British subculture, revamping dormant brands and exploring scarves as social references
Photo by John Sander for Baltzar.com
We met Gordon casually in Florence during our first Pitti Uomo; he came to us on the first day of the show, at a time we were still wondering how we would be welcomed by the exigent menswear crowd which gathers in Fortezza twice a year.
Warm and inviting, Gordon presented himself as someone interested in revamping heritage brands and helping young ones with the potential to stand out; we obviously felt flattered by that second category he was implicitly putting us in and started to detail the story of our journey so far.
Fast forward, and a lot more interesting conversations later, we found that Gordon was much more than that.
Firstly introduced to the world of style through his parents, he worked at a tailor shop at age 16, saw the rise and fall of his own brand in the 90s, helped numerous brands to expand globally, revamped a London eyewear dormant brand and is about to launch a much-anticipated line of his own in the next few months.
A true scarf enthusiast and collector, expert in styling it with turtlenecks - which owes him more than frequent questions about how he does it so perfectly - we are very happy to have him tell his own version of the story.
It’s now. And it’s in the Journal.
Hi Gordon, such a pleasure to have you, thank you very much. Thank you, I am very honoured to be asked.
Let’s get back to the beginnings; where are you from? I live in London, but I am very Scottish. Born on the West Coast of Scotland in Ayrshire and moved up to Aberdeen on the North East Coast when I was seven years old.
What was your connection with style growing up? I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently as my Father passed away the year before last, and I have 2 young children, which makes you think back to your own childhood and the atmosphere that you grew up in. Both my Father and my Mother were always very well dressed. My Mum loved to shop so I spent countless hours in Department stores as a child, and I would just ask to go and look at the mens clothes, while she looked at the women’s, but she also made her own clothes so there was always cloth and paper patterns on the dining room table at home and a sewing machine running. I wasn’t fascinated by it but I was interested. Interested enough to ask her to try making things for me. I remember clearly the house was full of magazines and spending time among bales of cloth in remnant shops and local mills.
How did your personal style evolve over the years? The first things I remember wanting to wear were American denim and t-shirts, but I always liked seeing people in suits. By the age of 16 I was working in a tailors store learning to measure people up to have their suits made, and of course having one made for myself. I was a young Mod, wholeheartedly embraced everything about that culture, but probably the style and clothes more than anything else, also the ethos of always moving forward. Into the 90’s as music took over my life, it was all more casual, striped t-shirts, Adidas and Nike trainers. I would always look for small obscure or new labels. Denim, always Levi’s, worn with Gingham and Oxford button-down shirts, Clark’s Wallabies and Desert Boots, then moving to London and working in the industry it felt good getting back into tailoring, classic macs, proper shoes, but playing around with it a bit.
How does it relate to what you do today? It is everything. It is all those years of looking and considering what caught your eye and why, the details, but also the energy of being immersed in a dynamic culture. I think that seeps into your bones and comes out as enthusiasm for always creating something new, to be one step ahead, striving to be better all the time.
What are you working on at the moment? Right now, I am gearing up to launch my own Brand which will launch with an exclusive collection for Mr. Porter in March 2020. I spent a good part of last year travelling internationally, working with Edward Green, the English shoemaker. I’m an Ambassador for a publishing company, introducing them to brands, I’ve done some writing including Jocks and Nerds magazine and consulting for a new British Leather Tannery. I like to be busy.
Making an emerging brand stand out or revamping a dormant brand; what is the most exciting to you? I find them both equally interesting, and really it comes down to what you have to work with. A new brand is probably more likely to have great product and just need guidance to steer them in the right direction. I help them meet the right people, to become more visible. A dormant brand will have some history and stories and probably a lot more to work with, but may also be perceived as a lost cause or disappeared from view completely. It is very satisfying to turn that round and make them relevant again while staying true to their roots. If people are excited about them then that is satisfying for me.
