Interview: Jeff Banks on Bloggers, The BFC, Education, Galliano and Fashion

There are some points in my career that I will never forget. Sometimes I feel I must pinch myself to be sure I am awake, sometimes I am still that little girl in a party dress who could never have imagined the amazing things I would be doing as my adult self. The first time I saw Jeff Banks was on a late afternoon amongst the most glamourous women twirling down the catwalk. I would lie on my stomach in front of the fire and watch the Clothes Show and the Chronicles of Narnia which followed, I must have been about nine years old at the time.

Jeff Banks created the Clothes Show, the first TV show dedicated to fashion, in 1984. Yet he had to fight for it to be given air time for four years, until it was first screened in 1987. Banks has fought for and achieved many things in his career which now spans almost five decades. Beginning in 1964 when he opened Clobber boutique an epicenter for 60’s fashion in London. Signing Eurovision winner Sandi Shaw to model in 1967 he kicked off the trend for using personalities for branding in the UK. Without Banks there would be no London Fashion week, it was his brainchild to establish The Clothing Export Council in 1970, the forerunner to the British Fashion Council who now host LFW. The UK High Street we now take for granted may never have been without Banks setting up Warehouse in 1976. A bold and brave decision to take for a designer stocked everywhere from Harrods to Harvey Nichols, to to produce his leading designs at a fraction of those prices. Naomi, Cindy, Christy already top models yes, but it was Banks bringing them to the UK and constantly featuring them on the Clothes Show and in the innovative Bymail catalogue that lead to them being seen as the collective ‘Super Models’. More recently he set up Graduate Fashion Week the platform which launched Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Christopher Bailey, Hussein Chalayan.

Throughout his career there is one thing that has remained constant, Jeff Banks is someone who cares about people. He cares about supporting young designers and he cares about his customers. When I was invited to interview Jeff I had a million things I wanted to ask him, but most of all I wanted to see if this man who had so many amazing achievements was still passionate about the world of fashion.

I arrive early at the Jeff Banks store at Cheshire Oaks Outlet Village, a small crowd has gathered around the door way with people nudging each other whispering ‘Is it really him?’, mouthing ‘That’s Jeff Banks’. Without ceremony Jeff is whirling around his shop holding up jackets and shirts. He is personally styling two lucky competition winners who will each be kitted out in a new suit. Whilst there is a definite air of excitement in the store customers are shopping as usual. There are no banners, no announcements no pomp and circumstance. Just Jeff enjoying being around people and quite obviously enjoying be back on the shop floor. Whilst waiting for Jeff I take a few snaps and then have a drink and mince pie offered from the festive spread set out for all the customers. I have a chat with the staff who are delighted to have the chance to meet the main man.

Just before we sit down for our chat, I spot Jeff swooping down to pick up a stray scarf from the floor. He catches my eye ‘Look after the merchandise and it will look after you’ he says. I know I am going to like Mr Jeff Banks.

Pearl Westwood: “Having your shop here at Cheshire Oaks and designing ranges for Debenhams, you obviously support making great design affordable, is that important to you?”

Jeff Banks: “Yes always has been, back in the 60s I took a page out of Terry ConranÔÇÖs book. Terry started off doing home wear that was affordable for people, eventually Habitat grew to be too expensive but IÔÇÖve always believed design shouldnÔÇÖt be expensive. ThereÔÇÖs a lot of companies with very low profit margins and thatÔÇÖs how it gets to the public. Its taking the mickey a lot of the time [over priced merchandise], but it doesnÔÇÖt have to be like that so everything that I do I try to get it from the factory directly to the public. The reason all of this,” Jeff gestures around the shop, “is so affordable is that we make it in our own factories, we bring it into our own shops, we retail it directly and we give great value to the customer so I think that it is just a lovely way to work. It great for me when people look at something and think oh wow thatÔÇÖs only 38 quid whereas if it was in Ted Baker it would be 75 quid.”

PW: “And you donÔÇÖt scrimp on the quality either.”

