JUST OFF BERKELEY Square, in the heart of London’s Mayfair, stands Bourdon House. Once a residence of the Duke of Westminster, it’s now a temple to all things masculine thanks to the large coffers of menswear label Dunhill and its parent company, Richemont. Featuring a whisky bar, a humidor, a bespoke tailoring service and a barber, Bourdon House is also the repository of some key pieces in the history of Dunhill, from lighters and perfume bottles to weathered vitrines salvaged from the brand’s first boutiques in London.
Alfred Dunhill was only 21 when, in 1893, he inherited his father’s saddler business and shifted its focus from the horse and carriage to the automobile. He created a line of so-called “motorities”, a term he coined to refer to the driving-related products he offered when the car began to replace the horse-drawn carriage.
From an early age, he was a consummate businessman, always looking at what was happening around him and moving on with the times, never afraid to innovate and bring in new product lines, from lighters to outerwear. A framed picture hanging at Bourdon House depicts a bearded Dunhill serving customers while seated outdoors at a table amid a sea of rubble. It was taken after the Dunhill shop on Jermyn Street was destroyed in the London Blitz and is a perfect example of the resilience that made him one of the foremost entrepreneurs of 20th-century Britain (later in life, he even made a foray into the tobacco business, which is now a separate entity and part of British American Tobacco).
The Dunhill of today is not the same as that of its founder and has gone through a series of ups and downs, especially in the last couple of decades. Mainly known for its dependable and classic suiting, and reliable and sturdy leather goods, Dunhill never had a strong identity as a men’s fashion player, barring a stint with British designer Kim Jones at the helm.
Its low-key image and lesser stature among the stable of fellow labels at luxury conglomerate Richemont – hard top-end powerhouses such as Cartier, Piaget and Van Cleef & Arpels – even led to rumours that the group was planning to divest itself of the men’s label, but they proved unfounded when Richemont’s Johann Rupert made a strong commitment to growing the brand and developing its potential, first with the opening of Bourdon House and then with the appointment of a new creative director, John Ray, in 2014.
A Scot who worked with Tom Ford at Gucci, creating the men’s identity of the Italian label and helping it become the juggernaut it is now,Ray laid low for the better part of the last decade, before returning to his old trade at Dunhill, where he consulted for a few seasons before taking the top job.
When we meet him in his office in Mayfair the day after the spring/summer 2016 show, Ray is busy fielding phone calls and greeting guests who have come to take a better look at the collection. Wearing braces and a tailored white shirt, he cuts the imposing figure of a modern-day Winston Churchill, minus the cigar. Surrounded by pictures of icons of British style such as David Niven, Prince Charles and Prince Philip – “He’s actually one of my favourite dressers. He’s got the best taste in ties in Great Britain,” he says of the royal – Ray is quick to point out that when he took the helm at Dunhill, he didn’t plan to start a revolution but to “preserve it as a beautiful British brand”.
Referring to the collection shown the previous day, a mix of formal and casual wear with models in top hats and morning coats followed by a sporty bunch wearing hunting jackets and checked shirts, Ray emphasised that Dunhill is first and foremost a British company and he wants to keep it that way. “The freedom stops at the Britishness,” says Ray. “It has to be super British, so that even though you’re free, there’s a language you have to use in order to keep it British. I also think that my own personal style is very Dunhill. It’s not like I dress in sportswear or those kinds of things, so it suited me. I think Johann Rupert would not have wanted Dunhill to be turned over; he preserved the brand for years and wanted it to be a beautiful English rand. I don’t think they want it to be anything other than that – traditional men’s clothing. So that works for me because actually that’s what I’m best at.”
Although you may think that staying true to tradition is just a way of playing it safe, it is in fact – and ironically – somewhat revolutionary, even in London, the home of Savile Row and classic tailoring, where menswear designers often stage headline-grabbing spectacles, forsaking the need to create clothes that actually make it to the stores and men want to wear. There’s only a handful of London brands that actually wear their heritage on their sleeves and are not afraid of looking back at their country’s marvellous tradition in men’s tailoring, and Dunhill, along with perhaps Gieves & Hawkes and to a certain extent Burberry, is one of them. “It’s really important that Dunhill is British and you can tell it’s British, because if it’s not really British it just becomes this big kind of European mash of stuff.
"It’s very important for us to have this British identity because we’re British, and that’s all we’ve got to offer in the market in a way. That’s our point of view,” says Ray to bring home the point. As someone who’s a stalwart proponent of unabashedly and classic English tailoring with a modern twist, and who spent his formative design years in Milan, the capital of Italian menswear, Ray is a keen observer of how men approach everyday dressing, revealing that he loves looking at the way men in London put together their outfits in a polished and yet contemporary manner, providing him with a great deal of inspiration to draw upon. “You can tell an Italian, the way they put a suit together,” explains Ray. “The British suit is easier, not so tight. The Italian is very, very fitted and the ties have great big knots. The Brits put things together in a way that’s kind of mashed up, like the way we put the checks with the spots. Italians don’t really do that. The Brits do that really well, so that gives you something that you can be playful with, like a tie, a pocket square, a checked jacket, checked trouser. And there’s a harmony to it that’s very interesting.”
While Ray is aware of the challenge that lies ahead of him, especially in such a competitive – albeit growing – menswear market, he relishes the mission that the powers that be at Richemont have given him. “One thing about Dunhill is being a very quiet brand, so there’s not really many people who have heard of Alfred Dunhill. So what my job is now is to articulate it to the world, what it means, and actually have people come and have a look at what we’re doing. That’s the challenge,” explains Ray. “But from a creative point of view, it’s fantastic to be allowed to do this because Johann Rupert doesn’t do this thing where you have to make things that sell for two pence. He’s a bit like, ‘Just make really beautiful things.’ And I agree with him because, you know, no one really needs any more stuff. But if it’s beautiful, you can’t resist it.”