Ten years this year at his Lamb’s Conduit Street base – complete with two retail stores on the street, Oliver Spencer remains one of the UK’s finest contemporary menswear brands. The man himself has plenty to say on retail, manufacturing, trends and trying to get men out of trainers and into real shoes again, albeit not with leather soles. He’s also looking ahead to London Fashion Week Men’s and unveils where he will be showing this time.
“We love Lamb’s Conduit Street, it’s our spiritual home,” says Oliver Spencer, who particularly likes the fact that it’s a street filled with independent businesses with a village feel, yet still right in the heart of the West End.
It was actually Folk’s founder, and good friend, Cathal Mcateer, who originally led the way to opening first on Lamb’s Conduit Street. “He invited me to open here,” says Spencer. David Keyte’s Universal Works brand followed too, making it home to three like-minded menswear specialists who know their style savvy consumers well.
Spencer calls himself “a shopkeeper” first and foremost. It’s his old fashioned approach which many find appealing set against the fast fashion fuelled mainstream. He was recently looking at potentially opening a shop at Coal Drops Yard, the new thoughtfully executed development at Kings Cross, where indeed Universal Works has opened. But he feels it was too soon to jump in, preferring to see how it pans out first. Wise indeed.
“We are considering King’s Cross, but my point is I want to wait and see what happens up there and how it develops. It’s an interesting and quite eclectic mix of retailers,” he says. “But it is quite a financial commitment to moving in there.”
On retail right now, Spencer thinks it’s very interesting the way we are shopping and our how our habits are changing. “Our online sales are up about 38% on last year, but in store sales are flat,” he comments. “I may scrape through up about 2%, but it’s not good.”
Including the two stores on Lamb’s Conduit Street, Spencer has three other stores, one on Berwick Street in Soho – his best performing shop, another on Calvert Avenue in Shoreditch and the most recent, which opened two years ago, on Kensington Park Road in Notting Hill. The boxes ticked on four cool locations there then.
“People always ask me if I’m looking for more new stores and, yes, I am, if they are in a great spot,” says Spencer. “But Brexit needs to happen before I commit more money in to more deals. We need to have a better idea of what’s going on.” He’ll certainly find plenty of common ground with other brands on that note.
For now, however, he’s focused on what is working. “Berwick Street is very good, but there’s a lot of development work going on down the street at the moment, which is proving a bit of a challenge. Right next door to us there is a new five-star boutique hotel being developed, so in two years it will be amazing, but not right now! We recently refurbished the Soho shop, and that’s fantastic, I love it.” Hopefully the shop walls will withstand the work going on next door.
“[Online has] come along and is sharpening up everything and making us better at what we do. It will also get rid of the weak retailers.”
For Spencer, high streets should be all about community, and rents and rates need to be brought in line with reality and the growing threat of online shopping to high streets up and down the country. “There’s nothing wrong with online though,” he says. “If anything, it’s come along and is sharpening up everything and making us better at what we do. It will also get rid of the weak retailers.”
It may sound old fashioned, but Spencer has a point because whatever is happening on the high street right now is not generally working. “There needs to be more independents coming back on to high streets and in town centres to create that sense of community again, getting supermarkets and multiples off the high street and in to shopping centres. People would then be walking to their local bakers, greengrocers, butchers or menswear shop again. I’m interested in independent shopping. But rents need to be addressed because landlords have pushed them up to unacceptable levels.”
Spencer is also making strides to be as ethical as possible in his own brand’s manufacturing and distribution, appointing his very own head of sustainability in Bleue Wickham-Burnham. A big step in addressing the future and how things need to change for the better. “We use small to medium factories with great facilities, good working conditions, sensible working hours, and a minimum wage is absolute must,” he comments. “Happy factories produce happy clothing.”
He tries to make his products in England as much as possible, though he says it’s becoming increasingly difficult. He gets his wool from Lancashire, where he says “there’s lots of sheep”, and his trousers made from that wool in a small factory in Bow, East London. “In the old Burberry factory there are some independent makers we use. They are proper skilled work rooms.”
Looking ahead to London Fashion Week Men’s in January, and its move to east London for the two weekend days, Spencer says “I’m not going,” though he thinks it’s great for the younger designers, as that’s where they want to be. “For me, I need to be showing in my own environment. I’ll be showing really centrally at the Royal Academy this time.” His collection will also be at Pitti Uomo, a show he considers to still have much relevance, though he says most of his business is now done in Paris, where he has a showroom.
“I’m trying to get people out of trainers and in to proper shoes, and I’ve actually got a humdinger of a shoe next season.”
On his own footwear line, he comments: “I’m trying to get people out of trainers and in to proper shoes, and I’ve actually got a humdinger of a shoe next season. The trouble is, I’ve lost a lot of ground in that sector because I produce real shoes. I get them made in Portugal.” Leather soles it seems have gone out of fashion, with men preferring sturdier soles with more grip such as rubber Commando or Dainite soles.
Spencer also believes the trend is changing, with more young people looking to dress up and ditch the sportswear. “I was with an old colleague of mine who’s doing an MA at Westminster,” he explains. “He’s the same age as me, but working with younger students who are saying they want to dress up again. They aren’t interested in all this sportswear.
“On another note, the buyers from End came in last season and said they see our sector as being the biggest growth sector there is in the market at the moment. People are wanting proper clothing again. Also, with the organic, sustainable and ecological stuff we’re doing at the moment, younger customers love all that.”
For AW19, Spencer has a touch of a 1970’s slant to what he’s doing, not in terms of big collars and flares, more in terms of “a proper wardrobe, and really textured cloth.” He says cord is having a massive moment again, as is velvet, a fabric that’s currently working well for his separate formalwear brand, Favourbrook, which reached its 25th anniversary this year, having been founded in 1993, nine years prior to Oliver Spencer, which was first introduced in 2002.
A recent shop move to 16/17 Pall Mall, St. James’s, having been on Jermyn Street for many years, is currently paying dividends for Favourbrook. “It’s been a brilliant move,” he says. “It’s such a beautiful space and our customers love it. We can serve people properly there, and deliver a great concept. Favourbrook is all about dressing up.
“In fact, everything is going to be about dressing up, because people are dressing down to go to work now and up to go out. That’s where the trend is.” If that’s the case, then the new buying season should see plenty of great new menswear, Spencer’s undoubted speciality.