JB: “I just go on the maxim that everything I do, I would wear it, if it is good enough for me then I am proud to sell it. So there is nothing in here that I wouldnÔÇÖt want to own and when I come here I buy for myself and if it doesnÔÇÖt meet that expectation then I donÔÇÖt want to do it.” Should you be wondering Jeff really does shop from his own stores. Off the record I over hear him asking for a few items to be put aside for him to take home.

PW: “ItÔÇÖs nice to hear someone believe so much in their own company.”

JB: “Everything IÔÇÖve got on is Jeff Banks.”

PW: “That was one of my questions actually do you only wear Jeff Banks?”

JB: “Yeah of course I do, absolutely, I never wear anything else.”

PW: “Exclusively Jeff Banks?”

JB: “Yeah, I donÔÇÖt actually find, I mean thereÔÇÖs loads of other designers that I respect and that probably if I wasnÔÇÖt doing my own collection IÔÇÖd wear, but I find them just exorbitantly expensive and I donÔÇÖt think it has to be like that. You know I think that the suits we do for under 200 quid anywhere else they would be double or triple that price, and yet these are just perfectly beautiful.”

They are, IÔÇÖve had a good look around and everything is such good quality.

PW: “Many designers now have diffusion lines, it has been said that they do this simply to keep their businesses afloat as it is harder to make profit in the luxury industry. Do you see yourself as different to those with one hand in the luxury market and the other in the high street? Do you think the other designers are playing at being affordable?”

JB: “No I think that the reality is that the affordable is what makes them money, I think what they do is play at the luxury. Me I just want to be unequivocal and just do this and the only difference are my shops in China. Because in China they want much, much more expensive product and we do a very expensive collection there which is about 3 times more expensive than here in the UK or in Japan or in Australia and thatÔÇÖs because the cost of the fabrics that we use are very expensive fabrics, the actual making, the quality of it is the same its just the fabrications.”

PW: “So you are giving them what they want, they want the more expensive things, whereas over here people want more affordable so you are really listening to your customer?”

JB: “The difference is Western Europe and Australia and America people actually understand value so theyÔÇÖve kind of had products long enough that they can discern what good value is. In China because it is all very new to them they donÔÇÖt have that discerning quality so they presume if itÔÇÖs expensive its good. I think gradually as they get more used to having the availability of products they will then be able to decide ‘hang on thatÔÇÖs the same┬á quality as that but thatÔÇÖs twice as expensive’ and that takes some education.”

Jeff and his assistant make over the two competition winners

PW: “When you started Warehouse it must have been quite shocking at the time for a big designer to be selling clothes at much lower prices, how did it feel for you at that time?”

JB: “Oh yes, I mean it was a calculated decision because at that time I had Jeff Banks shops in Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Selfridges and the minute I started Warehouse they all threw me out .”

PW: “So they didnÔÇÖt like it?”

JB: “Not at all, I mean it was really revolutionary and I had to arrive at the decision that it was the right thing to do, for me emotionally, politically, morally. So was I gonna do that or was I gonna go along with this way that Selfridges would, buy something at wholesale, already there was a 100%┬á mark up on that, they would buy something and then put another 300% on it so you get something that cost ┬ú50 and would sell in Selfridges for ┬ú250. Whereas in warehouse the same ┬ú50 sold for ┬ú100. For me no contest, but it really upset the industry. So I was kind of like, for a few years, I was a bit of a pariah that I did that.”

PW: “It was very brave of you at the time.”

JB: “Well it actually changed the high street because designers that had worked for me went on to become Chief Designer at Jigsaw, Chief Designer at Monsoon, so everybody changed┬á because they saw that was the future and it then changed in America later on, then Terry Conran opened Next and he did the same thing so I think Warehouse was actually the advance guard of the way retail is now.”

PW: “I think you could say it has set up the British high street as it is now.”

JB: “Yeah and America, you didnÔÇÖt have, not until the late 80s, Banana Republic, Gap all of those brands that started doing their own thing so we were really right at the forefront of it.”

