Oliver Spencer has been in the trenches this year, literally. Well, kind of. The London menswear designer has not only kept his eponymous label above water at a time when some are sinking, but he has also found the time to tend to the garden he had neglected for the past decade.
In a once-in-a-century year where your brother, sister-in-law, dry cleaner and Michelle from the front desk suddenly now think they are Ferran Adria or Daniel Humm in the kitchen, Spencer has found solace amongst the oak and palm trees on his cliffside property on the Isle of Wight.
That long lost hobby has provided him with the clear air and thinking time to plot Oliver Spencer’s path out of the coronavirus pandemic.
Spencer has been forced to scrap before. Long before he became a household name in this game, he started off slinging vintage waistcoats at the famous Portobello Road Market on Saturdays.
His first break didn’t come until his first bran Favourbrook featured in the 1994 film Four Weddings And A Funeral – eight years before Oliver Spencer was launched.
That may feel like an eternity ago, but those experiences have undoubtedly helped Spencer navigate through such an unprecedented period.
With his long-time business partner Marina Wallrock – who has worked alongside him since they started Favourbrook in 1993 – steering the ship from head office, while he focused on the creative side of the business away from home, the pair have managed to lead Oliver Spencer to calmer waters.
“It has been a really challenging year for fashion brands, but I think it has been a really exciting time for lifestyle brands. That would be my synopsis on what’s gone on this year,” Oliver Spencer told Man of Style from London this week.
“I think if you have a business that relies on suits you are dead meat. Selling lounge or anything lifestyle has been amazing. We are very sustainably driven here so that has gone down well with a lot of people. People want to feel comfortable and want to be totally aware of what they’re wearing. By that, I mean how it’s sourced and where it comes from.”
“My business partner worked in the office in London the whole way through the lockdown. If I’m being honest with you, if she hadn’t been here, I wouldn’t have a business left. For people to be able to work remotely, other people have to run the show, especially when you’re a multi-revenue business: wholesale, eCommerce and retail.”
“Retail you can do remotely and that’s been fantastic. We were up during lockdown. We were really driving it. We relaunched a new site just recently as well. We re-platformed during lockdown. This was always an intention, however, doing the way we did it really concentrated the mind.”
With England going into lockdown in March, Spencer got the opportunity to practice his cover drive and dead ball routines in the backyard. Rarely, if ever, has he had the opportunity to spend so much time with his family, especially away from the hustle and bustle of London.
When he wasn’t spending time designing upcoming ranges, Spencer was covered from head to toe in dirt and sweat, replanting trees and tearing apart the garden. Things he’d wanted to do for a long time, but required a global crisis to find the time and energy to execute.
“I spent a solid three months with my three boys. That gave us some time together which was amazing. I’m not sure we’re all best friends, but we loved it. We played a lot of football, played a lot of cricket, played a lot of sport. It was pretty special,” he said.
“In the Isle of Wight I’ve got an amazing garden and it has allowed me to immerse myself in the garden, so I’ve spent a lot of time in the garden. Our garden is quite like a Sri Lankan garden; much more of park with lots of oaks, mixed with palm trees, it is a little bit subtropical. I love being in there.”
Now Spencer is back in London. Back in the office and back having his day interrupted by calls like these. Things are starting to return to normal, or whatever that means in these most unusual times.
And while online sales have soared this year for Oliver Spencer, the man behind the brand is unwavering in his determination to deliver exceptional in-store retail experiences. That, pandemic or no pandemic, is the past, present and future for him.
“The major changes are people are considering whether they are going to get off their arses and come into a shop to buy clothing when they can sit on their arse and buy it quite comfortably,” he said.
“For me, the biggest change to come out of all this is lazy retailers are not going to be in business anymore and proactive retailers that deliver a great in-store experience are going to persuade people to come back into the stores because one thing you can’t get online is that great shopkeeping, retail experience; that great buzz of being in a store. That’s it for me. It has got to be that feeling.”
“The great thing about Lamb’s Conduit Street (in Bloomsbury) is you can wander down the street, you can buy wine, you can buy your flowers, and you’re going to have a great lunch at any number of the restaurants down here. And then you can do some clothing shopping as well. It is an all-in experience. We are like an 18th-century version of a modern-day mall on this street.”
The brand transformed its website during the darkest months of COVID-19 and have come out the other side with a brighter, more user-friendly page. Now they are analysing the retail game, preparing for their next move. More staff have been acquired – they are up to 54 in total – and there could be more to come.
“What’s next? Well the website was the big one. Now we’re realigning retail. We’re looking at some new opportunities. Maybe we’ll close a store or two? Maybe we’ll open one up. I’m certainly not going to sit back; I’m going to be proactive,” he said.
“It is also a time to watch your hand correctly and play smart poker. It is time to make some changes anyway. I already have made a lot, but actually we’ve ended up taking on extra people we haven’t gone the other way.”
If Spencer didn’t have enough on his plate this year, he co-founded modern British restaurant The Black Radish in Wimbledon. And while his first foray into the hospitality scene wasn’t done on a whim, the timing hasn’t been ideal. Although it has provided him with another outlet to express himself creatively.
“It is not easy to be in the restaurant trade right now, but it is a great time to move things along and perhaps rethink how to do food. Essentially Black Radish is creative, there is a lot of mixture of technique but from an English standpoint. There is a French influence coming through but a fuse of flavours. I’m passionate about food and enjoy being involved in a restaurant,” he said.
If you can’t handle the heat, stay out of the kitchen. But it turns out Oliver Spencer can certainly handle the heat.