CONVERSATION: Timothy Everest
The bespoke tailor and designer on keeping things fresh after a quarter-century of success
Interview by Ryan Thompson
Timothy Everest MBE casts a funny figure, in the nicest possible sense, as he stands in the ground-floor back-room office of his Elder Street atelier, cradling a large cup of tea in a pair of fingerless gloves. He is dressed head to toe in performance cycling wear, including sock-like Lycra overshoes. As he walks into the small front room, the cleats of his cycling shoes clunk against the uneven floorboards, which creak in return. He has just made the trip in from near Richmond, where he lives with his wife Catherine. Tall and broad-shouldered, with a head of light-blond wavy hair parted at the side, there is something of the World War I fighter pilot about him. He speaks at a clip and often tangentially, but with a soft and inviting tone that is regularly interspersed with a giggle or two. After a few minutes in conversation, you find yourself sitting a little deeper into the sofa, as comfortable as if you were chatting to an old friend.
32 Elder Street, which Everest first rented, then renovated and finally bought, has been his headquarters for over 20 years and was the venue for this interview. With low ceilings, the aforementioned noisy floorboards and a staircase that moves with your every step - the house is, in many ways, what you would expect for a man who has always defied convention. Much of what you see inside has been the result of Everest’s own labour and is very much an extension of his personality. Radiators, rugs and light switches all salvaged, restored and brought together in a wonderfully shabby harmony that no interior designer could purposely recreate if they had a lifetime to try. It’s as unique as Everest is welcoming, which is to say very, and is a far cry away - both literally and figuratively - from Savile Row, where Everest once learnt his trade.
CS: One of the things that struck me while reading about you on the internet was the number and diversity of luminaries who have lived in the small Welsh town you spent some of your early years in. Haverfordwest boasts alumni as diverse as Christian Bale, Rhys Ifans, the now-incarcerated Chelsea Manning…
TE: I think Suggs [from Madness] went to school there, too. He was very embarrassed when I reminded him. My mum and most of my family are there. I moved back in my mid teens. I was brought up in Southampton, then in southern Ireland and then in Kent, where I took a job in Canterbury selling brass ornaments and lamps in the Buttermarket for a company called Langleys. It was owned by two men called Leonard and Stanley. They went on to open a health-food shop they called Stannards! It sold the worst nut rissoles! It was really funny. Then my parents moved to Wales and they kind of persuaded me to move there with them because they’d secured me a job in a furniture store. You see, I completely flunked my education. I was crap at everything at school. I’d always really wanted to be a racing driver. Eventually, I was offered a job with Hepworths tailors, which started in Milford Haven and then opened up in Haverfordwest.
By the time I was 18, I was relief manager for South Wales, which sounds rather Carry On but it basically entailed covering for other managers when they were on holiday or were ill. In fact, that’s how I got my RAC official licence. If you want to race you have to have this licence. The RAC official for West Wales was my Saturday boy, only he was in his sixties and an absolute tyrant! No one could work out how an 18-year-old had got his licence so quickly!
CS: Do you remember any of your colleagues from that period?
TE: I remember my immediate boss. He was extremely short-sighted - a real life Mr Magoo. The first week I was there - and I’m not making this up - he was trying to give the credit card back to the mannequin! I had to tell him, ‘Mr Kelly, the customer is on the left,’ and he’d retort angrily, ‘I know that, boy!’ My great-uncle worked there part-time, too, both before and after the war. He was a very proud man and affected this ridiculously posh voice. I have no idea where it came from because he was a Welsh farmer’s son. He was the sort of person who goes swimming with a cravat on. David Niven-esque he was - very similar in appearance. Anyway, we had these leather jackets come in from head office one time and my great-uncle was mortified. ‘Good God!’ he said. ‘We’re not Millets, we’re tailors!’ But then I saw on the invoice document the spiff, which is the commission. ‘Uncle Douglas, have you seen this?’ I said. The spiff was £5. ‘Five pounds!’ he said, his eyes lighting up. We used to have a lot of fishermen come into the store in Milford Haven, plus the guys from the oil refineries who were all flush with cash after being out at sea for so long. When someone went to touch the leather jacket, my uncle was straight in there. On one occasion, he made a beeline for a chap who was showing some interest. ‘It’s extremely soft,’ Uncle Douglas said, ‘and have you noticed why that is?’ The customer shook his head. ‘Well, if you look at it closely you can see that it is not made out of the one skin but four skins.’ It was made out of four panels! Of course, I absolutely wet myself. He shouted ‘Boy! Get upstairs!’ I got the bollocking from hell and was sent to the stockroom to merchandise everything. On top of that, when I got home my grandmother slapped me round the face for embarrassing her brother!
CS: From how you describe your early days, in some ways, you seem to have stumbled into tailoring through a combination of serendipity and not really knowing what else to do.
TE: I really did, but you know, I’m like anybody - I’ll have a go at something and give it my best, no matter what. There was an element of peer-group pressure too, as friends started to move away. I found myself temporarily emigrating to Florida, but I met a girl and decided to come back. Then I met people on holiday from Birmingham and we started going out to clubs like the Rum Runner on Broad Street and hanging out with Duran Duran and others who were quite famous at the time.
