An optimist will look at COVID 19 as a opportunity. From the current crisis in fashion and retail will come the chance to snap up valuable brands at distressed prices. But, what makes a brand truly valuable?
Left - 1950s Teddy Boy in his classic Crombie coat
It usually starts with the name and whether it has any longevity, goodwill or future.
If that name has entered everyday lexicon then it is a very rare and valuable asset indeed. Joining the likes of Sellotape and Hoover, it rarely happens in fashion when a brand becomes the generic term, but Crombie is one such brand.
Meaning a formally tailored, three-quarters length covert coat with a contrasting velvet collar, the Crombie coat had recently become associated with the likes of Nigel Farage and Del Boy and a kind of dated city boy look.
J&J Crombie Ltd. was founded by John Crombie and his son James in Aberdeen in 1805, making it one of Britain's oldest brands. Starting as a fabric manufacturer, Crombie moved into making coats to supply armies in America and the UK during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Crombie lists Cary Grant, Winston Churchill, King George VI, Dwight D Eisenhower and John F Kennedy as distinguished wearers. From 1995 to 2004, Crombie also held the Royal Warrant as a supplier to the Prince of Wales.
A modern classic, a Crombie coat was retailing for around £900, but that is now on hold.
The brand’s home page currently reads, “In light of current world events, we have now fully suspended our retail, wholesale and supporting administrative operations until further notice. We will continue to monitor the global situation and hope to resume operations in the fullness of time. We’d like to thank our many clients for their custom and patronage and wish everyone a safe and healthy summer.”
Right - 1980s Car Dealer Arthur Daley in his Crombie
The brand has been up for sale for a while. It was formally announced in March 2020, when owner, Alan Lewis, 82, through his investment company, Hartley Investment Trust, told Drapers, “We are willing to divest non-core assets such as Crombie, which we believe would be of particular interest to a focused fashion business with the infrastructure to efficiently scale up this brand internationally, or to a retail chain looking to bolster its portfolio of unique intellectual properties.
“Crombie’s worldwide trademarks allow for expansion and diversification into a wide range of product categories, including cosmetics and accessories.”
Crombie has one store located at 48 Conduit Street in London which it sold in Nov. 2019 to a private Chinese buyer for £9.9 million with the intention of Hartley Investment Trust still occupying the building. Crombie’s turnover to the year ending March 2019 was £523,000, with a loss before tax of nearly £300,000, this was an improvement on 2018 when it was nearly £400,000 on a turnover of £430,000.
Hartley Investment Trust has interests in banking, property, energy, leisure and retail. Lancashire-born Alan J Lewis, CBE, a former Conservative Party Vice-Chairman told the Yorkshire Post in 2012, “I came here (Slaithwaite, West Yorkshire) and took over Illingworth Morris which was a public company, which was in trouble and owed the banks about £50m with 6,000 people employed and I turned it around from a substantial loss to a substantial profit and shares went from 13p to 186p.
“We concentrated on ensuring that we invested in the high margin business, low volume, rather than high volume, low margin business, so really concentrating on the quality end and the creative end of the business, and that made an awful lot of money.”
In the 1980s, the group was one of the world’s biggest wool textiles manufacturers handling almost half the wool imported into the UK. The Illingworth Morris group included up-market knitwear maker Hawico, worsted spinning operations Daniel Illingworth, suiting makers Huddersfield Fine Worsteds, chemical business Westbrook Lanolin, Woolcombers, Winterbotham Strachan & Playne (the world’s leading supplier of cloth for tennis balls and billiards tables), and Crombie.
Left - Three out of the four Beatles are wearing Tommy Nutter suits on the Abbey Road cover
Mr Lewis took the company private, making vast profits and a net lender to the money market – heralding the formation of Hartley’s investment banking division, Hartley Investment Trust, in 1983.
Hartley divested many of the brands with the implosion of the UK’s textile industry, turning many of the old textile mills into residential property and business centres, but retained the ownership of Crombie.
Another important brand Lewis owns is the iconic tailor, Tommy Nutter. In 2014, after a four year high court battle, Lewis agreed to buy the rights to ‘Nutters of Savile Row’ which left him free to use the Tommy Nutter brand.
