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Talking Threads – Richard Illingworth of Hawkwood Mercantile

Do you know that bloke off Instagram? Him with the big beard. What’s he called? The one who inherited loads of money off his dad, entered a couple of big poker tournaments and now just spends his life putting pictures on Instagram posing with supercars, guns and blonde superwhores? Dan Bilzerian.

Well, Richard Illingworth, of Hawkwood Mercantile, is the complete opposite of that bloke. Easily one of the soundest people on social media and is right up there with Patrice Evra in terms of being well worth a follow. But, of course, for different reasons. Illingworth is all about the #coats.

Hawkwood Mercantile began when Richard moved to India with his wife, having had enough of working in the business world of London, to look after Anita(his wife)’s mother. He took this as a chance to go back to the interests of his youth. Namely: WWII and mid-1900s inspired military clothing (and dogs).

He, along with a team of skilled tailors, now spends his time designing and making modernised adaptations of classic US and British military issue clothing. And also looking after his two Battersea Dogs Home rescue dogs and a pack of 15 Indian street mutts. And the occasional elephant.

Richard: Yeah, we got home from going out for tea the other night and there was just this big, half covered in paint, elephant stood at the front gate.

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A visitor Richard will never forget.

Proper: What did you do?

Richard: Well, what can you do? He just sort of looked at us like, “Yeah?” So we kind of shooed him off a little bit and headed inside. Then I was feeding him bits of stuff for ages after. The dogs weren’t so sure, mind.

What dogs do you have?

Well, we brought a couple of – well, actually we brought three, but we lost one, sadly, after a bad tick bite, but, yeah – we have a couple of dogs which we got from Battersea when we were back in the UK. And they live in the house, but I look after a pack of street dogs who live on the end of our street. Though, really, we live on their patch, if you know what I mean?

Bet that’s a good laugh. Good on you.

Yeah, it’s nice actually. Working as long as I do and when Anita is talking with her mum, it’s nice to have that lot as a little hobby, if you will. Though they do get in fights quite a bit.

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This is Rani, one of the street dogs. Despite only having three legs, he is still an impressive drummer for his Madchester era tribute band, ‘The Bone Roses’.

[Though, when this happens, it sounds like it proper goes off. Richard said he will be feeding his lot and another pack turns up and it goes. He’s been bitten a few times, one of which resulted in having to go for an extra strong tetanus shot (“Just to make sure I didn’t get rabies”) that involved having six tetanus serum injection into and around the open wound on his hand. But back to when dog fights kick off, and it reads like the most gruesome hoolie tale ever crossed with some sort of uber-niche Porn Hub synopsis…]

After one fight, one of the lads, got his ball sack ripped open. Poor fella, he had one hanging out and just collapsed when he saw me. So, I called an ambulance and got him on a leash so he didn’t just run away. That’s what they do, you know, a bit like cats, when they think they’re gonna die they just clear off. It’s especially important for dogs because the rest of the pack would pick on him instead of letting him weaken the pack. Anyway, they took him to an animal shelter for a few weeks and I was there visiting him. The vet, an Indian bloke, obviously, was a bit bemused that I was taking such care over a street dog. But I wanted to get him back so he didn’t end up getting put down. The vet said I could take him but I had to give him his medicine.

Tablets?

Yeah. Along with some barrier cream for his scar. It was like a dead thick tar, syrup-y, gloopy thing… and – there’ no easy way to say this – I had to rub it into his balls whilst wearing a pair of rubber gloves. At first, for the first three days or so, he kept running off but he soon learned that it was doing him good. After three days he was there, in the morning, laid on his back, on my front step, waiting for me to give him his medicine.

They think I’m mad, the neighbours. It’s like Mad Dogs And Englishmen, but kind of the other way round, as I’m the mad one in their eyes.

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Boxer. The poor lad who lost his ‘undercarriage’.

Christ. Well… Right, let’s start properly. Tell us what your brand is.

Erm… It’s contemporary though it’s not fashionable. Or if it is fashionable, it’s coincidence. I’ve never been into fashion as such.

I guess it’s for blokes who like clothes, but don’t like dressing up.

That’s kind of what Proper is, really. Neil often says, “They’re only clothes.”

Exactly. I mean, we all like them, but, yeah they are only clothes. And I rely on them for making a living, but I know what you mean.

How did you end up in India and what’s the history of the label? What’s your history?

Ha – good question! No, my wife’s mum and dad lived here and when my mother-in-law ended up on her own, God bless her, we came out here; me, Anita and the twins.

So were you already working in fashion?

