However you might imagine world-leading designers enter the fashion industry, it probably doesn’t begin with the ‘businesses for sale’ section of the Financial Times. Yet, thumbing through its salmon-pink pages at Oxford University’s New College, MBA student Patrick Grant stumbled across an advertisement for a Savile Row tailor, Norton & Sons.
The business wasn’t in the best of shape and, despite its undoubtedly high-quality product, was in rapid decline. Given the circumstances, Grant did what anyone would have done: accepted voluntary redundancy from his employer, sold his house, his car, and borrowed cash from elsewhere to purchase the company. As you do.
Fast-forward 11 years from when he circled that ad, and it’s safe to say the Edinburgh-born designer grasped his opportunity with both hands. Norton & Sons is now regarded as one of the finest bespoke tailors in the UK; Grant successfully transformed Norton’s subsidiary, E Tautz & Sons, into a brand at the forefront of British fashion in 2009; and last year he single-handedly saved Blackburn’s textile industry when he acquired the historic factory, Cookson & Clegg.
Whether he intended to or not, Grant has quickly become one of the guardians of Britain’s clothing heritage and leading lights in its development; not bad for a man who started with one full-time tailor and a part-time cutter on his books.
Despite the relatively small scale of his various businesses, the fashion world has sat up and taken notice: E Tautz’s catwalks are closely monitored and Grant himself is increasingly hot property, including judging the BBC’s Great British Sewing Bee.
In his own words, the key to his success so far is simple: making great quality clothes that last, both in a style and time sense, and staying one step ahead of the trend. Naturally, both Nortons and E Tautz belie Grant’s straightforward ethos but the one-time engineering undergrad has taken his fascination for beautiful British-made materials and turned it into a brand.
E Tautz AW16 collection
As Grant makes his way towards world domination, we catch up with the designer to find out what’s next for menswear, and how Grant plans to change the game:
Do you consider yourself successful?
It’s hard to define success but, for me, I would like to think that a successful business has permanence beyond the involvement of its founder. I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved so far but I’d like to build something between the brands and the factory that isn’t just a flash in the pan.
How is modern day Savile Row changing?
The great thing about houses like Nortons and its compatriots when they were first founded was they were very progressive. Edward Tautz, who founded E Tautz, was a huge advocate for change: he was constantly innovating in the cut of his clothes and the fabrics that he used, and that was why he was successful. I think many of the houses today have forgotten that they were founded on an idea of modernity and are stuck in a period of timid stagnation that doesn’t do them any favours. Some are better than others, and they all still make exceptional-quality clothes, but I think you have certain houses that are too staid and traditional.
How does E Tautz differ from the traditional style of Nortons & Son?
E Tautz is my suggestion of what we think you might want to wear in six months time: it’s a subtly forward-looking proposition for the men that we’re trying to dress. It’s a nudge in the direction of a new silhouette; it’s a subtly different fabric; it’s a shape in a shirt that might feel slightly more modern than the shape that you’re wearing today, and slightly less like the shape you see everybody else wearing. It’s still simple clothing, we’re just moving in the direction of a slightly softer shape.
Many Savile Row tailors are stuck in a period of timid stagnation that does them no favours
Have you ever been too experimental with your designs?
There have been collections where we’ve looked too far forward. The funny thing is, though, some of those pieces I still think are some of the best work we’ve ever done, but you had to be a pretty brave guy to wear them. We cut a whole series of suits in summer 2014 where the jackets were all based on a Japanese short kimono jacket and the trousers were Middle Eastern. We did an evening suit that was this black two-piece with a kimono jacket and these sort of harem pants, and it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever worn; I wore it for dinner with Prince Charles, and he thought it looked amazing. I’m not sure he’d have gotten away with it, mind.
What silhouette would you put in Room 101?
Skinny trousers and short skinny jackets. That just feels really old to me now. We first saw that silhouette in 1999. And it’s now 2016. That’s 17 years almost we’ve been looking at skinny short tight clothes. That feels done, just done! We did the harem trousers kind of in response to that a little bit and then we came back. We’ve been showing wider, fuller trousers for a number of seasons now. It’s interesting, the best-selling product we have is a trouser that we call the field trouser, which is based on a 1950s military trouser.
With that in mind, what direction is British fashion moving towards?
We’re moving away from that constrained, super skinny-fit outfit into something a lot more easy and elegant; just chicer and more refined. There’s been a lot of interesting pattern and fabric in menswear over the last five to six years, and I think that will continue, we’ll just end up with something more like – you know, Miami Vice. More like Don Johnson or Richard Gere in American Gigolo.
This is our annual watch special – what are you wearing on your wrist right now?
I absolutely love my Cartier Drive. There’s an understated elegance about it, and it’s the perfect size. It wasn’t until I’d had it for a while that I noticed my particular favourite detail, which is a little Cartier in the V of the Roman number seven – being a scientist, I love tiny things. It’s a brand that has a very similar heritage to Nortons: it has been doing one thing brilliantly for a really long time. It’s about understanding your place in the world and doing the thing you do as well as you can possibly do it; there really aren’t many brands in the world that truly do that, and execute it in such an elegant way.
There is nothing inherently wrong with Capitalism: Capitalism is just somebody with some money giving it to somebody else who has an idea
Do you appreciate watchmaking as a craft?
I've treaded very lightly on the path to watch obsession. I can fully understand how it becomes compulsive because they are such beautiful objects. I don't wear any other jewellery, I will wear cufflinks on occasion, when required but I don't wear any other jewellery. I think it's that one piece of beautiful crafted jewelled metal that we can all wear – and most us do. I can't imagine substituting a watch for a phone as a timepiece, it just seems totally perverse.
What drives you forward?
It's funny, there was always some sort of urge to create things. Some people have a mind that is seeing future possibilities, and I think that is what most people who are entrepreneurs or designers of any sort (and I consider myself sort of both) you have to have an ability to see a different future. You look at what's here today and you imagine what that might become: you either have that in you or you don't. Then you have to have the stamina and the doggedness, and some of the guile and craft to actually make it happen. But you have to see it. I see what this is going to become in five years time, it's there in my head, I just have to make that happen in real life.
What drew you to judging the BBC’s Great British Sewing Bee?
For the long term future of what we do at Nortons and E Tautz with Cookson & Clegg, we need people to want to sew clothes for a living. For a long time the number of people getting into it has declined, and one of my hopes, besides having fun with Claudia Winkleman, was that the Great British Sewing Bee would have a similar effect on people wanting to sew clothes; at home initially and then turning them into professional sewers. Without that raw material, we have nobody to make clothes for us in our factories. It has already had an enormous effect on British home sewing industry: since Sewing Bee aired, they've sold 1.15m sewing machines in the UK. That's a lot of people who've got into sewing!
How do you see your role as a businessman?
Every business has an opportunity to see its role in society as something positive. Yes, we have to create economic value because that's how we exist but we can choose to make money by doing things that don't impact negatively on other people, and choose to use the money that we make to do things that are good. A lot of businesses are driven by greed and greedy individuals – and many of them, quite rightly, are driven by profit because they're owned by shareholders. But then there is a small part of the economy that is growing at a very significant rate, which is determined to do good things through business. There is nothing inherently wrong in Capitalism: Capitalism is just somebody with some money giving it to somebody else who has an idea. If that person takes that money and uses it wisely it can do a lot of good.