A look into the ever changing trends, fabrics, business of fine suit-making and tailoring.
Not all suits are made the same. As you may well expect, signs of a good suit goes beyond just how it sits on your shoulders, and of course the price tag that comes with it on the rack. From the purpose of the suit, to its stitching, weight, breathability, thread count, and the type of fabric chosen and its blend, the considerations that should go into the tailoring process is one that requires a learned individual, with a keen eye for detail and style. When it comes to fabric selection, there are few that have 180 years of mastery in the art, as do HOLLAND & SHERRY.
We recently had the privilege of chatting with Josh Lane from HOLLAND & SHERRY at The Prestigious tailor in Singapore, on the ever changing trends and business of bespoke suit-making:
#unCOVERED – In conversation with Josh Lane, at HOLLAND AND SHERRY
COVERED:As we all know, modern day suit-making is not quite as it used to be in its yesteryears. Do tell us more about HOLLAND & SHERRY.
JOSH LANE: I should probably start from the beginning. The year was 1836 in London, Old Bond Street. Based on this road were two merchant traders of the time, Stephen George Holland and Fredrick Sherry. The two got together and started a woolen and silk trading business. At the time, London was the epicentre for such textile merchants yet, over the course of the next century, many fell by the wayside, like any other burgeoning capitalist economy, only the strongest survived. Whether it was through our better positioning, better management, better strategy, or a combination of the three, the company went from strength to strength, focusing initially on wool and silks then later expanding into cottons, linens, mohair, vicuna and beyond.
Today, the company now has its head office on Savile Row, a natural choice given most of our longest standing customers were based around a few square kilometres of that address. Moving north up England, HOLLAND & SHERRY have our factory in Yorkshire, a mill called Clissold, in the centre of Bradford, just a few miles from where I grew up actually. Still today, a lot of our weaving, dyeing and finishing is still being done within that famous Yorkshire catchment. From there, if you continue up North to Scotland, we have our main office, where, amongst other things, we have our vast warehouse and distribution centre. This is really the epicentre of our business where we design, select and market all our cloths as well as produce the bunches. All the cutting takes place, here too and most of the company’s directors and majority of our staff are based in this small town of Peebles. Although it is a very small Scottish borders town, in total we employ over a hundred people, servicing our regional offices and the different markets we cater for around the world. Whenever someone orders a HOLLAND & SHERRY fabric length, a ticket will be printed out in that Peebles warehouse next to the very spot where the fabric is housed, where it will then be measured out, cut, and dispatched, out to various parts of the world, that very same day.
More recently, the Asian market, for a lot of companies, is fast becoming more and more important for growth. We responded by opening a flagship show room in Shanghai just last year, in part also commemorating our 180 Year anniversary of operations. We hope that will be a good launch pad for our brand to continue expanding in the China market and beyond, as is so important now.
COVERED: Personally, how do you feel the awareness for proper suit making and tailoring has evolved over the last decade or two, especially in this part of the world, in Asia? Would you feel that customers are more educated now, and do you see a growing trend in bespoke fine tailoring?
JOSH LANE: Yes, aside from how the world is increasingly more connected, helping the circulation of information, I think there are still surprising regional differences in the level of education amongst the consumer in the various regions. Obviously in Savile Row, most of the customers there are more experienced, more discerning, as many have been buying tailored suits their entire lives. As these clientele retirement age, they’ve grown familiar with their tailors, fabrics and their own sense of style as well. So I suppose that sort of market would be the benchmark for knowledge globally. It would probably be comparable there to the rest of the mature markets in Europe; like Paris and the key fashion centres in Milan and elsewhere.
