Words: Anna Hoghton / Pictures: Remco Merbis
'Welcome to the Sartorial Dungeon' David announces, a wicked gleam in his eye. He is, of course, immaculately dressed in a three-piece, forest green, tweed suit with orange check and matching orange tie and socks. His covetable Cheaney brogues are half obscured by a striking pair of camouflage galoshes - a modern reinvention of the old gentleman’s stalwart and the perfect accoutrement for David, who is every bit a quintessential spin on a classic. He offers us coffee, insisting he needs one: filter, black. In a vocabulary as polished as his appearance, David regales us with stories from Paris, Brazil and South-East Asia. Through these adventures David cultivated his passions for the finer things in life, namely: coffee, cigars and tailoring. He believes tailored clothes can, and should, be worn in a modern way. He tells us about why he was the first kid with a BMX on his block and describes his unexpected introduction into the world of tailoring.
How would you describe what you make?
Bespoke and made-to-measure clothes of a sartorial nature. This includes: tailored suiting, jackets, trousers, chinos, overcoats, waistcoats and shirts. We also stock an atelier of hand-made accoutrements: Anthony Haines ties from Scotland, Albert Thurston braces, which have been made for 200 years in the UK, Fox umbrellas, which are one of oldest umbrella makers in the world, Kent pure bristle clothes brushes and Allen Edmond shoe brushes, which help people service their clothes. We also supply hand-made Cheaney shoes. And we stock Penrose of London and Drakes pocket squares and very proudly source our own Brown in Town handkerchiefs in India.
How did you get into tailoring?
My personal jumping off point was arriving in South-East Asia as an expat for Target Corporation, who I was working for at the time. Upon arrival, I was introduced to my housekeeper, my maid and, to my surprise, my tailor. I said ‘I know what the first two are here for, but I don’t know why the tailor is here - I don’t wear suits!’ They said ‘You do now. We all wear suits here.’ That came as a bit of a shock to me, being a latter-day skateboarder and snowboarder. Moreover, having been posted to the hottest country I’d every visited, let alone lived in, I was now going to start wearing suits?!
Initially, I didn’t embrace tailoring. I remember walking in and there being no examples of suits to pick from. They just had rolls of cloth and swatches. All that choice was overwhelming. It was vastly different to the shopping experience I was used to in the West. It was completely alien to anyone of my fraternity or peer group. I realised this was the shortfall of bespoke tailoring.
Their offering wasn’t at all right; they were a one-trick pony that offered suits designed for our American counterparts who worked at the American Embassy in Bangkok. But I loved working with someone creatively on something made to my specifications - even if was like pulling teeth the first time. So, when I returned to Blighty in 2009 I embarked on my sartorial adventure. I joined a tailoring house in London, who later relocated me to Bristol where I set up a studio for them and later set up our own tailoring house Brown In Town.
What is ‘Brown in Town’ all about?
It’s about trying to bridge that gap for men and women who have only ever known off the peg and want to experience bespoke or made-to-measure tailoring. We’re trying to afford our customers the perfect and pure retail experience. I help my patrons understand what colours work best on them and which cloths are best for the environment the clothes will be worn in. They might think: ‘Bright orange, great, love that!’ But then buy it, take it home and realise the colour looks awful on them, or else it isn’t appropriate for the occasion. I glean as much information as possible to ensure the clothes are fit for purpose.
Often, that garment will be for a wedding and therefore it has to do everything the person needs it to - fulfil all criteria and make them look amazing! That garment is the one opportunity for them (and us) to nail it, so it’s important to get right.
What is it about bespoke tailoring that you love?
It’s the fit. The pattern is cut to incorporate one’s shape and skeletal frame. It is unique to that person. That’s what makes something fit fantastically. Once you’ve put on something that has been made for you you’ll never want to go back. It’s profound, and a very different way of wearing clothes. Off the peg fits where it touches. With bespoke you’re wearing it; it’s not wearing you.
