.

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Also in on the deal were minority shareholders Tommy Hilfiger (founder of the eponymous clothing brand) and Harry Slatkin, a fast-talking New Yorker who made a mint out of scented candles, earning himself the sobriquet “America’s home-fragrance king”. It was Slatkin, now Belstaff’s CEO, who first saw the potential for combining Goodwood’s motoring links – made famous by the estate’s hugely successful Festival of Speed and Revival events – with the clothing brand’s history of producing hard-wearing, all-weather garments for motorcyclists, automobilists and aviators. The idea came to him during his first eye-opening visit to the Festival of Speed in 2011, where he was “blown away” by the sheer, charming Englishness of it all.

Stirling Moss’s first race at Goodwood in 1948
Stirling Moss’s first race at Goodwood in 1948 | Image: BARC

Like most people, Slatkin was charmed by Charles March, too. Despite his blue-chip aristocrat status, the future 11th Duke of Richmond is known for being affable, approachable, entertaining and thoroughly down-to-earth. He’s also established an impressive reputation as a businessman – something he had to do after taking over the chairmanship of the 12,000-acre Goodwood estate from his father in 1994.

Goodwood Revival in 2011
Goodwood Revival in 2011

At the time, the principal source of revenue that the family relied on to keep the place going was the racecourse. It remains a highly successful venture, raking in more than £12m a year from just 19 days of racing. But under March’s stewardship the estate has been turned into a well-oiled commercial machine, comprising the main house (stuffed with exquisite artworks, open to the public for 60 days a year and available to hire in part), an airfield, hotel, farm, farm shop, health club and pheasant shoot – plus, for between £50,000 and £200,000, you can take out an “individual sporting membership” which allows subscribers a special “in” to all of the estate diversions.

Festival of Speed in 1993 
Festival of Speed in 1993  | Image: John Davidson

There’s something to be said for such “pick up and put down” access to the stately-home lifestyle – not least the fact that it eliminates the decidedly onerous burden of ownership. March won’t be specific about the total running costs, only saying that to keep the place afloat and pay his 600 staff costs “tens of millions” of pounds each year. Not everyone is up to such responsibility, and an errant heir can destroy the work of generations virtually overnight. March, however, says he was determined to rise to the challenge from the outset.

From left: model wears leather Ronnie jacket, £895, cotton Hawthorn jersey, £175, and stretch-denim Chichester jeans, £175, all by GSR by Belstaff. Model wears waxed-cotton Woodcote jacket with Goodwood souvenir badge-pins, £475, and stretch‑denim Chichester jeans, £175, both by GSR by Belstaff 
From left: model wears leather Ronnie jacket, £895, cotton Hawthorn jersey, £175, and stretch-denim Chichester jeans, £175, all by GSR by Belstaff. Model wears waxed-cotton Woodcote jacket with Goodwood souvenir badge-pins, £475, and stretch‑denim Chichester jeans, £175, both by GSR by Belstaff 

His initial money-making idea was inspired by his passion for cars and motorsports: he wanted to return motor racing to the old Goodwood circuit which was established in 1948 at the former RAF Westhampnett airfield by his grandfather, Freddie, an accomplished racing driver and engineer. For 18 years Goodwood had rivalled Silverstone and Brands Hatch for prestige and became the circuit at which the young Stirling Moss competed in (and won) his first proper race (seen in third picture). But soon the cars became too fast for the track and, in 1963, Moss had the crash there that ended his serious competition career. Three years later, Freddie March mothballed the place, buildings and all. Charles March longed to bring it back to life, but hadn’t counted on the local authority initially refusing the necessary permit. At the time, he admits, it was “a bitter blow”.

A Cessna plane flying over the Goodwood estate
A Cessna plane flying over the Goodwood estate | Image: Jonathan Stewart

Undeterred, he decided to see if there might be a few bob to be had in inviting punters to watch some old motors scorch up the 1.1-mile stretch of road running in front of Goodwood House – its gradual incline made it an ideal hillclimb course, as observed by Freddie back in 1936 when he invited the Lancia Car Club to use it for Goodwood’s first motorsport event. Indeed, Charles March himself tested out the hill while still a schoolboy, “borrowing” his mother’s sporting MG1100 saloon for a few rapid ascents – which ended with a four-and-a-half-month stay in hospital after the car lost traction on a patch of gravel and ploughed into the woods.

The ballroom at Goodwood House
The ballroom at Goodwood House | Image: Mike Caldwell

But having inherited his grandfather’s love of all things fast, he failed to be put off and the Goodwood Festival of Speed was inaugurated in 1993. It was predicted that as many as 2,500 people might turn up to watch, but by the end of the two‑day event, 25,000 had been through the turnstiles.

Goodwood Revival in 1998
Goodwood Revival in 1998 | Image: Peter Burn

“The beautiful thing about that first Festival of Speed was that it cost us virtually nothing to stage,” says March, who has big plans for the event’s 20th anniversary this year. “I think we spent around £50,000 and hired various pieces of equipment, so there were no huge overheads or loans to repay – it was just pure profit.”

The 9th Duke of Richmond at the Festival of Speed, on the original hillclimb, in the 1930s
The 9th Duke of Richmond at the Festival of Speed, on the original hillclimb, in the 1930s

Although intended as a stopgap to be staged while work continued on getting the motor circuit back in action, the Festival became an annual happening that has grown exponentially during the course of two decades – last year, it attracted a record attendance of 185,000 and has put Goodwood on the map as one of the key venues on the global car calendar (although it now costs a cool £11m to stage).

