Joining the army, bartering for Russian hats, working with HRH The Prince of Wales, launching London Craft Week – there isn’t much the ex-director of Asprey and Laurent-Perrier hasn’t tried his hand at. Now he’s predicting the future of luxury...
I was born at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital – which is also where my two sons were born – and live in Kensington.
My parents had a house in Knightsbridge and one in Hampshire. Growing up I always wanted to spend more time in London than in the country – the city’s amazing creativity and diversity fascinated me.
A lot of people have a very transactional relationship with London, but if you know the history behind things you realise how special they are. The Wolseley, for example, was once a car showroom. I never forget that.
My great-grandmother was American. She lived for many years on the top floor of what was then the US embassy on Grosvenor Square. It’s also where my mother came out as a débutante. It’s being developed as Four Seasons residences now.
My first job was with the army when I was 18, before university. I won a rather drunken bet with some friends that I could get through the selection process (although at that stage I wanted to be an actor). Probably because I was so relaxed and didn’t care whether I got it or not, I came through with flying colours.
I had to go to Sandhurst and choose a regiment. I chose the Welsh Guards because that was my father’s. Suddenly, I was out in Berlin. Even though I was doing a short service commission I was treated like any other young officer and given a platoon of 30 men. I didn’t know what I was doing so I asked my sergeant to run the platoon until he thought I knew enough about it.
There was the Officer Commanding British Military Train as part of the agreement after the war, which was allowed to go from East Berlin into West Germany every day. The officer in charge had to go through various formalities along the way with the equivalent Soviet officer – the great joke was to see if you could get one of those big furry Russian hats. I once marched down the platform with my interpreter, and saluted the other guy and his interpreter. After the formalities I asked, “how much for your hat?”. The answer came back: “Nyet.” I said, “Why not? How much do you want?” “No, no.” “Well, what do you want?” The answer came back: “Pornography.” I said I could have got some if I’d known sooner but it was too late. I never got the hat.
I studied history at university, then left for New York to work in the city like my father had. I hated the job. I wanted to do something completely different, which led me to join Arcadia. It was the best possible thing I could have done because, at that time, it was a business that was literally redesigning the high street, coming up with brands like Topshop that we now take for granted.
I started as a management trainee doing all kinds of jobs on the shop floor, working my way up to become group marketing director. Along the way, I had a spell working directly for chairman Ralph Hauffman as his executive assistant. That was amazing. At that young age I got an insight into every board meeting, a lot of the unbelievable politics and what a business can do for the local area.
Ralph Hauffman really understood developing retail that focused on the customer. He was a slightly controversial guy and often made headlines, partly because he was the first British chief executive to ever be paid more than £1 million.
In Evans, the plus-size brand, the top selling items were skimpy red lacy bras. It puzzled me because from an engineering point of view they weren’t up to the task, but they were still the top sellers. It taught me to challenge any preconceptions of what the customer might want.
Around the time of inner-city riots and Margaret Thatcher’s re-election in the early 80s, I decided to create Arcadia dinners for cabinet ministers to explain to them what businesses can do in the community. At the beginning it was difficult to get any cabinet minister to join them, but by the end they were queuing up to be asked.
It led to my next job with HRH Prince of Wales as his first private secretary for industry and commerce. It was meant to be two years but he asked me to stay for four.
While I was there, we started a brand from scratch: Duchy Originals. You absolutely didn’t know if it was going to be a success, but you felt a sense of ‘the time is right’. It was directly related to the royal family; it gave a percentage of the profits back to charities; it was 100 per cent organic and encouraged Duchy of Cornwall farmers to turn organic too.
When I first invested in Monica Vinader, I was sat around a kitchen table with Monica and her sister Gabriella – we didn’t even have a stall. It was a year or more before we opened in South Molton Street. I didn’t know it was going to be such a phenomenal success. It was a simple idea of beautiful jewellery made with real stones but at an accessible price that mean that women could gift themselves.
It is terrifying starting a new business – putting your own money on the line. You have to slightly disengage part of yourself from it otherwise you would just go barmy with the stress and disappointment.
Before the financial crisis, I was very worried about the luxury sector. Brands were moving manufacturing to cheaper locations and cutting corners – all that mattered was the logo. This lead to my theory of the ‘discernment curve’: that the unbelievable growth of global wealth and emerging middle class would result in better educated consumers who were more interested in quality and craftsmanship and less interested in logos. Long story short, that’s what has happened.
Luxury is still a fantastic industry to be in (thank goodness), but remains fragile. I wouldn’t be surprised if some famous names aren’t around in a few years.
I have another theory called ‘beyond luxury’, by which I mean that luxury needs to be redefined as not being about a handful of brands. It should be a much wider spectrum of people doing and making amazing things.
London Craft Week is the first attempt to celebrate this: one city-wide pop-up with 220 events, where you take brands like Chanel or Rolls-Royce, who are at the top of their game, and put them side by side with unknown, equally talented, smaller brands, young emerging makers and little-known heritage brands. Along with entertainment, experiences, food, drink and performance, it’s an appreciation for beauty that people don’t normally associate with luxury.
I’ve been speaking to the Chinese Ministry of Culture in Beijing for years now. It is bringing its own exhibition of Chinese artisans to London. It’s so exciting. Mayfair remains the epicentre of the things we are doing. Dunhill and Purdey are our headline sponsors; their flagships are also in the area.
London’s creativity, underpinned by that incredible rule of law and decency, means that aside from all the politics, we shouldn’t forget that we are very respected internationally.
I never used to think I was creative at all. Apart from photography, which I’m afraid I’ve given up now. I don’t play the piano or paint. To my surprise, the thing I am good at is seeing things clearly a few years before other people. My problem is trying to explain it.
The future is about building platforms, providing opportunities for businesses to engage with communities around common themes. I’ve heard so much about how brands want to harvest customer data – it’s very one-dimensional. How much more imaginative would it be to create something that people love and feel happy about and engage with of their own accord?