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Oscar Udeshi is chairman of the British Menswear Guild. He’s also a very nice chap. I paid a visit to talk to him about the thinking behind his clothing, his background, and his views on ’traditional tailoring’. Being a gentleman, he suggested we did the interview over a coffee at his private member’s club on Berkeley Square, and having forgotten to bring along his business card, we gained entry by him showing the lady on reception his name on the label in his jacket.
I was impressed.
How would you sum up Oscar Udeshi in a few words?
Probably the ‘thinking man’s designer’, we make clothing for somebody that wants something a little different, but different for the right reasons, as opposed to a purple suit. So it’s more about the whole impression, the total look, but also the individual elements, the small details that make it up, that give it little bit of a twist, or that individuality.
Tell me more these ‘details’…
Well for example, all our cuffs on our jackets are functioning, like in the old days; we still have a lapel loop under the lapel for a flower. You probably won’t use it, but it’s nice to know it’s there. The inside of our jackets have a perspiration pad so that you perspire into that, as opposed to onto the lining, so you don’t get the lining staining. Or, for example, I watch way too many James Bond films, and so we have a red under-gauntlet as a little detail. We have pentagonal gussets which are little strips of fabric folded into pentagons on the side-seam of our shirts to enforce it, so it doesn’t rip there. Its little things like that that add up to a bigger picture. It’s like looking at an attractive woman and you know she’s attractive but you don’t exactly know why and then you notice the individual elements that make it up.
Men’s clothing generally tends to be a little bit more discreet – you have some of course, who run around in skirts, but given a very narrow field or narrow frame of which you can do things or which things are permissible, it’s quite hard to express your individuality into that – rather restrictive and confining, but for me I find it challenging because you only have so many elements you can change – for example we’re still wearing trousers – we’re not going to count skirts …
Apart from Jean Paul Gaultier…?
Exactly…nothing wrong with that, that’s a different look, it doesn’t look necessarily appropriate in a corporate environment – unless you’re in Scotland, but even then…! So you have long and short trousers, short and long sleeves, a sweater, a jacket and a coat – and a coat being a longer jacket. That’s more or less it, that’s all you have to play with so you have to play with the individual elements and details that you have at your disposal.
What’s your opinion on the traditional Savile Row tailoring, and how would you say yours differs?
The traditional Savile Row tailoring is, as you say relatively ‘traditional’. I don’t think it really has evolved – and it shouldn’t necessarily evolve either, as much. There’s a correct way and a wrong way of making a suit, for example, and, yes, they do it correctly, but sometimes it misses that ‘flair’, that overall look, because the tailor will be concerned about making a suit fit properly, whereas what I do, and what I look at is more of a system of making the suit work in context with the person, with the shirt, with the tie, with his requirements, with his needs, with his lifestyle. And it’s putting all those elements together that differentiates our clothing.
Also, it’s a little bit younger. We have a slightly more suppressed waist, we don’t over-pad our shoulders. Our look is hopefully a little bit younger and more dynamic than a traditional, typical or perceived stuffy Savile Row suit. If it wasn’t there wouldn’t a reason for people to come to me. You have to offer a USP.
And speaking of people who come to you, who would you say is your typical customer?
Somebody who is pigheaded. We drew up a business plan and said we were supposed to have this and that… the only common point I can see is that they are individuals. They are not one of these ‘me-too’ people. We don’t have too many accountants. We have people who are at the top of their game, be it in the creative industry, or in finance, who want to make a change, who see things differently. We don’t have too many ‘me-too’ people. And they want to express themselves also through their clothing, but in a discreet, subtle kind of way. Our youngest customer is 16 and our oldest, I think, is 84 – but it’s the mindset they have in common, that’s probably what draws them to us.
Have you noticed your customer base change, for example has it being getting younger over the years you’ve been trading?