PW: “You couldnÔÇÖt imagine it now, for example imagine Matthew Williamson suddenly closed his high end stores and started selling solely on the high street? It would be crazy wouldnÔÇÖt it?”

JB: “Yes, you would say there were coming suicide, but it was necessary at the time and you know I used to do all the runway shows in Paris, New York, Tokyo, London and I just abandoned all of that and went the more direct route.”

Jeff finding the perfect fit

PW: “You set up Graduate Fashion Week and with your roles at numerous universities, you are obviously a big supporter of education. However with the rising cost of tuition fees do you think aspiring designers are getting their moneyÔÇÖs worth or would they be better off hunting out work experience and apprenticeship schemes?”

JB: “I think the reality is, and there has to be a revolution, that I donÔÇÖt think students are getting good value for money. I think the universities since they have become self regulating are opening more and more courses, they are taking on more and more students on each course, they are not increasing teaching hours so itÔÇÖs not the fault of the tutors itÔÇÖs the fault of the universities that are now running like businesses and they are not actually giving value for money. Now in good faith a student wanting to study fashion journalism, fashion design, fashion merchandising, they sign up on the courses, believe genuinely when they sign up, that with their degree when they leave they are going to be acceptable into the market. The quality of teaching they are getting isnÔÇÖt good enough so their degrees arenÔÇÖt worth as much as they were 20 years ago and there just arenÔÇÖt the jobs for the number of graduates that the universities are pushing through the system. So there is a real problem there, plus I actually think with tuition fees set at the level they are I think university education is going back to being very elitist again and I think thatÔÇÖs a bad thing and I donÔÇÖt think,” pauses “it doesnÔÇÖt sit comfortably for me.”

“I came from a working class background, I was lucky to get a further education by grant it didnÔÇÖt cost me and I benefitted from it. if IÔÇÖd have been working in the existing system now, I wouldnÔÇÖt have had the education that IÔÇÖve had and I wouldnÔÇÖt be doing what I do now. Now I actually think I earn a lot of money for the UK, I employ a lot of people, if I hadnÔÇÖt had that start I wouldnÔÇÖt be making that contribution now, so I think it is very short sighted to eliminate a bunch of our community because they are maybe working class and canÔÇÖt afford it. So not clever.”

PW: “You helped Dame Vivienne Westwood set up her business in the early days; do you think more help and education in that side of a designers business should be more readily available?”

JB: “Vivienne was a slightly different case she had already been in business with Malcolm, Malcolm had stitched her up, she was almost bankrupt, she had the bailiffs knocking on the door but she was already an iconic name and so when I helped her out in the mid 80s she wasnÔÇÖt known internationally as Vivienne Westwood she was known as Seditionaries, Sex and all that so when I started her and her two sons in business I was dealing with a brand that already had a recognition. So what I was able to do was to finance that into happening because she had a head start. I think its different today to say can you pluck a designer straight out of collage and expect to make them a Vivienne Westwood as quickly as I established Vivienne. In the first season with Vivienne we showed at Olympia we had 1,000 people turn up to the catwalk show we wrote orders immediately, they had to pay 50% up front otherwise we wouldnÔÇÖt accept their order, the conditions I put on it were really tough, you wouldnÔÇÖt be able to that with a start up designer. So where is it you go and I think for me with a lot of young designers their expectations is too much too quickly. I think if you look at designers like Donna Karen, Calvin Klein they all started in the rag trade in New York. They worked for ten or twelve years for another brand, they got to know buyers, they got to know the industry, they got to know manufacturers, they were professionals, and in my opinion thatÔÇÖs what a young designer need to do, so if you take someone like Giorgio┬á Armani, Giorgio didnÔÇÖt start his business till 1978 so heÔÇÖd already been working in the industry for probably 20 years before he started Armani.”

PW: “ThatÔÇÖs whatÔÇÖs missing today.”

JB: “People they expect to get a job just like that and go straight into it and youÔÇÖve really got to get a background. You know I was lucky, I went straight out of college, started my own business straight away but I raised the money to do it so I didnÔÇÖt need anybody else but that is an exception, I think in the main you really need to have that background.”

