Interview: Hamilton + Hare's eight steps to brand-creation success
Celebrating its 10th anniversary next year, upscale menswear business Hamilton & Hare has become a fixture on London’s Chiltern Street. And while it’s not exactly under the radar, it remains a discreet business, albeit one that continues to attract affluent, discerning global shoppers by word of mouth.
Beginning with men’s underwear, it now offers a wider range for daywear, nightwear, holiday clothing, loungewear, and gifts too.
The brand was the brainchild of Olivia Francis who went from working at an ad agency to becoming a fashion entrepreneur. She started with the basic idea that “men’s underwear was terrible” and wanted to do something about it. Here are the eight steps she took.
1. THE LIGHTBULB MOMENT
Francis never intended to be a fashion entrepreneur. “I started my career in advertising at M&C Saatchi,” she told us. “I loved it, but I’ve always loved brands, I was always interested in how brands created themselves, how they resonated with people and how they eventually behaved in a certain way.
“I had a great career, not with big corporate brands but really interesting campaign projects. Then I spotted what I thought was a glaringly obvious opportunity, which was that looking across from womenswear, men’s underwear was terrible, an unloved, overlooked element of men’s wardrobes, mostly made in the same factories with little care, love, or attention to detail.
“A lot was made from synthetics and franchised out, even the luxury brands, and a lot of budget went on marketing, not their own design teams. At the same time women’s lingerie had gone through a transition.
“At the time men’s grooming was just about to take off and menswear was growing so I just thought it was a very good idea.”
2. GET SOME BACKING
Putting together the finance to dive headfirst into an industry and a category in which you don't already operate can be a nightmare.
“I had no grounding in menswear but a great career growing in advertising, so it was a leap of faith,” she insisted. “But it was this niggling opportunity that I had to do something about. It was a nice opportunity to build a brand in a niche space. That felt really exciting.
“I resigned and as I left, one of the founding partners of M&C Saatchi asked what I was going to do. I told him and he said ‘do you need investors?’ Obviously, I said yes, so he became one of my first investors. That’s how it first started.”
Francis makes it sound remarkably easy, which it probably wasn’t. Nonetheless, it does underline the importance of having the right financing in place in order to be able to do something properly.
3. DEVELOP THE PRODUCTS AND FIND THE USP
Of course, getting from idea to tangible product can be where budding fashion tycoons fall down, even with the right backing.
“My ethos wasn’t actually about creating a fashion brand at all, what I wanted to do was just make a really good product, so I approached the product aspect first,” Francis told us.
“I did a load of research and found the boxer short, this item of clothing that hadn’t been touched since the 1920s really. I found a Savile Row tailor and convinced him to use his skillset to help me re-energise and modernise the boxer short to make it a much better garment, fit for modern purpose.
“We did perhaps 30 iterations of what is a very simple garment but actually in its simplicity is a very difficult product. It has to be extremely functional. It has to wash and wear well and be incredibly comfortable. But also we were trying to introduce lovely quality fabrics, so it felt a cut above everything else out there.”
And just how is her boxer short different from what had gone before?
“Mainly it was the tailored bit. Boxer shorts had previously been this baggy, ‘nappy’ sort of item, which worked well when men wore big wide trousers. But if you wore it under a tailored suit you could see this this baggy thing. We introduced a flat-fronted waistband so we didn’t have full elastication and it didn’t ride up, which was one of the main issues.
“We introduced a series of very small things but obsessed over them and combined it with quality fabrics. We start with fabric as it’s the first thing you put on your skin so quality is of the utmost importance.”
4. GET THE MANUFACTURING RIGHT
Manufacturing can be a massive challenge and that’s where some creators fall down.
“Baked in from the very beginning, I wanted to know who was making my clothes. I wanted to stand by the quality so I looked for small-scale suppliers, got to know the people so I could see what they were doing. For me, that’s what true luxury is all about.
“Traceability was part of the process too, which was again very much flying in the face of what the rest of the market was doing — stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap, all about marketing and billboards and branding.
