As far as style commentators of the London Collections: Men shows go, there are two distinct camps. The rivalry is largely friendly but nonetheless tangible. On one side is the younger, boundary-pushing hipster lot and on the other the older, traditional, luxury-orientated Savile Row set. However, on the first day of January’s event, at 6pm in the Christie’s showrooms in St James’s, divisions were momentarily forgotten. The Gieves & Hawkes autumn/winter 2014 collection was so beautiful and desirable that the factions were unified. It was clear that this was a special collection, unlikely to be rivalled in the following two days. Retailers and visitors from overseas felt it, too, along with some of the assembled celebrities. It was the second collection by creative director Jason Basmajian for the heritage brand – and a sartorial tour de force.
As Ben Cobb, editor of AnOther Man magazine puts it, “Basmajian manages to stay true to the mighty heritage while introducing a sharp, contemporary feel. I’m sure that’s no mean feat, but it’s a winning combination.” Meanwhile, Nick Sullivan, fashion director of US Esquire, adds: “The collection is a giant leap forward on content and confidence. The perennial trouble with updating a classic brand is that if you try to make it cool, you risk erasing its heritage. Not here. It felt British, it smelled sweetly of Savile Row and it was filled with the sense of tasteful provenance only that can give. Better still, it looked sexy, modern and relevant. To men familiar and comfortable with big designer brands, I think that’s vital.”
Over the past decade, Gieves & Hawkes has struggled for relevance – three creative directors have passed through the house in 10 years, and year-on-year sales were flat for 2012/2013. Basmajian’s collection is designed for the modern, cosmopolitan man, yet retains a British heritage accent. Across the board the pieces are striking, from tailoring, outerwear and eveningwear through to shoes, bags, accessories and leather jackets – even the show’s lighting (courtesy of an illumination specialist with U2 tour experience) was getting comments. The strength of the show reminded me of the work of another quietly confident American designer, Tom Ford – and specifically his last collections for Gucci. Basmajian had achieved remarkable clarity of vision in the space of a year.
The charming Bostonian is considered and sharp, with a personal style that mixes Gatsby flair and Milanese modernity. He was appointed creative director of Gieves & Hawkes in January 2013 – which in turn had been purchased by the Hong Kong-backed Trinity Limited in 2012 for £35m – and brings a wealth of international experience to the job. His career began in the US, where he rose to head of menswear for Donna Karan and later Calvin Klein. Then it was to Paris for ST Dupont, where he oversaw the launch of ready-to-wear, before having a modernising influence on Brioni as its artistic director.
According to Gieves & Hawkes CEO Ray Clacher, the company had searched globally for a creative director for eight months and met more than 30 candidates before deciding on Basmajian. “Jason is that rare combination of genuine creative talent and sound commercial acumen,” he says. “He has impeccable taste and an innate understanding of what men actually want to wear. He has talent, energy, vision and determination. I knew he could provide us with a top-to-toe solution.”
So what, I ask Basmajian, was his brief? “To restore the Gieves & Hawkes name to one that’s relevant to how men want to dress today. Apart from having an international perspective and strong business sense, I have a relatively proven track record at taking a heritage brand forward.” For Gieves & Hawkes, those heritage credentials are the amalgam of two 18th-century military outfitters, holding three royal warrants (the Queen and Princes Philip and Charles), plus the sartorially significant address. The company’s outfitters at number one Savile Row takes care of the royal family’s military attire, dresses the Queen’s body guard and makes officers’ uniforms. Its shop serves as the flagship for Gieves & Hawkes’s 112 outlets globally, as well as housing the bespoke workshops.
Basmajian clearly feels privileged to find himself in this position – all the more so for being an American – but he is not remotely phased by the illustrious history and association with royalty. “I told Clacher my vision for this brand, and it matched what he wanted.” His boss agrees. “I felt confident from the outset that Jason understood the parameters within which Gieves & Hawkes could operate,” says Clacher. “He was then given the creative freedom to bring a fresh eye to the collection and the brand. He has created a belief among all areas of the business that this is a brand to rival the very best of our peers.”
The spring/summer collection is strong – a snappy take on what a smart gentleman could wear on a stylish tour of Amalfi, Nairobi, Barbados, then Shanghai and London. Suiting (from £795) has been lightened in colour and weight, and new pieces added: Bermudas (£125), a light silk parka (£495), neat cotton trousers (£175) – all of which use tailoring and tailoring-inspired fabrics.
