Kill the E-type.
The story of how one of New York City's most unique, independent retail brands plans not just to survive, but thrive.
The E-type Jaguar is "the most beautiful car ever made". Not my words, although I certainly agree, they are in fact the words of Enzo Ferrari. Yes, Ferrari.
First introduced in 1961 at the surprisingly reasonable price of $3,000 (to give it context, an Aston Martin DB4 was $5,520 and a Ferrari 250Gt a staggering $18,000 at the time) the E-type's combination of beauty and high performance immediately won the praise of the motoring world followed the hearts of the public. Frank Sinatra, Steve McQueen, Brigitte Bardot (and of course, Austin Powers) all drove one. It was the symbol of the times. Fast, sporty, elegant, daring, sexy, decadent and most of all, fun.
The E-Type was in production for an incredible 14 years and sold over 70,000 units, but by June of 1972, the consumer appetite for the iconic car was dwindling and production fell to just 3,705 cars a year. The E-type's woes continued, when U.S. safety regulations required all coupes to have internal roll bars, forcing Jaguar to cease production its coupe model.
The E-type Roadster (soft top) production carried on for another 3 years, but by February 1975, Britain was in a deep recession and the free spirit of "The Swinging Sixties" was a distant memory. The once, top of the automobile hit parade, the E-type, had lost its audience and dealerships reported significant numbers of unsold cars.
Jaguar had no choice. They had to do the unthinkable. Kill the E-type.
I am telling you this because at the end of last years, after 15 years of producing what our clients and admirers believed was the gentleman's clothing equivalent of an E-type Jaguar, we stopped.
Along with my wife Betty, We own and operate Lord Willy’s and we made what we would like to think were the best bespoke suits in New York City. I say that with my hand on my heart. I didn't make the suits, our incredibly skilled in-house Master tailor did. I didn't do the fittings, Betty, a Central Saint Martin's trained designer and meticulous perfectionist did. But I was the muse and the sales guy and I wore the suits everyday. And that's how I know they are the best. They always felt majestic, no matter what I was the situation I found myself in (as a small business owner, it wasn’t unusual to assisting a client at one minute and then be up a fifteen foot ladder changing a lightbulb the next).
Tailored in Holland & Sherry cloth from Scotland, our suits were sublimely-cut classics, beautifully proportioned and designed with just the right amount of flair, confidence and dash-of-daring. In fact, the suits would have looked no more at home than behind the wheel of an E-type.
Our 2,500 sq. ft. flagship store on Mott Street in New York City’s Nolita neighborhood was an emporium of taste and individuality. Besides displaying our examples of “Classic English tailoring, with a playful twist” you might find Milo Baughman vintage leather chairs sitting comfortably next to a 1950’s mannequin head sporting a Devo energy dome hat.
It was interesting to say the least. As are our clients. They come from from all walks of life and from the four corners of the globe. They have the means to shop anywhere in the world. They choose us.
GQ and Esquire magazines both named Lord Willy’s as “One of the best stores in America”. Zagat shopping guide went one further and reported that “if a man could shop at one store alone, it should be here”.
It was like a private club, a place to pop-in if you happened to be in the hood or bring family or friends to share with them what a great little place you frequented. Clients were treated like (and became) good friends.
Like many things in Manhattan, that all came to a rather abrupt halt on March 16th, 2020, when under the instructions of Gov. Cuomo, all non-essential business’s were to close down, in order to stop the transmission of the now raging pandemic.
It was a chilling moment. As we drove out of the city that night heading for the Catskill mountains, (which we were very fortunate to have had a house for almost 20 years) my wife and I were silent. We knew that something seismic was taking place and that the world was not going to be "business as usual" again and that our business, regarded as a landmark institution in NoLita, was potentially all but dead.
It wasn't just that our clients had all left town, or that tourism had ground to a halt, or even that all weddings and special occasions were cancelled. It was deeper than that.
For several years now, the tailored suit as an everyday work wardrobe essential had been in decline, corporate desire to make the work environment more like Silicon Valley was being mandated across the city and the suit was being regarded as old fashioned and stuffy, not "with it". The call for "Business Casual" was growing louder every month.
