China in play for classic cravats

Updated: 2015-06-05 06:03

By Meng Jing(China Daily Europe)

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British Tie maker with Chinese connections seeks to spread classic menswear styles

In the British movie Kingsman: The Secret Service, which was released in China in March, the spies were dressed to kill, in more ways than one.

In fact so stylish was their attire that this new generation of British James Bonds went viral on China's social media. That does not necessarily mean the kinds of handmade ties, custom-made shoes and bespoke shirts that these spies wore will make their way into the wardrobes of Chinese men soon.

China in play for classic cravats

However, Drake's London, which made all the ties and pocket squares for the Kingsman movie, is undeterred by market resistance and will make a foray into the Chinese market this year, says Mark Cho, the biggest shareholder of what is said to be the biggest handmade tie maker in the UK.

"The broader Chinese mainland market is not ready (for classic style ties) but it is definitely getting there," says Cho, who invested in Drake's in 2010 when the company's founder Michael Drake retired.

"We are now preparing to enter China, but it may take another three years for mainland customers to fully warm to the classic style of our ties," says Cho, a Londoner born and bred, both of whose parents are from China.

Drake's founding in 1977, the year in which Britain celebrated the silver jubilee of Queen Elizabeth's ascension to the throne, may have been auspicious, for in the years since it has won her Award for Exports and the UK Fashion Export Gold Award for Outstanding Export Achievement.

This year Chinese menswear retailers have signed orders to buy 500-600 ties a year as well as 200 scarves and handkerchiefs, Cho says.

"That's not a lot, but it is a very promising beginning for us."

Drake's has about 200 customers worldwide, ranging from small retailers to huge shopping malls.

Cho says he has noticed an increasing interest in classic style menswear in the Chinese mainland in the past two years, but he is not blindly optimistic about Drake's prospects in the market.

"When people talk about the market in China they always talk about the huge population, but that doesn't mean it's easy to make money, especially in the tie business. When people don't have nice suits, shirts and shoes, the odds for them wanting a nice tie is rather low."

Cho says that everybody wears suits in London, but when he worked for a British property firm in Sichuan province about eight years ago, every time he wore a suit, people would ask him if he was going to a wedding.

He is pinning his hopes on the young generation of Chinese, especially those educated in the West.

"The age group that is currently between 25 and 35 is the buyer group I am most interested in. Over the next 10 years, I think they will be the biggest part of Drake's China business. I think their tastes are more sophisticated than that of their parents. More importantly, they want to listen and they are keen to learn and try new styles. Most customers in the US and Europe are more set in their ways."

Cho says clothes have a psychological dimension, because they always compensate for something else. "Especially when people are young, they want to dress up to feel more mature." His love of suits began when he was 16, he says, adding that though he no longer needs to wear a suit he still prefers and enjoys wearing tailored clothing.

He got his first tie from Drake's as a gift about 12 years ago, he says, and was smitten. When the founder of Drake's retired in 2010, Cho moved to take over the company with its then lead designer Michael Hill, and not only for commercial reasons.

"I didn't want my children to lose the opportunity to buy high-quality ties from Drake's," says Cho, who is also the co-founder of The Armoury, a Hong Kong haberdashery that sells menswear, including Drake's ties, worldwide.

However, Cho's financial background makes it clear that there was far more than sentimentality behind his decision to buy Drake's. "The business was financially stable and already on a good trajectory. By adding retail stores and an online store, we are able to earn both a wholesale and a retail profit as well." he says.

Drake's has just two brick-and-mortar stores in the world, both in London. Cho says that rather than making money, the stores serve more as a place to communicate with customers.

"We try to show which ties go better with which shirts and jackets," he says, adding that 70 percent of Drake's sales are still wholesale transactions. Store sales account for about 17 percent of sales, and online sales account for the rest.

Quality is what matters most, Cho says. "A lot people spend a great deal of energy building brands, but the quality often fails to live up to them." What he likes most about Drake's is the fact that all the ties are handmade at Drake's own factory in London with British and Italian fabrics designed in-house.

Michael Hill, head of Drake's design team, says the customers appreciate what they do and how they do it. "Our factory and our design studio are under the same roof in London. I can see through the window from my office to the place where our experienced tailors work, which means I can change whenever I find anything that is not good enough for Drake's."

(China Daily European Weekly 06/05/2015 page23)