CS: Was it during this party period that you started to develop a real interest in fashion?
TE: Yes, I guess I started to get serious about it then, but I had always been interested in it, even as a boy. From the age of about 12, I used to go off to the market in Canterbury. I remember these old Jewish guys who used to come down from the East End. They would have these wide-legged fashion trousers that were five pounds, and you could try them on. I was only very short at the time. They’d measure you up, then come back the following Thursday and you could have them. It was so much fun. There were only a couple of men’s shops where you could find slim-fitting stuff for small people and they used to think I was very odd, this 12-year-old walking into a men’s shop and asking for fitted shirts.
Clubbing, though, was certainly an important catalyst for me. You could read about these amazing clubs in magazines, but you had to really go somewhere to see and understand what was going on. The interesting thing was that every place had its own version of whatever movement was happening at the time, so Manchester was different to Leeds, which was different to London. For me, being a very shy person, my moment was New Romanticism, although I was a very poor punk at 14. Wearing make-up and hiding in the shadows trying to properly frighten girls became a lot more appealing than rebuilding the bottom end of a two-stroke engine on a Friday night! Eventually, I started meeting some really interesting people: Steve Strange, Rusty Egan, Boy George - it was that sort of time. I realised I just had to be in London. I was there one weekend and picked up the Evening Standard - it used to have the job adverts on a Friday. There were two in it that I replied to. The first was for Bonsack bathroom fittings on Bond Street - I’d sold brass ornaments before and they’re sort of metal, aren’t they?! But I received a letter from the MD saying it would be far too traumatic for a young boy to make the move all the way from Wales, so that was that. The other ad read simply: ‘Boy Wanted, Savile Row’. Those four words would shape the rest of my life.
CS: And that job happened to be with Tommy Nutter?
TE: Indeed. I thought I was terribly worldly at the time and I knew all about made-to-measure and high-street tailoring from my time at Hepworths. I had no idea who Tommy was, of course. The first thing he asked me was if I knew anything about him and I replied affirmatively, to which he curtly replied, ‘No, you don’t.’ I remember he brought out his portfolio and I was sitting there with my properly crimped peroxide-blond hair and a cobalt-blue zoot suit. He was showing me all this stuff like The Beatles picture on Abbey Road and I said, ‘Why have you got that?’ and he said, ‘I thought you knew all about me? I did all the clothes for that… except for George Harrison, he was always very difficult.’ So I pestered him for the job. In fact, my wife interviewed me! That’s how long we’ve been together.
Eventually, my hounding paid off and they gave me a three-month trial that lasted five years. Tommy and I became really good mates, and John Galliano was there on placement from St Martin’s School of Art - really heady days. Some of my best friends were made during that period, people like Steve [Strange] who I introduced to Tommy. We all used to go out and have fun, because the guy who actually owned the company wasn’t very nice and it was very demoralising for Tommy, but that gave me a lot of opportunity to help him.
CS: It seems that tailors were quite a central fixture of the scene in those days - like a members’ club in many ways.
TE: I think it was Michael Caine who said the reason he went to see Doug Hayward was to see who was in town. They’ve lost that social thing. No doubt you can learn stuff on the internet, but there’s still an awful lot of knowledge and secrets out there that require actual discovering. Don’t forget that, until really recently, retail was seen as being dead. Now you’re seeing people who have come from an internet background getting into bricks and mortar.
CS: Certainly, walking into your atelier here on Elder Street feels like stepping into a private residence. You feel somehow part of the brand.
TE: You do. It’s like you’re investing in the company when you come here. I remember talking to - I forget his name now… owned Flannels - he was saying there was a time they became very lazy because they would just talk to the big brands, the big advertisers, and ask them what they were going to push that season, then they’d buy really deep on that. But then, when things got tricky and people were questioning those designer brands, he said they had to go back to simply being good retailers again.
TE: They’ve all been a challenge for many different reasons. We were never supposed to do a lot of them. In the early days, it was probably more of a cry for help - you know, if we help you, will you help us. The first one was Louis Vuitton - they’d signed Marc Jacobs, but he was contractually tied and couldn’t start right away, so I styled their campaign with Jo Levin, who was creative fashion director at GQ. There were others. Then M&S approached us, so we reviewed its entire menswear range. We created a new brand, Sartorial, which was very successful and then Autograph, which we repackaged for Stuart Rose. Really, we got involved in things that weren’t doing very well! Our collaboration with Daks was shortly after. We turned that around from a loss to a profit in two and a half years, which you’re not supposed to do. That was very surreal because there were three of us, sitting in this house in East London overseeing a £600m business, but by default and by saying yes to all these scary opportunities and worrying about them afterwards, we ended up learning a great deal about other parts of the business.
CS: But what has made you better able to turn them into success stories?
