The Interview: Charlie Baker-Collingwood, founder, Henry Herbert Tailors
Bespoke suiting by scooter riding tailors is the USP for Holborn-based Henry Herbert Tailors. The shop front might be temporarily shut due to the coronavirus crisis, but its PPE-clad suit and shirt makers are still ready and willing to show customers fabrics and take measurements, and they’ve even now added an alterations arm to the business to tweak wardrobe favourites that may have become more snug during lockdown, dresses included. They’ve also been handmaking scrubs for doctors in the NHS. Founder Charlie Baker-Collingwood tells us all about it.
How long have you been established and how would you best describe your business?
I set up Henry Herbert Tailors 10 years ago in 2010, originally on Savile Row, though we are now in Holborn. A lot of customers get confused and call me Henry which, of course, is no problem at all! We use our Vespa scooters to zoom around London seeing customers to make suits and shirts, and we’re now doing alterations as well. My background is actually in politics and philosophy, which is not related, though it can get a bit political with customers - so it comes in handy sometimes. We’re a tailoring firm and there’s 10 of us now, with six qualified tailors two apprentices and two administration staff. I took tailoring courses myself to learn the skills from 2016 to 2019. The tailors are all qualified motorcycle riders who ride our Vespa scooters. The scooters are dressed up to represent fabrics like tartan or houndstooth, which are vinyl wraps done by specialists. The Vespa scooter service is definitely our USP, there’s no-one else doing it, and wrapping them in fabric colours that people see zooming around town definitely attracts visibility.
How are you currently operating to provide a fitting and delivery service during lockdown?
We’re running a reduced service as we have to see each person individually under special circumstances. We’re all wearing PPE – including Perspex face masks and gloves, and we offer the same to customers so they feel safe, and it’s safe for our tailors.
Are you finding there’s much call for bespoke tailoring now?
We’re definitely finding that there is. I don’t want to take things for granted but there still seems to be a healthy demand out there. We’re just having to adjust how we deliver the service to people. Its full handmade bespoke in Bloomsbury – we don’t do made to measure. Our prices start at £3,500 for a suit, which may sound like a lot but it’s a competitive price compared to Savile Row. There’s plenty of fabrics to choose from in that price range.
So, are you actually going in to your customers’ houses to do the fittings?
We’re doing them outside where possible. We obviously want to protect ourselves and our employees, but we’re really in the hands of the customers and where they feel comfortable, also that they feel we’re following government advice properly. We adapt to each situation.
Is the alterations service new to your offer?
Yes, we’ve added that recently, as we know we need to adjust and we understand that some people won’t have as much disposable income, so we’re going to push that side of the business to see if there’s a healthy demand for it. The service is available for men and women. We turn up and pin the required alterations – wearing PPE – then drop it back to the customers when the work is completed. But people are very welcome to visit us at our premises at 8 Lamb's Conduit Passage, Holborn, if they prefer. We’re still running the shop on an appointment basis – one in, one out.
What sort of alterations have you seen a demand for?
Some people have put on a bit of weight during the lockdown, so we’re letting things out quite a lot! Also, we’re finding that rather than buying something new, people are getting things out of their wardrobes and deciding to give them a new lease of life with alterations. As people are getting back to work, they are also wearing things that they’ve not worn for a while and finding that they need alterations as they’ve changed shape somewhat. Or, they might just want a jacket altered as they are on Zoom calls. We’ve actually got some customers in the City who have been told they won’t be going back in to work offices until next year, so they’re just interested in the part of their body which is on camera view – getting their jackets adjusted but not their trousers. It’s a Zoom alteration! To let a jacket out we charge £60, and £25 for trousers. We charge £60 for women’s dresses as well to keep it to a simple pricing structure.
How do you stand in terms of reopening the shop front as normal?
We’re in the manufacturing sector so, following government advice from the week before last, we’re actually allowed to open but we’re not – we’re just doing it on a measured basis where there’s demand for it. We have our shop front, then below we have our workshop. We’ll look to reopen the shopfront when the guidelines permit us to do so. We have a buzzer on the door, so it won’t just be a case of walking in.
Have you felt a big hit to business due to cancellations or postponements of weddings this spring/summer?
We have seen a dramatic fall in this area, as weddings are either cancelled or postponed indefinitely. But I feel sorry for them and their loss is greater than ours.
It is a small part of our business, but I think the landscape and the future of this area will very much change and it is something we will have to adapt to.
How did making scrubs for the NHS come about?
We got approached by the government initially, asking for some pricing quotes which we put together. Then it escalated, but somehow got lost in the system. We got a bit frustrated, so we announced what we were proposing to do and we had an avalanche of enquiries from doctors individually who said they’d been told to source their own scrubs as the system couldn’t cope anymore. So, rather than going through the system, we just went to doctors directly. There’s been a very healthy demand, and we’ve actually been doing it for free. That’s obviously not sustainable, as we are a business so, at some point, we’re going to have to wind that down.
On the bespoke suiting front, how are your customers selecting fabrics?
We use the finest mills from around the world. We courier out fabrics to our customers on a next day service. They can also view fabrics online, but there’s nothing quite like touching the real thing. They describe to us what they want, then we source suitable fabrics and send out maybe 10 different options. The swatches are about the size of a palm of a hand, so they do get a proper feel for it.
How do you think the public will generally react when stores start to reopen?
We really don’t know, it’s the million-dollar question. All we know is we’ve got to be prepared to do things differently and adjust very quickly to customer demand. We can’t just sit there twiddling our thumbs, it will be a case of however the customer wants to interreact with us.
Does social media play an important part in your business?
I would say it’s critical. All of us use Google search and I think pictures tell a thousand words. People judge us very quickly from a picture and go from there to make further enquiries, check reviews or read online articles about us. Then they make their decision to come and see us. We also do paid advertising on social media and we have a search budget for Instagram. We have someone on our team who handles all of that side.
Looking ahead, how do you see the future of your business?
Stage one is definitely about survival, as it’s not easy out there and we’ve seen lots of big retailer casualties and small shops that are really struggling. Secondly, we need to adapt how we do things and thirdly we need to build a different vision of where we want to be in the next few years. That maybe having multiple stores and a bigger scooter fleet. We still definitely believe in the bricks and mortar approach, but we’ve got to make it work for us.
Are your customers predominantly in London?
It’s actually a very healthy international mix. People fly in from all over the world to see us, and that represents about 50% of our business. In terms of the UK, I’d say 25% of our customers are in London and the other 25% are up and down the country. We’re not too dependent on one area or one category of industry. The alterations service is just within zones 1-6 in London, as our scooters can only go so far.
What other plans do you have going forward?
What this whole coronavirus situation has made us realise is we really want to reinvigorate our bespoke work and make it very distinctive and much more directional, so it has a lot more of a unique character to it. We want people to see a suit and know it’s a Henry Herbert suit. So far, we’ve been driven by customers and what they want, but I think we’re going to try to enforce our house style a bit more to try to make us more visible and more easily recognisable.