Friday, December 5, 2014

Brands: McCullagh & Bothwell

A few months ago I paid a visit to menswear outfitter situated in Hyde Park Corner Mall in Sandton. From the window displays alone I was drawn because this store appeared to be a confluence of brand superiority and consistent quality. Upon closer inspection it became clear that a few of the clothing brands I have come to know through the internet are readily available at this store. For some native Joburgers it seems that buying quality clothing needn't be an online hassle because McCullagh & Bothwell is the place to source them. The window displays, in keeping with the season, are superbly and stylishly executed and presented. I visited during winter and the store was decorated with Harris Tweed jackets, Brax chinos, Gant knitwear, and Loake footwear. A kid in a candy shop applied aptly in this context.

When I initially contacted their customer service via email I received a response from Mickey Walker who is a direct descendant of one of the founders of this establishment. Established in 1896 in Kimberley, the operation opened its first doors in Johannesburg between 1906 and 1912. Since those days the company has always been a leading men's outfitter because of image conscious gentlemen who were very much attuned to brands as well. The Walker family fits into the history of McCullagh & Bothwell through Isaiah Walker who was the brother-in-law to Samuel Bothwell, one of the original founders, along with Isaiah McCullagh. When Samuel Bothwell passed away in 1924 the Walker family took over the reins and continued the success of the company. In 1954 Robert Walker became a partner in the business, thus establishing and cementing the Walker name and presence in the history of McCullagh and Bothwell. 

One of my goals for this interview was to understand why imported clothing is so expensive, especially menswear. Mickey explained that this all has to do with the foreign exchange rate, but, also offered the more plausible explanation of the tax imposed on clothing and textiles. For clothing and textiles from the European Union, a 20% tax is levied, and countries outside of the EU it can go as high 45%. These taxes are also mandated by the World Trade Organisation. 

It became apparent that one can't engage in international business without having an understanding of world economics and how these impact on the domestic economy. This is why my next question was about China, it's presence in South Africa and the impact on the local economy. I was very open with Mickey about my reservations regarding Chinese made and imported goods. I was especially skeptical about the quality and workmanship of these goods. His response was that China is influencing the clothing and textile industries because of its presence, market share, and competitiveness. Because Chinese made clothes and textiles are cheap to produce many other international brands are looking for cheaper ways of producing clothing in other economies where the labour is cheap but quality is not compromised. He highlighted the fact that because this was direct competition for China, this was forcing the clothing and textile industry in China to focus more on quality as opposed to quantity. He cited a few examples like; Eton shirts are now made in Estonia and not Sweden, as the normal customer would think, Thomas Pink has manufacturing operations in Bangladesh and India, and Gant is produced in Portugal. This is driven by the need for cheaper labour but sustainable quality.

I'm familiar with brands such as Barbour, Loake, Derek Rose, Polo, Pringle, Rockport, Viyella, and a host of others but to be able to see, touch and feel them first hand was a pleasurable experience. Imagine my excitement when I saw Pantherella hosiery, Eton shirts, Dormeuil, Brax, and others I'd never heard of, Breuer, Dalmine, Eden Park, Alan Paine, and Turrau. It was like the internet coming to life.

Front end of the store

Silk pocketsquares

Various branded winter hosiery

Mickey and I chopping it up.

Here is an interesting twist to McCullagh and Bothwell, they also supply school wear and this has been a part of the operations since the establishment of the Johannesburg business in the 1920s. They supply approximately 150 schools in South Africa and the list features illustrious schools such as Hilton College, Potch Boys and Girls high, Kingsmead College, Crawford schools, King Edward VII, and Sacred Heart College.

They are also the sole licensed distributors of Loake footwear. Mickey regaled me with stories of how he'd visited the manufacturing plant in the UK in order to learn about the history and traditions of Loake. The shoes are Goodyear welted and seeing this firsthand is an enlightening experience because the distinguishing features are visible as well as the quality and craftsmanship.

Gant knitwear

Brax chinos

Casual trousers 

I asked Mickey about their clientele and he explained that it is mostly gentlemen who are over 50 years in age, well traveled, are conscious of quality menswear brands and can differentiate between them. That's why if you factor in all the costs that are involved in the crafting, manufacturing and importing of a garment, you'll understand why a V-neck sweater can cost R8000 at McCullagh & Bothwell. He also emphasised the need for in-store staff to be trained in menswear especially organisational culture so that there isn't a gap or communication barrier between the customer and the sales representative. That's why their staff go on a full training course and refresher courses are also a regular. One aspect of customer service that Mickey taught me was the immediate after sales interaction. After wrapping up the customer's purchase you don't hand it over the counter, you come out and around the counter and then hand it to the customer. These are the nuances of the customer experience which enhance and add a personal touch. Some relationships with customers go way back and are so firmly established that the company has a house-call service. Any new seasonal stock is wrapped up and couriered to a customer's home, the customer will browse through the garments, pick what they like, keep it, send back the rest, and then the store bills them later. These kinds of relationships are not built overnight because they're reciprocal, founded on mutual trust and consistency.

End of season sale items

Panama and an original hat stretcher

Heritage wall featuring Sam Bothwell, Robert Walker and photos taken from the early years and newspaper clippings.

Cross section of a Loake cap-toe brogue.

When I visited McCullagh & Bothwell they were getting ready for the suMMer launch on SepteMber 1st; I enjoyed my visit and the discussions we had and this cast the menswear landscape in a totally different light. A positive, encouraging and one which is full of potential. There are three branches: Hyde Park Corner, Fourways Crossing Shopping Centre, and a schoolwear outlet located at Sacred Heart College.

PG: Man to man, generation to generation.

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