For one of Britain’s leading young fashion designers, Charlie Casely-Hayford can come across as remarkably…“Anti-fashion?” He laughs. “I think that is basically because I grew up in fashion. Because we are a family business, there’s a real integrity. We’ve always, as a family, chosen to exist outside of the fashion circle. We kind of just like doing our own things.”
They certainly do. His aunt Margaret, a successful lawyer, now chairs the charity ActionAid UK. Uncle Gus is a celebrated historian. Great-grandfather Joseph – novelist, lawyer and politician – can reasonably be described as one of the major figures of 20th century Africa. And father Joe remains one of the world’s leading fashion designers, a former creative director of Gieves & Hawkes who was awarded an OBE in 2007. A year later Powerlist named the Casely-Hayfords the most influential black family in the UK.
No pressure then, Charlie.
“There was never any pressure from anyone in my family at all. They instilled in you from a very young age to do your best at what you chose to do, and there was no pressure to necessarily do anything in particular with regards to a profession. Just to always make sure you do your best at whatever you do.”
He decided to do fashion, following Joe into the industry. The pair launched luxury menswear brand Casely-Hayford in 2009.
“[Fashion] was all I knew,” says Charlie of this decision. “My dad’s siblings and my immediate family have done very well in their respective fields, so I guess when you grow up in that environment you just think that’s the norm. Set your mind to something, do it.”
Impeccably polite, strikingly handsome (he has moonlighted as a model) and possessor of a gilded surname: if you took Charlie home to meet the family, mum and dad would be dancing on the kitchen table.
He arrives at the Square Mile studio armed with a notepad and a copy of The Bonfire of the Vanities; after hearing on the radio that everyone should have read all the books in their house, he decided to make a start.
As you might have guessed, Charlie is worlds away from the brash flamboyance of a Karl Lagerfeld or John Galliano. His speech is soft and riddled with pauses – if you mentally insert an ellipsis after every clause you wouldn’t be far off. He dresses with simple elegance: suit jacket, T-shirt, boots. This “uniform”, as he refers to it, is an unexpected by-product of his profession.
“I work in an industry that’s based on movement. It doesn’t exist. Fashion by definition has to change every season, otherwise it wouldn’t be fashion anymore: it would be style. I like the permanence of knowing that when I wake up in the morning I’ve got X number of suits in my wardrobe, I’ve got a stack of black tees, a stack of grey socks, a stack of army boots. It’s a nice feeling.”
And so you’ll never spot Charlie Casely-Hayford striding down the street wearing a pink fur coat and thigh-high yellow boots.
He credits his friends with keeping him grounded away from the catwalk and studio. “I spend a lot more time with normal guys who don’t know about fashion and think what I do is ridiculous. It normalises you, because I think it’s quite easy to get taken away by the…” he gropes for the right word, “seductive nature of the fashion world.”
Yet despite having a life beyond fashion, Charlie has no plans to work outside it. “I think I’ll stick to what I know best, and try and do it well. I’d rather do one thing well than do a lot of things badly.”
Not even try his hand in the music industry, of which he is a passionate fan?
“I wish,” he says, genuinely sincere. “I really regret not taking that ambition on as a child. I think maybe I’d have gone in that direction. Playing the drums, probably.”
Nonetheless, things haven’t turned out too badly: like his father, Charlie is well on the way to conquering the fashion world. The Casely-Hayford brand fuses street style with fine tailoring, “establishment and anti-establishment garments,” as he describes it.
Fashion is built on this idea of desiring things you don’t necessarily need. Coco Chanel said: ‘I think luxury is a necessity that begins when necessity ends
“There’s an interesting brand message that speaks about duality, which I think that a lot of people who wear our clothes relate to. We felt that is the definition of London culture. It’s not one or the other: it’s both simultaneously… We’re so accepting of other cultures in London, it makes for a very interesting place. To us, a true Londoner is a renaissance man, because he has a real and true understanding of everything that’s going on around him; he has an international outlook even though he might only be in one city. [In London] you can almost touch the entire world in just one place.”
This pluralist approach has won numerous fans: Chris Brown, Drake and Lewis Hamilton are just a few of the high-profile names to sport Casely-Hayford designs.
