A walk down Savile Row takes the sartorially savvy by many august institutions – Huntsman, Anderson & Sheppard, Gieves & Hawkes. These are the homes of the establishment, defiantly southern, well-to-do, understated. But then comes some upstart window of suits more rock ‘n’ roll than banking ‘n’ business, lean styles in bolder colour and with touches of 50s Hollywood, favoured by footballers and TV presenters, anyone indeed, with a reputation as something of a dandy – Eddie Izzard, Jonathan Ross, Laurence Llewelyn Bowen and Nicky Clarke... To top it off, the purveyor to such flamboyant gents is a Northerner.
One of William Hunt’s proudest moments came in 2007, when, after making Gary Neville’s wedding suit, the football professional pulled some strings and the designer was appointed to design the squad suits for his beloved home-team, Manchester United. It made for some useful PR, of course – but Hunt is seriously loyal. In 2007 he turned down a potent publicity wind-fall when asked to make the suits for Chelsea.
“But I’m just not passionate about Chelsea,” he explains. “I’ve also been asked to make them for the Liverpool squad. I turned that down too. But then I’d be stoned to death if I did that.”
Hunt’s allegiance has roots in more than geography. He became a professional footballer himself at 18 but, luck not on his side, it was the local music scene of Northern Soul that saw him drawn away from the pitch and towards the sketchpad. His own style of dress – inspired by a seamstress aunt and structured and simple, after the engineering he had studied while playing professionally – caught the attention of a local retailer who gave him his first opportunity to put his designs on a commercial footing. By 1988 Hunt had opened his first store, on Chelsea’s Kings Road, before making something of a statement in 1998 by moving onto Savile Row’s hallowed turf.
There his tailoring has won a reputation for certain cinematic look – the cool of Sinatra, for example, after whom Hunt has named one of this suit styles. Another is the Selleck. Yes, after Tom Selleck, Magnum PI, for whom Hunt has forecast a style re-appraisal by a still largely mocking public, much as Burt Reynolds has undergone.
“Music has been a massive influence, of course,” he says. “I’ve seen Elvis, the Beatles, Punk, the New Romantics... but if I’m looking for ideas I’ll get a load of old movies out. The clothing in them was just magnificent.
“What’s cooler than West Side Story? It’s just awesome. The whole idea of coloured suit linings, a signature for us, comes from that movie...”
A strong, clean-lined and largely unchanging look has worked for Hunt. The last decade has seen Savile Row go through turbulent times but Hunt has played the long game. His style is consistent and business is developing – the former by extending his bespoke tailoring offer with the launch of a successful wholesale line of ready-to-wear (“it’s all structured through, I don’t really do sloppy-wear”), a shoe range for Kurt Geiger and, coming up, a chain of shop-in-shops with independent retailer Flannels.
“There has been a lot of hype – certain Savile Row tailors have been built up as amazing and the next thing you know it’s all gone wrong and they’re gone or had to close a line down,” says Hunt. “But the whole industry has changed. I remember the days when you could rock up to a shop with a load of clothes and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got some gear, are you interested?’ and it could be being sold on the shop floor that day. These days much of the industry is too corporate, too many layers of middle management. I know buyers who can make buying a white T-shirt look difficult.”
Those years have also allowed him to indulge other passions. Sport is never far away from his thinking. Inspired by a request to make a pair of trousers for golfer Ian Poulter, in 2005 Hunt launched his own golfwear line. It is one suitably loud in the tradition of the game’s noisy checks and pastel sweaters of the 50s and 60s. As Hunt has said before, few sports afford a man the opportunity to dress like a pimp and still be dressed for the occasion – and that is some opportunity for a designer’s imagination to run amok. With other brands now chasing the golf pound with a sleek and bleak style, it was entirely within expectations that Hunt might go against the grain.
Indeed, brands may have developed clothing lines off the back of sports sponsorship before, but few have created a tournament out of a clothing line, too.
Encouraged by the number of pros asking him to back them, in 2008 Hunt went one better and launched his own national UK golf event, the Trilby Tour. It was, of course, suitably unconventional – a chance for gifted amateurs to play under professional conditions and pressures, right down to being televised by Sky Sports, including this year’s new 12-part TV series format.
Never one to miss some publicity, Hunt provides the clothes and the caddies even carry a Hunt-designed golf-bag. Last year’s winner and runner-up have both since turned pro. The event has been called the X-Factor of Golf; Hunt takes that as a compliment. The next one has already pulled in 1,200 applications to enter.
“It’s when the ordinary guy gets to brush up on his golf, brush up his clothes and play on TV,” he says. “It’s not an opportunity many otherwise get in life. Of course, it’s also a promotional vehicle for the golf clothing, and has really become a business in its own right. But it fits into what we’re about as a company – making ordinary guys feel better about themselves, suits that make them look a bit taller and a bit more trim.”
Ironically perhaps, despite the high profile clothing and sports kit, Hunt himself is little-known compared with his peers. And that is the way he likes it. Who would know, for example, that his latest project has been putting together a TV series for Sky, a drama based on his experiences in the golf world, for which Hunt devised the treatments and a friend wrote the script? It is currently going through budget assessments.
“I think success in the business I work in is about retaining the passion for the clothing and that means it’s about keeping it small, tight, boutique,” he says.
“You can still grow as a business that way, but you can only do so by finding other people who share that passion. Then you can work as a team and have a lot of fun. I like the idea of keeping my head just below the parapet. It’s worked for me.”