TE: I suppose our specialism comes from being British. We’ve jumped into some really difficult situations - the last one being Superdry, which had just announced its second profit warning. People said we were nuts! Everything is intuitive, though. Sometimes, when you come off the back foot, when the expectations are low, you can generate a lot of impact. We changed the press’s perception of Superdry and the share price jumped when we launched its men’s and women’s collections. We’ve done things with Rapha, Brooks and Pearson, and right now, we’re working with Rolls-Royce. They want us to bring Charles Rolls alive. He was a real character - the first Briton to die in a plane, when he was 32; the second man in Britain to have his pilot’s licence; a racing driver; a serial womaniser, preferably with married women. ‘Roll like Charles’ is the working title. We’ll create some exclusive product for it, so there will be a driving jacket or an aviator, that sort of thing. We’re in the business of bespoke and we take a bespoke approach to our business, which enables us to be flexible with these things.
CS: You mentioned Rapha, Pearson and Brooks. I gather cycling is a big passion of yours?
I’d say I’m a mountain biker first and foremost. When I was a kid in Kent, there always seemed to be a wind in your face - you could never get anywhere on your bicycle. I had a Puch racer. When I was 12, I wanted to buy a motorbike, so I went to work in the fruit farms to save up. I was paid six and a half pence per punnet of strawberries. I managed to save up enough money, but my parents were against me buying a motorbike, so I bought the Puch instead and I hated it! After my time working for Tommy Nutter, I went to work with a man called Malcolm Levine. One day, these guys turned up with Muddyfox mountain bikes, and I’d never seen or heard of them before. So I asked if I could have a go and, well, I jumped on and started pedalling and it was a dream. Then I bought a Kona. When we moved to the East End, I rented a house off a guy called Rob and he had a friend called Jerry Arron who had a graphic-design business in Southwark. They were both really into bikes. Some 20 years ago, Jerry used to talk about a brand like Rapha that he dreamed of creating. Anyway, he eventually opened a bike shop in Bristol called Mud Dock, with a cafe, which became very famous - a lot of people copied that model. It all started off quite social. We would go out to the country, aim for a pub and then come back. Then it got to being who could get to the pub fastest. We soon started doing these mad races - it was great. We did the Ridgeway once - the old pilgrims’ route from Avebury to Wendover. It’s an amazing ride.
Somewhere along the line, I had a brief fling with scooters and motorbikes again and subsequently got fat, but then returned to cycling, although I still stayed fat. One day, I ran into Luke Scheybeler, who is one of the Rapha founders, along with Simon Mottram. They’d been going about four years and had done a few small collaborations with other brands - I think they did a shaving kit with Trumper and something with Paul Smith. Anyway, we ended up creating a cycling jacket with them, which was a lot of fun. The Brooks collaboration came about because some of the girls who work for me were on the Tweed Run (tweedrun.com) with people from Brooks. We created the John Boultbee collection, which did very well. Then I had a bike stolen outside Shoreditch House and someone directed me to two brothers who were running Pearson Cycles in Sutton. They said they’d just gone into The Guinness Book of Records for being the oldest bike shop in the world - a 5th-generation family business. I thought it was the perfect match for us, really cool. So, after lots of conversations over tea and beer, suddenly we were opening a concept store for them in Sheen. We’re also working with David Millar and his brand Chapter 3, because he wants a tracksuit to wear when he’s sitting with the kids in Gerona that’s also something he can take the missus out for tapas in. There’s enough room in the cycling lifestyle sector to have these niches within niches.
I suppose it might sound like we’re doing too many things, but actually, they’re all connected. That said, we’re mindful to take a bespoke approach with all of them because we don’t want them to be the same, otherwise it would all be nonsense and no one would work with us.
CS: There’s been lots of discussion lately about fashion’s outdated seasonal policy, but it looks to be changing with Burberry’s decision to merge menswear and womenswear into biannual collections. What’s your take on it?
TE: We’ve always sort of done that through bespoke. The thing that used to annoy me is that we’re all different ages and shapes and personalities, with different ideals, but fashion has taken so long to catch up with that idea. We seem to be moving in a direction now where we’re less obsessed about ‘the next season’ and more focused - rather refreshingly - on the individual. The other thing that’s really interesting is the shake-up in price hierarchy. When the Liquor Store first opened with J.Crew in Tribeca, New York, for me, that was really rather odd because, historically, if you were premium, everything would be priced way up here and if you were medium, it would be priced lower down. But at the Liquor Store, you had a leather jacket for 600 bucks next to a 40-dollar shirt and some Red Wing boots. Whether they were doing this on purpose or whether they came upon this structure by chance doesn’t really matter, but, to me, it demonstrated a really clever way of looking at how people were purchasing their clothes. Would you buy, let’s say, a Belstaff leather jacket every season? No, of course not, because they’re investment pieces that should last you a lifetime. But a washed-linen shirt in a fabulous coral pink, well, you might buy one of those every year, or many in different colours. So that’s what we’re trying to do with our retail concept but yes, in short, things have changed.
CS: And yet here you are, 25 years on, a fixture of the East End.
TE: Well, Gilbert and George were the pioneers in this area, but we were certainly the next generation. What’s rather lovely is that people don’t know we’ve been here for 25 years. It’s really great to have the store on Redchurch Street too, which has somehow become quite menswear-centric, with loads of great likeminded individuals and brands. I’ve been in the business a quarter of a century, and yet it still all feels very fresh and new in many ways.