“We have combined the design and tailoring teams,” says Basmajian. “All our clothes have a superior fit now, even casual items and polo shirts. When I arrived, all the clothing was good, but it was rather uninspired – maybe fine for businesswear but not particularly noteworthy. I’ve drawn on the expertise of our bespoke house, spoken to young style-conscious cutters, and incorporated new ideas into the ready-to-wear line. I’ve also worked closely with the design team to create blocks that really fit. Mix that with a fashion sensibility, and you end up with powerful pieces.”
A chocolate-suede belted safari jacket (£1,995) is superb, as are the higher-waisted cotton trousers with military-style fastening and a single mother-of-pearl button on the back (£495). Casual khaki forage jackets inspired by military archives (£495) are also standout. “I think men instinctively love that rigorous military cut, for which Gieves & Hawkes is known,” says Esquire’s Sullivan, “but these days they want it comfortable, not heavy or restraining. Jason’s experience at the more conservative end of Italian tailoring made him a good candidate at the perfect time. Because what the Italians do best is clothing that looks dressy but feels relaxed.”
Basmajian’s choice of mills and fabrics is also spot-on. The collection’s drapey Ormezzano herringbone linen and silk jacket (£595) is delightful and looks neat and crisp with lilac and white seersucker shorts (£125). Suit blocks are of a dignified length, yet are honed to also appear cool and sleek. Finely striped, neutrally hued formal shirts (from £125) are bang on the money when teamed with heavily textured ties of the same palette (£90). Basmajian has not reinvented the wheel here, but he’s subtly updated absolutely every element.
For autumn/winter, there is a classic romance in the cut and drape of his overcoats (from £995), but rather than retro they are modern through their finishing and details. Suiting has old-world touches such as lapels on vests (from £1,195), but the dark, sophisticated fabrics and the balanced cuts keep the styles up to date. Eveningwear is extraordinary, teaming jacquard shawl-collar jackets (from £1,895) with off-white pleated shirts (£195) and tweed bow ties (£70), then adding a brown cashmere overcoat with a fur-peaked collar (£3,990). The look is show-stoppingly chic. Even outré ideas have been visited, as cable-knit roll necks (from £250) mix with neat one-button boleros (to order, price on request) and capes (£1,295).
Under Basmajian’s direction, fantastic weekendwear has also been added, including leather outerwear (from £1,895), beautiful knits (from £125), shoes from Northampton (from £395), leather bags (from £695) and eyewear (from £295) – all the items that complete a man’s wardrobe and are expected of a fully fledged lifestyle brand. “We had the suits and the tux, but a guy wants the same standard of style and cloth for the weekend and vacation,” he says. “For Gieves & Hawkes, Savile Row is now about an entire wardrobe, not just suiting.”
“Jason has a very holistic approach to brand building,” says Clacher. “He understands that in today’s world we are selling a lifestyle as much as a product. This is expressed through the collection and also our stores, our advertising and our service levels. His knowledge across all these areas sets him apart from many of his counterparts.”
Clacher adds that for the first 15 weeks of 2014, Gieves & Hawkes’s clothing sales in the UK were up 21 per cent on the previous year. The rush to place wholesale orders by the world’s most prestigious retailers speaks volumes, too. “I had my eyes on wholesale,” says Basmajian, “but it isn’t something I expected so soon.” Gieves & Hawkes now boasts a dream client roster, with new stockists including Bergdorf Goodman, Matchesfashion.com, Isetan in Tokyo and Harvey Nichols Baku – a remarkable feat after just two collections. Harrods, meanwhile, is opening a Gieves & Hawkes concession alongside its Italian tailoring section. “We’re so excited to have Jason at the helm of one of Britain’s most iconic brands,” says Jason Broderick, Harrods’ fashion director for menswear, sports and fine watches. “He has transformed the brand’s image and brought a true luxury feel to Gieves & Hawkes.”
On the day I visit the Savile Row store, the place looks and feels different – it’s buzzy, stylish, modern. The young bespoke tailoring team and sales assistants are loving the nouveau Gieves & Hawkes, and seem genuinely immersed in the new company culture. “They’re our brand ambassadors,” Basmajian tells me, “and can’t wait to try on the new clothes. They quickly saw that what we’ve got now feels right, and are very excited. I couldn’t have done this without their support.”
With his interpersonal skills, business acumen and creative vision, Basmajian is – to use the TV talent-show cliché – the full package, and his appointment at Gieves & Hawkes gives Savile Row a serious new player. “What Jason brings to the table is an expert outsider’s view,” says Sullivan. “That is a good thing, occasionally, for Savile Row. He is the ideal person to take some of the stuffing out of Gieves and replace it with a more international and holistic view, albeit linked to the priceless British heritage of the name. After a wave of peacockery in the past few years, there’s a new classicism out there in men’s fashion – a need for clean lines and sobriety perhaps – but it’s not stiff or governed by all the old rules.”