Style: The very model of a modern English gent: Hackett is taking its empire overseas. Jonathan Glancey meets the man who gave classic clothes an international twist

'I SHOULDN'T say it,' said Jeremy Hackett, founder of Hackett, the Englishman's clothes empire that fits as neatly as a pair of jodhpurs between the high street chains and Savile Row, 'but I went to a meeting in Japan with the people who sell our clothes there. I was dressed much as I am today (a beautiful grey three-button suit, shirt, tie and shoes to match). The next time I went they were all wearing exactly the same thing, down to the tie-pin.

'The Japanese,' he added, 'like to buy what other Japanese buy and they have a very specific view of the English look.' Certainly no group of English bankers would stand at a bus stop wearing identical Burberry trenchcoats, matching suits, mirror-image shoes and Identikit ties. But then, the Nintendo- age Samurai has a feudal desire to conform which the English gentleman, although superficially homogeneous in taste, abhors.

Jeremy Hackett must get used to the foibles of foreign men for, last year, his firm was effectively taken over by Dunhill (now the majority shareholder). A new managing director, James A Pow (former international sales and marketing director at Mulberry) was brought in, and the decision was made to take Hackett and its authentic English gentleman's clothing abroad. Franchises operating in Madrid and Barcelona will be followed by openings in other major European cities, including Paris, Milan and Frankfurt. There are also plans to open stores in the US in 1994-95.

But, should alarm bells be ringing in Mr Hackett's head? After all, the English gentleman's look has never really been understood by Continentals, let alone the Japanese. There are in central London, and in the capital cities of the world, countless shops that purport to sell English style to foreigners. Yet those such as Aquascutum, Burberry, Simpson, Austin Reed and Dunhill in London, and their equivalents abroad, are in the business of peddling a highly polished pseudo-English look to men who would never wear socks in bed, the same suit for weeks on end, or the same trusty brogues for 25 years.

Whenever an Italian or Spaniard adopts 'the English look', he looks far too smart and glossy; could you imagine him climbing into a dusty skip to rescue a strip of 18th-century dado moulding or striding along a thorny bridleway, mud lapping over his leather uppers and dog slathering at his side? And when did you ever see a Continental or Japanese 'Englishman' dressed in anything other than the smoothest cottons and tweeds? Not for them the thick worsteds of the native species.

The question for Hackett must be this: if the company is to appeal to the would-be English gentleman abroad, will it feel forced to refine its sturdy cloths and to water down the genuine English look that has made its shops so popular at home? Will Hackett have to 'theme' the English look to meet foreign approval?

Mr Hackett inspects a chalk-stripe suit, thinks for a moment and says, 'No.' Honestly? 'Honestly. The point is that men from different countries buy different clothes from us. We won't compromise, we'll just let them choose from what we have to offer.'

So, what do foreign men buy? Mr Hackett's eyes light up and he sets out on an expedition through his new flagship shop in Sloane Street.

First stop: shoes. 'The Italians love good shoes, as do the French. In fact, they buy better English shoes than most Englishmen. An Italian will pick up a suede brogue and enthuse ecstatically over the suppleness of the hide and the quality of the stitching; the Englishman will grumble about the price.

'Continentals tend to buy two or three identical suits at a time, while Englishmen wear the same suit day in, day out. Latins - especially Latin Americans - are obsessed with smart casuals, so we've developed a line of these. It's not 'leesure' wear - perish the thought - but English sporting classics made a little more colourful.

'What foreigners still find surprising is that Englishmen like more than a splash of vibrant colour: Eton boys and their fancy waistcoats are an obvious example. Another is the fact that when we sell at events such as Henley and point- to-points, our red corduroys outsell the olive and straw cords that foreigners associate with the English look.

'We also sell rather loud waistcoats, ties, slippers, dressing gowns, smoking jackets and accessories. Englishmen like to customise a basic and serviceable wardrobe, while Continentals have a large collection of conspicuously neat and really rather conservative clothes.

'Hackett is not quite 10 years old, so we're often thought of as a part of the fashion business. In fact, we're not at all fashionable; we make traditional Englishmen's clothes and our concerns are all to do with cut and cloth and detail.'

But when Mr Hackett set up shop, selling second-hand Englishmen's clothes, shoes and accessories in Fulham, west London, in 1983, he found he was running one of the most fashionable of English clothes shops. It struck a chord with the sort of Englishmen who wear cords, a sturdy suit for years, and shoes as timeless as he can find.

Hackett cashed in, fortuitously, on the Brideshead Revisited-Merchant Ivory boom for tweedy stiff-upper-lip nostalgia in the early Eighties and then found himself dressing ex-public schoolboys about to enter the City at the time of the 'Big Bang' as bankers, brokers, analysts and lawyers. Their mark of distinction was to wear magnificent three-button suits (many of them ex-Savile Row) with thick and crisp white or striped cotton shirts (double-cuffs and links), discreetly loud silk ties and ancient brogues (Lobb, Maxwell), creased and polished.

This carefully nurtured image was almost a parody of the English gentleman's code of dress that has so fascinated Continentals since the day Beau Brummell began to lay down the law as to what constituted a proper gentleman's wardrobe.

Jeremy Hackett walks around the Sloane Street shop like an enthusiastic curator and, as he fondles the clothes he designs and makes and that carry his name (on tiny, well-concealed labels), it is not difficult to see why his taste, his thorough knowledge of tailoring and his enthusiasm have translated from a second-hand shop on the Fulham Road to a clothing empire.

One believes him when he says that Hackett will not slip into the world of ersatz Englishness when it roams abroad. There will still be the soft suits with their Savile Row 'floating canvas' between cloth and lining, three-inch waistband adjuster and trouser pleats that reach the waistband. Overcoats will still be cut from 30oz cloth (20oz is the norm) and the staff (including 'gels') will still look fresh from the Upper Fifth Remove.

Sleek Spaniards, elegant Italians, streamlined French and squeaky-clean Japanese will see reflected in the mirrors of Hackett's overseas shops an image of the English gentleman they want to be. They will, however, never look like the real, doggy, horsy, leather-on-willow thing; and, if the secret be told, they don't really want to.

(Photographs omitted)

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