“What’s nice is that we’ve never actively approached anyone. It’s always been because people feel like there’s an affinity with the brand. Whether that’s Benedict Cumberbatch or Robert Downey Jr or Sam Smith or The xx – there’s a real breadth in terms of the people who we work with. They’re all people we respect in terms of being at the top of their game at whatever it is that they’re doing.”
Rather like the brand itself. What’s the secret to its continuing success?
“It’s been important for us to never be the flavour of the month. You kind of automatically put a sell-by date on yourself, and you can only really go one way from there. We try to build some consistency through inconsistency.
“[Fashion] is such a tough industry because it’s based on transiency, so you constantly have to be relevant, you can’t just rest on your laurels. Every season is almost like starting a new job. To do that for 30 years [in reference to his father, Joe] is quite an accolade.”
One might assume this transience would aid the fashion industry in these highly transient times, where the revolutionary can become obsolete in a matter of days. Yet even fashion isn’t immune to the speed and capriciousness of the 21st century.
“We’re at such a turbulent moment in fashion,” notes Charlie. “It almost feels like the industry is about to implode; nobody really knows what’s going to happen. It’s hard to predict next year, let alone five years.
“Everything has sped up. Social media has democratised fashion, because there is no real sense of hierarchy or exclusivity – or at least those barriers have been broken down.”
He believes this democratisation, and the dwindling power of the luxury label, will be one of the foremost changes for the industry.
“Fashion is built on this idea of desiring things you don’t necessarily need. Coco Chanel said: ‘I think luxury is a necessity that begins when necessity ends.’ When you suddenly remove all those [luxury] perimeters, how do you maintain this dream-like quality? I think a lot of brands are struggling with that.”
“With us, we’re very much steeped in culture movements and reacting to our environment. Because of that, I think it gives us a slightly different angle.”
The worse kind of fashion is when it’s totally alienating, and makes people feel bad about themselves
Time for some philosophy. Does the man make the style or does the style make the man?
He chuckles. “That’s quite a hard one! I think the style is defined by the man, because two guys can wear the same thing and it can look completely different. There’s obviously a reason for that. It’s an embodiment of who you are and how you carry yourself, so I guess style comes from within in that sense”
We say ‘man’, but this is a little misleading: Casely-Hayford showcased its first ever womenswear collection on the AW16 catwalk.
“You can have a bit more fun with womenswear,” Charlie concedes. “Particularly in terms of the made-to-measure, because women are more open to colour, fabric, pattern, shapes, trying new things. Whereas 90% of our menswear suits in the made-to-measure are still a navy, two-button, notch lapel. But guys look good in that!”
The foray into womenswear isn’t the only innovation at Casely-Hayford. The brand recently opened up its ‘express service’ to the wider public: designing a bespoke suit in a matter of days. Useful if you’re flying into town at short notice, especially for a big event.
“When a client wants something for the red carpet, they pretty much always come to us three days before. So we put a team in place so we could turn it around that quickly – whether it’s for the Grammys, the Brits, whatever. Then we thought it would make sense to open it up to other clients at a premium, because a lot of people are pressed for time nowadays.”
It isn’t easy, though. In order to make the suit, Charlie admits: “We put everything else on hold, and everyone focuses on that. That’s why it comes at a premium!”
So what does the future hold for the brand? Consolidation and expansion, essentially.
“We currently run our personal tailoring from Harvey Nichols,” says Charlie. “I guess that next step is opening retail space. Not necessarily in a rush, but we are talking about it. The demand is definitely there. Our made-to-measure side is really growing.It’s been really interesting for us making a suit for the CEO of a bank, and then making a suit for someone for the red carpet. They are totally different worlds.”
Don’t expect any fundamental changes to the brand’s core identity. Father and son don’t always agree but they share a common ethos.
“My dad has approached [fashion] in light of ‘how do I make a garment that’s going to make someone feel better about themselves? How do I make a garment that’s going to make someone look better?’ To do that, you’ve got to detach yourself from the basic notions of what fashion is, and think about the everyday guy.
“The worse kind of fashion is when it’s totally alienating, and makes people feel bad about themselves. What’s the good in that?”
For more information, see casely-hayford.com