A rare interview with dunhill’s creative director John Ray

More than 120 years since its launch, dunhill is still a brand defined by its Britishness. John Ray, the current creative director, tells us about building on the legacy left by the company's formidable and forward-thinking founder, Alfred Dunhill.

At the helm: Scotland-born John Ray worked with Katharine Hamnett, followed by a decade at Gucci, before assuming the mantle of creative director at dunhill. Photo by Andrew Vowles
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John Ray is not a fan of the word fashion. “I hate the word fashion,” dunhill’s affable creative director says, with a laugh. “I love clothes. You put on clothes and they make you feel different. Whether you are a man or a woman. When I was younger, if I didn’t have the right thing to wear, I wouldn’t go out. That’s pretty bad, isn’t it?”

Ray also pulls me up for trying to over-intellectualise his work. I’m momentarily stunned – this could be the first time in history that the creative director of a luxury fashion brand does not want to philosophise about the life-and-death importance of their creations. But Ray is having none of it. “At the end of the day, it’s only clothes, isn’t it?” he says.

If there is a fashion-PR script, Ray isn’t sticking to it. This is a man who has managed to retain a healthy perspective on what he does for a living and, as such, is a fitting figurehead for a brand that is elegant but unassuming, secure in its own strengths and yet charmingly discreet in all that it does (so discreet, in fact, that when I am walking along London’s New Bond Street looking for the dunhill showroom ahead of my interview with Ray, I walk past it twice, failing to notice the minuscule gold plaque signalling that I am in the right place. It may also be worth noting here that the lower-case “d” in dunhill is intentional – a branding exercise designed to differentiate this dunhill from the cigarettes, to which it now has no connection).

Born and brought up in Scotland, Ray studied menswear at Central Saint Martins before doing a master’s at the Royal College of Art. He is perhaps best known for taking over from Tom Ford at Gucci, as creative director of menswear, before being replaced by Frida Giannini. As the story goes, Ray decided to return to Scotland to take six to eight months off, and ended up taking an eight-year sabbatical. He was approached by dunhill early on in his self-imposed exile, but it was only when the brand came knocking again a few years later that he really considered the opportunity, taking up the mantle of creative director in 2012.

“I think I ran away from the industry. I’d been doing it for so long and I just thought: ‘No more of this.’ It’s difficult, and it can be so fake; I just wanted to get away. But I’m really glad to be back and I love London. When I was doing the job before, there was so much pressure. I don’t find that there’s the same amount of pressure here. I take it seriously – we all do our best – but if people don’t like it, I’ll just go home to Scotland.”

On these grounds, it seems unlikely that he’ll be heading north any time soon. The day before, I sat in the Phillips gallery in Mayfair to witness the unveiling of Ray’s spring/summer 2016 collection. In a clear statement of intent, the first four looks that Ray sent down the runway featured top hats and tails, with oversized flowers in buttonholes. While dunhill has always been a quintessentially British brand, this was a formal reminder of the company’s core DNA.

Beyond this, the presentation – all square jaws, untamed curls, geek-chic specs, floppy bow ties and scarves that looked like they’d been slung on at the last minute – had a very fresh feel. Trousers were rolled up to show off dunhill’s new collection of shoes, jackets were boxy and shirts were oversized and half-untucked.

“Right now, I’m really interested in volume,” says Ray. “The fit of an English suit has to skim the body, not hug it – that makes it Italian, and I like an easier fit. This season, because it’s summer, we went for a boxy jacket, because of that looseness. We went for a very low break on the double-breasted jacket, so it’s very open. For sportswear, I think that easier tops and bottoms feel much fresher. We went through a period where everything was very tight and it was like a girl’s jacket on guys. It just looked wrong.”

Ray points to a collection of mood boards on the wall to explain his inspiration. On it are some very British gentlemen – including princes Charles and Philip. “What I find interesting is that when you look at British families, and let’s just take the royal family for one, the codes of dressing haven’t really changed. This is Prince Philip, when he was in his 30s; and Charles dresses just like him. Even when you look at Wills and Harry, they all dress like that. I guess the challenge at dunhill is to make it British and masculine. These are the two things that are key for us as a brand. Keep it British; keep it masculine. And I think to do that, you have to send out a strong message that’s easy to read. I thought what I would do this season is go right back to the roots of it and then try to express it from there.”

Ah, yes. Britishness. But what, exactly, does that mean when it comes to clothing, I wonder. “Well, I think it’s really hard to define,” Ray acknowledges. “There are old Brits, new Brits, young Brits, modern Brits. But the thing I like is the way that Brits put stuff together in a way that isn’t always easy. What I hate is a grey suit, a white shirt, a red tie and a red pocket square. That’s a bit easy, a bit obvious.

