Gieves & Hawkes proudly hangs three royal warrants above the door of its Savile Row establishment in London. These warrants signify its distinguished record of making the scarlet livery of the royal household, and tailoring the uniforms of the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Edinburgh. But a portrait of new global creative director Jason Basmajian, an American, seated in front of two such scarlet uniforms, heralds a significant shift in ambition for the famed British tailor.
The classic British brand was snapped up one year ago by Trinity Ltd., the men's luxury fashion arm of the Fung Group. It boasts a rich history (Admiral Lord Nelson, Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin were clients) but had been treading water while other international tailoring raced ahead. Being well established in Hong Kong, Gieves & Hawkes now has the mainland in its sights. Basmajian is tasked with building and expanding the menswear lines, and infusing them with the bespoke savoir faire for which the tailor is famed.
Basmajian sums up his mission as brand elevation and evolution, but not revolution. "You don't change 240 years of history [the company was founded in 1771] overnight, you build on it," he explains.
In two days' time, Basmajian will present his second collection for Gieves & Hawkes, spring-summer 2014, at London Collections: Men. This is no small feat given he only moved onto the Row, as it is fondly described, in late January. He has already produced an impressive autumn-winter debut collection, which wowed critics in April.
"The gentlemen who shop at Gieves & Hawkes have the same values as their great grandfathers, but their lifestyles are different," Basmajian says.
To reflect this faster pace of life, there are more urban tweeds in the main line, and the range is slightly more luxury sportswear oriented. "But our man is still very dressed, even on the weekends," he says.
For his debut collection, autumn-winter 2013, his team scoured the British Isles for Harris Tweed rain macs, and beautiful soft overcoats with a slight military inspiration. There is soft flannel shirting and some tweed knit ties.
The team has worked closely with Scottish cashmere mills for knitwear, and is producing as many of the shirts, elegant city suits, and shoes in England as is feasible. A ready-to-wear suit would cost £2,500 (HK$30,156) and a bespoke one about £4,000. But there are items available at their stores in Hong Kong for about £800.
Basmajian's design team is tapping into the brand's collective knowledge.
More than 100 years of experience in hand tailoring is influencing the senior cutters to design a new sartorial line called 1 Savile Row Capsule Collection. Bespoke detailing and some hand finishing are added to ready-to-wear business suits.
"We wanted to make something in England using British craftsmanship," Basmajian says. "You must retain the authenticity and credibility of your brand DNA otherwise you end up looking slightly ridiculous. You will alienate your old customers without having quite secured your new ones."
Having served six years as artistic director at Brioni, Basmajian is fully versed in the sartorial differences between Italian and Savile Row suits.
A British suit has a defined shoulder and more canvassing on the interior to give it structure, he says. "A lot of Italian tailoring is strongly influenced by Savile Row, but they have tempered it in a slightly sexier, more glamorous way," he says. "The English style is more focused on craft and tradition."
An Italian cut, he says, "is slightly more forgiving with a natural shoulder line. But it is still inspired by British dress."
Basmajian, an American-born French-Armenian, cut his teeth on the New York menswear scene at Calvin Klein and Donna Karan. After 15 years in New York, he was challenged to create a lifestyle brand for S.T. Dupont, the famous pens and lighters company owned by Dickson Poon. He moved to Paris for 12 years, launched successful menswear and leather goods lines for S.T. Dupont, and bought a home in Sancerre, in the Loire Valley, where he indulges his passion for fine red wine rather than the local white.
Six years later, he joined Brioni, commuting to Rome and immersing himself in Italian tailoring. He left last year when luxury conglomerate Kering bought the brand.
His many travels mean that Basmajian has a clear picture of the differences in men's approach to dressing. "Italians love to dress and make an effort," he says, "while New Yorkers possesses a cool, urban vibe."
He dismisses Paris as "very bourgeois and very safe. But what I love about London is that you see a real mixture on the street. There is much more individuality; you have this very aristocratic tone mixed with a really edgy sub-culture, and what is uniquely British is that they co-exist harmoniously."
Hong Kong, he says, "is a real crossroads, because it is a mixture of everything. It is international and exciting. There is an appreciation of quality and luxury, and they love anything with a culture, a history.
"It is very exciting that my career has taken me between all these places," the designer adds. "I think I bring to the brand a very international perspective."