Drake’s is the connoisseur’s accessory company. The UK firm is famed for the quality and refinement of its men’s accessories, but even among its most august rivals Drake’s occupies the high ground of taste and excellence when it comes to men’s haberdashery, such as ties, bow ties, scarves, pocket handkerchiefs and bandanas. The reputation of Drake’s is now being extended into new product areas and its own retail shops by Hong Kong-based entrepreneur Mark Cho, who bought the company in autumn 2010.
displays a passionate commitment to manufacturing in the UK. Its fabulous signature ties are all made by hand in its own London production unit, using gorgeous silks woven in the county of Suffolk or silks printed in Macclesfield, the traditional centre of the English silk industry. Its spectacular cashmere or lambswool scarves and magnificent cashmere knitwear are made by top specialist firms in Scotland. Only when there is no credible supplier left in the UK does Drake’s go abroad, such as to Italy for its exceptional shirt fabrics.
Drake’s authority in creating the most exquisite and desirable luxurious accessories for men is the result of the vision of Michael Drake, who set up the company with partners Jeremy Hull and Isobel Dickson in 1977. As chief designer and globe-trotting ambassador for his creation, Michael Drake lived and breathed the brand for more than 30 years until he retired and sold the business to Cho. Michael’s role is now taken by managing director Michael Hill, who was born into a tie-making family and who worked for six years as Michael Drake’s understudy. New categories such as jackets, hats, shoes and cufflinks are already delighting Drake’s many passionate adherents around the globe, who understand that true luxury is the comprehension of quality.
Drake’s offers British style as seen through the eyes of the French or Italians. That’s what marks it out from its more classic British rivals that do everything correctly — and therefore predictably. Drake’s has a far more relaxed, insouciant style, very like what the Italians call sprezzatura or “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought”.
Although back in 1977 scarves were its first products, Drake’s is probably best known today for its splendid ties. “Ties are the soul of our business,” says managing director Michael Hill. “Every single tie is made by our skilled staff in Clerkenwell, a district that appropriately sits between the City and the West End of London. Our aim is to make the most beautiful product we can by sourcing the very best raw materials without regard to price.”
New owner Mark Cho is preparing to open a new factory in Clerkenwell, which will ensure continued production for years to come. Drake’s likes continuity. It has worked with some suppliers for all of its 35 years. It likes to partner artisans who have the same attitude to high-quality production. It uses a small family firm in Como, north Italy, to weave the intricate four-knot grenadine fabric that is used for some of its most intricate ties. The cloth is produced on a hand-operated wooden loom — only six of them exist in the world. Drake’s buys from a specialist Italian artisanal weaver for its extravagantly patterned two-fold 180s shirtings. It sources its summer panama hats in Italy.
Mostly, however, Drake’s works with British suppliers, whether they are silver cufflink makers in Birmingham or knitters in Scotland who make its superb six-ply shawl-collar cardigan.
“In the past couple of years we have brought all our silk printing back to England,” says Hill. “We use a printer in Macclesfield that does not use inkjet printing, as is so common today. Instead he uses a traditional method called dye and discharge, which involves dyeing the base cloth and then adding each colour separately. It is obviously more labour-intensive and slower than inkjet printing, and therefore more expensive, but it produces real lustre and colour in the cloth. It unquestionably gives a richer, more sophisticated result.”
That attention to every detail in the manufacturing process is typical ofapproach. Its ties, which make up for half of its turnover, are delightfully crafted examples of its obsession with doing things perfectly. The ties are made of superb fabrics, whether in deep, rich colours or patterns that are always exclusive to Drake’s. They are cut 'on the bias', that is diagonally across the weave, so that the tie will not stretch and will retain its shape after being worn. The three pieces of the tie – the wide 'blade', the short central 'neck' and the narrow 'tail' — are lined with just the right quality of wool or cotton lining and then the layers of fabric are expertly folded to create the thickness of the tie, before its rear seam is sewn or 'slipped' by hand.
This simple description, however, does not do justice to the singular skills that are needed to make ties this good. And the choice every season for the neckwear aficionado is breathtaking. There are usually about 100 woven patterns (each in probably 10 colour options) and 100 printed designs (also in 10 colour options). The wovens range from a 50-ounce silk quality that feels full and even luscious to the touch, to lighter, but still luxurious, 36-ounce, 30-ounce and 22-ounce options.
The extravagant qualities include twill grounds, reppes, shantung raw silks, grenadines, boucle yarns, Donegal yarns, silk-cashmere blends, pure cashmeres, linens, wool challis, silk-and wool… Choosing a Drake’s tie can take some time. The blade widths are mainly 8cm or 9cm, but a slimmer 7cm is available. The standard length is 147cm but variations at 142cm and 158/160cm have been added recently, however, if those options are not enough, a bespoke tie service is available.
Explaining why he bought Drake’s, Mark Cho, who owns The Armoury menswear store in Hong Kong, explains: “For lovers of menswear, Drake's is legendary. I had been a fan for many years and I was drawn to it as a business because of its growing fan base, an outstanding reputation, especially in certain parts of the world, and its own strong production capabilities. I feel flattered that Michael Drake thought that Michael Hill and I were the right people to take the company forward. I have very strong feelings for the classic menswear aesthetic and I want to do my part in making sure my children are in jackets and ties!”
The opening of Drake’s first shop at 3 Clifford Street, London W1, just off Savile Row, allows the full — and expanding — range of products to be showcased. “Since we opened the shop in autumn 2010, we have been able to increase our product selection,” says Hill. “We can now offer a full Drake’s collection that includes shirts, beautiful unlined jackets tailored for us in Italy, shoes made in Northampton, a long-sleeve polo shirt, panama hats, bags… Our approach is always to make beautiful things that work. I wouldn’t say we take a casual approach, but we do offer a different kind of formality.”
Cho adds: “We would like to open up a few more shops and we have been using our existing Clifford Street shop to refine the way we present our aesthetic and sell our products. China is a question on everybody's mind and while we are interested in the market, we are not prepared to make any significant push there.”
For those unable to get to Clifford Street,has a fine selection of its products online and also has an enviable network of stockists among the finest menswear shops in the world. Italy is its main export market (“They appreciate our artisanal approach there,” says Hill), followed by Japan and then the US.
Weaving, knitting, printing and manufacturing are always done the artisanal way for Drake’s. Nothing is done in a hurry. No corners are cut. Things take as long as is required to get them just right. Its pocket squares (measuring either 42 x 42cm or 45 x 45cm); its bandanas (70 x 70cm) and its foulard scarves (at 90 x 90cm) are a collector’s delight. Beautiful fabrics beautifully woven and printed with delicacy are the hallmark.
On its excellent and informative website, Drake’s proudly states that its silk pocket squares with their hand-rolled hems are “entirely unbothered by trends… perfection itself for the unfussy gentleman”. That phrase could sum up the whole of Drake’s collection.
As Michael Drake’s original philosophy states: “Style, comfort, and quality — rather than just fashion — have always been the hallmarks of a gentleman's wardrobe. A beautifully tailored suit, a perfect shirt and handmade shoes send a message of natural assurance. But it doesn’t matter who your tailor is or how beautifully your suit has been cut (or what it cost), you will not be well dressed without paying attention to some rather simple details. The small consideration, the subtle element, the fine points really do matter. It's not a question of having the world's largest wardrobe, and certainly not an elaborate one. It's a matter of the right clothes, clothes that illustrate the inspiration and taste of the man wearing them. The aim is a relaxed elegance, a nonchalant nod towards a simple refinement.”
Any man who wants to achieve such relaxed, refined, nonchalant elegance would do well to look to Drake’s.