Adrian Barrows was about eight when he attended Princess Diana’s 30th birthday party at London’s Savoy Hotel.
“My mum, who used to make Diana’s birthday cakes, reminds me that at the end I went on stage and played Phil Collins’s piano!”
Today, some 25 years on, royalty is the only notable absentee from Adrian’s top-drawer clientele. Those clamouring for his bespoke menswear include Premier League footballers, actors, musicians, politicians, managing directors and commodity traders.
There are “ordinary folk” on the list, too; from farmers to factory workers. In just two years since setting up his own business, The Bespoke Tailor, Adrian has woven quite a name for himself, not only in his native Midlands, but across the country and even overseas (a New York-based businessman recently commissioned him to make his wedding outfit) as the man to go to if you want an individually designed, top-quality, British-made suit – or any other male couture garment, come to that.
He doesn’t do women’s clothes. “Menswear is what I’m comfortable with; I just didn’t fancy getting into women’s wear.
“There are 3.5 billion men in the world – that’s enough for me!” Adrian, who’s 33 and grew up in Walsall, certainly dresses for the part: today he’s wearing a sharp three-piece suit he – of course – designed himself. With his tall, slender frame and chiselled cheekbones, he’s a walking advert for his own business.
Already he is in the happy position of not having to advertise formally: his customers come from repeat business, word of mouth – and Twitter. Using the sobriquet @TweetingTailor, he posts regular updates on his hectic work schedule.
“My business is all about retention and recommendation, with about 5% coming via Twitter,” he says. Unsurprisingly, Adrian’s clothes don’t come cheap, with prices starting at £800 for a two-piece suit and rising to more than £10,000.
“I have a few clients in London who spend in excess of £5,000 on a suit, but the average spend is £1,000 to £1,200.” You might imagine that in these days of austerity, demand for high-end tailoring is thin on the ground, but Adrian insists not. “The high street is dead,” he declares.
“In frugal times, people realise that if you walk into a snazzy showroom and get given a glass of Champagne and a few canapés, you’re paying for that. What I’m doing is giving that type of service without charging for it – and people buy into that. I’m also saving people money by going to them rather than them having to come to me.”
Adrian, who co-founded tailoring firm Clements & Church in Birmingham, works from home – near Lichfield in Staffordshire – and drives around the country to see would-be clients and regulars at their homes, clubs or places of work.
“My job is 24/7, because I have clients all over the place. I have to be there for them when they want me – it’s all part of the quality of the service I offer.”
The fabrics – including the likes of Holland & Sherry and royal suppliers J & J Minnis – are another reason business is booming, because Adrian uses only British-made materials.
“If we manufactured goods like we used to do, we would get out of this recession,” he contends.
“I use only cloth made in British mills, which is arguably the best in the world. Some of the cloth is woven in a guy’s garage in the Outer Hebrides; other fabrics come from micro-mills in London.
“A lot of the cloth I use is woven in Huddersfield. Again, people buy into what I do for that reason – because it’s British, from concept to product; it gives people a buzz.” He’s keen to point out that his clothes aren’t just for the rich. “What I really enjoy are guys who have a passion for what I do. I have one client who’s a factory worker and he saves up to get outfits made by me.” There must have been some wacky garments over the years?
“I’ve been asked to do all sorts of wonderful things,” agrees Adrian with a smile. “One client – a musician – wanted me to make a denim suit with a lion’s head on the back studded with diamante crystals.”
His creativity and eye for fashion have their roots in his family background. His Uncle Geoff, who’s still in the business, was a top designer in the 1960s and ’70s with brands such as Aquascutum and Daks, while his father is an engineer and his mother an artist who specialises in sugar art and made the late Princess of Wales’s birthday cakes.
“In a way, what I do is a combination of my parents’ professions and my uncle’s influence. I did train to be an engineer initially, but I realised I was doing it because of my father and it wasn’t for me.”
Instead, Adrian worked in a small menswear boutique and then moved to a larger, upmarket boutique, learning about the business as he went.
“The owner, who is still a very good friend, knows the industry inside and out and taught me the business elements, which have proved invaluable over the years.” One of those is to forge long-term relationships with clients.
“Over time, clients trust me and I get to know what they like, which makes it easier on both sides. An example is a client who runs a PR agency in London. He found me through Twitter last year and wanted me to do his wedding suit. He has a very specific style and said I’d managed to nail it – that I’d got under his skin.
“That’s what I aim to do – to understand an individual’s sense of style, which might be very different to mine.
“After his wedding, he phoned me wanting a new year’s Eve outfit. But he said, ‘you don’t need to come down and see me; just send some cloth samples’. More recently he phoned to say he was going on his belated honeymoon on the Orient Express, had only just seen the dress code and needed a suit quickly: I sent cloth by UPS and emailed him some ideas. He approved them by email and yesterday I texted him to say the clothes were on their way. That was all done in four weeks. normally I ask for six to eight weeks.”
Although ambitious, Adrian doesn’t want to expand to the point where the integrity of what he does is compromised – or that he loses control of the business.
“There are different forms of success. I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. I know where I am with all of the garments I have on the go at the moment; I know when they’ll be ready and I like the fact I’m in control. I’d rather close the books down for a while than feel out of control, which is why I can’t imagine expanding the business hugely.” But that doesn’t stop him working his (designer) socks off.
“Even though we’re in recession, there’s a lot of work out there. But you have to seek it out. I don’t sit in a shop waiting for customers to come to me – I go out and find them. Over time I think we’ll see a lot more people doing what I do.” It means working very long hours, though: Adrian is on the go for nearly 19 hours a day.
“I don’t have a social life. This morning, for example, I was up at 4.45am and tonight I won’t be back home until 10pm, because I’m in nottingham seeing some footballers, one of whom I’ll have dinner with because he’s become a friend. After I get home, I’ll have to do some more work.
“But I love it. And that’s because I don’t see what I do as work; it’s a hobby.
“If I sat at a desk all day, I’d last a week in a job. But every day is different and a new challenge. I don’t view it as hard graft – I truly adore it.”