The ‘after’ shot, I think the styling really shows the characters of the two gents

PW: “Do you think the fashion industry is too fast, with the tragic death of Alexander McQueen and the mental illness of John Galliano, is there too much pressure on designers to produce up to 8 collections per year?”

JB: “Pauses for thought – “No, you canÔÇÖt blame the industry for Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, I think their own greed and their own egos fueled that problem there are tons of other great designers that have that equal pressure on them and they donÔÇÖt buckle. You know if you look at Issey Miyake or Karl Largerfeld look at Miucha Prada they are under the same pressure. I think the problem with Lee and John, and I was JohnÔÇÖs external examiner so I know him well, they are both actually very fragile characters that got inflated by their own egotistical desires and put themselves in that position and that neednÔÇÖt have happened.” Talking about Galliano, who Banks mentored, his eyes moisten, I can see he cares about him a great deal and is saddened by what has come to pass. “Lee’s backing from Gucci, the introduction that Tom Ford made to get him in there and the money that they pumped into it, he had a wonderful opportunity and spoilt it. Galliano, to be the chief designer at Dior and have LVMH throwing all that money at you and satisfying whatever his desires were, if heÔÇÖd have respected that he wouldnÔÇÖt be in the situation heÔÇÖs in, you know, I donÔÇÖt feel sorry about it. I feel sorry for the GucciÔÇÖs who have now got to pick up the pieces and try and get their money back and I feel sorry LVMH who have suddenly had to reorganise Dior. Gucci is owed around ┬ú30 million so their employees have to pay that back so there is a lot of pressure and the hundreds of people that worked in factories making that product, you have to feel responsible for them you canÔÇÖt just feed your own ego. You have actually got to think. When I get up in the morning I probably am responsible for maybe 5-6,000 people earning a living.”

PW: “You must think of that everyday?”

JB: “I think of it in the morning but particularly when I wake up in the middle of the night. Yes, sometimes you break out in a cold sweat. That is a lot of people dependent for their Christmas wages on whether this is the right thing. So you have to accept that responsibility not just satisfy your own egotistical requirements.”

PW: “Did you know that people blog about your ÔÇÿvintageÔÇÖ pieces and they still fetch a good price on eBay, how do you feel about people still appreciating your designs?”

JB: “It doesnÔÇÖt even register with me, I never look backwards, I gave all my archive to the Victoria & Albert museum, I just really look at the moment…excuse me a minute,” Jeff spots a customer needing assistance and goes to get someone to help, he apologises to me again, I say “please donÔÇÖt apologise it is nice to see that you are still so passionate about your brand.”

JB: “I just donÔÇÖt understand why people would go to all the effort to design something and not want to…I believe in what we do and I think we offer great value and I can see when someone is trying something on what would be better for them and I want to be here to make that work.”

PW: “The world of blogging has given the general public a voice in fashion, here I mean ‘hobby’ bloggers and not professionals . At first many fashion editors and designers criticised this saying they are not experts and so are in no position to judge designers collections. Yet these are the very people buying the clothes. Do you think their voice is important in fashion?”

JB: “I think it is overrated, I actually think, generally I donÔÇÖt have a high opinion of fashion journalism currently, I donÔÇÖt believe in the printed media because itÔÇÖs now driven by who spends the money on advertising. I think if you look at where the editorial comes from in every magazine itÔÇÖs just about the editorial so if youÔÇÖre spending a lot of bucks on advertising you get the editorial so if you had to rely on that for your living youÔÇÖd go bust. Because if you look at any magazine the majority of the ad spend is on international brands when you look at the responding editorial thatÔÇÖs where that is. You then look at new electronic media and at the end of the day the problem that I have with bloggers generally is that they tend to personalise what they are doing and not actually look objectively at providing an opinion for the populous at large. So I think the whole blogging experience has actually got to mature a lot into becoming a really good voice and I donÔÇÖt think itÔÇÖs there yet. At the moment I donÔÇÖt say I donÔÇÖt have time for it, but when I look at the blogs that I would be looking at and the bloggers that I come into contact with they tend to be immature in their approach they think that they can use it to get into the shows, they use it to get into the clubs, they can use it to get discounts, they are not actually acting responsibly, so I think the multimedia has to kind of grow up and find a way that it really becomes an alternative to the printed media because I look at things like Conde Nast, I look at all of those magazine empires and they are fading fast they are just really not succeeding in what they are doing.”