“We make everything in Portugal. I really wanted to make everything in the UK but quickly realised we didn’t have the skill level of workers or the machinery, particularly working with jersey. So I went to Portugal, where the government invested a lot of money years ago to create a really good infrastructure of very skilled machinists, craftsmen, cutters. We can get on a flight easily and my production manager now lives there!”
5. REACH YOUR CUSTOMERS
One major problem for a small brand is getting to the people who might want to buy its product. That’s hard, even in the age of social media. So how did Francis get the message out?
“It was difficult,” she explained. “Men’s underwear is not visible. Men don’t talk about their underwear. But on the flip side of that, what happened was once we convinced a man to try on a pair, we didn’t have to work very hard to show we have a much better product and therefore convert him. Then you have him for life. But it took time and, to date, we’ve really relied on word-of-mouth.”
That’s an inserting admission fro someone who once worked for one of the highest-profile ad agencies, but highlights how different approaches work for different types of product and price levels.
And of course, a store in a key location is also an important way to get to customers. Francis opened hers quite early on. It’s located on one of London’s upscale streets but one that’s a world away from the glitz of Mayfair or Knightsbridge.
Chiltern Street in Marylebone also hosts Casely-Hayford, Bella Freud, Perfume H, Trunk Clothiers, Grey Flannel, Prism and New & Lingwood.
“We opened [Chiltern Street] quite early in our story, which wasn’t quite the done thing at the time. But I really wanted to try and elevate underwear and the experience of buying it. I could see all these really lovely lingerie stores where you’d be given great service. I really wanted that to be part of the brand.
“Chiltern Street is a funny little street but it does have international kudos and a lot of tourism and a lot of hotels. There’s a real interest in the one-of-a-kind element of the street which houses interesting little brands and you get the bespoke experience that tourists have been responding really well to.
“I think having a physical space is so important and when I started, it really was like a temple to underwear.”
The store isn’t a temple to underwear these days, however, and that brings us on to the need to diversify.
“We’ve broadened out the range significantly,” Francis said. “We offer a full range of wardrobe staples but all with the same concept — hard-working heroes in your wardrobe that are simple but beautifully perfect.
“About 40-45% of our sales are now underwear so it’s still a big chunk of what we do. I guess that’s great as it’s repeat business and a lot of our customers we have for life. But we have recently transitioned, product by product. I still don’t really consider it a ‘fashion’ brand. We developed products as they felt right and our customers asked for them. It’s a very natural, organic progression. We now do suiting, but around our ethos of great fabrics and really good design that’s comfortable and versatile.
7. DON'T PANIC
Being a still-young business when the pandemic hit could have been a problem but Hamilton + Hare weathered that storm.
“The bulk of our business is online, so we were able to trade and actually did really well because we sell quite a lot of loungewear,” Francis said. “It was a bit of a boom in an unloved category. But we had a lot of issues with supply chains.”
And Brexit? “It’s definitely made things much more complicated, which is frustrating. We had some good systems in place, but it has been one hell of a headache to be honest. But we still have a good EU business.”
8. THINK BIG BUT BE REALISTIC
Given the type of business she runs and its history, it may come as a surprise that the US accounts for around 20% of its sales and Francis is clearly unafraid to think big.
“Our store has become a bit of an international destination and we get American tourists there. We sell through Mr Porter in the US too. There’s a really strong affinity for British and particularly for London brands and we’ve just found natural interest there. We’d like to capitalise further on that opportunity but so far it’s just been organic.
“We were international from day one, coming from the school of brands that started with a website. We service customers from 76 countries at the last count. But the UK is our biggest market at about 60%.”
And while online is key to growth, the London store remains a big selling point. So will she open another?
“Absolutely. The plan very much is to open more sites, it’s just about getting the right ones. I think there’s plenty of scope in London. There are definitely other cities on our list too. It has to be right though. Chiltern Street is a tough act to follow.”
And after the pivot to other categories, might Hamilton + Hare one day become a complete lifestyle brand?
“Yes, eventually. We have a very loyal customer so I think it makes sense to build a product range for that customer. But I also think we started niche and my view is that owning a category is a really good way to build a business rather than trying to do everything. It’s a cautious, slow approach. When it feels right we’ll do it, but we’re not looking to do that now, we’ve already done quite a big expansion, so it’s more a period of consolidation.”
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