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The 160th Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge in London, England, which Jeremy Hackett’s brand has sponsored. Photo: Getty Images
The 160th Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge in London, England, which Jeremy Hackett’s brand has sponsored. Photo: Getty Images

Men’s fashion the English way, courtesy Jeremy Hackett

Hackett says his brand is cognizant of fashion trends, but implements them gradually, while retaining a 'sense of Englishness'

The day before I went with Jeremy Hackett to watch the 160th Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge, overnight weather forecasts indicated that race day would be pleasant and perhaps even a little warm.

But this is London, and nobody at all was surprised when the sky turned grey and it began to rain in that half-hearted way that soaks your soul but only lightly moistens your overcoat. Jeremy Hackett, founder of the “quintessentially British" style of clothing for men and children—but not women—leans over a wooden railing overlooking the River Thames.

We are standing on the balcony of the London Rowing Club, a stone’s throw from Putney Bridge where the race starts. Hackett is a major sponsor of not just the race, but also the club, and one of the meeting rooms has been turned into a buffet-cum-race-viewing room. The balcony outside offers a splendid view of the river, the boats and the crowds below. Across the river, to the north-east, we can just spot the outlines of Craven Cottage, the stadium that Fulham Football Club calls home.

Most members of the Hackett party, however, have relinquished the splendid views and have retired indoors. The weather outside is anything but pleasant. As crowds gather by the side of the river below, Jeremy Hackett explains to me how the race works. Tiny drops of drizzle crash into his glass of champagne.

Hackett, the brand, was born with no business plan, no marketing plan and no money. “I’m not sure what advice I’d give to people about starting a business because I probably broke every rule in the book," Jeremy told me as we spoke earlier, on the morning of race day, in the Hackett Store on London’s Regent Street.

Jeremy Hackett.
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Jeremy Hackett.

This business started from a tiny little store on Portobello Road that, Jeremy insists, was no larger than a roomy closet.

Business just took off. Eventually Jeremy and his business partner found that they simply couldn’t source enough vintage clothing to meet demand. “So I thought well maybe I’ll make a little sort of edited collection based on the sort of things that people have been particularly interested in."

And this original edited Hackett collection of new clothing comprised items such as tweed jackets, corduroys and chinos. Things, he says, that at the time you could only get made from a tailor. No one sold them in shops.

“So I took a shop next door, knocked a hole through, put the new clothes in there and at first nobody would go in, “Oh no, I don’t want new stuff." If things stayed that way, there wouldn’t be 70 branches of Hackett in cities all over the world, including Chandigarh, Bangalore and Delhi.

The new clothes business boomed. Customers who often didn’t find what they were looking for in the used collection popped next door to have a look at Hackett’s new clothes. “They would have a look and go, ‘Oh, actually it’s quite nice, good cloth, nice shape.’"

The quintessential British brand was born (So British that the Hackett logo is a pair of crossed umbrellas below a bowler hat.)

Jeremy, of course, is being particularly modest with his telling of the brand’s story. His success may have been unexpected and his growth plan ad hoc. But his understanding of the clothing business was built on firm foundations.

“I started when I left school. In fact, I had a Saturday job at a tailor shop while I was still at school and then I failed all my exams and the tailor very kindly offered me a full-time job and that was in Bristol where I was brought up. And then when I was 19, I moved to London, worked at King’s Road at various boutiques and then I was offered a job in Savile Row and that really was such a departure for me. I then started to learn properly about how things are put together, about cloth, and about another level of customers, really. It was a whole new world for me."

When he set up his own company, one would have expected Hackett to have targeted the same Savile Row clientele. Not at all. Instead, as the company website explains, the brand decided to focus on “presenting a fresh take on British men’s style attracting the sons of the then archetypal Savile Row customer".

There is more to this approach than might immediately meet the eye. This balance between being classical but also youthful and up-to-date is hard to achieve. The British dress code for men, Jeremy explains, is varied but risk averse.

“I think on the whole, men don’t like to get it wrong and feel foolish, and basically I think that outside of the fashion world, men on the whole are quite conservative. So I think we’ve sort of fulfilled a niche that while it’s fashionable, it’s not cutting edge. I like to think that we’re maybe one step ahead of the customer rather than three."

Take one more step and you overdo it. Narrow a necktie by an extra centimetre, Jeremy says, and you’ve spooked the Hackett customer.

Hackett’s raison d’etre seems to be somehow subjecting new trends to a restrained British lens. Jeremy explains that the brand is cognizant of fashion trends, but implements them gradually, all the while retaining a “sense of Englishness".

Which then begs the question, why do men care for Englishness in their clothing? What makes brands such as Hackett so popular not just in the UK, but also in markets far away?

Jeremy reckons that this has something to do with the number of “occasions" in Britain that behoove a dress code. “Whether they are, say, going to the country, whether they are going shooting or whether they are going riding, or whether they are going to a wedding or to a cocktail party… I think men quite like the idea of going somewhere knowing that they are appropriately dressed for that particular occasion."

And it was one such “special occasion" that was one of Hackett’s first blockbuster product. In 1986, Hackett began an association with polo, and launched a polo shirt. “They absolutely flew out of the store," he recalls. The Hackett polo still remains a hot seller.

On the occasion of the Oxford-Cambridge race, Jeremy Hackett is dressed in a tweed jacket, blue shirt, navy trousers and a silk handkerchief that depicts a painting of a rowing scene that hangs at the London Rowing Club. Jeremy is particularly proud of the hanky. “This is the kind of thing we like doing. Because we have an exclusive partnership with the club, only we can do things like this with their archives." The hanky is eye-catching, bright and colourful. Yet it depicts something that has been hanging on a wall of the London Rowing Club for decades—old meeting the new but with Englishness.

Back at the London Rowing Club, club chairman Ben Helm suggests we place our bets on the Oxford team. “As the weather gets worse, things will go in Oxford’s favour. They have more experience and will deal with it better." Later, Helm takes us downstairs to the boathouse. Inside, he shows us one of the club’s boats, one that is virtually identical to the boats that both teams will compete in later that day.

To someone unfamiliar with the world of rowing, everything about the boat is surprising. For one thing, it is much longer than you would expect. It is also precariously narrow, and made of cutting-edge material such as carbon fibre composites. Helm explains how every aspect of each competition boat will be perfectly tuned to the team rowing in it. Each of the nine seats in each university’s boat—one for each of the eight rowers and an extra one for the cox—is perfectly positioned for the rower concerned and for the overall weight distribution of the boat. It looks very simple, Helm says, but there is some very, very high technology involved.

Perhaps this is why Hackett has such a close association with the boat race. The boat race is a British institution. This year, it is estimated that a quarter of a million people lined up on both banks of the river to see the race despite the poor weather, and all this for essentially a competition between the teams of two universities that aren’t even based in London. And yet the race is broadcast not just all over the UK, but all over the world.

Hackett has a much younger history; it is just 35 years old, the race is 160. Yet it too keeps abreast of the times, changing a little at a time, never too much, never too soon. Jeremy says that the brand’s aspiration is to always remain classical and English. And to keep doing what it does best. Jeremy: “I think that we offer good value for money, which I think is important. I think we offer a good product. I think service is very good. And I think because we’re just a men’s brand, I think that makes it somehow a bit special because there aren’t very many brands which just do men."

As for the race, Oxford won it at a canter. Tea was served afterwards.

Jeremy Hackett’s five essentials for the classical English look:

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