The year before, David Mason's 'Nutters Holdings' won the right from the UK's Intellectual Property Office for the Tommy Nutter trademark to be revoked from J&J Crombie due to non-use. Mr Lewis was ordered to pay costs of more than £3,000. However, he appealed against the decision, arguing that he had kept the name in use. A spokesman for Mr Lewis said at the time, "Crombie owns the Tommy Nutter brand, and every season a range of Tommy Nutter branded clothing is available in Crombie stores in the UK."
Previously, Mr Lewis had been in talks to sell ‘Tommy Nutter’, a brand he had started with Tommy Nutter in the early 1980s when he had parted ways with business partner Edward Sexton and ‘Nutters of Savile Row’, to a subsidiary of Fung Capital - the private investment arm of the billionaire Fung family of Hong Kong. The deal never materialised.
Tommy Nutter produced a variety of legendary designs under his own name - including Jack Nicholson's Joker costumes for the 1989 Batman movie - while Crombie supplied him with the cloth. He died in 1992.
What we have here, if sold together, are two of Britain’s greatest sleeping menswear brands. One traditional, loaded in history, the other, a pioneer and icon of tailored fashion, but both heaving in icons from statesman to superstars. Confucius once said, “The gem cannot be polished without friction” and, while it would take substantial investment to bring these menswear two brands back, they have a natural sparkle and value most brands don't.
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The sport of rowing is dominated by the stereotypes of posh athletic giants called ‘Constantine’ or ‘Toby’. Their arrogance only surpassed by their prowess with a couple of oars and the Lycra in their rowing suits. But, off-duty they stick to tradition and continue to wear their team colours. The blazer was invented to be part of the rowing fraternity's uniform and as part of British culture, and our continual love affair with uniforms, it often takes an outsider to see and appreciate what we have and repackage and present something that has always existed.
Just when we thought ‘preppy’ was dead and wasn’t coming back for a while, we see green shoots appearing, and a new label like ‘Rowing Blazers’, reinventing and adding more fun to this seasonal British style.
Founded by Jack Carlson, a three-time member of the United States national rowing team, Rowing Blazers’ aim is to reintroduce one of the originals in men’s sportswear. The days when ‘sportswear’ still meant you wore a tie. He won a bronze medal for the U.S.A. at the 2015 World Championships and has also won the Head of the Charles Regatta, Henley Royal Regatta, and Royal Canadian Henley Regatta. Jack earned his doctorate in archaeology at the University of Oxford and is the author of the book Rowing Blazers (Thames & Hudson, 2014).
Left - Jack Carlson, founder of the American rowing blazer specialists, Rowing Blazers
Impressed the brand’s website and his passion for reintroducing this loud heritage style, I sent him a few ChicGeek questions to find out more:
CG: Why the fixation on rowing blazers?
JC: I spent a long time in the sport of rowing: nearly two decades, including three years on the US national team, so I've been immersed in this world for a while. But I've also been very interested in heraldry and in the visual and sartorial trappings of status and hierarchy for a long time as well. And I think the blazers that are traditional in the sport of rowing bring together all of those interests: menswear, heraldry, and the sport of rowing.
CG: When did you start? And what was the Eureka moment?
JC: I first competed at Henley Royal Regatta in 2004. My crew was knocked out in the first round, which was pretty disappointing. But it meant I had a great deal of time to spend in the spectator enclosures for the rest of the week, where I began chatting with other current and former rowers about their jackets and the stories and traditions behind them. I thought: someone should study these things, write a book about them. Six or seven years later, I realised I should be the guy to do it. The book came out in 2014, and the company - making blazers by hand, and incorporating a lot of details, traditions and construction techniques I came across while creating the book - launched this year.
CG: How have you found the reception to them?
JC: People from all sorts of different backgrounds love what we're doing. Menswear nerds love the research that has gone into everything we do and the quality of the construction and materials. The rowing community respect the authenticity and pedigree of what we're doing. The Japanese - we have a significant following in Asia - love the fact that our pieces are handmade in America. We've even had a positive response from many streetwear fanatics, who like the irreverent spirit, the cryptic Latin graffiti, and the graphics on our caps and badges.
