You made quite a leap from a legal career to one in fashion – tell us how you ended up starting a label?
My father was a hat-maker and I grew up learning from a young age the intricacies of the craft. I started my working life as a solicitor, then changed direction and became a director of an international clothing accessories company, before deciding to go it alone. I jumped at the chance to work in the fashion industry. The aim is to make the finest quality hats, preserve traditional hat making craft that has been around for centuries, whilst updating the classic styles for a more contemporary urban look.
Where does the name Tom Smarte come from?
My father learnt how to make hats by his grandfather, Elijah, who had told him that he had been taught the traditional craft by Thomas Smarte of Luton in the late 19th Century. It turns out that he was the last of a long line of a hat-making family that dated back to the 1780s, each of which were called Thomas. It just felt right to revive the Smarte family name and so ‘Tom Smarte’ was re-born.
Who would you say has given you inspiration?
Directly, it would have to be my father, who at the age of 91 still helps out from time to time in the business. He makes sure that the standard of the hats we make, together with the materials we use, are as good as they can be.
Indirectly, it’s all the Thomas Smartes and my own ancestors without whom I wouldn’t be doing this. My inspiration is to keep not just the name alive but also the traditional hat craft that they practised, which is under threat by cheaper, inferior and sometimes unethical methods of the unskilled assembly line.
What’s been your favourite project to date?
We created a capsule collection exclusively for Isetan department store in Japan which was fascinating. It gave me the chance to really understand the similarities and differences between the two countries and it also meant I got to visit Tokyo three times in twelve months.
How do you manage the life/work balance?
It’s very hard to switch off completely from work, even when I’m not there. But I have a young family that keeps me just as busy and I’ve always been very keen on sports. I’ve had a season ticket at Arsenal for 25 years which has contributed to mostly highs and a few lows and for the last couple of years have found that boxing training is a great way to keep fit and relieve stress.
What’s your plans for the future growth of your business?
So far, I have concentrated on the Japanese market where Tom Smarte has been very well received and is currently stocked in over 50 outlets in some of the country’s most renowned department stores and boutiques. It’s a market that is very receptive to British made goods and appreciates the quality of workmanship that we produce.
The plan now is to have more stockists in the UK, expand into Scandinavia and take our first steps in the United States. We’ll be exhibiting in January 2016 at Pitti Uomo in Florence for the second time as well as debuting at Liberty Fair in New York.
Has there been anything you really wanted to do which wasn’t commercially viable?
It’s been hard wired into my psyche that everything I make must be commercially viable, so I naturally filter out of the creative process anything that is in any way frivolous.
I’ve always been a big fan of the fabrics made by Italian mill Loro Piana but the cost was always a little too high to make it viable. I struggled very hard to find a way to make it work. Thankfully, I’ve finally managed to use the Loro Piana Storm System fabric in our flat cap and newsboy collection for Autumn / Winter 2016 at a price that is great value for what is probably the best cap you can get.
What’s the best thing about running your business?
It might be stressful but it’s also a lot of fun. From creating a new collection from scratch, to meeting other designers and travelling around the world. I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else!
What’s on your work playlist?
It’s a mixture of the old and the new. At this time of year ‘Bills’ by LunchMoney Lewis seems appropriate, lots of Pharell, Bruno Mars, Maroon 5, Basement Jaxx and anything by Bill Withers.
What advice would you give to any budding entrepreneurs?
Do your research! Make sure that what you are offering is in demand and different to what your competitors are doing. If the sums add up make a business plan before you do anything else and get it checked over by someone who’s not invested in it either emotionally or financially.
If it makes sense, then go for it and don’t give up. Be thick skinned and don’t take the inevitable rejections on the way personally. It might seem slow at first, but remember that the quicker it comes, the faster it goes.