Don’t forget I’ve been getting older! Supposedly, I’m not quite sure how, but we come across as intimidating to some people, and so our customer base has probably stayed the same, or has kind of matured with us. So the average customer (if there is such a thing), will come to us about 26 – 30, and then will hopefully grow with us. But, because of what we do with this curious hybrid between tailoring and fashion – which I think is the next big market, which is relatively untapped, we also find new fans every day; because not everyone wants a stuffy, traditional suit and not everyone can wear a ‘fashion suit’, be it a Dolce & Gabbana, a Tom Brown or Tom Ford. And that middle line, that tightrope that we straddle, I think we do quite well and there aren’t many other people that do that, so I think that’s one thing that makes us different.
Cheesy question, perhaps, but what inspires you?
Well, I can give the cheesy answer – ‘my client’. Which, in certain circumstances he actually does. A client and friend of mine kept having to go to weddings, and in the evenings kept having to wear dinner shirts and he kept forgetting his studs, or misplacing one of the four studs, or one of his cufflinks, or something else. And he got rather fed up about this. He said ‘can you please make me a dinner shirt that still looks smart, that looks like a dinner shirt, that is a dinner shirt, but doesn’t have anything I can lose?’ So, I thought ‘ok…’. So he only had some cocktail cuffs, otherwise known as James Bond cuffs, which are two button turn-back cuffs that look like French cuffs – so that was one, and with a fly-front, with a traditional Marcella bib front, which is also technically correct. So, by doing those two things we eliminated the studs or the cufflinks that he kept losing or misplacing, so just by that we’ve already offered something different. We’re just tweaking the rules slightly.
Also, because I used to be one of our ‘clients’, so to speak, because I couldn’t find what I wanted in the stores, which is why I had to make it myself. In my lifestyle, and that of my clients, I constantly see things that I hope I can do better, for example, like the jeans I’m wearing now, we call our heritage jeans, they have a button fly – nothing special about that, have seam pockets which are a little bit more discreet, and side-adjusters, because I hate belts, and keep losing my belts. And, if I’m travelling, I’m that anal (and so are some of my clients), you know one day wearing a black pair of shoes, and the next day a pair of brown shoes, then you have to carry two pairs of shoes – and two belts. Faff, hassle. So instead, side adjusters – because the way jeans were originally made, because belt loops only came around at the turn of the century, but jeans were made before that, we’re going back to that tradition, that heritage, but on something that you can’t buy nowadays, because you can’t buy jeans with side-adjusters, they all come with belt loops.
And on Savile Row, we always maintain that a belt is for trousers that don’t fit – because if they did fit, you wouldn’t need a belt.
To expand a little on what inspires me, I’m very much into the form follows function of the Bauhaus Group, and of that era. It might look rather stark now, but if you look at it in the context of when it was created, it was a reaction to everything else that was there beforehand. Overly pompous, stuffy cushions, dodgy wallpaper and what have you. And pairing it down to that minimalism, I wouldn’t go as far as what Jill Sander traditionally did, which was just monotone playing with the subtle variations of texture – ours is not that basic, but it’s still hopefully very sleek, and what we do, hopefully very sexy, but still clean. So you’ll notice somebody who’s wearing a great outfit, but you won’t necessarily be able to pick up all the elements at once. It’ll just slowly grow on you, like the very cute girl next door. ‘That’s an interesting jacket – ah he’s got five buttons on the cuff, oh he’s just got a flash of red there, oh the lapel’s shaped slightly different, oh that fits the shoulders well, oh that shirt has got unusual buttons…’ it’s just pulling on those elements. So I guess its architecture, and I’m sorry, I’m a ‘car nut’, specifically racing cars – where form has to follow function. You don’t do it to make the car look pretty; you do it to make the car go as fast as possible.
And so these elements, and how things are built up, inspires me in the system I use for creating clothes. Usually we don’t put in unnecessary detail, or just for decorative purposes, it actually has to do something.
You touched upon it then, but can you expand on what led you from the world of banking to what you do now? And also, is it true that you used to own fifty suits, and if so where did you buy them from?