“I think maybe Brits just don’t think about it too much. I’m a bit like that. You just pick the shirt, put it on, grab a tie, and you don’t really think too much about what you are doing. You put it together and it’s a happy accident, if you like. I quite like that. That mismatching shows a lot of personality for me.”

For his autumn/winter 2015 collection, which is in stores now, Ray looked to Soho in the late 1950s and 1960s, taking inspiration from the artists, musicians and creatives of the time. The colour palette was inspired by leftover paints found in artist Francis Bacon’s studio – tubes of raw sienna, vermilion scarlet, punchy blue, yellow ochre, umber and titanium white. The silhouettes here, too, are more relaxed, and feature car coats, painter’s trousers and oversized knits. Exclusive fabrics developed in association with British mills are designed to delight – worsted Prince of Wales checks in offbeat colours; Scottish tweeds in playful shades; overscaled pinstripes; and herringbones and twills woven double-face with house checks.

There’s an underlying formality to dunhill’s clothes that harks back to a golden age of men’s dressing; they feel bespoke, even if they aren’t. And it’s not just the clothes – it’s the beautifully crafted leather goods, from oversized zip totes and duke flap briefcases to coin cases and wallets; the exuberant ties, softer-than-soft gloves and sculptural pens. From Alfie’s cafe in Dubai’s Emirates Towers to London’s Bourdon House – a Georgian mansion that is “a home from home for Alfred Dunhill’s clients”, offering exclusive services such as a traditional barber, luxurious spa and private screening room – there is a simple sophistication that underpins every facet of the dunhill portfolio; everything speaks of quality and craftsmanship, and pays quiet homage to the man who started it all more than a century ago.

In 1893, at the age of 21, Alfred Dunhill inherited his father’s equestrian saddlery and harness-making business. Of course, it was the dawn of the age of the motor car, and horses as a popular form of transport were becoming defunct. Recognising this, the 19th-century futurist began to manufacture accessories for motor-car drivers – everything from exquisite leather and metal accessories to driving apparel and protective clothing. The dunhill Motorities were born. In 1905, the first shop dedicated to Motorities opened at 5 Conduit Street, offering the first-ever menswear collection for motor-car drivers, motorcyclists and cyclists. The first writing instruments followed in 1930. It is a mark of the man that Alfred Dunhill was that when the brand’s Duke Street shop was bombed during the Second World War, he returned the very next day and continued trading outside in the rubble.

Ray is well aware of the responsibility that comes with being at the helm of a brand so imbued with history and heritage. He is often quoted as saying that he tries to channel Alfred in everything that he does, but is that not an incredible weight to bear? “He’s tough,” Ray laughs. “He scares me. If you see pictures of him, he’s quite stern-looking. Sometimes, it does feel like he’s watching me.

“Jokes aside, what I love about him is that he clearly liked the changes that were happening in popular culture at the time. The way he went from making saddles, which became redundant because no one rode horses anymore, to making things for cars. If he was alive today, he would probably be in technology, because that’s where all the excitement is.”

The challenge, of course, is following Alfred’s example – not by doing things exactly as he would have, but by ensuring that the brand continues to move with the times, and is not weighed down by its storied past. All while staying true to the company’s core values: making good-quality, carefully crafted, unashamedly British products that appeal to a cross-section of consumers – or as Ray puts it, “the young guy and the older guy”.

“It is hard because a lot of young guys don’t wear traditional clothes anymore; [they] would just never have a suit. But when I look at guys in their mid-40s, I think it’s really hard for them to look good. A T-shirt and a pair of jeans – unless you are pumped or really fit – look really scruffy. I think that there’s a security in a formal jacket. You put a formal jacket over a pair of jeans, a T-shirt and a pair of nice shoes, and suddenly you can go anywhere. You take that jacket and those shoes away, and you’re not getting in, are you?

“I don’t want to alienate anybody, particularly the old guy. If I’m buying a suit from a brand for 20 years and I keep going back because I know exactly how it fits and I don’t even have to try it on, I don’t want that to suddenly change. I am really conscientious that we don’t do that with dunhill, that we don’t turn it on its head. Because if guys turn up who have been loyal to the brand and you haven’t got what they like to buy, that’s not right.”

So how would Ray like to make his mark on this 100-plus-year-old-company, one of Britain’s only true luxury brands? “I’d like to see it become a celebrated brand. The brand is 120 years old. I’m at the helm of it now. I just want to make sure we are steering it in the right direction so that it’s around for another 120 years. I don’t want to destroy it; I don’t want to turn it on its head. I just want to make it relevant and make sure it evolves in the right way. Not blow it out too quickly so that it burns itself, which is what you often get. People say take this brand, turn it around overnight. I don’t want to do that. I want to keep the brand as it is. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s beautiful.”