Best Brand 2018: Drake’s (or, how to expand a brand)

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Monday, January 29th 2018
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Best Brand of the Year: Drake's

Runners up: Stoffa, Private White VC

The Permanent Style award for ‘Brand of the Year’ was understandably the hardest to define of our five awards - launched a few weeks ago.

People can like brands for many reasons, and so the criteria were deliberately specific, focusing on product innovation and product quality.

As a reader put it on a recent comment, it should be something more than “one giant ‘Like’ button”.

Even with relatively narrow criteria, however, the award could have been very subjective - which was why I asked for nominations, rather than a straight vote.

Readers could nominate any brand they wanted, but the actual winner would be decided by a panel - comprising myself, Jamie Ferguson and Michael Drake. (The ‘Best-Dressed Man’ award, which will be announced later this week, had the same structure.)

This worked well, with some good discussion among us as to which of the brands really showed the greatest innovation in 2017, alongside reliable quality.

However, the nominations were so strongly in favour of a single brand that it was hard to ignore them. Drake’s received 62 nominations in total for the award, more than three times its nearest competitor.

This also helped with one potential weakness of the panel - that both Jamie and Michael are closely associated with Drake’s. Although neither is an employee or owner any more, they are both understandably fond of the brand.

In the end, readers and judges all agreed, making things easy.

I’ll get onto the reasons for that agreement in a moment, together with a short discussion with Michael Hill about Drake’s in 2017.

But I’d also like to say a quick congratulations to the runners-up: Stoffa and Private White VC.

Stoffa (above) has been a breath of fresh air over the past few years, bringing distinct, modern, ethical clothing to the classic menswear space.

Agyesh deserves enthusiastic recognition for his intelligent and single-minded approach, as well as his excellent customer service.

(In fact, interestingly, Stoffa and Saman Amel are two brands that did particularly well across the Best Brand and Customer Service categories combined. Had that been a single award, one of them might have won.)

Private White VC is fundamentally a very different company from Stoffa - a manufacturer first, rather than a designer. Yet I would argue their approaches to product have much in common.

Although PWVC produces more standard menswear pieces (pea coat, mac, wax jacket), each has consistent innovation, just on a smaller scale. The Twin-Track and the Jeep Coat (above) are two that stand out as distinctive re-workings of traditional outerwear.

But back to Drake’s.

In the comments, readers highlighted how well Drake’s has expanded in recent years, completing a transition from tiemaker to full-look brand in a way that has felt consistent, organic and authentic.

The comments included:

“If we’re looking at a brand in the round, in terms of consistent innovative and quality products then I think [Drake’s are] streets ahead. There is an identifiable ‘Drake’s aesthetic’ across their varied products, but the thing which unites them all is the attention to detail and high standards which go in to the manufacturing”

“I’ve been buying Drakes for the last five years and have been delighted to see it grow to what it is now. The ‘Drakes Look’ is so distinctive yet simple, and it is also quite attainable. Their new Easyday range makes it that bit more accessible now too.”

“Like many that have mentioned it here, I think Drake’s this year has hit it out of the park. Especially with the launch of their full-range line of clothing. It is a contemporary interpretation of classic style that is still relevant to people today in this world that is becoming ever more casual.”

I find this expansion a fascinating theme.

How does a brand go from one fairly narrow category into an entire range? Does a unicorn-print handkerchief or a grenadine tie somehow ‘contain’ a complete look? How do you remain consistent as you expand in so many different directions?

I chatted to Michael Hill of Drake’s about it last week.

Permanent Style: How did you plan the expansion of the Drake’s range? Did you have personas, research, mood boards?

Michael Hill (below): No we didn’t, not really. Looking back on the evolution, it all seems very unplanned - but also very natural. We just slowly added pieces to the collection that we loved - whether it was shetland sweaters, glen-check jackets or corduroy trousers.

I guess everyone dresses in a full look; no one just wears a tie or a scarf. So we all know what we like wearing with other pieces of clothing and how we like to put it together.

I'd been dressing like this for years, wearing our accessories with just these kinds of pieces. And so had others around the team. We had a big pool of opinions and styles to draw on.

Was there any influence from the early days of Drake’s?

Yes, that’s a good point. Most people won’t realise that the company started in suits.