The Asian market is a special one because it is so diverse. Hong Kong, for example, is quite a mature market. The expectations and the craftsmanship would be comparable to what you get in Savile Row perhaps. But China itself is also such a diverse market. There are such regional differences within China itself – you have Shanghai, and Beijing – which would be more reflective of the Hong Kong market, but still lagging behind in places in terms of your general knowledge level. And as you move West from there to Chengdu, Chongqing and beyond, you will find it is generally a more juvenile market in the way that customers don’t necessarily always know exactly what they’re buying, nor would the consistency and quality of craftsmanship from garment makers be comparable to places like Savile Row etc. – although as we know, China is capable of catching up fast and this is something we are seeing here too
Fortunately, Holland & Sherry as a brand, has a strong pull globally. In China, I think, by virtue of the fact which we are produced in England, the rather abstract concept of “Britishness” has good brand equity amongst the Chinese consumers. Customers there are still prone to buy based on the fact that it’s European-made (versus made in China). Without necessarily differentiating too much yet among the subtler nuances of English as opposed to Italian or other European mills I don’t think. Again, it varies from person to person and place to place but generally speaking I think those markets aren’t quite as educated just yet, to differentiate between the different brands and the different products and certain more technical variations. But I think that will be part of our role going forward. Essential to the sustainability of the sector is actually educating people on what is a good fabric, what’s not such a good fabric; what’s suitable for different occasions and climates. In fact, the variations are endless. Nobody, myself included, can claim to be an expert overnight, but it’s a journey that we’re starting now, and starting more conscientiously now I think.
COVERED:Okay. What are some of the key changes in the trends that we can expect in the coming year, in your opinion?
JOSH LANE: I think generally, the somewhat dated idea of wool being produced for old, scratchy business suits that nobody really enjoys wearing – especially not outside the office – is disappearing, and in its place, you now have a lot more variations and choice. There are very fine, luxurious wool qualities and technical innovations as well that help improve both the manufacturing process and wearing experience. For example, HOLLAND & SHERRY has a trademarked finishing process called AquArrêt®, which makes the suit a lot more practical for the modern lifestyle. What I mean by that is it is water resistant, it’s crease resistant, it’s dirt resistant, also making them very good travel suits; they’re a better alternative for outdoor activities like if the weather is a bit wet, say in places similar to Singapore or the UK. Wool is naturally a very absorbent fabric. But with this finish, spills onto the cloth will bead up and roll off.
COVERED:So it’s water repellent kind of?
JOSH LANE: I would say, it is more water resistant. Worry less about splashes and spills when you’re out and about. A modern lifestyle, in the realm of fashion today, means you’re not just wearing a suit, or wool jacket in the office anymore. I think that’s a general trend that’s also being followed – a more casual approach to what was a classical formal suiting material. Whether it’s a more flamboyant jacket with cotton trousers for a smarter casual look, or let’s say if you go to the races or the casino, and you want to dress up a little for the special occasion, black tie events too – people are experimenting more now. Very seldom would you see 100 per cent of people to be wearing black at a ‘black tie’ event. Now you can get tartans, velvets, all kinds of colour schemes. I think the general lesson to take from that is that the rules themselves are changing, and the rules of formal or semi-formal attire are no longer set by the social elite or the designers quite as much anymore. They’re coming more from the bottom up; and everyone has their own interpretation of what to wear and how to wear a suit.
Another good thing about HOLLAND & SHERRY is we’ve got such a diverse range of options, that you can find something for every customer, for every kind of occasion, whilst still within the premium segment of the market. Just looking at some of the collections we have here (in The Prestigious), the format of our presentation is also evolving. As we look here, there’s an interesting hopsack which can be a very nice option for blazers. That seems to be very popular nowadays, among the younger people. People wanting to go for a less formal look but still wearing a blazer or sport jacket. There is a lot more versatility, a lot more flexibility. Not just the rules of the game change have changed, it is the rule-makers too.
COVERED:Yes, I also hear you have a collection with gold woven into the cloth as well?
JOSH LANE: Actually yes, though that’s not necessarily new. Within our vast range, at the more luxury end of that spectrum, we like to add some more unique features which appeal to certain customers. Certainly far from mass market but we have a collection called “Imperial gold”, which is composed of 90% cashmere and 10% vicuna, but wherever you see a gold pinstripe or thread, that pinstripe thread itself is actually 22 carat gold.
