Drake’s is one of my favorite brands, so it was an honor to sit down with this week’s subject, Michael Hill, during his most recent visit to New York. The son of the co-founder—the other was Michale Drake, hence the name—Hill has taken up the mantle of creative director, shaping a company that started out making ties into an influential and much-loved purveyor of a full range of menswear. He was in town to launch a collaborative collection with fellow Londoners St. John, the famed offal restaurant, but found time to sneak off with me to discuss his work history on Saville Row, maintaining the legacy of the brand while injecting it with fresh collaborations and styles, and plenty more.
Can you remember the first time you fell in love with clothing?
I do have lots of early memories. It certainly goes back to family. Two things come to mind. My father had a dressing room next to my parents’ bedroom; mom had a tiny little wardrobe. He used to get up very early in the morning to drive up to the tie factory. I’d love to be with him as he selected his tie and his shirt and his hanky and put it all together. He’d ask me my opinion and I’d help him choose. I had a love for materials and color at that stage. I also remember my father giving my grandfather some beautiful gingham shirts for Christmas one year. My grandfather really appreciated it and he loved the cloth. I was a very young kid but it stuck with me somehow.
How did this all impact your personal style?
MH: I was in the tie factory every weekend, always surrounded by cloth. My brother was as well, but I enjoyed clothes I suppose, and he wasn’t so interested. So it’s some nurture, isn’t it? I allowed it all to influence me. I wore a school uniform, so there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for expression, but I would wear Sebago shoes—we are just doing a collaboration with them. I remember graduating from the classic deck shoe to the chunkier one. It’s not a massive form of expression, is it? But with just your shoes and socks you could do quite a lot. I went to school on the fringes of London. Whenever I’d go to the city, I loved the excitement, seeing the culture and the way people dress. I was fascinated by how you could find your own style amongst that. I can’t claim to have ever been a part of any radical or interesting subculture growing up—more of an observer. I was in more of a classic world, but it was still a world that I saw beautiful clothing and really enjoyed.
What were you doing prior to Drake’s?
I was working for Richard James and Sean Dixon on Savile Row, and Michael Drake was supplying and making for people at some of the great tailoring houses on Savile Row like Huntsman and Anderson & Shepherd. He would come in as he was putting tie collections together for them and occasionally we’d have a chat, which was always nice because I hadn’t really seen him since I was a boy when he’d had the business with my old man. He was looking for someone [to work with him]. I think it was hard to find someone who he thought could source the cloth, sell to customers, and would get the weird, wonderful world of what Drake’s was. He was selling to some great tailors, but also selling to higher fashion brands like Agnes B or Comme des Garçons. He needed to find someone who he thought could get that, and I guess he thought I might get that, and maybe I did.
How do you manage the dichotomy of the legacy and tradition Drake’s carries with the cultural zeitgeist prevalent in men’s fashion today? For example, I’m thinking of your collaborative venture with Aimé Leon Dore.
It’s a really, really fun part of the role. We’re good with products. We’re good in terms of sensing what’s happening in the market. It’s all about a balance. It’s all about a rhythm and a cadence and you have that on one side, but then you have something completely different on the other side that helps to demonstrate the various threads that exist within our business and the plurality that we have. How do we do it? I’m not really sure. I think instinctively we do it by feel, not overthinking it, but obviously being careful and protective over what we are building. But often, if it feels right, it is right.
What makes a good brand?
To have a great brand, you have to have great ingredients that actually mean something. They have a level of consistency. That doesn’t mean they always have to do the same thing; you can do different things, but there has to be a common thread running through. They have to be brave. You can make your own rules up, but you’ve got to be true to the values in your brand. I’m never that comfortable with the word “brand,” but I know exactly what you mean because it’s more a question of people and products and crafts than brands. Craft is an important component. They’re doing something that they really care about. In our case, I think of great product, great style, and great people for the long term. Consistency and longevity and being close to your customer—and that’s that balance between leading your customer and showing things to your customer that hopefully keeps them interested and nicely surprised—but also following your customer in the right way as well.
Do you have any favorites you can think of?
So shall I tell you who I’m going to try and see when I go to Tokyo? Because these are some of my favorite brands. I’m going to go and see a store called Blue Blue. I like what Beams Plus does. I like Alden. I’m not sure they would think of themselves as a brand, but I like Alden a lot. It gives us that consistency of the craft, the longevity, the and great people. Anatomica. 45r. Again, beautiful, beautiful product, isn’t it? Engineered Garments, over the years. The Real McCoys.
What are some style tips, and essential items you think each man should own?
We’d like to hope that our perennial collection is a pretty good demonstration of easy wearable styles. Things that go together. You can get dress blindfolded, and if you put the different items together, generally speaking, they’ll work. Recently, I’m wearing a lot of very simple blue and white striped shirts, a navy blazer, a tweed jacket. Those are things that can carry you an awful long way. A raglan overcoat that you can kind of put over everything. It’s important to express yourself and find your style, which can mean you don’t get it right in the first year or two; it can take a bit of time. But at a certain point you probably want to know what colors work on you. I think that’s quite useful to know.
If you had to wear one outfit for the rest of your life, what would it consist of?
I’ll probably be wrong because I’m thinking what I would do now. I’m wearing black Alden modified last Cordovan that’s very simple, beautiful. I can wear those with everything. A pair of ecru jeans is pretty useful because you can dress that up quite well if you need to and yet they’re also quite casual. Some sort of navy blazer. Given I’m traveling today, it might not be a million miles away from [this], because it’s such an easy thing with a layer, like a quilted gilet in olive drab—pockets, easy, travel. You can go to sleep and they’re a little bit warmer. Navy Shetland. This is probably my just go-to shirt [a blue and white striped shirt], just wear it anywhere with everything. You can put this waxed, oversized jacket over everything. It’s waterproof, it’s warm, you can zip up a liner into it. Travel day means it is a bit of an everyday look.
Christopher Fenimore is a writer and photographer living in New York. Working with clients ranging from clothiers to vineyards, he’s also covered street style for a number of outlets. Follow him on Instagram at @c.fenimore.