We have been big fans of HAWKWOOD MERCANTILE from the off. Citing admiration for the likes of DAIKI SUZUKI and NIGEL CABOURN, along with nods in the direction of TEN C and 1st PAT-RN, proprietor and all-round good egg RICHARD ILLINGWORTH has been making impeccably tailored, military-inspired garb from the get-go.
Like all the best labels, HAWKWOOD MERCANTILE is a labour of love. With an encyclopaedic understanding of how military wear is put together, RICHARD has circumnavigated the innumerable pitfalls presented to all labels courtesy of being bloody good at what he does. A word of Instagram phenomenon, we are delighted to stock his first ever wholesale collection.
We chatted with Richard to discuss HAWKWOOD's journey. It's quite the story.
OWL: For anyone who isn’t fully aware of HAWKWOOD MERCANTILE, can you introduce both yourself and the label?
HAWKWOOD MERCANTILE: I’m RICHARD ILLINGWORTH. I come from the North East originally, but have spent the last five and a half years in India establishing HAWKWOOD MERCANTILE. We make menswear with military and outdoor influences.
OWL: Where does the name originate?
HM: The name comes from SIR JOHN HAWKWOOD, who was a medieval English soldier and mercenary. I was thinking of moving to INDIA to set up a new business at the time and given my obsession with military clothing it seemed somehow appropriate. He’s an interesting chap and well worth having a read about.
OWL: Can you tell us a bit about your background? What was it that led you to your current life in clothing?
HM: I actually did textile design at college and graduated in 1994. I did work as a designer briefly after that, but then did everything from pumping petrol to investment banking and recruitment. I’d always loved clothes though, vintage military gear especially, as well as outdoor gear (I used to do a bit of rock climbing and mountaineering and still go hiking and camping).
OWL: I know you’ve worked in other sectors outside of clothing. How do they compare and what type of skills learnt in previous jobs have proven useful in your role as a designer/label boss?
HM: Listening to clients about what they want. A lot of my designs have been influenced by what clients want and have ordered, because they can add bespoke touches. It surprised me at first just how obsessive people can be about coats. They have a real depth of knowledge about them. People will also suggest vintage pieces I should use as inspiration. I’ve been incredibly lucky because most designers don’t get that kind of interaction and it’s really invaluable.
OWL: As a brand, at least from the outside looking in, you seem to have grown exponentially via the means of social media, and in particular, Instagram. Has its capacity as a platform to reach such high volumes of like-minded clients surprised you at all?
HM: Yes, everything has been done almost exclusively via Instagram and email. I put pictures of some samples on IG and started getting orders almost straight away and the business grew organically from there. We’ve not even finished the website because we’ve been so busy. We only started selling in shops in JAPAN because although about 10% of our IG followers were there, we’d never had an order from JAPAN, because they like to see a garment in the flesh and check the feel of it. I’ve been extremely lucky to tap into a rich seam of clients, who, like me, know what they like, but don’t like what they know anymore and were looking for something new and a bit different that perhaps not too many people were wearing.
OWL: Do you think you would have been able to start a business in the way you did, working with clients on pretty much a one-to-one basis, pre the internet/social media age?
HM: No and there was really no master plan. Apart from the internet aspect, it’s a very old-fashioned way of working. I can swap 50 emails with someone making sure the fabric, fit and spec are right and I tell people I’m like a cross between a Mod tailor and an M.O.D. quartermaster.
OWL: For anyone weighing up doing their own label - is there a single piece of advice you’d give above all others?
HM: Keep it tight and focussed. Make one jacket, but really well and don’t feel like you need to do everything all at once, just let it grow organically as you go. Listen to other peoples’ opinions, but keep your own vision. Also, be in it for the right reasons. If you’re passionate about what you do, chances are other people will be too, but if you’re in it just to make loads of cash, people will see through it pretty quickly.
OWL: You’ve previously lived in India, how key was that in being able to get HAWKWOOD set-up in the early days in terms of attracting highly-skilled tailors to work for you?
HM: In INDIA all the factories want to do thousands of pieces, so I took on my own staff out of necessity, but it’s worked out really well. Not many tailors are up to the job, but once we find good people we have a very low turnover of staff. I was lucky that we found our master-tailor by chance and were able to build a team around him.
OWL: I believe you’re back in London now. How has the move gone? I guess it’s a pretty different way of life…what will you miss about India?
HM: The only things I miss are my street dogs (I used to feed about 15-20 a day and there were some real characters) and going into the studio each day. I’ve got a little home office / studio now, but I’m very hands on and feel a bit detached from the process at the minute.
OWL: Production is still done over there. Do you still have a studio over there? You must be happy with the factories and tailors you’ve forged relations with?
HM: Yes, we still do all of the production in-house from the studio/workshop in GURGAON, just outside of NEW DELHI. People associate India more with high-volume, low-quality products, but we do very low-volume to a very high standard
OWL: At OWL we try to eschew the idea of “fashion”, it’s not really our bag, instead focusing on style that never goes out of fashion. Is that a mantra you’d go along with in terms of HAWKWOOD?
HM: Yeah, fashion is definitely a dirty word for me too. A lot of my pieces carry over from season to season, with just a few tweaks, evolving from my own experience of wearing them and feedback from clients. I want our stuff to be worn for years, which is why we include a field repair kit with each garment. I don’t want it to be disposable so that people will just throw if away after one season and buy more stuff.
OWL: There’s an obvious military influence that is a reoccurring trope throughout your collections. Where did that fascination come from?
