Chinese billionaire William Fung sews up Savile Row

The first rule of Savile Row is you do not talk about Savile Row – or at least, that had been the case for two centuries.

British discretion had meant the street remained a well-kept secret, ensuring only an upper class elite filed into the shops with handwritten recommendations from their fathers, grandfathers or army officers where they would visit Lobbs for shoes, Lock & Co for hats and perhaps Gieves & Hawkes at Number One for their bespoke suits.

This rich heritage ensured the street became shorthand as the gold standard for men's tailoring, but also left Savile Row to drown in its stuffiness and have its crown stolen from designer rivals around the corner in Bond Street, who catered for the more modern gentleman.

Many of the area's most illustrious names were left struggling for survival.

In a blistering attack, Italian designer Giorgio Armani, who sought to rival bespoke with his Milan made-to-measure suits, accused Savile Row of being a "comedy, a melodrama lost in the past … It's so old it should be in black and white."

There are lots of other great shopping streets but they do other things – we only have one raison d'être.

Richard Cohen

From black and white to technicolour 

Now, however, the street has been given a modern and exotic splash of technicolour after a Chinese billionaire snapped up some of Savile Row's best-known brands and pledged to bring this once exclusive gentleman's club to a worldwide audience.

William Fung, the boss of Hong Kong conglomerate Li & Fung, has quickly assembled, along with his brother, Victor, a bulging closet of Savile Row names.

Retail is in Fung's blood. His grandfather used the salary he earned teaching English to start the family business in 1906, his language skills proving vital as he exported porcelain and silk between east and west. That business grew into Li & Fung, now the world's largest supplier to consumer brands including Walmart.

Through a vehicle called Trinity, it bought luxury men's tailor Kent & Curwen, which kits out Princes William and Harry with their polo attire, in 2008, and four years later, took over Gieves & Hawkes in a £32.5m ($67m) deal. The move was a blessing for the business which was sinking further into the red, recording £4.3m of annual losses that year.

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Tailoring tradition

Then in 2013, Fung set up a new entity called No.14 Savile Row to house Hardy Amies, and Kilgour, which dresses the likes of Daniel Craig, Jude Law and Hugh Grant, and had been financed through his brother's private equity vehicle, Fung Capital.

Fung's shopping spree triggered alarm at the prospect of another part of British industry falling into foreign ownership and there were fears that many generations of craftsmanship could be lost to cheap labour in Asia.

However, two years on from Fung's dizzying spree and the majority of the brands' ranges are cut from European cloth, while the bespoke tailoring continues to be performed below the shop floor in Savile Row.

Fung has also spent several millions employing interior designer Teresa Hastings to refurbish the One Savile Row headquarters, a sum that Richard Cohen, the Hong-Kong-based, British-born chief executive of Trinity Group, the Fung vehicle that owns Gieves & Hawkes, admits makes him "want to cry".

Ready-to-wear revamp

As part of the brands' modern revamp, "ready-to-wear" ranges are now the major growth driver, with suits starting at a more affordable £800 ($1660) compared with a £5,000 starting price tag for a bespoke version. The companies have also started selling luxury sportswear and informal jackets.

As part of the Gieves & Hawkes takeover, Fung inherited a trove of artefacts including a 1794 letter from Horatio Nelson, framed portraits of royals in the tailor's dinner jackets and glass cabinets filled with the red robes worn by the Queen's bodyguards, which are still made on site.

Such pomp and prestige, which had previously contributed to its elitist image, is now being used as a calling card to woo overseas customers.

"Savile Row is going through a metamorphosis," Cohen says. "There had almost been a bit of reverse psychology, or ultra British discretion about not showing off or talking about the business."

Hollywood calling

Even Hollywood has played up to Savile Row's reputation as a covert club in the film Kingsman: The Secret Service starring Colin Firth, which is based on a tailoring house that acts as a covert command base for a secret society of spies.

The film also features a "boy from nothing" being measured up for a cut-cloth bespoke suit. Apart from being mildly annoyed that the picture features traffic going the wrong way down the 200-year-old street, Cohen points out that it is this younger character that shows off best where the business is headed.

Cohen has had a life-long career in luxury menswear after being given his first job at Burberry by his father, who was chairman of the British luxury retailer's North American operation. He later moved on to Saks Fifth Avenue.

Tony Yusuf, who runs No14SR, started his career "downstairs" in the tailor's workroom at Wells of Mayfair. "We had to iron shirts with a coal warmed iron and there was absolutely no talking during working hours." His lack of an Eton-education means Yusuf reflects his growing customer base.

Changing of the guard

"I think there was an exclusive club of customers, it wasn't exclusively for the British, but it was necessary to have a public school background. You might come from India, Africa, Asia, but so long as you passed through that education institution you ended up at the next," Yusuf said.

"Now it has become democratised," he says.

At his Kilgour brand he is developing his own club of chief executives from the worlds of advertising, media and architecture, or as he puts it, "Audi drivers, those who like the flair and touches of quality and are the celebrated but not celebrities."

This doesn't mean of course that the brands don't still have star appeal thanks to an increasing trend of high-rolling hip-hop stars and newly moneyed youth turning to tailoring for a more understated show of wealth.

New high rollers

"Rappers today wear a dinner suit to the club and that's the aspiration," Cohen adds. "Jay (Z) is a friend of mine and he likes to dress up and has always liked to dress up, for him it's part of it. He came from really tough streets, had a hard upbringing and now his suits are a reflection of his success – he wants to dress a certain way because he believes that it reflects an aura."

Hip-hop billionaires aside, there has also been a growing trend towards tailoring, helped by the suave appeal of stylish TV series Mad Men, David Beckham and Savile Row brand ambassador David Gandy.

"When I'd go out 40 years ago clubbing, the last thing I'd wear was a suit, but you go out now and all the kids are wearing suits, they like to dress up and they feel good about themselves dressing up. If that's what they desire, then the street is here to cater to that," says Cohen.

Foreign ownership has helped the brand become aware of who the new buyers are. For a business that sells itself on its British heritage, the UK makes up just a small fraction of sales, with China powering the business.

International appeal

According to Trinity's annual report, the UK generated just £13m ($27m) in revenue last year, while mainland China, where it has 390 stores, recorded nearly £109m.

Gieves & Hawkes has 100 stores in the region but local Chinese shoppers struggle to pronounce the brand name. Instead, throughout Asia, the brand is known as the "three crowns" because of its trio of royal warrants.

Whereas most British businesses try to capture the Chinese market in their homeland, Fung's Savile Row brands already have a strong presence there.

"The area of growth for us is where 150 million Chinese are now travelling and exploring the world, my job is to put a Gieves & Hawkes store wherever they go," Cohen says.

According to consultants at Bain & Company, Chinese consumers are the top and fastest-growing nationality for luxury brands, spending three times more abroad than they spend locally.

Both Cohen and Yusuf bristle at the idea of a Savile Row revival and instead insist the plan is to give a greater recognition of the brand.

Cohen says: "One of the things that was intriguing to me was that Trinity had one of the best addresses in the world – Number One Savile Row – and that had not been communicated effectively enough. There are lots of other great shopping streets but they do other things – we only have one raison d'être. We're now making that our global message."

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