Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

Crocodile tears

Chester Barrie was a British men’s tailoring company founded in 1935. It produced semi-bespoke clothing with a shop on Savile Row. I first encountered the brand via its concession in Manchester’s House of Fraser in 2014. While I’m not keen on starchy, traditional British menswear, I was pleased to see that the brand was innovative, clearly taking some of its lead from Italy and turning out several seasons of nicely styled, modern clothes. At last, I felt, here is a company that is doing something other than rest on its traditional laurels, which might even hold a light to what is still done so well in Italy. It did well enough to become official dresser to, for example, Leicester Tigers rugby team.

CB’s usual offerings were well out of my price range – but I was delighted when it opened an outlet shop a mere handful of miles from my home a year or two later. Given the precipice off which my income fell in 2016, that shop has done a sterling job of keeping me dressed for minimal outlay – and deflected the need to fall back on the dullness of the usual High Street stores, whose men’s department heave with piles of over-priced, low quality cloned jeans, chinos and trainers.

And then it disappeared. It turns out that CB was bought and sold several times, before being acquired by the Japanese Itochu Corporation in 2017. In early 2020, the decision was made to close the brand, including its concessions, outlet shops, and the Savile Row flagship store. A piece of recent British tailoring history summarily executed, to suit the accounting bottom line of a distant corporation. I struggle to imagine this happening in Italy, where I suspect veneration of such a company’s heritage would overridden short term profitability issues. It would probably still be family-owned in the first place.

This has become the story of much of the British economy, particularly that of the ‘High Street’. For decades, a process has been underway whereby profitable smaller companies were absorbed by larger ones, until huge corporations came to own vast swathes of retail and other activity. Delve into the ownership of almost any well-known British brand, and you are likely to find that it ultimately funnels money towards one or other of the large corporations, most insidiously of all, Venture Capital companies and hedge funds, whose speciality is the aggressive acquisition of companies which are often asset stripped and disposed of, making a (very) few – and mostly anonymous – individuals very rich in the process.

Another classic example was Costa Coffee, which began as a small concern in London in 1971, before being bought out by Whitbread in 1995, and being being sold again in 2019 to the Coca Cola Corporation for £3.9 billion. In the meantime, its character has changed out of all recognition, from the small Italian-style coffee bar I first visited at Liverpool St station in the late 1980s, to just another themed chain, albeit one whose coffee still isn’t bad.

We can add other venerables to the list – such as Pizza Express, Carluccio’s – not to mention the other sectors that such corporations now operate in, perhaps most controversially private care home provision.

I suppose one could argue that this is just the way in which advanced economies are developing. It is clearly not just a British phenomenon – and I might be just about willing to accept that this happens, were it not for the effects on the companies – and the rest of us – in the meantime.

Those large corporations do not buy smaller outfits out of sentiment: their one and only concern is maximising their profit, often only in the short term. We tend to see a change of direction – almost always towards the dumbed-down mass market, because that is where maximum revenue lies. Products are homogenised and mass-production processes ramped up – nearly always at the expense of distinctiveness and quality – while at the same time, tried and tested favourites are jettisoned in favour of trendy gimmicks. There is no quality, and there is no continuity.

And where this is not possible, as in the case of Chester Barrie, it seems that the bones are picked clean, and the company jettisoned – with no concern for history, employees or long-standing customers – let alone the loss of diversity in the market place.

In the process, our towns and cities have become standardised clones, their streets filled with the same old chains pumping out retail therapy, but whose real purpose is to channel income from the very many, towards the very few who stand at the top of such corporations. Let’s not pretend that the employees of such chains benefit very greatly from their presence – they are often unskilled and low-paid – and eminently disposable, unlike those who worked in more specialist trades.

As I said, this is certainly not just a British phenomenon – but it still seems that the impact of the trend varies from place to place. There seem to be, for example, far fewer national or international chains on the streets of Italy or France – even, I think, Germany. Clothing retail in particular seems still in the hands of many small boutiques, and there are many individual restaurants, even though the small eateries of France are known to be under threat.

There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth in recent months, at the impact of CV19 on towns’ economies. Having ventured into my nearest town for the first time in months a week or so ago, I did not notice much change – but it is possible that the worst is still to come. I even read someone recently, bewailing the loss of the “traditional British chain store”. What was very noticeable, however, from the branding on the Covid health notices, was just how much of the town centre is now privately owned.

For several decades, these giants have bled local businesses dry, and turned our towns from civic centres into semi-privatised conveyor belts for shovelling cash from the not-very-well-off many, to the very-well-off few. They have taken aggressive advantage of a neo-liberal economic climate, whereby the government of the country failed to intervene in the market despite the inequalities that were being created. So far as I am concerned, they should not squeal when liberal free market conditions, whether Covid-related or otherwise, turn against them. What we do need, however, is protection from the adverse consequences of their behaviour, which our government mostly declines to provide.

I am of course concerned for those whose jobs will be just more collateral damage as the corporations pull in their belts – and there is clearly a job to be done to figure out how to fill what may end up as  a vast over-provision of urban retail space. But I am much more concerned about how the small and local businesses are faring – those who offer personal service, often distinctive and better-quality products, and earnings that flow back into local economies rather than distant HQs.

So forgive me if I fail to pass anything more than crocodile tears for the passing of these ‘household names’, the majority of which have not, and do not, serve us anywhere near as well as they claim, but which have been a major cause of damage to both local distinctiveness and real choice for consumers. Companies like Chester Barrie are a real loss, though – but largely avoidable. In the meantime, internet shopping provides an escape from the tyranny of the high street giants, and for this reason I use it shamelessly, to support small, distinctive and independent retailers wherever they may be. We can do better in future.

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