HM: As far back as I can remember I’ve been into the military aesthetic. I was always dressed in camo and playing soldiers as a kid and what I do now is really just an extension of that. I think at the time I was growing up kids were just more into that type of thing.
OWL: I guess there’s a pretty inexhaustible field of references to work from in terms of military wear, what eras are of particular interest to you as a designer?
HM: There’s a lot of gear out there, but one of the problems is that there are other people out there all drawing on the same influences, so stuff can start to look really similar. I used to look at a lot of WW2 gear for inspiration, but lately I really like Cold War stuff, which has perhaps a slightly less referenced period. With the SBS Canoeist smock, I actually just started making them because I’d given up hope of getting my hands on one of the originals as they’re so rare. I’ve even sold them to ex-SBS guys who’d always wanted one too.
Sometimes I might pick up an old hiking smock on eBay or in a vintage shop like LEVINSONS and think about how I’d like it updated if I was to wear it now. Maybe it’s just making it more wearable or it might be adding pockets to aid the functionality.
I do sometimes just start with a sketch, rather than a vintage reference, to fill a gap in the collection or because I find a particular fabric and it gives me an idea. Other times it might be something as simple as a colour that sparks a memory of a long-forgotten jacket.
OWL: Your Action Man collection needs its own Instagram account. How many are in the collection? Do you get any requests to buy the miniature versions of the HAWKWOOD jackets you make for them?
HM: I’ve just picked up a really rare vintage Action Man anorak this morning funnily enough. I did get my tailors to knock up some 1/6 scale versions of HAWKWOOD gear when we had time to do that sort of thing and have been asked about them. It’s certainly something I’d consider doing further down the line and maybe doing a collaboration with ACTION MAN.
OWL: In terms of process from initial idea to finish garment, how does that play out? Do you always take your cue from military wear or any there other influences at work? If so, what kind of things?
HM: Generally, I’ll give a vintage piece to our pattern cutter with a list of revisions and it’ll go from that to first sample in 48 hours. I like to work in the actual materials, then do revisions, rather than making a toile in cheaper material, because I like to see how the real thing would hang and also because I trust my guys to get it right.
OWL: I read somewhere DIETER RAMS is your design idol. How much do his "ten principles of good design” play on your mind when you’re producing your collections?
HM: I think the most important ones for me are that good design should be honest, useful and long-lasting. For me the ‘as little design as possible’ part of it, can mean, as little design as possible by me, i.e. just taking a classic piece and updating it to make it more practical and wearable.
OWL: If you weren’t wearing HAWKWOOD what other labels interest you?
HM: I tend to wear stuff like ENGINEERED GARMENTS if I’m not wearing my own kit and have just got a jacket from their collaboration with BARBOUR. My favourite piece by DAIKI SUZUKI is actually the Labrador parka from the work he did when he was creative director of WOOLRICH WOOLLEN MILLS. It was like EG, but a little more stripped down. Sometimes having boundaries and discipline imposed can actually make for more interesting design, even though that sounds a little counter-intuitive.
OWL: We genuinely found your new collections among the freshest we’ve come across in the past few years. Now you’re wholesaling your work as well doing the bespoke pieces online, does that change your approach at all design-wise?
HM: Thanks, it’s very kind of you to say that and means a lot. We’ll see, but I hope it doesn’t change my approach to the work, although I’ll probably get a lot less sleep.
OWL: What can we expect from HAWKWOOD next? Is there a grand vision?
HM: Ha, no, there’s not a grand vision as such, I’m still making it up as I go along really and thoroughly enjoying doing so. I have started doing some consultancy work for major labels and it’s been very interesting to see how the big boys work and I think I’ve learned a lot that will be of use with HAWKWOOD.
I’ve also got a collaboration with THE IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM in the pipeline which I’m massively excited about. I’ll get the chance to have a rummage around in their archives and get to pick the brains of the curators.
The HAWKWOOD stuff will just keep evolving and I may also do a dedicated outdoor clothing line in the near future as a made in the UK range.
OWL: Is there a favourite piece of yours from the new collection?
HM: I really like the Peninsula overshirt in particular because it’s a good year-round layering piece, which has lots of functionality built into it without being too fussy. It’s one of the pieces which isn’t based on a vintage design, although it reminds me a lot of USMC uniforms from the late WW2/Korean War period.
OWL: Finally, can you recommend a book, record, TV series and film for our readers?
Book - Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets, David Simon
It’s the book that formed the basis for ‘The Wire’ tv series and it’s a funny and heartbreaking with lots of bits fans of the show will recognise. A long read, but well worth it.
Record - Blooblo: Reggae Party Time
A bit like those ‘Top of the Pops’ albums that used to be in the Woolworths bargain bin, all cover versions of chart records, but done in a reggae style by a band who obviously had limited studio time and didn’t know the songs that well. That said, the version of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’ is up there with the best covers ever.
TV Series - Behind The Lines
The last thing I binge-watched. It follows a group of Royal Marines on the training course for the Mountain And Arctic Warfare Cadre. Real Cold War warrior stuff. Gruelling. Made me glad I went to art school instead of joining up. I can’t grow a convincing moustache for one thing.
Film - Get Carter
A brilliant, bleak, British gangster film with Michael Caine at his best, where everyone gets what they deserve. It's shot against the backdrop of my native North East, including the sorely missed Brutalist masterpiece, Trinity Square multi-storey car park in Gateshead. Great soundtrack and one of the most quotable screenplays ever.