Talking With Mark Cho About Drake’s Of London

September 2, 2011

The Wall Street Journal published an interview some time ago with Michael Drake, the co-founder of Drake’s of London. In the story, there was a surprising paragraph:

Last year, Mr. Drake, who learned the trade at British luxury label Aquascutum, sold the company for an undisclosed price to the Armoury, a Hong Kong menswear retailer. The team he trained remains, but his contract expired at the end of July.

The news caused quite a buzz among menswear enthusiasts, so I thought I’d contact Mark Cho, a co-founder of The Armoury, to talk about the purchase and future of both companies.

Derek Guy: What was your rationale for buying Drake’s? It’s not common for a retailer to purchase a maker, and it’s especially surprising since The Armoury is a relatively young company and has been working in a tough economic climate. How did this decision come about?

Mark Cho: Firstly, it needs to be made clear that The Armoury did not purchase Drake’s, they are simply both owned by the same people. The Armoury has no control over Drake’s and they remain completely separate businesses. Secondly, the acquisition of Drake’s occurred over a year ago in July 2010, we chose to keep quiet about it for various reasons that I will go into later.

I was presented with the opportunity to take over Drake’s by Michael Hill, Michael Drake’s right hand man at the time. While I had a lot of respect for Drake’s as a company, I had a few key requirements: continuity and further development of the aesthetic, mature in-house production in the UK (and preferably London) and competent management. In Michael Hill, I could see a designer who was passionate about his brand, his work and his mentor. I had known the premises and factory operations of Drake’s from before and as I got to know the management and the people working within the company, I felt that this was an excellent opportunity. I think in turn, Michael Drake and the old shareholders also felt that Michael Hill, the remaining directors of the company and I could take the company forward credibly and keep the brand intact.

Furthermore, there is some synergy between Drake’s and The Armoury. The Armoury provides useful retail experience, greater exposure for Drake’s in HK/China and it showcases the products appropriately. Drake’s is a reliable supplier to The Armoury and can provide some special items from time to time.

We kept the change of ownership under wraps for a year because we wanted to be able to put a full year’s worth of work under our belts without having our progress prejudiced by any preconceptions of what a change of ownership might do. Inevitably, some people will believe the product has changed because Drake’s changed hands but there has been no changes made whatsoever to our cloths, raw materials or methods of production. I think we did ok these last 12 months: business has been good, the new collections have been well received, the production has been slightly improved, and we opened up a retail store and refined our online store.

DG: Drake’s is a luxury-end brand and I imagine the profit margins aren’t as big as those of many other tie companies. For example, mid-market ties manufactured in China will only cost about $5 a piece, but sell for about $50 in department stores. With Drake’s, however, you have to keep the quality to the highest standard because that’s what people are coming for. How has the brand been doing in the last few years, given this global recession?

MC: Drake’s has been a stable, steadily growing business for the last 30 years. We have a bit of trouble keeping up with demand these days so we spent last year upgrading production, improving our facilities and training some extra staff for the workroom. They are all fairly incremental changes but it means we can increase production without compromising quality. I have no intention of moving production. I was born and raised in London and it is extremely satisfying to be able to support manufacturing in London. As I have said before when asked about The Armoury, I believe in “authentic” products and I think a lot of the charm of our products comes from being designed and made in Clerkenwell. While we may not all necessarily be English, we certainly all feel like Londoners with a certain loyalty to the city and the culture. I think it definitely influences the aesthetic, quality, presentation and so on of Drake’s. Given how loyal our customers are to our aesthetic and quality, why would we ever mess around with that?

DG: Drake’s just opened up a retail location. Have you been in talks with the company before this opening? If so, was there a reason why you didn’t just open up another location for The Armoury?

MC: The new store happened under my watch. We originally intended to have a store within a few years of the change of ownership but the Clifford Street location suddenly popped onto the market and was so compelling, we jumped at it. Michael Hill and I were both very keen on being able to make the Drake’s aesthetic a tangible, complete thing where we could display our products in an environment that we had full control over. I think all of our products are great but certainly some need to be seen in context with the right accompanying pieces and in the right surroundings to be fully appreciated. At the same time, it helps to promote the brand in general which in turn helps our wholesale customers worldwide.

Because of the specialized nature of mens’ suiting and bespoke clothing in general, I don’t intend on opening any more Armouries until the right people to run them join our team. We are happy with The Armoury in Hong Kong and Drake’s was far more in need of a physical presence.

DG: Will there be any collaborations between The Armoury and Drake’s in the future? Perhaps exclusive designs or some other interesting arrangements? Will there be a house label for The Armoury, perhaps made by Drake’s or its associates? 

MC: There will be some collaborations, we have already designed something special for The Armoury VIPs come our 1 year birthday in October.

We have no plans for a house brand, we enjoy being able to work with select makers and would not want to hide their identity. I would prefer The Armoury to remain a place where people can go to find great things made by dedicated people and sold with friendly, informed service.

DG: The Armoury has a very distinctive international flavor, whereas Drake’s has a strong British identity. Are you committing to that, or will there be new brand directions?

MC: I am glad that you picked up that The Armoury is very much about an International aesthetic. There is no intention of changing course on either brand. The Armoury is about “International Classic” and Drakes is about being the best of “British style”. The two remain separate, independent businesses with neither one having any control over the other.

DG: Will Drake’s other accessories (e.g. sweaters, shirts, scarves, pocket squares, etc) be discontinued or expanded? 

MC: We will not be discontinuing anything and there are no plans to expand immediately into any new types of products. We are very much the slow-burning types and prefer to do things at our own pace rather than jump into products that we cannot stand behind. The only thing I have really insisted on is to make smaller sizes available so hopefully we will start to see that effort come to fruition next year. I wear a 36/46 so it bugs me when I can’t find things in my size.

DG: The Armoury’s most public faces are you, Alan, and Ethan. I hadn’t ever thought about the financiers of the project. Do they have backgrounds in the men’s clothing industry? Maybe we can use this opportunity to talk about the founding of The Armoury itself, who came up with the idea and vision, how you met the financiers, and how the team was put together. 

MC: They are a shy bunch so I cannot speak anything more about other people involved other than I am among the new owners of Drake’s. The Armoury was founded by Alan See and I. Ethan Newton was with us when we first opened and became a full time member of the team early this year and I would say is of the founding group as well. When we first started, we were helping WW Chan set up an accessories department and it kind of grew out of that. We realized the market in Hong Kong was missing a lot of great things that had a ready audience. Furthermore, we wanted to promote classic menswear in Hong Kong and offer the sort of clothing and look we really believe is the foundation of any man’s wardrobe. I spent a few years working in China prior to The Armoury and frankly, the standard of dress there is not very high. Seeing people in good clothes puts a smile on my face, seeing people dressed sloppily really depresses me, so I decided I should try and do something about it.

DG: Are there any other plans for expansion? Could we see The Armoury building some umbrella brand of companies? 

MC: I suppose anything’s possible! Nonetheless, I would prefer to spend the time building Drake’s and The Armoury which are doing well but have a long way to go yet.

* Special thanks to the RJ cat for help on this article, and Mark Cho, Drake’s of London, and Colonial Goods for letting us borrow these photos.