And the most challenging? Well both are challenging. Nothing is easy, but the older the owners of a company are, or how detached from the industry, it is harder to convince them of new ideas. They worry about devaluing the brand, but they like it when they see the progress a new attitude can make.
How does the 2 processes fundamentally differ from each other? A new brand will likely come formed with a good idea of who they want to be, good products and a good image but they may not know the global market that well, where and how they will fit into it or even how things work. That’s where I come in. Sometimes they need to refine or expand their collection, other times it needs to be edited. The same with their image. Then it’s about finding their place in the market and putting them in front of the people they will appeal too. The older brands I have brought back had almost disappeared so it was a case of drawing a line in the sand and saying ok, we need to change, quickly, then make a fresh start. Identify the elements of the brand that are strongest, use these as a starting point to build a new image. New products, new collections, a strong narrative and introduce them to new customers.
You have a lot of experience in building successful wholesale strategies; where do you think the wholesale market will go over the next few years? I don’t think wholesale will go anywhere, except there will continue to be fewer retailers to deal with, but good retailers will survive, and I see more and more “online-only” and “direct-to-consumer” brands turning to wholesale and retail now as well. One day people will re-discover the joy of finding cool stores that sell lots of different labels in one building, where they can try things on and buy there and then. I don’t think it will be on the main street though. People will be more used to visiting showrooms on higher floors and buildings in interesting locations where the stores can find reasonable rents. Destinations really.
Beyond wholesale, you’re also a product guy. What’s a great product for you? I am but I’m not a designer. I want to make and develop things that I want to wear and buy. When it comes to these items it’s about quality. Quality materials, quality construction, and a timeless quality that won’t date. It’s also got to be fucking cool so that I can’t wait to wear it, or own it, because if that’s how I feel, then I think other people will feel the same way. I like to collaborate with designers who have similar reference points but bring greater technical and practical skills and knowledge to make these items the best quality they can be.
We met at Pitti last year, where you stopped by our booth to discuss our story, products and collections; what do you look for when assessing the potential of a newly launched, emerging brand with a global ambition? Yes it was really great to meet you at Pitti. I was literally walking past and the scarfs, the aesthetic and colours really stopped me in my tracks. I think you were talking to someone so I circled round and came back to speak to you when you were free. That sums up my approach really. If something gets my attention, and I really like what they are doing, or even if I just see potential in them and can envision how they could grow, I will seek them out and go and introduce myself to them. Usually, the people who are open to conversation straight away tend to be the best brands because they are open to opportunity.
Photos by John Sander for Baltzar.com
Let’s get back to Kirk Originals; how did you approach the process of relaunching that brand? What were the specific challenges of such a project, and how did you overcome them? I had known Kirk Originals when it had first launched in the 90’s, and considered it a very cool brand but it had slipped completely off the radar. It needed drastic action. They had completely lost their way and had no idea who they’re customer was or could be and were doing very little business. The first job was to edit all the social channels and web images to get rid of anything that was old and out of date so that at least we had a clean modern image to start from. Sitting down with Mark Brown who was the Creative Director, the first afternoon, we hit it off, had a lot of similar tastes and reference points. We talked about who we wanted to be, what we wanted to be, and who was the customer that we wanted to appeal to. I spoke about how I didn’t see Kirk Originals as a resort brand or a beach brand, but as a city brand and how we should just concentrate on sunglasses and only to focus on Men’s rather than trying to do everything. We spoke about how Kirk Originals had started with vintage 50’s and 60’s frames, and about how we should go back to that classic style as a starting point. An image of James Dean by Dennis Stock on the Kirk Originals Instagram had really stood out and was the spark that had ignited this train of thought. I also spoke about how the Kirk Originals story was really a London story. The whole Kirk family legacy was about London, and Kirk Originals had made its name on the early 90’s London scene and turned to Mark and said, “wouldn’t it be great if we could make in London too?”. He replied that he might know someone. So we jumped on a train. We found ourselves back in the original Kirk Originals workshops with a guy who had started as an apprentice 25 years before making Kirk Originals, and was delighted to work with us. We didn’t know this until we were leaving after commissioning the samples. Even then it took a couple of samples runs to get the samples perfect. There was no further investment or money available so we could only make a small range so really focused on making each of the first styles as strong as possible. Finding the workshop had been a real piece of luck and it felt like we had a compelling and engaging story coming together, then I met James Jonathan Turner. You can’t underestimate how important James was to the brand. He was a perfect fit. We had no budget. The shoot for the first Lookbook, James wore mainly his own clothes, It was shot in and just outside the Kirk Originals office with a bit of styling and art direction from myself and Mark, and a great photographer, Debra Hurford Brown, Mark’s wife. We had a really good time doing the shoot and I think that came through on the images that began getting people’s attention. It just blew up from there. We knew we had great product, a great image, a great story and launched in London. Nick Wooster walked in and asked if he could order a pair. Our first customer.