Michael [Drake] began as the agent for Belvest tailoring, first in the US and the around the world. The ties and scarves were originally conceived as accessories to that tailoring, rather than the other way around.

So there was some history there. And I also had my personal views on the aesthetic, how it could all be combined together into something that was coherent and fresh.

Do you think it’s fair to characterise the Drake’s aesthetic as drawing on British country traditions - the animal prints, cords, wax jackets? That a key achievement has been making that look feel young and relevant again?

If we have that’s great; I’d be proud to help men rediscover the pleasures of those clothes. But I’ve never thought of us as part of any particular tradition.

There has always been a sense of combining Britain and Italy - for example the way Italians wear British clothing. And most of our suppliers are in those countries. But I think the style is very Drake’s and very international.

So in terms of putting together an aesthetic, it doesn’t help that there are traditions of certain types of clothing, often worn together?

No, I don’t think you form a look in that mould. It’s a combination of many, global influences, and means looking afresh at different things, considering whether they could work together. Like the Fedeli shirts from Italy, for example, or Buaisou indigo scarves.

How much has the expansion been about creating a viable future for Drake’s?

That’s always part of the equation, certainly. We’re moving most importantly from a manufacturer to a retailer, and it helps to have breadth.

I also feel that this is the shape of a modern company - that it’s hard to survive just as a manufacturer, but that it’s immensely useful to keep close to manufacturing by having our own tie factory in London, and our shirt factory also in England.

No plans to buy a knitwear factory or a tailoring factory though, to complete that model?

No. Much of that is driven by opportunity, and there is very little left in this country as regards tailoring. Proximity is also an important part of the benefit - so it would have to be something we could be close to and manage easily.

How far can the expansion of the range go? You’ve filled in most things.

Well, there will certainly be some new pieces in the next year that will surprise people I think.

But no, our main focus is staying within what we are doing at the moment and doing it better. There’s always a lot we can improve.

Photography: All Drake's from Autumn/Winter 2017 and Easyday lookbooks, except Stoffa and PWVC photos; and Michael Hill shot, Jamie Ferguson @jkf_man

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Thomas

Simon,
Your website says you have 300,000 readers.

However, this flagship award only had 62 nominations.

What happened to the other 299,938 readers? Feels like a very small response if you have so many readers…

Jeldrik

Oh, very interesting numbers!

On topic: As my interest in classical menswear just started last year (can’t go full pro as a student) I was not really aware of Drake’s. Thanks for changing that. Seems to be a very good ressource!

Michael Sakas

Personally I never saw the invite for a vote… But would have voted. I have a whole folder of book marks I browse multiple times a week.. Most are crap, but worth a look for a laugh.. BTW I’m overnighting on the way back from a Eruo ski trip in London, soley for the purpose of a skip down Jermyn street..

Matthew V

Well done to Drake’s – I now have so many of their ties it is a bit crazy! Michael’s explanation of how the brand has evolved, adding pieces that they love, is very evident and that is why it works. Enthusiasm and honest interest in what they present, with an integrity across the brand. I don’t buy all my clothes there, but if I could only shop with one brand, it would be one of the brands I could do that with.

Anonymous

I like Drakes a lot and have bought many items from them, mainly ties, but a little suprised that they’d win on innovation (no arguments on quality). As your questions propose, isnt it much easier to produce additional items within a set space than entering new spaces? I know they answered “no” but I’m really not convinced.

I like the classic country look but I’d be happier if this wasnt their nearly sole focus and were they to broaden it I may consider voting for them. They have introduced me to a few new brands, but many you can pick them up so much cheaper elsewhere that I tend only to really look at their own brand items.

Steven

Dear Simon,

Since you do know both Drake’s and PWVC and both happen to have similarities in their outerwear collection: whom would you rate higher purely in terms of quality or level of make (as style and fit are purely subjective)? I guess both are good though.

Anonymous

What did the winners of these categories win/receive from PS?

Anonymous

Bespoke?

Anonymous

Made to measure? Sorry I shouldn’t tease. Worthy winners.

Matt

Drakes would have been my first choice if it weren’t for the fact that I’m too tall for all of their tailoring.

Please, please, please, make longer (and shorter) fitting sizes Drakes!