I owned 80 ties, 200 shirts, and yes, unfortunately 50 suits. I started off at the low end, buying things off the rack, realising that wasn’t going to work. I inherited my mother’s bottom, so I had to buy a 38” jacket and trousers from a 40” suit – which doesn’t work. So, I first thought I was weird, and then realised no, they were just cut too small – everyone had the same problem back then. And then I had things made for me badly, and then things made for me to a higher level. I still wasn’t happy, and of course, I was a genius, and thought ‘this is easy, I can do this better!’…it took a while, but hopefully I’ve got there!
And so over time, it is easily collected. I had a black velvet suit; I had a navy blue chalk stripe six button double-breasted suit. I actually wore that … and I look at it now and go ‘what was I thinking?’ And you make your mistakes at the beginning, like everybody does. It’s probably like trying to kiss a girl for the first time – you probably miss by miles! But, I thought I need to have this chalk stripe velvet suit! And so easily enough, fifty came together.
Shirts were one of my passions, and probably why I started, because I like shirts with double cuffs –not difficult to find; with rounded collar points – very difficult to find, and so that’s how I started having things made for me.
And do you miss the world of banking?
Let me think about this….. No way! Life is too short, and I realised there’s more to life than money, and I just wasn’t happy. I also realised at a very early age, I guess I have to be very thankful for having rather incompetent bosses at the time, that I was unemployable. I could not work for other people; I’m too much of an individual, or as the French say, caractère (which is something negative). I have my own ideas, my own ways of doing things for good or for bad, maybe call it maverick. And that’s how I got in to what I was doing, and didn’t miss banking at all. I missed the money initially, but that’s about it. I look at the quality of life I have now, versus friends and former colleagues of mine, and what they have now, and I wouldn’t change it for a second.
I’m very fortunate that, at a relatively early age, I found what I wanted to do. Some people go through their whole lives and in their 60s wake up going ‘oh…that was it…?’
I also had a car accident when I was back in banking. My life didn’t flash before my eyes, but I thought what if it did? And at that point I realised, no, I want to do something else. So thankfully, I had that push, that not everyone does.
You’re the youngest Chairman of the British Menswear Guild. How did you get the position?
The British Menswear Guild is the trade body that was at the time, and still is, working with the Pitti Uomo show in Florence where we exhibited. And the more shows we did, and the more visits to the show – I think over seven or eight years, the more I became involved with the guild. The chairman rotates every two years, you become vice-chairman for two years, then you become chairman for two years, and then the baton gets passed onto the next person. And I guess my enthusiasm, or my wish or desire not to take things at face value or the status quo, and the desire to change things and shake them up a little bit, caught their interest. I was nominated as vice-chairman, and then became chairman, and I’m still chairman for a couple more months.
And what does the role involve?
It involves being the spokesperson or representative for the guild, from a press point of view in the UK and abroad, being an ambassador for the brands in the guild, towards the press, towards Pitti Uomo, to advertising publications. Representing the guild at various functions, be that Buckingham Palace, St James’ Palace, and also giving the members feedback on what we should be doing, looking at the various developments, and guiding it forward, having celebrated fifty years of British menswear.
We’ve already touched on it, but could you tell me your predictions, be it in terms of the crossover of tailoring and fashion, but also looking forward, what do you see as being the big changes in the industry?
Tailoring and fashion. This only happened fairly recently. Gucci was offering a made to measure service, which it didn’t before, Giorgio Armani has as well, Boss has upgraded its production for its Selection line, so there is a move from the fashion brands to try and capture the tailoring market. Unfortunately, maybe because of poor publicity or just incompetent staff, or whatever, that hasn’t necessarily quite caught on as well as I feel it should. For example, Gucci had a personalisation program that could personalise everything – I think that’s just died. And because you have Joe Bloggs of average build or size, and feels or desires he wants made-to-measure, if you don’t have the correct stuff there, or if you’re dealing with a production line – because these aren’t tailor made – they just don’t fit. I mean I’ve seen some people that walk in, and I shake my head, thinking ‘you paid money for that?’
