There is an under-the-radar world within men’s retailing that is offline and utterly individual, where the clothes and accessories have been painstakingly edited and where the protagonists are on first-name terms with the reclusive designers who create their rarefied stock. The stores themselves are as distinctive as the clothes hanging on the rails. Some are dark and cavernous, laden with black, scented Cire Trudon candles, while others capture the breezy, casual modernism of Nordic style – all bright wood shelving, handsomely packaged grooming products and framed typography. What they all have in common is that they are the result of their owners’ and buyers’ unique eye and personality.
It may have become one of those trite fashion buzzwords, alongside “heritage” and “artisanal”, but what these individuals do is “curate” menswear. “This store is defined by my own taste,” says Swede Mats Klingberg, who opened Trunk Clothiers on London’s Chiltern Street four years ago, long before hotelier André Balazs landed across the street with the Chiltern Firehouse and its attendant media circus. “From the very beginning, the brands I stocked were the ones I had in my wardrobe at home,” he explains. “I was inspired by certain shops in Japan, where they go out of their way to source labels you can’t get anywhere else, and I also love family-run stores in Italy, such as A Gi Emme in Como.” Trunk Clothiers’ aesthetic is smart casual and its favoured colour is navy rather than default black; it sells suits by Caruso of Italy (from £1,045) that are made exclusively for the store and stocks the Japanese Camoshita United Arrows tailoring brand (double-breasted wool jacket, £615), another London exclusive.
Klingberg’s curatorial approach to retail is a world away from the anonymity of catch-all department stores and e-tailers, and this is echoed by a growing number of shops around the world, from If in New York’s SoHo, which stocks the elusive labels Paul Harnden and Casey Casey, to branches of Dover Street Market, which, under the auspices of Comme des Garçons’ retail guru Adrian Joffe, are carrying the work of late Tokyo-based fashion designer Chris Nemeth. Significantly, the buyers at these shops have a relationship with the brands that no one else has and they customarily have complete autonomy in their decision making.
“These stores are often founded by an obsessive visionary,” says Joe Casely-Hayford, owner of Casely-Hayford, whose autumn 2014 collection includes the standout, layered Stonebridge hybrid coat (from £880), which is stocked by Dover Street Market and Hostem in Shoreditch. “Curated stores are great for smaller brands with no advertising spend and they’re perfect, too, for discerning shoppers looking for more underground labels,” adds Casely-Hayford. “There is a shared loyalty – the shop seeks out these unique brands, and they grow together.”
For many of these owners and buyers, the selection process is more than a case of visiting showrooms in Paris and Milan. It’s an adventure and always has been. John Simons lays claim to being London’s original curatorial menswear store – its namesake launched his Ivy League‑style shop in 1964, which had a slavish following throughout the 1980s at a Covent Garden location and is now a few doors down from Trunk Clothiers (his son Paul now runs the business). It sells classic Bass Weejun loafers (£99), Pendleton wool board shirts from Oregon (£149) and Aero leather jackets (from £700). Many of the customers have enjoyed a long relationship with the look and the labels. “When my father started out, getting his hands on stock was a saga,” says Paul. “It wasn’t just a case of ordering online. He had to go to America, which was a glamorous and mysterious place back then.”
Tracking down covetable items by elusive brands is what makes these owners tick. While Boglioli’s handsome, narrow, unstructured new-season Dover jacket (£675) and Incotex’s miraculous-fit chinos (£195) are already familiar to certain savvy, well‑travelled men, the chic, rigid canvas bags from Ichizawa Shinzaburo Hanpu (from £110) probably won’t be. Trunk Clothiers is the only permanent retail outlet for the brand outside Kyoto. “They don’t wholesale to anyone else, anywhere,” says Klingberg. “I wanted them, and I wouldn’t take no for an answer. If a brand is difficult to deal with, it makes me want it more.”
Similarly, the shoes (from £840) and tailoring (from £1,063) by Brighton-based label Paul Harnden are sold in branches of Dover Street Market and L’Eclaireur (from €1,000) in Paris, but are unavailable online. Harnden is rarely photographed or interviewed and turns down most requests by stores to sell his work.
“I love and respect Harnden’s philosophy,” says Armand Hadida, who is one of the forefathers of contemporary menswear curation. He opened L’Eclaireur at the beginning of the 1980s. In recent years, Hadida has become determinedly obscure with his edit, to stay ahead of the big department stores. “We are going deeper into more creative labels,” he explains. “Harnden has nothing to do with the rest of fashion. His team is like his family. And when you have someone like him, or Carol Christian Poell, who may not make more than a few hundred items of clothing and accessories each season, that’s rare – and it’s a business strategy I will fight for.”
The Armoury’s stores in Hong Kong and New York are the only places in either city where you can buy jackets (from HK$10,800, about £860) by cult Japanese tailoring brand Ring Jacket, and the only places in the world where you can get the store’s collaborative briefcase with Porter (about £430), which was designed after co-founder Mark Cho detailed precisely what he wanted from a bag when travelling.
