BQ Newsletter

Salute to the aristo movement

Monday 18 April 2011 9:00

The clothing brand associated with Aston Martin, rowing, rugger and Oxbridge started life on a French fleamarket barrow. Josh Sims delves into Hackett.

Jeremy Hackett can recall when “vintage” clothing was still called “second-hand”. “Although the rarity of the clothing was appreciated even then, it was still known as ‘second hand’,” says the habitué of market stalls.

“Call it ‘vintage’ and you can add another nought. I recently found a pair of white British naval trousers with a kind of side fastener I’ve never seen before and of which, I thought, ‘that’s nice, we’ll copy those’.” “Although copying old clothes is not like going into a modern menswear store and buying something and copying it.

I can’t really do that anyway, they all know me in the shops,” he jokes. Hackett’s own name graces the front of some 60 shops globally (including Edinburgh and York), now generators of a $100m annual turnover and outlets for the quintessential English style that the brand promotes – an Englishness so hyper-real as to have done for the sartorial traditions of the tweed suit, the city stripe, Sloaney weekend sweaters and loud socks as Ralph Lauren has done for Americana. Lauren, indeed, was a customer of Hackett when he and his then business partner Ashley Lloyd-Jennings were running their own market stall in London’s Portobello duringthe booming 80s.

The duo, both salesmen on Savile Row at the time, had visited Paris’s Clignancourt flea-market one weekend, finding a trader doing a roaring trade in the old hunting, shooting and fishing clothing of the traditional English gent. The trader hired the duo to supply him from London, but they soon found that they had a market for it themselves – selling old but clean, repaired, properly displayed and hand-made suits to the well-to-do but not quite well-heeled.

Soon their little store at the wrong end of Chelsea’s Kings Road became something of a destination – thus fulfilling the prophetic warning of Hackett’s father that, unless the boy pulled his stripy socks up, he would end up working in a shop.

“We weren’t really selling vintage as fashion then, as it is widely sold now,” Hackett adds. “We were selling to young City guys who would rather buy a good second-hand suit than one for the same price from a high-street retailer.

We’d get old ladies calling to tell us their husbands had died and would we clean out their wardrobes. Sometimes those wardrobes were absolutely fantastic. We cleared out the brother of the singer Jack Buchanan and this guy was the perfect size 42L. We bought 50 suits at £10 each, and each pair of trousers had braces on them. We sold the braces for £10 each and the suits for £100 each. Sometimes we’d be told that the departed was tall and slim and we’d get there and clearly he had been a short fat man. We went through quite a lot of dead men’s wardrobes.” But there were not enough dead men. Demand soon outstripped supply, so Hackett and Lloyd-Jennings had clothes made in the style of their second-hand pieces. And a brandwas born. One, indeed, whose potential was noted by the Richemont luxury goods group, which bought it less than a decade later, selling it five years onto the Pepe Jeans Group.

And one that would actually come to be appreciated by the full social spectrum of thrusting, late 20th century England, from young aristos on the razz in Fulham to lads on the football terraces during Euro 2000, the latter drawn to Hackett’s somewhat prescient re-appreciation of then still sadly nationalistic St George cross (“Becoming what was perceived as a hooligan brand, well, we sold a lot of polo shirts but it’s not very aspirational is it? Not unless you’re a hooligan,” Hackett quips). But whether your estate is council or populated by deer, the Hackett image has, the man concedes, a welcome touch of fantasy about it.

Many think the brand has been passed down through the generations, but the Hackett of long associations with Aston Martin and rowing, rugby and polo is only 28 years old. It is sponsor of the British Army team, and also, less well known, of the Sussex Spaniel Association, with Jeremy Hackett’s own spaniels having appeared in the company’s ad campaigns since they were puppies.

“And, what is more, I don’t play polo or rugby, I don’t row and I don’t have an Aston Martin,” says Hackett. This is the Hackett of Eton and Harrow house colours and the blazers of the Oxbridge boat race – an event Hackett also sponsors – although Hackett the man did not have those privileged beginnings either.

He left school and went to work at 16. There is, he explains, a certain appeal to the English look – it is more comfortable classics than high style; decidedly male when fashion likes to play with gender; it is tailored and dependable.

It is also a formula that is working worldwide – the company is now expanding into the Far and Middle East, launching in Australia and pushing into the US. If Ralph Lauren has been selling his own idea of Englishness, here is a company from over the pond to show how it is done.

“I think we’ve probably romanced that English look a bit, because otherwise a plain grey suit is just a plain grey suit, with nothing to get much excited by,” admits Hackett, who recently redesigned the company logo as a fun take on the skull and crossbones, only now with a bowler hat and crossed umbrellas.

“Yet if that English look doesn’t really exist as it’s imagined then people certainly like it, extraordinarily so. In fact, it’s a look that’s probably worn much more outside of England than inside it. After all, Italians are the best-dressed Englishmen there are. Distance lends enchantment, I suppose. I mean, we all love Armani and Prada over here in Britain. Well I don’t – but you see what I mean...”