BespokeNYC

Hear hear! From a purely personal perspective, I’ve never had much luck with Drake’s in terms of fit, but it’s hard to argue with the quality and the aesthetic overall. Is it true they’re planning to expand to MTM?

Kenny

Drake’s should make a lot more of their traditional 3 fold, lined ties. I dislike Italian unlined ties, which now dominate the stock under the Armoury’s ownership, so I stick to Turnbull & Asser now. The fit of the jackets, especially the long sleeves, rules them out too. A bigger choice of shirts would be most welcome. I guess that I’m not typical of the PS voters!

Anonymous

Drakes shirts are cut very slim. Even their regular fit 16″ is on the tight side, which is not a problem I get with other makes.

anand

I find all their clothes are very Italian and not in the good way. Jackets short and tight, with so little structure that it looks like you’re wearing a sack. The trousers have little rise and fit like a jean despite supposedly being high waisted. Im not a fat guy either, have very standard proportions with a slim frame, 39inch chest and a 34.5inch waist. How the average English bloke gets into this after a couple of pints is a wonder.

I honestly think Anglo Italian are a better version of what drakes do clothing wise, you go up a little in price but get a far superior product, with the option to shift proportions a little through their MTM programme. The jackets have more structure, better finish and things like a Neapolitan shoulder for those so inclined.

I do like Drakes for ties though and the odd scarf although I think they are expensive now. You could buy a 7 fold Italian tie for a little more than their standard 3 fold. Id buy them on sale as at £80 they are ok value but otherwise not.

DE

Hi Simon, I’m a big fan of Drakes and voted for them. With regards to their aesthetic, I rarely ever wear more than one Drakes item with an outfit. However it is testament to the strength of their design that whichever item I choose (pocket square, tie, scarf or even socks!) it very often becomes the aesthetic focus or ‘catalyst’ for what I’m wearing. Congratulations to MH and all at Drakes

Paul

Great choice. I would have been happy to add any of the pieces from the Drakes 2017 A-W lookbook to my wardrobe. As a collection, it was outstanding, and I’m very satisfied with each of my purchases from there. Looking forward to see where the brand develops

Csem

Agree with some of the content below related to Drake’s desperately needing to consider that their core customer goes beyond men with short arms and Japanese men. Drake’s opened in New York but lack size for American men.

Patrick

I am actually on the other side regarding the sizing.

I feel frustrated with the tailoring sizes that the UK stores do not carry smaller sizes like 34…but it is stocked obviously in Asia.

I also feel Drake’s logistic channels can be better as currently, they cannot even check stock levels in other Drake’s store or even get some items transferred….

Yujia

That’s exactly what bothered me. I’m an Asian living in the UK and my size is 34, I would love to go for their tailoring but the smallest size they got is 36…

Dan

I use to be a bigger fan of Drake’s; I have a few ties, shirts etc. They are just ok now. Also, overpriced. For example, their ties are now $165-$185.00. For a three fold tie.

Anonymous

Simon, as your rich archive of articles deepens it begins to become rather nebulous and thus harder to ’round up’ on some subjects (a normal feature of growing arcives). There are some subject areas that do not quite come under current searchable labels (i.e. ‘trousers’). Can I therefore suggest a series of ’round up’ articles that might group together some thematic subject areas. Three that immediately come to mind are: high quality RTW tailoring offerings (including but not limited to Stoffa etc.), Neoplitan tailoring (positive experiences and the variances across style etc.) and of interest to many the third suggestion is quality MTM/affordable bespoke (W&S, Saman Amel) grouped. Usefully you normally reference comparitors in your articles but as comparitors grow in number it would help to have some in one place.