At the other end of the style spectrum, Layers on South Molton Street espouses the dark, architectural aesthetic that’s championed by established names Rick Owens and Julius, yet does so very much on its own terms by also stocking lesser-known brands that offer customers a sense of discovery (the store’s managers and buyers act as a curatorial collective). This season, Layers is stocking rabbit-fur felt hats by Horisaki (£440), Isaac Sellam’s calfskin bomber jackets (£1,375) and pioneer-like tasselled wraps that are part shawl, part waistcoat (£445). “We like to explain the provenance to the customer,” says associate operations manager Sam Ledger. “Such as that the fabric on a Layer-O jacket [£1,045] is from the remaining surplus of Italian military tenting and impossible to reproduce in large quantities.”
Shoreditch store Hostem isn’t just curated, it’s “hyper-curated”, says founder James Brown, who opened the shop in 2010. “Every garment or object is there for a specific reason. And 60 per cent of the brands we stock are either exclusive to us in the UK or have extremely low distribution worldwide.” This season that includes Mic Eaton’s first menswear collection, which features a particularly handsome, well-cut cropped tailored jacket (£1,400).
The key to successful menswear curation is in how things work together, rather than merely selling a selection of good, singular pieces. “We are attracted to specific labels, but we have our eyes on the mix,” says Stephen McGlashan, co-owner of Melbourne boutique Eastern Market Fabrica. “My partner, Lucinia Pinto, has a unique way of seeing things, like an artist – pulling a variety of elements together to make a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.” Eastern Market Fabrica stocks Ma+, If Six Was Nine and Elena Dawson, who used to work with Paul Harnden and still shares Harnden’s ragged but luxurious Buffalo Soldier aesthetic. “Eastern Market Fabrica works with smaller clothing labels that don’t have runway shows,” says McGlashan. “They present their work in largely private spaces, and we meet the designers face to face to feel a connection about how the clothing should be presented.” This season, McGlashan points to Taichi Murakami’s cashmere high‑neck bomber coat (A$3,900, about £2,170) as a particularly luxe, beautiful item that won’t be available anywhere else in Australia.
Often, a label that a curatorial buyer acquires for a store becomes mainstream. L’Eclaireur prides itself on being the first shop in Paris to stock Prada for men, as well as Dries van Noten, both now omnipresent. As James Brown of Hostem says: “We have become a test bed and tastemaker for the department stores and large online retailers.” Yet there are still designers who supply the likes of Hostem and L’Eclaireur who will never get involved with department stores. Sometimes, it’s as much about practicalities as it is about principles. “We refuse to operate in the traditional seasonal way,” says Sergio Simone, co-founder of Carol Christian Poell. “Six months’ preparation is simply not enough time for innovative, technical and creative work. We need to have direct contact with our retailers – we don’t work with distributors. And we do not sell online. Our products must be discovered using all the senses – think of the smell of leather pieces, and the fit, which isn’t entirely predictable because of our techniques. How can you buy this kind of product just through the click of a mouse?”
For autumn 2014, Carol Christian Poell continues to produce designs based on a collection from 2010, with subtle, ever-developing refinements, including a sleeved waistcoat double jacket (£2,965) and dyed front-zip trousers with visible overlocking (£935). The brand sells exclusively at L’Eclaireur in Paris and The Library in London – the maverick Brompton Cross store that is curated by Peter Siddell and was, significantly, the sole London stockist of Alexander McQueen’s seminal Dante collection way back in 1996. It’s the curatorial buyer like Siddell who helps shape fashion as much as a designer because, without someone like him, the clothes have no visibility.
A curatorial approach to retail also accommodates the designers who don’t fit the traditional business model of fashion. Many of the refined, unstructured business suits (from $1,000) at The Armoury and some of the avant-garde, small-run pieces at Layers have no place in the fast-paced world of the department store as they are investments that transcend trends. In the case of The Armoury, Trunk Clothiers and L’Eclaireur, there are in-house labels now too, created in association with some of the brands and factories that the stores already work with – and in many instances helping shops sidestep seasonal stock problems.
“We are a small company and can tailor our shoes to meet a buyer’s requirements,” says brand director Maude O’Keeffe of O’Keeffe, which creates exquisite contemporary Italian handmade footwear with a Celtic twist. This season’s brandy leather brogues (£675), which are on sale at Trunk Clothiers, were finished with three hours’ hand polishing and painting, while a saddlery leather chukka boot (£505), produced after consultation with James Brown, is being stocked by Hostem.
London-based Todd Lynn designed menswear collections from spring/summer 2007 to 2012. For his spring/summer 2015 collection (available at the end of November), he returns with a rock ’n’ roll-influenced line, including leather biker jackets with fresh cuts, selling at the strongly curated Odd store in New York. “I’d rather cater to a niche market and totally own that market,” says Lynn. “I don’t want to water everything down in the hope that I might strike a chord with more mainstream customers. These buyers and boutiques are the way forward. I think we’ll start to see department stores working with these individuals, and the stores creating small, segregated areas within larger spaces where the customer feels they belong.”
It’s happening already. Mark Quinn, founder of the creative consultancy Baluba, has been a partner in Hostem since it opened. He also works for department stores around the world, including the autumn launch of Harvey Nichols in Baku where he sees his role as “essentially a hired gun with a silk glove”. Quinn has incorporated Kilgour and Gieves & Hawkes into the stock for the launch, but aims to take a “much riskier approach” in the future. When he introduced Elena Dawson and Carol Christian Poell to the Kuwait store 4, he remembers being “considered bonkers by many”. But both brands turned out to be bestsellers despite their high prices. As he says, his curatorial role is to follow Steve Jobs’s maxim: “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”