Designer Oliver Spencer on his journey from Portobello Market to the catwalk
Menswear designer Oliver Spencer discusses the demise of the suit, post-Brexit opportunities, and how a market stall trader became the toast of the London menswear catwalk
- By Zoey Goto -
“We’re in a really interesting era, as men are changing the way they dress on a daily basis. There is simply no need for a suit in the workplace nowadays. The way that we all trade and do business has changed massively,” declares menswear designer and retailer Oliver Spencer, leaning back on his chair in the basement office of his Lambs Conduit Street store.
Spencer is referring to the evolution of the workplace, which now finds over four million British people working from home in some capacity. “These people no longer need a structured suit. The centralised dealing room has gone and we now all sit in front of computers. As a result, the uniform has changed,” states Spencer, who has been riding high on the crest of this relaxed revolution.
As a self-taught designer, Spencer cut his teeth as a Portobello Market trader in the mid 1990s, at a time when “you really had to have your wits about you. When people ask me where I went to university, I say Portobello Road because I learnt everything there. You learn how to trade and how to communicate with people. I started off with a wheelbarrow at 4.30am and I did that for three years.”
During this period Spencer also created the formalwear brand Favourbrook, before launching his eponymous label, Oliver Spencer, in 2002. In the fledgling years, Spencer says that he was learning the ropes and trying to find a language, but that he always retained a quintessential Britishness in his clothing.
“What I set out to do was to make clothing that guys love wearing. Our clients range in age from their early 20s through to their 90s,” he says. His popular runway shows at London Collections: Men, and a client list that includes Daniel Craig, Michael Fassbender and Jude Law, have helped to bring Oliver Spencer to an international market. What appeals to this varied customer base is the wearability of his clothing.
“My main object is to create clothes that make people feel like they are putting on their old favourite every time,” he reveals. This notion has resonated with the customer and Oliver Spencer now has four London shops, with plans to return to his west London roots by opening a store on High Street Kensington in the spring.
Like the rest of us, I am really interested to see what happens post-Brexit. The financial repercussions will be huge but actually I believe that change is a good thing.
“The menswear industry has changed considerably,” he states. “For example, suits are looked upon in a different way. People may now put on a structured suit to go to a party, wedding or a funeral, but it is no longer essential for the office. If you have the confidence, you don’t need to need wear a tie and suit – in fact I think it gives out the wrong message. To me, someone who wears a suit is either desperate to do a deal, or they go to work to sell houses.”
“There are so many other options, such as a blazer made out of heavy wool so you can wear it as a coat or equally in the office on top of a merino jumper. Shirts should have a softer collar structure, worn with smart jeans and good shoes. In the forward-thinking companies, people are already wearing unstructured workwear. The stiffer, more old-fashioned suit is a thing of the past, which will eventually phase out completely,” he says, before continuing: “You now have people like Gavin Patterson at BT wearing his first few shirt buttons undone. If we go back to the days when Richard Branson first started out, his style was well ahead of the trend.”
Spencer feels his brand also ties in with the move away from logos on menswear garments. “We’re part of a movement that is redressing the British male. Our label is seen and not heard, and there’s big movement towards this in the industry.
The entrepreneurial designer now has his sights set on expanding his retail territory, and teaming up with a chef friend to open a restaurant, although he expresses concern over the rising business rates in the capital: “I don’t want to see London turn into a Manhattan-style situation, where there are streets filled with shops to rent because no one can afford to run them. As a shopkeeper, the landlord should be a part of your business but not the dominant factor.”
As one of the first British brands to offer the customer instantly shoppable catwalk collections, Oliver Spencer has often pioneered transitions within the menswear industry, and feels positive that this attitude will see the business through the current climate.
“Like the rest of us, I am really interested to see what happens post-Brexit,” he says. “The financial repercussions will be huge but actually I believe that change is a good thing. I voted to stay in, but I’m also not afraid to leave the Eurozone, which I think is a mess being propped up by Germany. In some respects, we’ve always had one foot out of the door, as we haven’t been part of the monetary union. It’s probable that more countries will now come out of the Eurozone and the political landscape will start to change.”
Undaunted by this prospect, Spencer concludes that he has “been in this business for 20 years and we always do better during a recession, as people like to dress up more. We run a tight ship so are very able to deal with the rough times. I’m not like Mike Ashley with a private jet lined up – I actually come to work on my five-year-old scooter,” he laughs, before heading off to plan his next stylish venture.
For more info, see oliverspencer.co.uk