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Building an empire from cotton: a Charles Tyrwhitt exclusive

Posted on 01 February, 2018

Interview by JON CLARKE


Back in 1986, Nick ‘Charles Tyrwhitt’ Wheeler started a mail order shirt company. It did just £12,000 per year in sales for the first four years. However, a potent cocktail of persistence and passion has since taken him to the very summit of shirtmaking, as the Charles Tyrwhitt brand now turns over a cool £211 million per year.

With stores in London, New York and Paris, the awareness and popularity of the brand is worldwide. Nick is married to Chrissie Rucker, who is also a very successful entrepreneur after she started The White Company back in 1994.

Though hugely successful, Nick doesn’t rest on his laurels. Having turned 53 this January, there is no coasting towards retirement here. Instead, he still retains a 95 per cent stake in his company of 32 years, and is very much a part of its ongoing success.

Speaking exclusively to Goodwin Smith, we discover what makes the self-made man tick, what his secrets to success are, and why a custom-fit shoe business turned into a complete disaster…

 

Many thanks for talking with us Nick. Let's start with a nice warm-up question. You’re going for afternoon tea with the Queen. A crisp classic white shirt is a must... most definitely cuffed too. What colour tie are you wearing and why?


It is not about the colour with the Queen. It is about the design. She has been around long enough to have seen every colour under the sun, but design is something that is new. I would wear one of our new little dog ties. We have done them as part of our collaboration with the Prince’s Trust. They are subtle, as all animal print ties should be. They don’t look like dogs (and unfortunately not Corgis!) until you get rather close up. They are just a beautiful design in a wide range of glorious colours.


You started Charles Tyrwhitt back in 1986, as a mail order company. What was the driving force behind it all? Why mail order, and why shirts?

I just wanted my own business. I did not really care what I did. I just wanted it to be fun and something I loved. I tried photography (love that but it was a disaster), I tried Christmas trees (I love the smell and the festive twinkle, but again not a commercial juggernaut). So I tried shirts. Everybody loves the cool, soft feel and the innocent smell of pure cotton and I thought I could make a business out of it. Other people seemed to be making over-priced shirts and so I decided I would make better quality shirts at a lower price and I would bend over backwards to present them with the best service I could possibly muster.

Why mail order? That is easy. I was a geography student at Bristol University at the time and even geography students have to go to the odd lecture. I could only do mail order because I needed to be flexible with my time. I only had £99 too, so mail order was all I could afford.

 

Nick Wheeler



A little bird told us you once started a made-to-measure shoe business, but they didn’t fit all that well. Where do you think it went wrong and does shoe-making still interest you?

I tried too hard. I was a perfectionist. I wanted the shoes to fit like gloves (well, like shoes). I did made-to-measure, but I didn’t really understand the anatomy of a foot (this is not taught in geography) and so my drawings and measurements were not as good as I thought. I faxed my measurements for my first 50 pairs of shoes to the factory in India and my trusty fax machine (combined with the quality of Indian phone lines in the 1980s) conspired to turn those first shoes into shoes fit for pixies and clowns, not for the trusty people who had forked out a (too small) deposit. A complete disaster. Not a single pair fitted.

Obviously we specialise in mens footwear. If you could only wear one style of shoe ever again, what would it be and why? (Oxford, derby, brogue, boot etc.)

Definitely not boot because I have very short and rather tree trunk-like legs and so I get a lot of rubbing. Not a brogue because they are a bit too fancy for my wide, duck-like feet. I think it would have to be a pair of beautifully crafted, hand-made black Oxfords made in our beautiful factory in Northampton. I love the fact that Northampton, unlike most English manufacturing, has survived and prospered and continues to turn out the finest quality shoes in the world (or am I biased?)

Potentially a little biased, We’ve heard there’s a great place based in Bacup, Lancashire too.

Moving on, whether in Hollywood or music, who do you deem to be the best dressed celebrity (currently or historically) and why?

A good question deserves a good answer. Best dressed is difficult to categorise. I believe in distinctive style. I like men who carry a look that they own and is distinctive and stands the test of time. There is only one man who owns the look and it is not Oscar Wilde or Beau Brummel, but Charlie Chaplin. Never seen without his trademark bowler, but the inventor of a unique style that had not been seen before and will probably never be seen again!

 

Charles Tyrwhitt shirts



From all the worn out, accidentally stained, and irreparable shirts that you’ve donned over the years, is there one you’d really like back?

I am not stupid enough to throw out my favourite shirt! Everybody should have a rag in their cupboard that has been worn literally to pieces. Mine is the first Charles Tyrwhitt shirt I ever made. It is a PON4 (that was the code I gave it anyway). It was a very wide and bold blue stripe shirt. It looked not unlike a deckchair and I absolutely loved it. Still do, even though I can no longer wear it (or fit into it!).

Selling shirts for over 30 years, we're guessing you've seen quite a change in the way things are done. What was the hardest part about adapting to the technology shift in commerce and why?

The Internet was both the hardest and the easiest. It was the hardest because it completely revolutionised the way people shop, and it has only just begun. The easiest because the moment I came across the web, I knew that it was going to change my business forever. I was a struggling mail order company in the days when mail order was a bit down-market. Along came the Internet and BANG. I was a sexy online business.

It took three minutes to download the picture of your shirt, but who cared? Quite a lot of people actually. It took rather a long time to get going and a lot of sweat and tears. It was new and nobody understood it and lots of people said online would never take off. I guess they were wrong.

What are your thoughts on shirt garters? A concern for us is that, if you pull on a night out, would removing shirt garters from your upper thighs be a massive turn off for the lucky lady?

Err Yes! Horrible. No offence to any fans of shirt garters out there, but men just don’t like fiddly things. Adjusting and clipping your garter to keep your shirt tucked in is the preserve of the boy with the over-protective mummy. Just not cool. Just buy a shirt that fits well with tails that are the right length – not too long and DEFINITELY not too short.

 

Nick Wheeler



How many shirts do you personally own and is there a noticeable style theme? (Lots of striped ones, patterned, colour trend) and also, do you own any of your competitor’s shirts?

I love new shirts. Crisp, clean, soft new shirts made from two-fold 140s cotton poplin. The important thing about a shirt is that it should make you feel good. It is a personal thing. If you feel good, then it is highly likely that you will look good too. It sounds a bit boring, but I just love white shirts. Can’t believe I said that. I used to get annoyed with my shirts because they never wore out and I hate waste, but I have now discovered that my little brother likes my old shirts and is the same size. So he literally has hundreds and I have about 15.

Of course I have competitor shirts. I like to see what they are like and how they compare to my own. There are lots of good shirtmakers out there and I need to know what they are upto. They all charge about four times more for their shirts than we do, but I guess that probably just makes them a bit cleverer.

To a budding entrepreneur, specifically in shirtmaking/tailoring, what three pieces of advice would you give to them?

Focus. Focus. Focus. Decide what you are going to do well and why your customers are going to buy from you and then do that. Day in. Day out. Never stop until you are the best in the world at what you do. And then just focus on getting better still. You will be a big success.

Bonus question: you are world renowned for offering exceptional customer service. We’d love to take this opportunity to ask what your ethos and approach to this is?

I tell everybody who starts work in my business to always think, “If this was my business, what would I do”. And then do it. Do to a customer what you would like done to you. Smile. Take pride. Take care over them. Treat them well.

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