Very interesting story indeed! Kirk’s visual identity is pretty unique as you mentioned; what was the main inspiration for those campaigns? James Jonathan Turner was an inspiration himself, and common reference points we shared with James, classic movies, Michael Caine, Cold War Len Deighton films, Sean Connery as James Bond in the 60’s, classic Cary Grant, even a bit of Warren Beatty, The Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File, James Fox, and London itself.
Scarves happen to be quite present in Kirk’s campaigns; what does this element tell about the identity of Kirk? It came about quite naturally, we just felt in the first shoot some of the shots could do with a pop of colour, and putting a neck scarf with some orange on it under a navy roll neck just lifted the picture. I think it was Mark’s idea the first time but we took it from there and ran with it. From season to season we wanted to build a consistent aesthetic and neck scarfs became part of that with myself and James both bringing our own scarves in that we used on subsequent shoots. It became a thread running through the Kirk Originals aesthetic.
What’s your personal relation to scarves? I’d worn paisley pattern, silk and rayon scarfs when I was younger including one, I still have that I inherited from my Grandfather, but it was going to work for Crombie, my first international role, that I began to get really interested in them. The Crombie Coat and a silk scarf was a classic British look, both for the upper classes, but also across working-class youth culture, Suedeheads, Skinheads and 2-Tone Rude Boys. For the first season, I was leading the re-launch of Crombie to international men’s stores for the first time in 20 years and had very little to work with. There were classic coats and that was it really, but there was a good little selection of silk scarves. By styling the coats on hangers and mannequins all with scarfs and adding pocket squares it brought them to life and we had a big success straight away. We sold it into 22 countries in the first season and some of the best stores in the world and sold a ton of scarfs. Some stores bought one scarf for every coat they bought so they could style them in the same way as we had presented. This success meant I could then push the direction of the brand, launching the first-ever Crombie summer collection, with boating blazers, cotton jackets, rainwear and knitwear and the following season introducing leather and more tailoring for winter again. Each new collection we styled with the scarfs, expanding the scarf selection and adding new patterns each season. It became a signature part of the look for the years I was there.
What are the ingredients of a great scarf? For me right now, I like pattern, but something that is subtle and ties in with whatever else I’m wearing rather than stands out too much on its own. The volume is important as well as you need to have enough material to find the right knot without trying too hard, but not have something that looks too small or too bulky, just right. I have my eye on one of yours though, the plain navy with the white trim. I think it’s a fresh sophisticated look.
Could you describe LBH in 3 words? Chic, continental, quality.
Who would you like to read in the next issues of our Style talks? I would like to see Ryan McMenamy, an artist and illustrator of whom an artwork is featured higher in this interview. His work is stunning and we’ve only ever spoken on DM and email, despite trying to meet up.
Thank you very much Gordon, it has been really interesting. Thank you very much for having me and I hope to see you soon.