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The Festival’s early success established March as an influential player in the motorsport world and, in 1998, he finally achieved his dream of returning racing to his grandfather’s circuit with the launch of the Goodwood Revival, which takes place each September. Comprising a weekend of old-style motor racing, the Revival is unique in its determination to recreate the past, and being there is akin to landing on an elaborate film set, as spectators and competitors alike are encouraged to wear vintage attire in order to evoke the atmosphere that prevailed when the circuit was originally in use. The vast majority of visitors arrive “dressed up” and you find sharp-suited 1940s spivs alongside Brylcreemed 1960s rockers; tweed-clad gentlemen chatting to cinched-at-the-waist 1950s pin-up girls; handlebar-moustachioed RAF pilots eyeing up land girls. The drivers look the part, too, sporting white overalls decorated with period logos – and shirts and ties underneath, of course. Motorcycle racers generally eschew modern, bright leathers in favour of yesterday’s more muted ensembles.

The surprisingly unforced charm doesn’t end with the clothing, either. Walkways are lined with mock-ups of period shops, the paddock garages where the cars are fettled between races have an authentic old-world feel and, among the crowds, you’ll frequently encounter professional actors hamming it up as characters from the appropriate decades. All very quaint, but it’s a serious business, too: last year’s combined revenues for the Festival of Speed and the Revival were close to £25m. And it is a desire to leverage that success that prompted March to act on Slatkin’s suggestion to collaborate with Belstaff and create the Goodwood Sports & Racing collection, as much for its marketing potential as for Goodwood’s cut of the profits.

“The Goodwood estate is essentially a monster that needs feeding and, although we now have an annual turnover of about £65m, we’re only making about six per cent PBT [profit before tax],” says March. “The aim is to bring this up to 10 per cent PBT by 2015, and that’s why projects such as the Belstaff collaboration are important. Financially speaking, it’s certainly not pivotal, but because the energy and effort that goes into making our big events happen is huge, we need other things that will drive them and help their sustainability. The Goodwood Sports & Racing collection is a way of pushing the Goodwood brand out into the world, particularly into the emerging markets. Our events are not just parochial, they’re international – and that’s how we want them to be perceived.

“For me, what is interesting about the collaboration,” he adds, “is that fashion has become a significant part of what we are all about, notably with the period clothes at the Revival and the dress code at the horse racing. It’s all to do with that quintessential Englishness that people from other countries find so appealing.”

The 50-piece Goodwood Sports & Racing collection includes a special version of Belstaff’s famous Trialmaster waxed-cotton jacket, discreetly patterned with Lord March’s family tartan, the Gordon (£550, worn by March in first picture). There are also Gordon tartan shirts (£175), waffle-fabric racing driver’s shirts (£150), a biker jacket in a striking electric-blue leather (£895, on left in sixth picture), another in washed leather (£1,095), the belted and badge-emblazoned Woodcote jacket (£475, seen in second picture), and various designs of jeans and trousers with a “worn-in” look (from £175, examples in sixth picture). Higher-performance, technical wear for use on “road and track” is set to follow.

“I must admit, I was reticent about doing anything with a brand at first,” continues March, “but Belstaff seems to be an obvious fit. Like us, it’s all about motorcycling, cars and the clothing that goes with it, and, also like us, it has that core Britishness about it. I think Martin Cooper, the chief creative officer [formerly Burberry’s vice president of design], is brilliant, and the owners of Belstaff clearly have big resources and a long-term plan. My role is to bring back to life the sports that the ancestors started, so it’s really important that everything associated with Goodwood is authentic. The last thing I’m trying to do is to make the whole place commercial, but we have to work with what we’ve got – and what we’ve got is the estate and what we can do here. And that’s it. There’s no other source of income. Once upon a time there was the land at Earls Court – but that was given to the 3rd Duke of Richmond’s mistress.”

March seems very inspired by his involvement with the project. He excitedly shows me samples from the collection and reveals some of his plans for it. “The Goodwood references only take the form of light touches,” he explains. “Each piece of clothing will carry a tag giving a potted history of Goodwood, Belstaff and the story of a famous motorsport event. The jackets are based on the Trialmaster design but with different detailing – special ‘GSR’ buttons and a small Goodwood crest. Later we’ll probably add pieces inspired by the other sports held at the estate: horse racing, cricket and golf.”

Despite GSR’s unique aspects, it is not entering a competition-free market. Biker and classic-car racer chic remains very much in vogue, and that other English maker of waxed-cotton garments, Barbour, has recently launched a range of “technical” biker gear and is doing a roaring trade in clothing inspired by the fact that Steve McQueen wore a Barbour motorcycling suit when he represented the US in the 1964 International Six Days Trial.

But that, insists Slatkin, is different. “The Barbour Steve McQueen collection is about a personality – GSR is about an entire lifestyle,” he says. “By wearing GSR, people will be buying into everything about Goodwood. Each item is rooted in Goodwood’s heritage, and the styling is authentically based on the type of clothing that has been worn on the estate for different sporting activities throughout the decades. It just seemed such an obvious match with Belstaff that we simply couldn’t ignore it.”

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