And then, on the flipside, you have the traditional brands, or who are perceived as high tailoring houses, such as Brioni – they have the traditional silhouette, and yes, the suit fits, but it isn’t necessarily that flattering or appealing. And this is where I feel a company like ours can successfully bridge the gap between the two. I’m not sure if it’s a uniquely British phenomenon, because you also have in the same ilk, or sorts, not exactly, in my generation and the one before me, would be Timothy Everest, Richard James, Ozwald Boateng, possibly Mark Powell; but if you look abroad to Europe, there are very few companies who do what we do. Dior tends to be too forward or too extreme, and in the States you have Tom Brown, which is not really that wearable, and the clothes aren’t necessarily that great, but it is perceived as such. And now you’ve got the Italian American version with Tom Ford’s range which tends to be a little bit more extreme, but to have something like Tom Ford’s line ten years ago, wouldn’t necessarily have been possible, or Tom Brown for that matter.
We, I think are at the right point in time, we have the zeitgeist where people will see the value in investing in a suit, see the value of investing in a wardrobe – it doesn’t necessarily have to be suits. Especially in a recession, people tend to dress up, but they don’t want to look like everybody else – they don’t want to stand out wearing a purple suit, but they do want to express some sort of individuality and say ‘look at me, I can deliver’ – be they a private banker, or working in hedge funds – ‘I’ve got that confidence, I’ve got that trust, you should trust me – you can see how I’ve put myself together’.
If you go to a bank manager, and he’s wearing sneakers, or his shirt is not tucked in, and he’s trying to sell you something, would you buy something from him, or somebody who is actually well put together and shows they’ve actually spent the five minutes to put himself together and has respect for the client. To actually come prepared, like you have with your questions, gives a much more professional experience and it just inspires more confidence. Unfortunately, and this is probably one of the reasons why I also got into this business, people judge you on first impressions. They shouldn’t, but they do. To stereotype is human nature, and you’re not going to take away thousands of years of conditioning. So, this is why women dress the way they do, and my clients dress the way they do.
This touches on a comment you made earlier, contrasting the Savile Row experience, where you said something along the lines of the fact that you prefer to dress ‘the whole individual’ rather than simply making a suit?
If you imagine going into a restaurant and ordering one course, steak and chips, or Chinese, whatever you want, you can have that one element, that will probably be very good, but I feel a meal, or the experience, or the total effect, will be much more enjoyable, pleasurable and positive if you also look at what you’re having as a starter, a main course, a dessert, what wine would complement it, who you’re having your meal with, what kind of ambience is it, what time of year is it – so if it’s in the middle of winter, you’re not going to be necessarily drinking a white wine or Rosé with ice cubes in it, whereas if you are in the South of France where it’s 30 degrees, you’re unlikely to have a big roast, you’d probably have something lighter, and everything around will co-ordinate.
And in the same way, just making a nice suit, yes, that’s all well and good, but if the rest of the outfit doesn’t match up, or it just doesn’t fit together, the overall impression is not as good as it could be, you’re not doing justice to the suit or the individual elements. So I feel it’s much better to dress the whole individual, where everything goes together and matches.
Two-fold question, are there iconic products that you would pick out as being unique to your brand, and how would you persuade a ’typical consumer’ to come and buy clothes from you, rather than just popping into Selfridges and buying them off the peg?
In terms of trying to identify a specific iconic piece, everything we do has a reason and a story behind it, not because we like to make stories, but it has to be some kind of improvement, or it has to do something better, or it has to be different, because if it isn’t, there’s no point in buying it from me, you can buy it from anywhere else, even be it Selfridges. And so for us, for example, all our cufflinks, barring one or two basics, are all unique to us and have been designed by us. They’re all symmetrical for example. So when you put in a cufflink in, if you have it heavier on one side with a toggle, the whole cuff twists, which is annoying and irritating, and you keep correcting yourself. Clothing shouldn’t do that. Beautiful clothing, or clothing that’s right for you – not necessarily expensive, or cheap, or flamboyant – clothing that’s right for you. Everything should be seamless. So for example, the right sleeve length when you turn to look at your watch, the shirt and the jacket cuff should go back to reveal the time on the watch, that is part of my ‘system’, so to speak.
