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British heritage wins fans

Jack Wills proves British heritage still hits the retail sweet spot, writes Jing Zhang

 

British heritage is in fashion. But it’s not just the luxury end of the market that is capitalising on the renewed interest. Following remarkable growth in Britain and the US after launching in 1999, British high-street label Jack Wills landed in Hong Kong last December. Founders Peter Williams and Robert Shaw wanted to introduce a “Fabulously British” lifestyle to Asia in their first store outside the West. 

Mark Parker, the brand’s Asia president is “thrilled” by the response of Asian consumers to Jack Wills. “The results for our two Hong Kong stores [Leighton Road/Harbour City] are exceeding expectations,” he adds. That success has opened the possibility for further expansion in Asia. 

The boys, or Willsians, have done well. Olly Finding, head of new market brand development, who helped the business launch in Hong Kong, says the founders, who met at university, started humbly.

“They opened the first store with the help of their families and friends. It was tiny. They lived above it in bunk beds!” It was in the small fishing town of Salcombe, Devon, in southwest England. The label name derives from Williams’ grandfather “Jack Williams”, whose nickname as a young man was 
“Jack Wills”. 

The aim was to shed the stuffiness of some British designs, modernise iconic vintage London styles and translate them for the university demographic, though in Hong Kong, the contemporary style has reached further than just this age group. Popular “fabulously British” items from the label have included redesigned classic heritage pieces like the Dunsmoore Blazer (ladies), the Coubrough Blazer (gentlemen) and the iconic Barkworth Suit Jacket, produced with Fox Brothers, manufacturers since 1772.

It seems that in Asia, the youthful allure of the subverted British preppy made for the high street has an appeal, especially with so few other labels 
offering the same in this price bracket. Like their US competitors Abercrombie & Fitch, who just launched in Hong Kong, Jack Wills employs attractive sales staff. 

“Jack Wills has reinvented classic British designs to give them a contemporary fit and look, and this resonated well with our clientele,” says Finding.

The company also sponsors youthorientated events, “such as the ski-set in the French Alps, or Summer Seasonnaires in Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, where they promote a lifestyle that revolves around the beach and sea,” adds Finding. In Hong Kong they were one of the sponsors of the Clockenflap music festival. In Britain, there is the Jack Wills Varsity Polo Match where Oxford University plays Cambridge University, Eton plays Harrow, and in the US, Harvard plays Yale. 

The brand might be inspired by the aspirational styles of British university students but what makes it different are collaborations with some of England’s oldest fashion companies. 

Wools woven by Moon, established in 1837, and footwear with NPS Shoes, British shoemaker since 1881, standout. In London, while on a tour of their stores in the city, which also happen to be largely in heritage buildings, we visit J.C. Cording’s of Piccadilly, a traditional innovator of British countryside clothing, who some claim to have popularised the Macintosh. Cording’s is as English as it gets, and stepping inside is like stepping back in time. They have collaborated with Jack Wills on a selection of bright corduroy trousers for men and jodhpurs for ladies, both available in Hong Kong. For Cording’s it allows their legacy to extend beyond its traditional home in Piccadilly and to a younger audience. 

“Asian consumers in Hong Kong have quickly developed an affinity for the heritage element of Jack Wills’ collections,” says Parker

 

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