Interview with Gresham Blake, Brighton's tailor to the stars
PUBLISHED: 01:16 28 March 2011 | UPDATED: 19:06 20 February 2013
His suits combine classic British tailoring with a subversive twist. As his business celebrates its tenth anniversary, Brighton-based bespoke tailor Gresham Blake reveals his ambitious plans to become a global brand
There's a distinct note of celebration in the air when I drop in at the showrooms of Brighton-based tailor Gresham Blake. His business has just celebrated its tenth anniversary and Blake marked the occasion with typical flamboyance, staging a star-studded party at the Engineerium, a refurbished pumping station in Hove, replete with laser show and music laid on by his old mates Norman Cook and the brothers Orbital.
But landmarks are also a time for reflection. And Blake, who has always traded on his edgy, youthful brand image, is no longer the new kid on the block. Having consolidated his client base in Brighton, he is now seeking new markets in London and abroad.
We meet in his top-floor office, situated up a rickety old staircase over his Bond Street showroom. He bounds in dressed like Mr Toad; a walking advertisement for his brand. His striped, mustard-coloured jacket and matching waistcoat evoke Wodehousian high jinks and salad days; but the look is undercut by turned-up black jeans and a chunky gold bracelet, adding a modern, subversive note.
Blake, 41, thrives on contrast. Or, as one commentator put it: He unifies the white-collar plutocrat with the stylish anarchist; his image combining classic Savile Row tailoring with a rock star twist.
Its difficult to say what our look is, but its very British and a little aristocratic, with an anarchic edge, says Blake, perched on a high stool at his desk.
He mixes traditional high quality English cloth with contemporary cuts, and classic tones with colourful accents of lime green, orange and blue. Distinctive linings are another speciality; some floral, some patterned with a motif of the customers choosing. Other embellishments include gold and silver buttons, brightly patterned neck ties, scarves, pocket squares and cufflinks.
I dont follow trends or fashion magazines, I just do what I like doing and if it fits in with what else is going on, terrific, says Blake, with a hint of defiance.
So who is brave enough to flaunt his dandified look? Well, not surprisingly, most of his clientele are aged between 25 and 45, though Blake is wisely reluctant to pigeonhole his brand.
Our customers come from all walks of life, from builders to rock stars to accountants. But the connecting factor is their mind set. Someone who walks into our shop and creates something for themselves has attitude.
Blake still cuts most of his bespoke suits himself, though admits its now a small part of his business. Given the time involved in making each suit (everything is hand cut and stitched), it isnt as cost effective as his other services and reluctantly he turns work away.
Made-to-measure, where he will alter basic patterns to suit a customers requirements, is what many clients favour, and his ready-to-wear collection is also becoming increasingly lucrative. Womenswear is another burgeoning market and his Forties-style dresses flew off the peg last season.
His business may trade on its exclusivity, but Fal, his wife and business partner, assures me their price bracket is within the reach of most. A two-piece ready-to-wear suit starts from 350 and most of our customers pay between 650 and 750 for our made-to-measure service, she says. Bespoke suits go up to about 1,200, though some pay more.
They benefit from the cosmopolitan crowd Brighton attracts. Around 60 per cent of their customers are London day trippers and in 2007 Blake opened a fitting room in South Molton Street in Mayfair to offer them added convenience. Harvey Nicholls is considering stocking his ready-to-wear collection.
But where did it all begin? He grew up in Tunbridge Wells and inherited his needlework skills from his mother, a skilled seamstress, who, among other things, designed strippers outfits for the Paul Raymond Revuebar in Soho.
He was four years old when he picked up a needle. She was something of a feminist, my mum, even though she worked for Paul, so if I wanted something altered shed make me do it myself. The first thing I ever made was a sleeping bag for my Action Man. Then, when I was older, she showed me how to make waistcoats. It made me really confident with a sewing machine.
But when he left school at 16, Blake followed his father into insurance (I just needed a job), though quit suddenly after three-and-a-half years, and moved to Brighton. The next few years passed in a fug of partying, and it wasnt until he met Fal that he began to focus on his career.
After studying an arts foundation course at City College, Brighton, he considered becoming a sculptor, but quickly realised there was no money in it and enrolled instead on the fashion degree course at Brighton University, following in the footsteps of alumni Barbra Hulanicki, founder of the iconic clothes store, Biba, and Givenchy designer Julien MacDonald.
During his final year, he designed neckwear for Marks & Spencer and shadowed Colin Keeble, a former cutter for Turnbull & Asser, Soho tailor Mark Powell and the late John Hume, a former Savile Row tailor.
John taught me how to sew buttonholes, apply a loose canvas and perfect hand padding on the shoulder. He was old school Savile Row at its best and taught me how to cut.
While I was shadowing him, a friend asked if I would make a suit for him. I thought: It might take a while, but its a challenge, and by the time Id finished my year out, Id made three. That was how my business started. I geared my last year around setting up my own business, and thats something the university should be encouraging now.
Fired up with enthusiasm, Blake and Fal bravely sold their Brighton home to launch their business at the height of Cool Britannia in 2000. But they were so cash-strapped they couldnt afford to employ staff and opened just one day a week. On the remaining days, Blake sat hunched over a sewing machine in the back shop.
Shrewdly, he realised he needed celebrity endorsement to publicise his business and milked his contacts book. It so happened he knew Sussex-based actor Mark Williams, then best known for his Suits you, Sir catchphrase on The Fast Show, and Fal had a friend in the funk and acid jazz band Jamiroquai, with a hotline to frontman Jay Kay. Soon, he was designing suits for both stars, who sportingly agreed to be photographed for Blakes first marketing offensive.
His subsequent celebrity cast list has included the likes of Norman Cook, Nick Cave, Steve Coogan, Jimmy Page, Christian Slater, Frank Skinner and Davina McCall.
He loves the creative buzz he gets from working on magazine and video shoots, and often collaborates with leading magazine photographer David Ellis, who recently shot striking images of actor Ray Winstone in full gangster mode in his pool house (dressed courtesy of Gresham Blake, of course).
Their best-known collaborative image depicts musician and record producer Norman Cook standing, fully suited, in the sea near his Brighton home. We wanted to show just how hard-wearing his suit was and managed to capture the moment he was engulfed by a large wave. That image went around the world, says Blake. Question Time host David Dimbleby and Channel 4 news anchorman Krishnan Guru-Murthy also regularly stock up on his ties, and Twitter wars break out whenever Guru-Murthy spots Dimbleby wearing one of his ties on television.
TV and radio presenter Chris Evans was also seen sporting a Gresham Blake shirt on The One Show back in January. And TV designer Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen added another tweed suit to his expanding Gresham Blake collection when he was last in Brighton.
Blake plans to establish his brand internationally, with a shop in every major capital, but in the current economic climate hes choosing his moment carefully. When he initially stretched his tentacles six years ago, he spread himself too thinly, he says, and the quality suffered. He wont be making the same mistake twice.
Quite a leap for the boy who started out designing sleeping bags for his Action Man.