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View from the front line: Soho-based tailor Mark Powell on how COVID-19 has hit trade

Tom Bottomley
19 March 2020

Mark Powell celebrates his 35th anniversary of tailoring in Soho this year, with famous clients – past and present – including David Bowie, Mick and Bianca Jagger, Bryan Ferry, Jude Law, Paul Weller, Martin Freeman, Bradley Wiggins, Naomi Campbell and Keira Knightley. But, as the coronavirus crisis really hits London, and businesses around his shop at 2 Marshall Street start to temporarily shut down, he’s never seen the heart of the West End as eerily quiet as this before. Could he be the last man standing? Here’s his take from the front line this week.

Are many shops in Soho and surrounds already closed?

Yes, a lot of the shops are already closed. The big brands like Adidas have shut, as have Cubitts on the corner of Ganton Street and Marshall Street – just up from me, and Shinola on Newburgh Street. There’s also quite a few restaurants that are already closed. It’s getting to that point now. Although it’s not yet been made compulsory to close, a lot of people are taking it into their own hands. I’m still here, of course, I mean, what do I do? Sit at home going mad?! I’ve got things to do here, even if it’s not directly serving customers. You have to keep yourself occupied. I’ve got a client who lives in Norway who I’ve just made a jacket for. He’s obviously not coming back to the UK anytime soon because of the situation, so I’m just getting his stuff ready to send over and get the balance owed, which is a couple of grand. I’ve got things to organise and tidy up.

How have you seen business change over the last week?

Even last week I was selling lots of suits, as well as people coming in to collect suits that had been made. In fact, last week and the week before were two of my best weeks of the year so far, literally. I can’t explain it, but it’s been solid. It’s been mainly made to measure and ready to wear, as I’ve only recently had my new ready to wear collection in and a lot of my regulars, who get our mailshots, come down to see me when they get word, and they buy suits. That’s what was happening last week and the week before, plus I had bespoke suit clients collecting and paying balances. Even last Saturday, when it was already starting to kick in really, I took several thousand pounds, with a coat for a customer, and a balance on a made to measure suit, as well as selling quite a few vintage ties. So, I’ve got money in the bank, not that it will weather the storm if it turns out being for months.

What’s business like now?

There’s absolutely nothing now, aside from the odd customer picking up a ready to wear suit that needed alterations. From Monday it’s really been more noticeable with the shutting of a lot of bars and restaurants. It’s very weird with this being the centre of Soho. Yesterday I walking down Old Compton Street at 12.30pm and it was quieter than Christmas day. That time of day is normally when it starts to buzz, so it was unbelievable. I’ve never seen it like this, never in my entire life. I guess if my dear old parents were alive they’d say it was like it was during the war. It’s a very bizarre situation, almost like being in a dreamy sci-fi movie scenario, with a lot of people walking around in masks. I live in Soho as well so I’ve really noticed it with a lot of the restaurants and bars now closed. New Balance had done a pop-up shop which they’d turned in to a pub which had been quite popular for the last couple of weeks, but that closed on Tuesday. Carnaby Street is absolutely dead as well, there’s just no-one around, and there’s nobody using the public transport either.

Mark Powell
Soho: "quieter than Christmas Day"

When are you thinking of shutting up shop yourself?

Well, I’ve got one bespoke customer who’s coming to collect on Monday so, even if I didn’t necessarily come in to work, I’d come in for him so he can pick his suit up, but I really don’t know. It’s everyone and everything isn’t it? My girlfriend, for example, works in the art world, dealing with acquisitions and valuations – it’s a massive business as you’re talking about people who do valuations for some of the wealthiest people in the world, but suddenly they are pretty much on lockdown – she’s the only one left in the office, because she doesn’t have to commute in to town. A lot of companies are taking it into their own hands to shut shop, especially after Boris Johnson’s speech on Monday. Even Selfridges has closed now.

What about the rent situation?

