Why Jeremy Hackett is the quintessentially British menswear mogul
It was one life's pivotal moments for me. Sat on a busy commuter train, there it was - my name emblazoned across the chest of another man. My surname, the thing that made life so miserable for me as an adolescent living in the wilds of north Wales in the UK, was there on a polo shirt being worn by someone that looked like he knew how to dress.
My surname somehow socially acceptable, so I owe Jeremy Hackett, the eponymous founder of the gentlemen's outfitters, a debt of gratitude. He made me glad I wasn't born Jones, Williams or Thomas. Hackett was, and still is, where it's at for me.
You'll have seen them yourself - often brightly coloured, always beautifully finished polo and rugby shirts with that name in bold capital letters proudly on display. They're found on men and boys the world over and say, in an instant, that the wearer knows a thing or two about style.
It's also a name synonymous with polo. The third Hackett British Polo day took place in Dubai last month, with the Hackett British Army squad taking on the Habtoor family team.
But Hackett's repertoire extends well beyond the world of sports clothing. It's a brand that encapsulates every aspect of classic, British menswear and, whether you're in the market for a dinner jacket, a pair of hunting boots, some shades or striped pyjamas, you'll find the very best in a Hackett store.
So meeting the man himself, in the glorious confines of Hackett's Sloane Street store in London, is something I have been looking forward to for a long time. Dressed sharply in a classically tailored two-piece suit, Jeremy Hackett, 59, is the perfect ambassador for the company that bears his name. Instantly likeable, he's friendly, slightly reserved and softly spoken. Many people in his position are often unattainable and distant but this man simply puts others at ease with a manner that seems foreign to some involved in his particular industry.
Just what was the story behind this brand that has become, in some eyes, as iconic as Rolls-Royce, The Ritz or Big Ben? It's a story of hard work, determination in the face of adversity and, most importantly, classic and timeless British style. It's a story that inspires and fascinates in equal measure.
Brought up in Bristol, in the south-west of England, Jeremy Hackett spent his first few years in a care home, before being adopted at the age of six. "It was a terrible time," he says, "and I didn't get along very well at school."
Leaving secondary education behind when he was 17, he entered the world of gentlemen's fashion by taking on a full-time job at a store where he had worked previously as a Saturday boy. He wasn't there for long and headed to London less than a year later to work in the fashionable King's Road. From there, he took on a role at a tailor's shop in Savile Row, and the dreams of running his own business started in earnest.
"I used to go to Paris a lot and on one particular visit I went to a flea market where I found a man selling vintage clothes, all of them British and all very good quality," he remembers.
"He said, 'Why don't you source these for me in England then I'll come to London and buy them off you?' I thought that seemed like a good idea so I started going around the markets and shops, buying up the best I could find. And because I'd been in the business all my life anyway, I knew what I was looking at."
The Parisian gentleman started visiting Hackett once a month and the money came rolling in.
"I made quite a good business out of that but soon I started thinking that maybe I should start selling these clothes to the end customers myself. From that idea, Hackett was born".
Before this, though, Jeremy had gone into business with an associate, Alex Lloyd-Jennings, in a shoe shop in London's Covent Garden in 1978. It was in a "completely deserted street full of old warehouses" and lasted for three years or so until the money ran out. "We were scratching around for something to do," says Hackett, "when this whole vintage thing came up. There was never any business plan, it was more a case of 'oh well, this might be a bit of fun and might make a few bob'".
In 1983, still without any proper funding behind them, he and Lloyd-Jennings opened Hackett after investing £1,000 each out of their own pockets, with the bank matching them with another couple of thousand. "We opened our first shop in Parsons Green (a small, relatively quiet pocket of west London) and took £1,000 in the first week, which we both thought was absolutely amazing. From that point on, the business just took off."
Word soon got around London that Hackett was the place for the best in classic, British clothing. With the shop selling nothing but second-hand clothes (funny how "vintage" these days sounds far more palatable yet means exactly the same thing) for nearly two years, it was becoming increasingly difficult to source good quality items. "We'd get one good jacket in and have ten people fighting over it," says Jeremy, "so it was obvious there was a demand for the kinds of things we were selling. We just thought it would be a good idea, rather than trading down by buying in junk, to try to reproduce those things and meet that demand".
Starting out, in 1985, with "some tweed jackets and nice shirts", Hackett took the lease on a shop next door, knocked through and expanded. "At first nobody would go in there," he admits. "They just wanted the vintage stuff. But, soon, when customers couldn't find anything they wanted or something that fitted properly, they relented and bought the new items". It wasn't long before sales of vintage clothing were phased out, and Hackett, as a brand, forged ahead with sales of new clothes.
A year later, Hackett had done rather well for itself and had opened more stores, all within a hundred metres of each other. There was one for shirts and ties, one for tailoring, a specialist formalwear shop, a barber's and gentlemen's accessories shop, and a sportswear shop. The area even became known by London cabbies as "Hackett Cross".
The year 1987 was a pivotal moment in the brand's history, when Jeremy was approached by two polo-playing army officers looking for sponsorship. The Hackett British Army Team was formed, and the polo shirt was born. Originally made solely for the team, Hackett customers who had watched matches kept asking to buy the shirts. The company eventually relented and the branded polo shirt became an instant smash hit.
Unfortunately for Hackett, by the early part of the 1990s, the polo shirt had become the clothing of choice for many English football hooligans who were taken with the fact that some of the designs carried the English flag, the St George's Cross. It was, as Jeremy remarks, soul-destroying to open a newspaper and see arrested offenders sporting the Hackett name across their chests. It was hardly Hackett's fault, as no company can control the demographic that buys its products, especially when there's an element of wholesale as part of the corporate structure.
