To commemorate Father's Day, Flora Macdonald Johnston, Head of Editorial at Appear Here Magazine, interviewed David and Elliot Mason in their new Soho store to talk all things luxury, legacy and London.
"Creating a legacy isn't easy, and neither is reviving one. Mason & Sons are doing both…Ahead of Father's Day, I spoke to David Mason, and his business partner - who happens to be his eldest son Elliot. Together, they have revived six British brands, started the world’s first multi-British-brand Ocularium, and have plans to expand with stores across the US".
Could you summarise in a sentence what you believe Mason & Son embodies?
David: I suppose we like to celebrate British style. That's what our business has always been about. It started with bespoke tailoring and moved into ready-to-wear clothing and accessories. And here, today, we have now moved into the optical world, but everything's British.
Mason & Sons has become synonymous with British heritage. Where does this love for British heritage and craftsmanship really come from?
David: Well, I suppose for a young, northern lad it was escapism. Watching the early James Bond films was a huge influence on my life. And, certainly, in terms of defining British style, nobody really does it better than 007. So that's where I think it all started. I can remember one of my first visits to London was a school trip. We went to the Houses of Parliament, did some school stuff in the morning, and then in the afternoon we were set free and could wander around wherever we chose. So, I decided I'd go to Savile Row to see where James Bond had his suits made. And I thought, yeah, one of these days that’s going to be me…little did I know.
Elliot: For me, I didn't have a choice. I was born into it this love for heritage, fashion and craftsmanship. I was just telling somebody this morning about it, I was carrying an Italian coffee from my favourite place, Bar Italia, and this passer by said, “Oh, that stuff's like rocket fuel,” and I replied, “well, I've been eating their cheese and tomato panini since I was four." I would eat them in the car waiting for my dad while he was in the tailor's workshops. Then, when I was a little older, I was allowed to help by running errands around Soho. It's all I have ever known.
What do you think actually makes British craftsmanship worthwhile and exciting? Why are you particularly interested in exploring that route when many people and consumers' outlook, especially in the UK, is perhaps to look towards more global and European brands?
Elliot: I think it's the fact that so many products originated in the United Kingdom, and then spread all across the world, which is fantastic. But then everything that was originally made here, began to be made elsewhere, probably at a more affordable price. So really what we are saying now is that although many things originate here, it's harder to get those products manufactured in the UK. Because of globalisation, there's no shortage of supply around the world.
So, what we are doing is telling these origin stories and promoting them, highlighting the remaining small pool of people who still have the skill set to produce these incredible things, otherwise, you know, these crafts could become extinct. Every time I walk down Savile Row, it feels like there are fewer and fewer tailors there for all sorts of different reasons. So it feels good to keep these things alive really.
What are the biggest challenges of reviving a forgotten brand? Is it manufacturing? Is it making it contemporary?
David: It’s that process of communicating the story, which can be challenging sometimes, but it was straightforward with Anthony Sinclair, who was Sean Connery's tailor for all the Bond films. When we relaunched that, it was a very, very simple story. The message was: James Bond’s original tailor is back. And we had a very clearly defined target audience.
So that was an instant success for us and the timing was good, we relaunched to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Bond films. The Olympic games were being hosted in London at the time and were opened by the Queen and James Bond jumping from a helicopter. Skyfall was released that year, which was a very successful movie and Eon Productions celebrated the 50th anniversary of the movies by hosting an exhibition entitled 50 Years of Bond.
Glasses are one of the most saturated markets, so why look to British glasses labels? Why do you think we are still in need of that kind of craftsmanship?
Elliot: It's a similar story with the glasses really, illustrated by our latest brand Ed Scarlet who started manufacturing frames in the 1700s right here in Soho. He invented the contemporary spectacle frame you now see today with hinged temples, just around the corner on Dean Street, and the design he created hasn't really progressed that much in 300 years. The fact that we had the opportunity to relaunch the original spectacle frame brand is amazing. We are very fortunate to have found that and brought it back to life.
David: We also saw an opportunity to have a multi-brand retail space for spectacles, which we are sitting in now, and just like our clothing business is purely promoting British brands.
Elliot: We're stocking Kirk and Kirk, Oliver Goldsmith, Renauld and of course Ed Scarlet, with more to come. I don't think there is a multi-brand eyewear store in the world that only sells British brands. And we are in the heart of London, and in the heart of Soho, where the contemporary spectacle frame was invented.
Finding a good space in Soho seemed imperative to your narrative.
Elliot: Exactly, for us, a lot of the storytelling is about not just Ed Scarlet and his invention and the products that we're developing, but also the part of London where the product originated and telling the story of Soho as well. Whether it's through the mod culture - our nod is the Vespa in the centre of the room - or our playful neon "Spex Shop" sign.
And all our brands relate - Oliver Goldsmith is a really important British optical brand. And that was founded in the 1900s. So 200 years after Ed Scarlet had invented the spectacle frame, Oliver Goldsmith was the brand that opened a new market by making the first fashion-focused frames. They were based on nearby Poland Street in Soho. So everything is connected.
What makes a Mason and Sons space identifiable?
Elliot: Well for this space, there's a touch of classic Mason and Sons in its location. However, I suppose the thing that makes it a Mason and Sons space for me is the elements of wit and fun, like with our “Spex Shop” sign, an ode to the area of course, and parking the 1960s Vespa in the middle of the shop floor. We don't take ourselves too seriously. I think that's probably a common theme throughout everything we do actually.
Our main location in London is actually John Lennon's old flat in Marylebone where we see customers by appointment for tailoring fittings. And then we have a town house in Houston, Texas and an apartment in New York. So those are all residential premises. This is slightly different in being a more conventional retail space. The other Mason and Sons locations are filled with British furniture and photos of British-style icons are on the walls.
What do you want your customer to feel as they walk into the Ocularium?
Elliot: It’s very important to make an impact. It’s easy to make a space that looks like everywhere else, many optical stores are generic. It would be easy just to stack products from floor to ceiling with frames. We're looking to create an interesting shopping experience.
How do you both navigate your relationship when you're in a space together day in, day out?
David: Well, we have different skill sets and are responsible for different aspects of the business. There is some overlap, but Elliot lets me get on with my bit and I let him get on with his part of the business. I think that's why it works.
Where do you see Mason & Sons going?
David: Well, the immediate plans for us, we were talking about British manufacturing earlier, is to bring back spectacle making, hopefully in Soho if we can find the space. So that's stage one. We have a brand, a product, and we would like to start manufacturing ourselves here in London. Then it's a really great story.
Elliot: Oh no, I definitely don't have bigger aspirations than Dad... It's like an episode of succession, isn't it? But for me, what I would really like for this particular part of our empire is to launch stores in the West. I want us to roll out multiple Oculariums in the States, where we do most of our business already. And whilst I think that is daunting, it’s achievable.
And on that ending note, a final question, what is the key to a successful father-son bond and business?
David: The most important thing is we carry on having fun together, because whilst what we do is challenging - we love it... and that's something special.
Click here to explore The Ocularium