I get a real kick from making something from scratch every time someone walks through that door. A lot of our customers become great friends. Most of them weren’t born with a tailor and neither was I. But like me, they developed a penchant for tailoring and had a jumping off point. Bespoke tailoring isn’t for everyone and that’s fine. It’s not about being for everyone; It’s about being for the ones who are looking for that certain thing.
What appeals to you in using old traditions in a modern way?
My sensibilities are Renaissance but I always embrace the new. At nine years old I was one of the first kids on my block to be riding around on a BMX bike. And I was the first one of my friends to take up skateboarding - before films like Back to the Future made it a thing. My elder sister was a surfer and there were always skateboards in the porch at home. You’ve got to embrace the new and the exciting and different.
The craft of tailoring is hundreds of years old and that’s fantastic - but this is now. Yes, you’re making a garment with cloth from a mill that is 300 years old, but you’re still making something new that will be worn by a modern guy or girl in the way they want. They might wear it with sneakers - heaven forbid! or no tie - heaven forbid! or they might pimp that suit in some other way. You don’t have to do the whole vintage retrospective in order to wear bespoke tailoring in this day and age and I think that’s great.
The people who are carving a path for themselves in tailoring are the revolutionaries like Patrick Grant of Norton & Sons, Richard James and Ozwald Boateng - who introduced Off-the-Rail clothing on Savile Row. Richard James was almost lynched by the old rear guard for that! But look at him now - look at what they brought to Savile Row. They gave it the kick it needed.
What place do you think makers have in the modern retail world?
I think it’s all about makers now. After the last crash you had a choice: pile-em-high, low margin clothing or product, or entertain people’s desire for quality product as it used to be. There’s something fantastic in things that are built to last. Sure it costs more than throw-away items, but the whole point is that you don’t have to throw it away if you look after it.
If you have a clothes brush and a molded jacket hanger and trouser clamp hanger, you can keep your wool suits in superb condition for a very long time. If you hang your trousers upside down in a clamp hanger every time you take them off they reshape themselves overnight. It’s genius. This knowledge has existed a long, long time but it's been forgotten.
What places have inspired you?
All the coffee shops in Bristol that serve filter coffee, black. Whether that’s Small Street Espresso, where I used to have a little space known as ‘my office’, where I wrote the weekly blog for the Advisory or Full Court Press on Broad Street.
I have a monthly residency at the Hoxton Hotel. The Hoxton’s full of beautiful things: the colour is right, the light is right, the staff are fantastic. That’s important - it’s about the total experience.
London in general is an inspiration for me, always has been, and still is to this day. I spent four years at Habitat and another four year at The Conran Shop. Coming from the Burbs it was hugely exciting for me to get on the train every day, and travel up the West End. It was just at the time of the Seattle coffee explosion. I’d walk up Long Acre and stop for my morning coffee. The soundtrack to my London was, and still is, the Swinging Sixties. And it was film noir and cult classics of the 1960s that was the sartorial inspiration for my early years in tailoring, films like the Ipcress File and Get Carter.
Also, Thailand and Vietnam, more than any of the other countries I’ve been to. The relaxed atmosphere, the ethos of the people, the language, the crazy food, the design and fashion, the cool cats would ride around on restored Vespas and Lambretta wearing skinny jeans, biker jackets and riding hats and boots! Also its colonial architecture and its modernism. I like that juxtaposition between old and new, I always have.
Who is your tailoring hero?
Dougie Haywood. He was a South London boy like Michael Caine and myself. He grew up in Elephant and Castle. He didn’t want to work in the other trades like his peers and instead trained as a tailor. He was laughed off Savile Row because of his South London accent so he set up shop round the corner, in Mount Street. The area wasn’t so sought after then but now you couldn't sell your lungs and kidneys in order to afford to live or work there!
He became a wonderful tailor to the stars of the day, including the likes of: Sammy Davis Jr, Michael Caine, Steve Mcqueen and Sean Connery. He was a very low-key legend who didn’t listen to the naysayers. He didn’t let Savile Row put him off of his dream and that’s why he’s such a great inspiration for me. He used old traditions in his own way and that’s what it's all about. If you only make new things you’re missing out on all that history and quality, and if you only make old things they’ll have been made before. It’s about making old things in a modern way, that’s what is interesting. It has to be interesting.