We knew that we were making incredible clothing, but that their demand, no matter how good the quality or craftsmanship, was just not going to be coming back any time soon.
And so we made the surprisingly easy decision, let's kill the suit.
We reopened the store in July, NoLita looked like a war zone. Most of the shops were still closed, boarded up and graffitied from the demonstrations and looting that had taken place in June. The garbage was out of control. I spoke to a friend back in the UK and explained to him that our store looked like somebody had cut out a picture of a shop on London’s Savile Row from a magazine and stuck it on top of a scene from the blitz.
We opened up shop in good spirit, but business was even worse than we expected. We did receive some lovely emails from clients wishing us well, but without realizing, just about every one of them included the line "I've not worn a shirt for months, I'm just wearing t-shirts".
And so the plan was set. We would sell-off all the inventory and close-up shop at the end of the year. We'd just taken delivery of all our new summer stock, which felt rather daunting, but a not-so-subtle announcement of "Everything must go! 40% off!”, got the wheels in motion and our loyal followers dug deep, by the time we wrote our "The pleasure was all ours" email announcing the closure of the store at the end of the year, we'd cleared almost 80% of the stock.
December 23rd was the last day of the store. Tears flowed from both friends and clients alike as we said our final goodbyes (even hugs, the first since March). A chapter had ended. Almost 15 years to the day since we had first opened for business.
We drove out of the city on Christmas Day in a U-Haul van. Twenty years in the city, fifteen of which had been in retail, which if you've ever run a store in New York City, you'll know is like dog years.
We didn't feel sad, quite the opposite, we were excited. Our new life was about to begin and we couldn't wait to get cracking. The tidal wave of change had been forced upon us - and we were going to surf it!
"We used to make beautiful clothes for special occasions, now we're doing the same for everyday."
We have spent the last 8 months in the tranquility of the Catskills mountains, re-imagining every angle of the Lord Willy's brand. Evolving it for the lives we are all now living and I can honestly say, it has been one of the happiest, most creative and fortunate times of our lives.
Two weeks ago, we launched our new website lordwillys.com. Along with some homemade Instagram teasers. It's very, very different. New logo, new look, new voice.
With the store closed, we felt it was important to create a place that our clients (or as they have referred to themselves on many occasions, fans) can pop in anytime they choose. A place where they will find articles of interest and windows into our own inspirations. They will also find monthly chapters from my book "Short stories for interesting people’’, which tells about some of the funny things that happened over the years. The first story “Encounter with the Underworld” tells of a rather unusual tailoring request from the local boss.
Today we added our Autumn/Winter Look Book, it's the first glimpse our existing audience is getting of the new Lord Willy's and our beautifully-tailored, everyday clothing. The products themselves will start becoming available over the next few weeks in the “drop” format. We are thrilled with the outcome. Each piece has a reason and benefit. These are not clothes for special occasions. They are for everyday. They are practical, comfortable and yet, still beautiful.
I'm sharing the Lord Willy’s brand journey with the Linkedin community today because the platform has been a huge influence on me over the last 18 months. The advice and wisdom that I have found on it has led me to really question and rethink everything and most importantly, to see a vision for the business that was previously blurred by tradition.
So for that, I thank you. And to any small business owner out there that is in a similar position with their own "E-type", I’m afraid you know what you need to do.
As for Jaguar, they replaced the E-type with the still controversial XJS. A highly uniquely-styled, powerful, comfortable touring car designed with enough luggage room for your weekends in Europe.
Personally, I love that car too, but even more, I love that they were willing to accept that they made the best and moved on. Lord Willy's has the knowledge and experience to make the most beautiful traditional suits in the world and it can do so again, if it chooses to do so, but we have to accept, the future has arrived and we would rather have a place in tomorrow's world than that of yesteryear.
If you've enjoyed this post, please do spend a little time on our website lordwillys.com and if you like what you see/read, please do let me know and follow us on instagram @lordwillys for updates on future product releases.
Thank you and best wishes. Onward!
Lord Willy's. Established.
"Makers of fine clothing for interesting people."