But how can you dissuade a particular group of people from wearing your clothes? The answer came by getting involved with an altogether different ball game: rugby. There is an old saying that goes, "football is a gentleman's game played by hooligans, and rugby is a hooligan's game played by gentlemen".
It was a move that would reap big rewards years later. In 2003, England became Rugby World Cup champions after the fly-half Jonny Wilkinson's last -minute drop goal won the final against Australia. Wilkinson, who had signed a sponsorship deal with Hackett earlier that year, became a national hero and a household name. When the team was paraded in front of the media in an open-top bus around London, each player was wearing a Hackett tailored suit. Nobody thought about football riots when the Hackett name was mentioned, they just associated it with national pride. That, as they say, was a result.
Another hurdle Hackett had overcome during the football hooliganism phase was when the company tried to expand into the United States. "It was the wrong time for us, and Boston was obviously the wrong place," Jeremy concedes. "We rapidly ran out of money and the company was in very real danger. The one thing I'd never do, though, is put my suppliers through any difficulties, so keeping Hackett going was always the top priority." At the time (1991), many of the smaller fashion houses were being bought up by Japanese companies and there was speculation in the media as to whether Hackett might be one of them. Alfred Dunhill wasn't prepared to let that happen, so approached Hackett about buying a majority shareholding in the company.
By 1992, Hackett was in safe hands and Dunhill (later to become the Richemont Luxury Goods Group) invested heavily, enabling the opening of what is still Hackett's flagship store on London's Sloane Street. It was at this stage that Jeremy came up with a slogan for the brand that instantly struck a chord with the marketplace: Essential British Kit. It perfectly describes Hackett - the style could never be mistaken for Italian or Oriental, it's unmistakably British throughout.
Expansion into Paris came in 1994 and, a year later, Hackett began selling children's wear. The company's enduring association with high-profile sports paid off, with increased brand awareness. As a result, expansion was inevitable, but Jeremy recognises that there's a fine line to tread between commercial success and diluting the very things about a brand that made it a hit in the first place. But Hackett, he says, won't veer into women's wear. "Every season, fashion for women goes through immense changes and it's almost impossible to keep up with them. Men are different. They tend to find something they like and stick with it, keeping the same sense of style for many years. That's what Hackett is all about."
Hackett's association with rugby was perfectly suited to the Hackett brand. It was enough to send the football fanatics over to Burberry, and saved Hackett from a messy demise.
In 2005, Hackett was sold by Richemont to the Spanish investment group, Torreal. This has resulted in massive investment, including revamps of the Sloane Street and Jermyn Street shops in London, as well as expansion across Europe, Central America, South Africa and into Asian countries.
The brand's involvement with motor sport, as sponsors of the Goodwood Festival of Speed and the Aston Martin Racing team, has also proved profitable. Their range of AMR clothing sells in extremely healthy numbers.
"In Dubai and across the Middle East, we sell more Aston Martin branded goods than anything else," says Jeremy. "It's been an extraordinary success for us."
What, though, of Hackett's future?
"I think we're only beginning to scratch the surface," he says. "It wasn't long ago that we opened our first shop in Japan and that market has turned out to be huge for us, which has led to similar success across Southeast Asia. There's such affection for the brand, it's really taken us all by surprise."
True to his roots, Jeremy still goes around the market stalls to search for items that Hackett can draw inspiration from."I keep my oar in," he says. "I find things from years ago that, with a bit of tweaking can be worked into our own designs."
Yet it isn't just vintage clothing that inspires Hackett. Jeremy says that even today's high-end fashion can bring ideas to the table. "Admittedly what you see on the catwalk will often be way too extreme or avant-garde for us as a brand but there's always a new take on things, always a way of toning down ideas and making them work for a more classic look".
Going back to his adoption as a child, Jeremy had, for many years, been curious about his birth parents. "I decided to try to trace them," he says, "and went through the Salvation Army. Eventually they came back and said they'd found my mother, from the information on my baptismal certificate.
"It turned out she lives in Australia and I was due to visit the country, so I decided, against their advice, that it would be a nonsense if I was to pass up on this opportunity."
He made contact,met her and discovered a family he never knew had existed. "They've all done very well for themselves, my brothers and sisters. And my mother, who had spent her whole life wondering about me, turned out to be an incredibly stylish, wonderful woman. I definitely get my dress sense from her."
He still sees them whenever he can, but what about his father? "Eventually I got to the truth of who he was. When my mother was a young nurse in Oxford, she sweetly says she 'let her guard down' and had a short fling with a US serviceman. He had no idea about me and returned to America. By the time I tracked him down he had already passed away."
As for his father's sense of style, Jeremy says he sadly didn't have any. "From the photographs I've seen, he used to dress like Robert De Niro's character in Casino," he laughs, "but he was a keen amateur racing driver, owned a number of beautiful sports cars and was really into watches. It's clear to me that the way I turned out has a great deal to do with who my birth parents were."
As chairman of such a successful company, what does he think makes Hackett so special? "Customer service", he says, without hesitation. "Every one of our customers should be made to feel incredibly special, whether they're buying a pair of socks or a made-to-measure suit for thousands of pounds, dollars or yen. It's an element sadly lacking in today's high streets, but I know it makes us stand out as being different. It works too, and we have our reputation built on that very foundation."
He's right. Hackett is all about feeling good. The style is one that won't date overnight, and the image is one that will never be anything other than Great British. With Hackett sorted, if only someone would make the name Kevin fashionable, I'd be a very happy man indeed. Some things, I fear, are not fixable by a fashionable polo shirt.
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Updated: April 14, 2013 04:00 AM