PW: “I agree in some of what you are saying, I am from a professional background, so I know how write a pieces of copy, I see blogging as a profession not a cheap trick to get free stuff. I make sure when I do report on a [fashion] show do it objectively.”

JB: “You see the thing I think about shows in the main they are superfluous, if you look at London fashion week for instance there’s 75 shows and probably only 10 of them that are commercially based i.e companies that are making money and I donÔÇÖt mean the product has to be commercial I mean as a company. With young people taking on overdrafts and putting themselves in hock to put on a show, no intention of delivering anything, so everybody flocks to these shows but its not representative of the industry and I have a real problem with the British Fashion Council the propagators. When I started the British fashion council, in fact it started of as the Clothing Export Council when I started it in 1969, the whole objective was that as a council we assisted companies to go and show their products abroad, put on their fashion shows in foreign countries, assist them with finance, assist them with building an international brand. That’s what we set it up for and for the first 20 years that’s what we did. Then it became the British Fashion Council trying to compete with Paris, Milan and New York and the people running it havenÔÇÖt got it, they donÔÇÖt understand that they are not doing what New York, Paris and Milan are, they are chasing a dream but they havenÔÇÖt go the background to make the dream work. So I have a problem with that.”

PW: “Any ideas to go in there and fix it or have you stepped away from all that now?”

JB: “No, I┬á donÔÇÖt see the logic in somebody like me trying to fix it, its too inbred now. It would need something dramatic, for it to go bankrupt or something like that to happen before everybody said hang on why are we doing this, why are we spending all of this grant money or sponsors money on something that doesnÔÇÖt mean all that much. You know I mean if you travel abroad, and I travel constantly, nobody talks about London fashion week it doesnÔÇÖt even register, if you go to America or you go to Japan do any of the brands that have shown in London Fashion Week even get a glimpse? Look at Bloomingdales, they have just refitted the store, the only two, three brands in New York represented are Reiss, Ted Baker and All Saints none of them do fashion shows, none of them show at London Fashion Week, they are there because they have got a commercial business that has some real clout, some real quality about it, a real inventiveness, a real identity, so Bloomingdales say great we will actually trade with that.”

PW: “So do you think that is again the designers egos wanting to do the shows, rather than having a real business sense?”

JB: “That is the only reason. When you talk to a lot of these designers they live from one show to another, put themselves in hock for it, even grown up experienced designers and you ask them why are you doing it, why are you spending a hundred thousand pounds per show, what for, what order book do you write from, what good has it done you, it doesnÔÇÖt do anything. I think its a bloody shame and a lot of it is the British Fashion Council persuading them to do it, egotistically to keep the thing going but with no concept of where its going to go.”

We have already had double the time allocated and I know Jeff is on a tight schedule. I can see from the corner of my eye people getting antsy, although Jeff I feel would have been happy to sit and chat all day. Providing he had his favourite Starbucks hot chocolate to keep him going.

PW: “We are nearly out of time, so on a lighter note my last question, what is your top fashion or styling tip for men?”

JB: “Be yourself, be natural, be what you are, donÔÇÖt get sucked into thinking you have to keep up with the latest fad. Why do you want to dress up? You want to dress up to satisfy somebody else probably, the woman in your life, girlfriend and shes much going to prefer you if you are the real you rather than something fake. Just be you.”

Thank you Jeff it was a real honour and a privilege. Many thanks also to Shay, Fiona and everyone at Jeff Banks, Cheshire Oaks.

You can read Jeff Bank’s biography on his website which also has full stockist information. Information about Cheshire Oaks Designer Outlet can be found on their website.