Going beyond that, in terms of luxury customization, we have the signature collection where you can customise the pinstripe to have your name, or anything meaningful to you, embroidered into this pinstripe. From a distance you wouldn’t know, because the font is very small so it would just look like a regular gold pinstripe, but under inspection, you would see it was someone’s name or any kind of creativity- just an extra level of customisation to bring to people who like to spend on very special items, unique literally only to themselves. I feel that is also part of people moving away from ready-to-wear garments. Because there’s nothing stopping the next thousand people from buying the next thousand jackets – identical to the garment you have. But with our customers and their clients, the tailored garment – entirely your own selection from the fabrics to the shape and style of cut, from the lapels to the buttons to the lining, it is uniquely your one-of-a-kind garment.
COVERED:Okay, now let’s talk a little bit about climate. Climate plays a very big part in our suit choices, especially in humid countries like Singapore and Southeast Asia. So what are the key things we should look out for when making a good quality suit in Southeast Asia? Do you have any tips or advice that we should heed?
JOSH LANE: People naturally assume that a lightweight cloth is more suitable for hot countries. While that makes logical sense, we must not forget that the weight of a cloth will affect the drape of the garment. Lightweight material, would not hang off somebody as well as a heavier, more traditional wool let’s say. For that reason, you should look away from the more traditional binary way of thinking, and lean on your tailor for advice too. For example, our Mesh Blazers collection – the hopsack weave has what are effectively small holes between the individual threads of yarn so it can breathe better. Merino wool, as a type of wool itself is a very breathable material, and all the wool we use almost exclusively at HOLLAND & SHERRY is this type of high performance merino wool. When it comes to customisation you can choose to have a half-lined or even unlined jacket as opposed to a heavier full lining. So, although some people prefer it, you don’t always have to be looking for the lightest fabric just because you live in a hot country, as that will affect how it is cut and drapes. There are less conventional methods and options to make sure you’re staying cool or dry. Linen and cotton too are having a resurgence for that reason because they are very cool lightweight fabrics. Nowadays you get people wearing cotton pants with a wool jacket, which is probably a bit more comfortable in cool climates actually. The collection we have for cotton this year contains a 2% stretch alongside 98 per cent cotton. Kind of like a Lycra effect which helps the flexibility and therefore the breathability and comfort of the fabric.
It’s not a precise science, but with Singapore, it is a very well air-conditioned city lifestyle, so I’ve actually been comfortable going through my day in a 3-piece suit today. Actually, the modern consumer is so mobile now, a suit bought in Singapore is likely to be also be worn in colder countries too. So it’s always good to have a few versatile suits in the wardrobe that will help you cater for every different occasion.
COVERED:We agree. One can never have enough suits. So now let’s talk a bit about technology. We can see from the logo that HOLLAND & SHERRY is adapting a cleaner look. How about with technology, is that changing when reaching out to consumers?
JOSH LANE: Digitalisation for one affects many aspects of the business, especially for example marketing platforms like WeChat in and around mainland China today. You have to be on WeChat and have a strategic plan to leverage that. Word of mouth and social media is so important and these tools can help amplify a branding or marketing message and awareness unlike any traditional medium, when used in the right way.
COVERED:My reason for asking that is you see a lot of online e-retailers who are coming up with options to buy and tailor your suit online. Yet does that really replace the experience of actually coming in to feel the cloth and have measurements and fittings done?
JOSH LANE: The key word you said in there is – ‘experience’. When people are spending substantial amounts of money on a suit, they expect not just a nice product but also an experience. With regards to the tailoring process, this experiential value can come from being measured by a very dapper, knowledgeable and experienced gentleman, (probably also sporting an incredibly stylish moustache) on Savile Row; to then witnessing him drafting your pattern in his workshop (still underground on the basement floor of their retail site, as many of these tailors are); and enjoying a whisky or a cigar over a chat while you browse through the collections and discuss your desired outcome. It’s these things that allow many luxury products to price where they are. Because you’re not necessarily just selling a product, you’re selling a lifestyle and an experience. So, yes online tailors will disrupt the market a bit and younger people, being a lot more digitally savvy, I suppose they would be more inclined to buy a suit online, and I’m sure they have some great products available, but the word experience and the chance to actually see and feel the fabric is something that will never be replaced with online tailors. Unless maybe Virtual Reality technology progresses substantially faster than its current rate within our lifetimes!