The Sartorial Dungeon is where David entertains his customers, who he refers to as ‘patrons’. The space is in the basement of his barber’s shop, Bangshanky. It is a small, unusually proportioned room with slanting walls and beautiful, antique furniture. David has a handcrafted carpenter’s tool chest full of his pins, Kent clothes brushes and cutting scissors. He’s adorned hooks with swatch books of British cloth, has a rail of tailored suits and wall-mounted mirrors. There are three mannequins: named Michael, after David’s sartorial hero Michael Caine, Douglas after Dougie Hayward, and Mr Brown after his business. At first glance, stepping into David’s lair is like stepping back in time, but when you look closer you see modern details that place this tailor firmly in the now. There is an iPod cable curled inside the cigar tray, for instance, and David's original Braun calculator shares desk space with his MacBook Pro. The best of old and new co-exist in a way that fits Brown in Town perfectly. This is the modern vintage. The antique now.
How did you end up in the basement of your barber?
When we launched Brown In Town we were at Hotel Du Vin, which was close to the old tailor’s row on Broad Street. I liked this historical connection. We were in the old walk-in cigar humidor, which had been devoid of cigars for many years - unfortunately! It wasn’t big enough to swing a cat but there was room to swing a tape measure, quite literally. It was great being in the bar morning, noon and night. I picked up a lot of customers and friends there, some of which are still my cigar compadres and confidants now.
However, I quickly outgrew the space. When I was explaining this to my barber Neil he said he’d always wanted to have his tailor in the basement of his shop. I have a penchant for barbershop culture, for me it is the final bastion of being pampered, similar to the experience you get with your tailor. Neil showed me the room and I moved in within a month!
What’s great about being here?
Most makers work in studios on their own, I have for a long, long time, and it can be quite insular. At the end of the working week, having performed all week long, you are absolutely exhausted and you can go a little doolally. What’s great about here, aside from the space itself, is the constant chatter from all the hairdressers upstairs. It stops you losing your mind. In this room it’s all about me and what I do, but as soon as I walk into the kitchen next-door it’s nothing to do with me. It’s their lives, their days. You can step in there and there is always a convivial conversation to join in with, something outside of your world, and that’s great.
Eiffel tower spinning top.
It looks like the totem from Inception, doesn’t it? I purloined this from my friend Patricia Hamelet’s desk at the Conran Shop in Rue du Bac, Paris. In fact, over here I also have her MAX stapler. Sorry Patricia! Orange is one of my favourite colours and this is one of my favourite objects because it reminds me of my favourite trip and a very dear friend. I used to go every month on the Eurostar from Waterloo to Paris. Business Class. I literally thought I’d died and gone to heaven!
Up in Smoke Book
I love this book. I love the photography, I love the narrative, I love seeing some of my heroines, like Madonna and Sharon Stone, smoking cigars. It also includes UK personalities like Johnny Vaughan, Tom Conran and Bill Amberg, who is a fantastic leather maker. The book has a picture of one of my favourite ashtrays in it, which was a product made by a ceramist as a gift to Sir Terence Conran. There are also lots of film stars who inspired me. Films have been a huge influence. I grew up with Bullit, Get Carter, The Italian Job. As a guy that grew up when sartorial style had bitten the dust, films like that were where I drew my tailoring inspiration from.
And we had to talk about the Camouflaged Galoshes...
These camo’ rubber galoshes are a Norwegian reinvention of an old English stalwart designed to protect your leather soled shoes. It’s an acquired taste but it’s a talking point. People notice you wearing something interesting like that and ask about it. Then they notice the suit and ask about that too. ‘Where’d you get that? Oh, you made it!’ It’s about turning people onto something new and different. If you have an infectious personality, as I do, people see you enjoying something and they want to experience that too.
Remco Merbis, founder (1999) and creative director of visual storytelling agency Pixillion.