No, not at all. Though I did textiles at college and thought that was what I wanted to at one stage, I ended up going to work in the business world and when Anita’s dad passed, it was at a time when I’d had enough of that life. I grew up in Sunderland and used to go to Roker Park all the time and got my first season ticket when we moved to the Stadium Of Light – and that really was the good times. After I got bored of what I was doing at college, I ended up working in something completely unrelated, in the business world.

So, we’d been living in London – and everything that comes with that, so it was a good time to go for it. It was a risk in that sense, upping sticks and moving, having just had the twins, but also going into making clothes. You see, art school took all the fun out of the creative process for me… but, now, I love it.

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And Hawkwood has been going since?

No. We’ve only been trading for six months. I tried doing things with outside tailors for two and a half years, but I wasn’t really getting anywhere. We had so many false starts that I kept seeing ideas in collections from other companies, based on vintage copies of old garments, that were kinda similar to what I was trying to get made. A take on a certain US Navy smock, for example. But once another label released it – I had to stop mine because, well, it would just look like I’d ripped them off.

So, that’s where the Instagram method came from. I could put something on there at the sample stage and claim it, if you will, and I started getting orders almost straight away. Then, I took on one tailor to work on a made-to-order basis, but got busier and busier. I took on another tailor. Then another. Now we have five tailors working on made-to-order measures.

And how do people order then, because you don’t have a full site yet?

Once somebody sees something they like on Instagram, they can get in touch via email to tell me what they like and I will send them the lookbook. This shows them all the fabric options and so on, what works together and what doesn’t. Then I talk to the client and work out what they exactly want.

I like that someone is a “client” not just a customer. Connotes a more valued and detailed treatment…

Yeah, well, that’s what I like to do. If someone needs the arms slightly shorter or would like a different button than the one on the sample image, or whatever (pretty much), I can sort this before bringing the tailors into the process. Then I tag and bag the final items and give the piece the final checks. It’s about keeping the close control, offering a (as much as possible) made-to-measure process and having a personal and close contact each and every time someone orders. A proper experience.

Quite how I can scale that up into something bigger, I don’t know. But, then, I don’t even know if I want to, because it’s working alright as it is. I dunno. Tricky one. I guess if you get enough regular customers, working this way (and I’ve got to speak to some brilliant people who come to me for more things when they want them), then you will have a functioning business that works.

Exactly. And you don’t want to lose those personal touches.

Exactly. I love putting the extra touches in there. For example, we send all our garments out in these zip bags which are based on what a new soldier’s kit was issued in in the ’40s by the Quarter Master and it includes some spare fabric for patching and field repairs et cetera. And it comes with a personalised hand written tag. If we went into wholesale orders, even say 10 pieces to a shop, I dunno how to keep it so personal in the same way.

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What else inspires you beyond military stuff? What other labels are you enjoying?

Just vintage garments. Mainly military stuff, obviously. But contemporary stuff… Daiki, obviously, but more his Woolrich stuff which was that little bit more reigned in. Also, it took him four years to get his first collection together, which I remind myself when mine took three years.

Then there’s Cabourn, obviously. I just love the fact he’s been going for like 40 years or whatever and that he was one of the first Brits to get stuck into going over to Japan alongside Paul Smith and Vivienne Westwood and them. It’s not without reason he’s so regarded.

Less well known-wise, Corona are another brand I’m really enjoying at the moment.

Back to the military thing. How many Action Man figures do you have?

Ha! You know, since I was three, I always had them and when I was a kid I’d dress like a soldier and play army all the time… I was obsessed. I joined the RAF Cadets when I was old enough. I mean, pretty geeky, I was, looking back, but I just enjoyed marching around and firing gun and that.

The reason I use him [Action Man] in the Instagram shots is because it’s hard to find models out here who match our desired look. So Action Man is the model. The tailors make miniature versions of the real clothes and we stick them on him. Over here, the models at the agencies and what-not are usually some sort of take on the Bollywood look; all slick hair and big muscles. It’s not really what I imagine my target market looks like.

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Do you not get many customers from over there?

No. None. But we don’t make any attempt to. It’s too warm, really, for a start. That’s before you start thinking about whether they would want to dress in something which is a slant on WWII era US Marine clothing.

I get a lot from the UK, as you’d guess, but Australia and a few in Europe and quite a few in America too.

I’ve sold a few things to a guy high up at RRL and some certain other designers – and that’s pretty much that best validation you could ask for, isn’t it?

And, finally, you’re a big Sunderland fan. Will they stay up?

I dunno about that but stick with Moyes. Even if we go down it will be at least be fun winning once again… because we haven’t done that for a while.

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Contact richard@hawkwoodmercantile.com for orders & info.

Tell him Proper said, “Hello” and he’ll know what you mean.

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