Well, this is it, it’s up in the air for all of us. I think our landlords, Shaftesbury, will have to consider our rent, and that’s where we would survive. Shaftesbury are pretty fair and I think they’ll show some compassion and support. It’s probably better if you haven’t got an independent landlord in this situation. But the government needs to install things like that as well. I know they’re talking about giving people a three- month mortgage payment freeze and whatever, and Labour are now trying to get something done on the rent side of things for housing, but they’ll have to do the same for businesses, whether they are independent or corporate. I think a lot of big corporate businesses, and the bigger chains, are closing because they are in a position to set an example. They are wealthy enough and don’t want their staff or customers being at risk. But, for independents like myself, what do you do? I will try to go on until the weekend but, in all honesty, by early next week I probably won’t be able to open. The danger is, how long for?

What’s your take on the hit to tourism?

A lot of businesses have had it really tough anyway recently, with the indecision over Brexit and how long all that dragged on for. Even then though, tourists were buzzing in to London up until January. Now tourism has obviously stopped, especially around the West End, and we rely heavily on the tourist side of things. I had my first couple of cancellations last week. I had a lady booked to come in from Israel to get a made to measure suit done, but of course they stopped the flights and she said that hopefully she’d come over in a few months. It wasn’t until literally the day before that she told me, but a lot of these countries are now on lockdown.

How else is it going to impact on your business over the coming months?

Well, what’s very sad is weddings are very big for my kind of business, and how many people have had weddings planned for the summer that are now thinking of cancelling? I’ve already made a lot of suits for people who are getting married in May, and supposedly June, but now’s the time when I’d be getting guys coming in who are getting married in the later part of the summer, and we’re going to lose that business. I doubt anyone is going to want to go through with those weddings now. If you were planning on getting married in July, you’re more than likely now going to put it on hold. Even the European football championships have been moved to next year, and I think the Olympics will be as well.

Have you had to put any 35th anniversary of being in Soho celebration plans on ice?  

I actually had a meeting with Sister London, who do the PR for the area, on Monday, and we had plans to do something to celebrate the 35 years, but it’s not going to happen for the moment. I was going to do a catwalk show on Carnaby Street in conjunction with them in June, but it’s a no-no for now. Hopefully we can do something later in the year, and I’d love to because it’s good to try to celebrate these things – especially now there’s so few independent people doing things. There’s not many independent guys who have been around here for 35 years after all.

Mark Powell
Mark Powell with actor Jude Law

What plans have you got when you do have to shut up shop?

My girlfriend’s sister has a big house in the country, and if they do a lockdown here I’m going to go and stay there with my son, Max. We’ve been invited down there, and I’d far rather be there than here. It’s actually quite depressing living in the centre of a city when it’s like this. It’s not going to go away, it’s going to be a few good weeks at least, maybe a couple of months.

What do you think about the Government support being offered so far?

Well, you’d have to hope there would be some support for businesses, because if everything collapses it will affect everybody. If nobody is working, and everybody is on the street, what can they do? There has to be some support put in place, and they’ve got plenty of reserves there. In terms of what the Chancellor said, it all sounds good on paper, but I still think there’s a hell of a lot more they can do. The figures sound amazing, but when you look at what they are going to try and support, it’s probably not as amazing as it sounds, though suspending the business rates is a must. And what about infrastructure? There’s a lot of things to think about. The other thing people are forgetting about is homeless people. Being a Soho guy, I help the homeless people out a lot around here but now, with the streets deserted, there’s nobody around to help them. They’re on the streets, which isn’t good, so what are they going to do with them? Ideally, they should be rounded up and looked after as well, because you can’t just let them rot.

What about the future?

Well, we were just about to sign a new five-year lease and it was all good, with the business taking care of itself really well, and it is still looking good. There’s no reason why we’re not going to be here for another five years, but we’ll just have to see how it rides out over the next month or two. I’m a survivor and, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

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