Fashion: Puzzled? You'll soon work it out

Chris Bailey, the man who created Jigsaw Menswear, is doing away with this successful high-street name and launching a brand-new label in its place. Can he cut it with the boys about town? Undoubtedly, says
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The Independent Culture
Over the next six months you will notice the Jigsaw Menswear label steadily disappearing from a high street near you. Shop fronts, labels, bags and all other forms of the brand's identity will be scrubbed out. In its place will be Uth (pronounced "youth") and the tag line "It's a mind thing".

"I wanted to give the label its own strong international identity, by giving the image a more upmarket feel, but without making it any more expensive," says Chris Bailey, owner of the former Jigsaw Menswear.

Given that we're talking about a brand that has high-street clout, and has turned into a resounding success (with a pounds 15m turnover for 1998), isn't it taking quite a risk to relaunch Jigsaw Menswear under a different label?

"We've got to convince our loyal customers that nothing has changed apart from the name, which is why we have set up the slow, teaser campaign with the Uth stickers taped over the Jigsaw logo," explains Chris Bailey.

Why should the man who is credited with changing the face of menswear on the British high street worry about shaking up the rules all over again? After all, it was Bailey who launched Jigsaw Menswear in 1994 when there was little choice between the bland Italian imitations at Mr Byrite and the expensive, real McCoy Italian designers such as Armani and Cerruti. It wasn't just the clothes that were fresh and exciting; the stores were young and hip, belting out up-tempo house music, while the advertising campaigns rammed the novelty message home with provocative images of young men with attitude, shot by internationally acclaimed and, more important still, "of-the-moment" photographers - David Sims, Juergen Teller and Terry Richardson.

Bailey saw the gap in the middle of the market and moved in, rescuing men up and down the country from the dull and the overpriced in one fell swoop and rejuvenating the menswear market to boot.

Over an early morning cappuccino, Bailey explains: "I knew there were other men out there like me who couldn't afford a pounds 1,000 suit, but wanted an individual look." The man sitting in front of me certainly has an individual look. Bailey is quite the snappy dresser, in a low-key combination of Prada and Helmut Lang, but somehow he doesn't look as if he belongs to the fashion world.

"They [the press] always say I look like a bouncer, so people assume I'm this hard nutter who's always looking for a punch-up. The thing is," he says, looking the picture of sincerity, as he strokes the heavy silver chain around his neck, "I'm not at all like that."

Bailey is, in fact, a 40-year-old big bloke with a shaven head who is not afraid to speak his mind, and that's where the similarity to the proverbial bouncer ends. Far from his aggressive image, he comes across as a sensitive gent when I ask him about his home life. He talks with pride about his three little girls, Grace, Liberty and Eve, and his wife Ros (design director of Jigsaw Womenswear). And the fact that he is trying to master yoga suggests a man who is interested in pursuing calm and serenity.

Here is someone who has come up from the bottom in a tough business. Bailey, one of five children of a sample machinist mother and a builder father, grew up on a Tottenham housing estate. At 16 he left school and went to the local technical college to study fashion. "I couldn't stay because I couldn't afford the fees," he says. So, at 17, he left to work in the rag trade as a pattern-cutter on pounds 20 a week. ("I've still got the calluses on my hands to prove it.")

His career took a great leap forward when, at 24, he set up the production for Jigsaw Womenswear with John Robinson, who founded Jigsaw 25 years ago. And at 27 Bailey bought the first of two factories, which enabled Jigsaw to make its own exclusive designs and respond quickly to consumer demand.

It wasn't until last year that Bailey bought Jigsaw Menswear from John Robinson, his mate and business partner (who retained a 25 per cent equity stake). Up until then he had been steering the menswear as the director of design and the man in charge of production, but now that he's at the helm (with Robinson's full backing), he's ready to put his big ideas into action.

He has already expanded the clothes with two smaller lines. The first, Bailey, is the more up-market, with luxury fabrics; many of the clothes are limited editions of, say, just 50 of a certain jacket. The second is The Edge, which drills through Bailey's streetwise message, with hi- tech fabrics, anoraks and skinny cropped pants - you get the picture.

Bailey wants to take his vision of cool, urban sportswear to Milan where, he reckons, "the kids are screaming for a bit of affordable high-fashion kit and dying for shops with a looser atmosphere where the music is cranked up".

Japan will also be targeted, along with New York where he would like to show Uth on the catwalk. And in the UK, shops will shortly open in High Street Kensington, in west London; in Edinburgh (in an old bank which will be transformed into a Uth club complete with bar); and in Birmingham.

"I've worked from the bottom up. I know everything there is to know about the construction of a garment and I know my accounts and balance sheets," he says sagely.

But how, I wonder, does he keep his finger firmly on the pulse of fashion?

"Well, I wouldn't get any ideas if I just sat at home watching Coronation Street. I go out all the time. All the hotspots - Shoreditch, Notting Hill, Soho - and people-watch. I'm fascinated in how people put themselves together," says Bailey, who, you can tell, doesn't take his mind off the business for a millisecond. Inspired by kilt-clad Scotsmen at a wedding, he pulled off a particularly successful coup last season, when his shops sold 500 plain grey and black kilts to men.

Bailey's ability to pounce on an idea and exploit it means that Uth is out in front of his high-street competitors. Get down there and see for yourself.