The Interview: Philip Start, owner, Mr. Start

Philip Start Mr Start

Men’s contemporary tailoring and knitwear from Mr. Start is gaining greater visibility once again, with a concerted presence on Instagram and Facebook. Brand owner Philip Start has even been doing his own modelling. From tomorrow, 12 November, the Mr. Start womenswear is also being relaunched, just selling on the brand’s website for now until the Mr. Start shop can once again reopen for business, as Start explains.

What retail presence do you have these days?

We still have the Mr. Start shop at 40 Rivington Street in Shoreditch. We closed the other two stores selling multi-brands for men and women about four or five years ago, as we could see that the retail climate was changing. We could also see that we were losing sales to online. Additionally, my wife didn’t want to do the buying anymore, so we gave up that side to focus on Mr. Start. The shop just sells the Mr. Start collection, though we do have a collaboration with Mackintosh at the moment, which has been successful. We actually made tailoring for Mackintosh initially, and then in return we had some of their product in our store. Going forward, the idea is we will work with other brands in the store in a well edited way. I’m still very hands-on. We don’t have a huge online business, but it’s okay.

How is Lockdown 2 effecting your business?

Obviously being closed we can’t do any business in terms of people walking in, but business has held up okay generally. It’s not been fireworks, nor has it been diabolical, just pretty terrible! We have ramped up our online presence and spent quite a lot of money for a small business in online marketing and on social media channels, such as Instagram. I’ve got someone who helps with all that marketing side. We work very hard at it as there’s a ton of things to do all the time. We’re also doing some paid advertising on Facebook, within reason as it’s what we can afford to do.

Have you always done own-brand?

I started Woodhouse in 1975 at 99 Oxford Street – a big store at the wrong end of Oxford Street – and that was based on multi-brand and a lot of own-brand, so, yes, I have always done it. I had Woodhouse for over 20 years and we had about 10 stores at one point. I actually sold the business to Philip Green in 1989, but bought it back again in 1990. I ended up selling what I had left of the business again in about 1997. I think Woodhouse just exists as an online retailer these days. Once you leave something, it’s not the same. In fact, it’s not the same world anymore. Woodhouse was of a moment, and defined the market in a lot of ways.

Is Mr. Start mainly menswear?

It’s predominantly men’s, probably 90% to 10% women’s, though we are about to give the women’s a relaunch and a bigger push – with a new collection going live on our website, www.mr-start.com, tomorrow, 12 November.

Mr Start

Why relaunch the womenswear now and what’s the look?

We planned to do the women’s relaunch at the beginning of year, before the lockdown. It just got put on the back burner, though we’ve had the stock for months. It’s really Mr. Start menswear for women. It’s very similar. The collection is based around shirts, T-shirts and simple knitwear, such as a turtleneck, in relaxed fits. It’s a Parisian look, what the chic French girls wear – lovely white shirts worn with beautiful jeans. We don’t do the jeans but we do the shirts and cashmere sweaters. Everything to go with the jeans if you like. We also do women’s tailoring, including made to measure. What we do is pretty much an all year-round offer, with certain seasonal pieces. We’re not trying to be a fashion house, we’re more of a staple.

How are you generally finding demand for contemporary tailoring in the current climate?

It’s tough, but people talk about suits as if they are unique in the mix of things that are difficult right now. Anything that is a bit more formal is a harder sell at the moment, as it is with nice dresses for women too. There’s the double whammy of people not being at work, and people’s tastes changing. You even see it on the financial channels. If you look at Bloomberg, everyone would always once have worn a suit, shirt and tie, but hardly anyone has a tie on these days. Tie sales are diabolical. I feel sorry for the tie manufacturers, but ties are almost like another era now. Personally, I like them. We are still finding there is a requirement for tailoring though, and we were reasonably busy before the second lockdown. We actually even had a week recently where we beat the same week as last year, though that was a bit of a one-off. There are still people that wear tailoring and love it. Maybe not so much in London right now, but I just sold three suits to a customer of mine in Miami – an ex-footballer. We do have a few famous customers, and well-known people such as directors and writers, but I prefer not to talk about the people that come in. They may be in that world, but they want to keep their heads down as well.

Philip Start Mr Start

Do you think there will be a bounce-back in dressing up when we’re out of this Covid-driven mess?

I think there is a bit of that going on anyway. It’s all very well being in your jim-jams at home, but that’s pretty boring. You’ve also got to project yourself in the right way on Zoom meetings. And, with the vaccine now in people’s minds, there’s greater hope. But I have noticed that this lockdown doesn’t feel like the lockdown we had in March, April and May. There’s plenty of people out and about. I don’t feel people are taking it as seriously this time.

What’s your own personal take on tailoring?

Tailoring doesn’t have to be a suit. Personally, I’m a big fan of mixing jackets and trousers, and I always have been. I wear tailoring every day, even if it’s a smart jacket with a pair of chinos. We specialise in dress down formality, tailoring in a slightly less formal way, though 30%-40% of what we do is still made to measure suiting.

Was it always planned that you were going to be modelling your AW20 Mr. Start collection yourself?

Somebody had to do it, I got the short straw, plus I’m cheaper! It’s actually not my modelling debut, I’ve done it before. It’s out of necessity really, though I don’t mind having my picture taken. I’m the figurehead behind the brand, so I just get on with it.

What are the real key pieces for AW20?

Anything that’s interesting in tailoring, such as a new brown flannel suit that I love. You can split it up and wear the jacket and trousers separately. We’ve also done what we call a blazer suit, which is in a 100% wool with a natural stretch. That fabric has come from one of the big Italian mills, and it also has a wicking quality so it aerates the body. It’s a fantastic technical fabric that’s water resistant. It brings the look up to date, and it’s what people want now. It’s the perfect suit that you can dress up with a shirt and tie, or down with a T-shirt or casual shirt. We also have a strong knitwear offer, either made in Scotland or Italy. All of the fine gauge is made in Italy. Fine gauge roll necks are a big look with a suit, and we’ve also got a whole chunkier striped knitwear story this season – crew necks and roll necks. They are very good quality and reasonably priced, and people really seem to like them.

Philip Start Mr Start

What are the Mr. Start retail price points?

An off-the-peg suit is £795, and made-to-measure starts at about £950 depending on the fabric. Shirts start at £110 – going up to £145. The fine gauge knitwear is £125, and the Scottish heavier knitwear – made from G-long yarn from Australia – is £160. The Mackintosh collaboration, which is a single-breasted raincoat with a button-out lining, is £795.

Do you still wholesale Mr. Start?

No, aside from supplying Mackintosh earlier this year as I said. We don’t go out looking for wholesale customers, but if somebody comes to us and we think it will work, then we do it. At one point we did have a decent wholesale business and some very good customers as well – supplying top stores in China, Korea, Hong Kong and Italy – all the top shops. In the UK we used to supply the likes Selfridges, Harrods, Liberty and Fenwick, but those types of stores can be tough to work with, and what we do is very hard to wholesale.

How do you see the future of fashion and retail amid the coronavirus pandemic?

It’s going to be very tough, especially if you’re not a big business with lots of money to invest in the future and the changes. Even before the new lockdown, most of the hotels in Shoreditch were still closed, and some of them won’t open again. A lot of people are now working from home, and there’s a question mark across the board in fashion. People are having a harder time. If you’re a big and strong brand, then it’s easier to adapt very quickly, because you’ve got the money to do it, but for small businesses it’s more difficult. We’ll see how we go, you can only do your best.

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