Such new trends are developments we, as a company, have to be aware of and stay relevant to. With our branding, we’ve now adapted a sleeker, cleaner navy blue colour scheme, replacing the old burgundy style as we seek to maintain our appeal to changing tastes and evolving markets. Going forward, we have to stay on top of e-tailors and others like it. As HOLLAND & SHERRY, we’re still able to sell to these guys as suppliers so it can be viewed as another opportunity. How we sell to them may also be different, with bigger volumes, lower cost, and more competition. So those are the trends that we have to stay abreast of. But the fact that Holland & Sherry has been around for so long, and survived several revolutions and transitions, is testament to our ability as a company to adapt and stay relevant.
COVERED:I get a sense that HOLLAND & SHERRY is going to be a lot more in front of the consumer, doing a lot more marketing and making a stronger appearance around town. Can you share with us some of the plans you can expect from the brand?
JOSH LANE: Yes, I would like to think so. British business culture historically is quite conservative or risk averse generally. But recently there has certainly been a strategic change of direction and culture. We’re fortunate that we have been able to build such a strong brand name, supported of course by the quality of our finished product – we often say we never lose customers, and that the product sells itself – as long as we present, market and distribute correctly. Take our operations in Asia for instance, I’m only the second member of staff to be brought on board to cover our Far East region, but that coincides with the opening of a 3 storey showroom in downtown Shanghai – evidence for our strong commitment to Asia for generations to come.
Going forward, social media and events is something we’ll be looking more into, as a mean of reaching out to the next generation of tailors and consumers. A number of our long standing customers are probably closing on retirement age now, it’s a cyclical feature of the industry. So we need to have plans in place to appeal to younger people. I know Vishal (from NJ Bhagwan, exclusive distributor for SEA market) has some great plans as well. He’s got a good marketing background and he’ll be pushing more local marketing activities and events. We also always try to support students – we invite students to pass through our showroom in the UK and offer discounts. We also give out small samples or swatches to help initiate and inspire their interest in textiles and high quality fabrics. Even here at The Prestigious, Master Tailor Thomas Wong is doing some great work with his tailors – most of whom are ladies. So that’s another trend as well, part of the evolution of tailors and tailoring. More women today wear suits than ever before. Like I said before, the rules of the game have changed, and you’re now only really limited by your own creativity and bravery. More and more of our collections could be considered unisex, and to coincide with our 180th Anniversary, we launched a specifically ladieswear collection in the presentation format of a capsule wardrobe. Within that wardrobe we have some Chanel inspired tweeds, silks, cottons, flannels, allowing mixing and matching for people to come up with their own versatile style and identity.
COVERED:So here in Singapore, we know that HOLLAND & SHERRY is available through NJ Bhagwan which celebrates its 66th Anniversary this year. Our next question is for Vishal Advani from NJ Bhagwan. Could you tell us a bit about NJ Bhagwan and what can we expect from NJ Bhagwan and HOLLAND & SHERRY in the near future?
VISHAL: Our tradition is old, but we’re trying to evolve over time. A big strategy is to attack brand awareness at the consumer level. We find that is quite key in Southeast Asian markets. Even a well-educated consumer may not be willing to ask questions, perhaps because he’s shy or nervous. He’s almost entrusted to a tailor, which is not a problem if you’re a frequenting well established tailors like Prestigious, but we want the consumer to ask the questions. We want the consumer to be aware of the choices available to them before they wear the garments.
COVERED:Fantastic. Well thank you both, Vishal and Josh for your time.
About Josh Lane: Josh Lane is the Regional Sales Manager for HOLLAND & SHERRY – Far East region, and is based in Shanghai.
About Vishal Advani; Vishal Advani is the Managing Director of NJ Bhagwan in Singapore.
For more information,
For any more questions or queries, Josh Lane can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
To get a feel of HOLLAND & SHERRY’s range of fine fabrics, do visit their Preferred Tailor – THE PRESTIGIOUS, which is located at 62 Boat Quay, Singapore 049850. Connect with THE PRESTIGIOUS on Facebook here and on Instagram here.
All photos in this article are by Michelle Julia Ng at COVERED ASIA.