Right - Rowing Blazers - Croquet Stripe Blazer - $995
CG: What would you say to those people who say that preppy is dead or is out of fashion?
JC: Preppy is dead. Long live preppy. I hate much of what that word has come to signify, and I think much of what it's come to signify is pretty dead for now. I think the consumer - at least the higher end menswear consumer - wants something with authenticity, with a story, a sense of meaning behind it. This consumer wants to know where, how, why, and from a product was made. Our pieces have tremendous depth to them; from the 3-roll-2 silhouette of our blazers, to the small embroidered faucet motif on our ties, there's a story and a reason behind every decision; and our pieces are all handmade in the US. So our collection is very different from much of what is usually considered to be "preppy" nowadays; but blue Oxford cloth button downs; flannel blazers - in navy or more outrageous colours; and webbing belts will never go out of style.
CG: Do you mostly concentrate on rowing teams and clubs or are you targeting a fashion consumer?
JC: We are a menswear brand first and foremost, but we are also proud to make blazers for a wide range of rowing teams and clubs, including Britain's most prestigious rowing club, Leander Club in Henley-on-Thames. We've also created blazers for rowing clubs in China - which is pretty cool considering we make everything in Manhattan; Oxford Brookes; the University of Texas - for whom we made blazer-cowboy jacket hybrids; and many other clubs, schools and universities.
CG: I’ve always loved the British Army blazer that I saw at Henley, would you make one of those?
JC: We might do something in camo, but we are always very careful to be respectful of existing club blazers, and would never "knock off' any institution's blazer.
CG: What’s your favourite style & why?
JC: My favourite piece in our collection is the 8x3 double breasted blazer, which is inspired by a blazer Prince Charles always wears. One never sees an 8x3 double breasted blazer on the market, so we had to make one. With five cuff buttons, an oversized front button from a vintage die, and a perfect fit, it came out brilliantly.
Left - Rowing Blazers - 8X3 Double Breasted Blazer ‘Prince Charlie’ $1095
CG: Do you ship to the UK? Isn't this a bit like taking coals to Newcastle?!
JC: We ship worldwide. Although the UK is the land of the blazer, no one is doing what we are doing: it's our commitment to quality and traditional techniques that's enabled us to become the official blazer supplier to Leander Club, Oxford Brookes University Boat Club and many other British institutions while making everything in New York. We are chatting with several British menswear retailers about going into their stores as well, and they understand that we are a high end brand with a unique product; they wouldn't be looking at us if they viewed us as a school uniform supplier!
CG: What would you say to those people who say rowing is elitist?
JC: Rowing has its roots in Oxbridge, but also the far more blue collar world of professional sculling. It developed not only through public schools and the Putney clubs, but also through many working man's clubs around England. Today many still associate the sport with Oxbridge because of the prominence of the Oxford-Cambridge race, but the truth is the sport is becoming more accessible and more universal all the time. British Rowing has done a great job bringing the sport into many new communities in the UK. I'm part of an organisation in the US, here in New York, called Row New York, which is a highly competitive rowing program for kids from the city's underserved communities. They've just qualified a boat for the national championships for the first time, which is fantastic to see.
CG: What’s the future for Rowing Blazers?
JC: We’ll be expanding into a few other categories and also expanding our retail footprint; we have a lot of pop-ups planned, including at Henley and Goodwood Revival; and we'll be going into a number of stores in Japan, Taiwan and China in the next few months. We have some cool collaborations planned with Merz b. Schwanen, a very cool and historic German knitwear manufacturer, and a few other exciting brands. We are really just getting started.
CG: You don’t just sell blazers? What else do you sell?
JC: We also make shirts in a few different styles. They are pretty unique because they are hand-distressed - here in the US! - and come with or without busted seams. They've been a hit with the more street-oriented customer actually. We also do hats, belts, ties -- many featuring satin-stitch embroidery, or hand-embroidered wire bullion motifs - and a wide range of rare, funky and quirky vintage product.