Some iconic products, we have the shirt with the turn-back cuff, or cocktail cuff – because I watch too many James Bond films, and they are very hard to buy. We have seven-fold ties, which again, are very hard to buy nowadays, we have our heritage jeans with side-adjusters, we have various coats with turn-of-the-century details or with satin velvet or with astrakhan (Persian lamb). We have purple suede loafers. I always kept buying loafers from a very famous Italian company, and after about two wearings, the stitching would fall apart. These don’t, and I wanted something a little more different, so I chose purple ones.
Why would someone come to us versus Selfridges? Selfridges is a wonderful store. Selfridges also has one of the worst customer service ethics, at least in menswear that I’ve known of. You could walk in, trip over, fall flat on the floor, and about 8:30 or 9:30, depending on which day of the week it is, the cleaner would probably very politely nudge you and say ‘excuse me, we’re cleaning up, can you please go home’. You have very little service – this was actually a criticism explained or mentioned to me by actual Selfridges buyers, saying that retailing in this country is not seen as a career unfortunately, it is in other countries, and so they usually have some student, or someone between jobs or what have you. There are a few professionals, but it’s just a very different structure from here than the US, where of course they’re paid on commission and they might too much in your face, whereas here, I’ve unpacked five shirts, just to see if that would create a reaction, and nobody bothered coming over – nothing. I’ve tried on jackets for 20 minutes – again, it provoked nothing.
And so with Selfridges, you’ll have someone who will try and sell you a brand, even if they’ll try and sell you that, whereas with us, you have a much more personalised service, and we actually want you to look good, we won’t sell you something just for the sake of selling it to you, because we want you to come back again and again, and if you’re interested in something that we feel just isn’t right, we’ll tell you, and we’ll explain to you why, and we’ll show you what could be better. And even if we don’t have it, we will direct you to the relevant person who could do it, because I’m always looking at what’s around on the market. So, for example, someone wanted a coin pouch in a specific colour, we didn’t have one, but I’d seen one in Liberty’s, so I sent them off there. Things like that, which as a small retailer, we can do, and we pride ourselves on.
We know all our regular customers by name, by their preferences, whereas in Selfridges, you are client number 4562 – whatever your Selfridges card says, and it’s just not the same.
Plus, hopefully, our clothing will speak for itself, and you’ll find something truly unique, as opposed to buying something off the rack which you could buy in London, or Birmingham, or Manchester, or wherever else the next Selfridges will open up.
How would you advise someone to avoid being ‘merely’ trendy?
Let me reverse the question. Why is that necessarily a problem? You put someone in something very classic or something very trendy, if it’s not that person, they are going to feel uncomfortable. You put Gordon Brown in a tracksuit or a hoodie, he’s going to look like a complete berk! You can ‘Chavtastify’ him with Burberry all over the place, he’ll still look uncomfortable in his skin. Similarly, if you put Amy Winehouse in a long elegant cocktail dress, it just doesn’t look right, I don’t think she’d feel comfortable, she’s probably fidget with her dress for the next two hours. So you have to be comfortable in your own skin. Ideally, if you’re confident as a person, or you know what you like and what you don’t like, you can pick out your elements and given that you might be wearing three of four ‘trendy’ pieces, it’s how you carry yourself – you might not necessarily come across as ‘trendy’, whereas if you’re uncomfortable wearing just one item, you’ll come across as trying too hard, or trying to be trendy because you’ve got a baseball cap on backwards or what have you, when everything else is right. So I guess it’s your own perception, and you should try and dress for yourself, and then for others. Because if you’re constantly trying to impress other people, that never works. You have to feel comfortable in your own skin, and for people with certain aspirations and desires, and those needs, we hopefully complement them.