In 2010, at the British Fashion Awards, there were four finalists for the year’s Menswear Designer Award. Three of them were much-lauded fashion figures – Paul Smith, Margaret Howell, and Christopher Bailey of Burberry’s. The fourth was Patrick Grant (New College, 2004): a graduate from Oxford’s Saïd Business School, and a relative newcomer to the world of bespoke tailoring and men’s fashion. It was Patrick who picked up the prestigious award.
Patrick had worked in engineering for around nine years when he decided to embark on an Executive MBA (EMBA) at Oxford. “Along with the fundamental techniques of running a business, the business history side of the course also taught me the stories of businesses, how luxury houses evolved,” he explains. His thesis centred on the regeneration of luxury houses, like Burberry. Perhaps, then, it wasn’t surprising that he spotted potential in Norton & Sons, a faded tailor on Savile Row.
“It was a business in terrible shape; a wonderful artisanal tailor not making the best of its assets,” he recalls. With investment from friends and family, he bought the business, and then spent over three years rejuvenating it; maintaining its bespoke, classical tailoring and quality, but bringing in slightly more modern cloths and cuts, and rebranding Norton & Sons to become what it is now — a Savile Row name with a modern aesthetic.
“One of the things Oxford gave me was the confidence to believe I could do it,” he says. But as a creative, or an entrepreneur? “Chicken and egg!” he says. “Most people in fashion run their own businesses at some point. I’d always been interested in menswear, and I’d learnt how to run a business.”
The brand now occupies an envied position in contemporary bespoke tailoring; a status which led buyers in Asia, a growing menswear market, to ask for some ready-to-wear items which they could sell out there. Loath to move the Norton & Sons name away from bespoke tailoring, Patrick decided instead to relaunch a second historic brand.
Once a tailor of sporting clothing, Edward Tautz was one of several historic businesses incorporated into Norton & Sons. “I unearthed some bits and pieces which piqued my interest,” says Patrick, “and something about the spirit of the man and his business captured my own sentiments.” He describes a progressiveness, quality and sporting sense embodied by the clothing – summed up in the brand’s slogan, A wardrobe for a life less ordinary.
Why revive an existing but virtually unknown name? “Well, it has a history and provenance, a sense of longevity, which adds a layer of value that a new brand would not have,” he explains. “And consumers generally like a celebrity. We can’t afford contemporary celebrities, but the brand brings with it historic names like the young Winston Churchill, and the former Kings of Spain and Italy!” This all plays particularly well in Asia; E Tautz now sells in two outlets in China, four in Korea and eight in Japan. It’s a huge part of his business.
Unlike the classical Norton & Sons tailoring, E Tautz is much more of a fashion brand. “In the congested world of men’s clothing,” he explains, “you have to have a defined point of view. I’m not talking ‘return to the ruff’, but creating a sense of a new way of dressing. Not revolution, but evolution.” That is what brought Patrick his award, and his business its success.
And on the creative side, as much as the commercial, Patrick credits Oxford for that success. “Oxford taught me how to open my mind, and become an assimilator. To put together a fashion collection, you collect ideas around a central thought, you weave strands between them, and eventually a central idea runs coherently through 20 outfits. That thought process, of assimilation and reduction, whether it’s with aesthetic or intellectual ideas, I learnt very clearly at Oxford. There aren’t very many Oxford-educated fashion designers – but there should be.”
The business remains largely Patrick’s, and his aim is to make it “big enough that we can run it the way we want to run it. Most of our manufacturing is done in the UK, but I would love us to do that manufacturing ourselves. I’d like to revive some of the skills in areas where they’ve been lost. And we still can’t guarantee the volume required to produce certain items; I’d like us to reach the size where we can offer all of the products we would like to.”
The practice of business has, however, proved slightly different to the theory. “The theory is a lot less physically exhausting!” he laughs. “I thought I worked hard at Oxford – the MBA requires a phenomenal amount of work – but it’s still not as much as doing it for real.”