David

Although I did vote for Drakes as best shop I haven’t purchased anything from them in over a year. I agree with a lot of people that the jackets are too short and the regular fit shirts are really slim fitting and the trousers are not what they should be ie. bad fitting … ties and pocket squares are excellent and some of the scarves are works of art.. Alden shoes don’t seem to have ever been replenished so I now buy them from Trunk. Who ever does their alterations needs a refresher course as I had sleeves shorten on a jacket and one arm was 1 1/2 in shorter than the other one when I picked it up and trouser legs were 28 in and not 30 in as requested…. a beautiful look but I am certainly wondering if Anglo Italian and Trunk are a better bet. By the way Gokhan is Clifford Street best asset..

mirko

Drake’s deserve it. well done

Henry

Simon, do you know if the new collection Drake’s pocket squares have hand-rolled edges or have they started using machine imitation? Regards Henry

shem

Hi Simon, I’m know many in the menswear industry regard drake’s ties quite highly but I’m wondering why. Having purchased two repp ties from them recently, they seem very stiff, knotting very poorly as well. I can’t tell if the edges are handrolled but they are done very carelessly as well, bordering on shoddy worksmanship. Comparing to the ties I have by other brands (e.g. shibumi) I don’t see myself purchasing neckties from them in the near future… I like Drake’s as a brand and almost all my shirts are from them but I’m wondering if the quality of their items (e.g. ties) are left wanting even as prices keep increasing. More interestingly though I don’t see many writers calling them out for this – am I missing something? I understand the increase in prices (e.g. inflation, labour/material cost etc.) but I think that standards should still be maintained.

Ferdinand

Obviously an old thread, but a quick question. Given that you seem to put emphasis on brand integrity etc., don’t you find it a bit problematic that Drake’s often sells virtually unchanged third party products at borderline insulting surcharges? I was looking for a shawl collar cardigan, liked the one by Drake’s (https://www.drakes.com/navy-lambswool-shawl-collar-cardigan), only to discover it’s made by William Lockie and usually sells for a little more than 50% of the Drake’s price (https://www.ahume.co.uk/william-lockie-lambswool-windsor-shawl-jacket-p4364). I also remember a similar discussion for their Astorflex-made chukka boots. To me behavior like this taints the entire brand, and I can’t buy anything from them without the feeling of being ripped off.

Ferdinand

No – of course you’re right, and it’s not a binary issue but a spectrum. I would never mind to pay for service, and very much appreciate it, but it has to be in a reasonable range (nobody would complain about a 15% uplift I guess). But, taking the cardigan as an example, selling at nearly twice the price probably implies a 300% increase in margin, and I don’t find that justifiable. To me it just makes me assume that for every 1000 GBP product, I am essentially getting 500 GBP quality, making it much less attractive. Maybe somewhat similar to Ralph Lauren Purple Label etc., and a general problem of overhyped brands I guess.

Ferdinand

Well in this case I am not talking about some direct-to-consumer price offered by W. Lockie, but a retail price that assumingly includes a margin comfortable enough for any of their retailers, who also have to pay rent and staff… Assuming a retailer has a 30% margin (it’s likely higher, you know more about this than I do obviously) they would by from Lockie for 150 GBP and sell for 225 GBP, while Drake’s would put their label in it and sell for 395 GBP, at a margin more than three times as large.

Sorry for being so weirdly specific about this, but it somehow really bugs me, especially as I have always liked what Drake’s do. Maybe it’s just my personal disappointment that a brand I like plays the fashion game so aggressively (as I said, I wouldn’t be bothered by a “reasonable” uplift given that I am of course aware they are more, and do more, than just another retailer). Perhaps in a similar way as I really like my Rimowa suitcases, but would never buy them again since under LVMH ownership prices have increased by 30% for an unchanged product.

Ferdinand

I think we’re actually on the same page here in that the additional effort deserves compensation, and only disagree on how much feels appropriate.

I think my underlying issue is that brands lose some of their “magic” once they are too professionally managed (and visibly so). When Drake’s was still a relatively obscure tie producer, somehow they felt more honest. This is of course not a very original observation, and also a dilemma in that professional management and economic success is desirable. In the end it’s probably a thin line between adjusting to the rules of the market and customers potentially feeling being “played”.

Interesting observation regarding knitwear brands. I personally most like when the label states clearly who produced it (like “Edward Green for XXX”), at least when the level of manufacturing is consistent and it’s only about style. Naturally whenever a producer can produce at very different levels of quality, this becomes irrelevant.

Sorry for spamming this comment section 🙂

Ferdinand

Thanks for taking the time to answer, and for the link – excellent read. The “Passion” section essentially captures my concern.

And completely agree about sales staff. It’s always a delight to find a store/brand where staff turns out to care (and know) about their product, and something I happily pay a (reasonable) premium for.