Monday, April 14, 2014

Man about town - interview with George Cazenove of An Officer and a Gentleman

When did you last wear a well-tailored jacket with a fascinating history in its pocket? Man-about-town GEORGE CAZENOVE has relocated from London to Hungerford to open vintage clothier An Officer and a Gentleman. “Vintage clothes look good, and tell a hell of a story,” he explains to CATRIONA REEVES.

I FULLY expected An Officer and a Gentleman to be a treasure trove of vintage delights, but on visiting the shop in Charnham Street, Hungerford, it was a pleasure to discover that its proprietor George Cazenove is brimming with old-school charm and bursting with fabulous stories, both about the clothes he sells, and his own adventurous life.

Descended from a family of “rakes, boozers and fornicators” who lost most of their fortune through death duties, Cazenove turned his back on the traditional family profession of stockbroking to set up a clothier called Bertie Wooster - named after PG Wodehouse’s most famous character -  in late 1980s London.

Feted by the Chelsea set, Bertie Wooster’s vintage finds and bespoke tailoring graced the bodies of the bold and the beautiful across the pages of society magazines, and the business expanded to seven branches across London and beyond, before Cazenove closed up shop in 2005. “I’d moved to Africa two years before, and it was too difficult to run the business from over there.”

Cazenove’s Africa move came about rather by accident - bet by an SAS soldier that he couldn’t drive round the whole of Africa, he did just that, down the east coast and up the west; and rather liking it over there, he set up a property company in Angola. He spent the next nine years dividing his time between there and Cape Town, where he made rather a name for himself as a campaigner against the hangover of Apartheid.

Back in the UK and “having lost a lot of money” during a divorce, Cazenove was “in limbo and seriously considering going back to Africa”, when one day, driving through Hungerford, he spotted a for sale sign outside a near-derelict Victorian building, the town’s former gasworks, and made the decision to set up shop once more. “I’d sold the Bertie Wooster name, so had to decide on a new one - I heard the theme song for the film An Officer and a Gentlemen on the radio, and thought that would be perfect.”

Opening his doors in July, Cazenove has felt fully welcomed with open arms, both by his old contacts in the trade - “They always said that I had a nobby background, but a barrow boy mentality” - and by the community of Hungerford. “The mayor’s been fab; I’ve made so many friends in a very short time, and James Podger at Great Grooms has sent me lots of clients - it’s almost like a marriage; he sells them a dining table, then passes them on to me for dinner jackets so that they can sit down at their table in the proper style.”

The shop’s stock is entirely men’s clothing: Savile Row tailoring, accessories, military uniforms and sporting memorabilia, but fashionable women often pop in to snap up military tunics, hunt tail coats, velvet smoking jackets, Barbours and tweed. “If I had a motto, it would be ‘You must be seen in vintage tweed’, says Cazenove. “It‘s so much better than the new stuff; it doesn’t have that shiny look to it, and it can be worn smart or casual - a tweed jacket looks great with jeans.

“The coat I’m wearing in the Out & About photographs is from the 1930s. To build it now would cost £5,000, but we’re selling it for £150, and it’s got that fabulous vintage look.”

So, how can he identify the pedigree of the clothes he sells so specifically? “Easy,” he says, rushing out of the kitchen and returning with a tweed jacket. “This is a rabbiting coat, made for the British Army General Adrian Carton de Wiart in the 1940s. Look - when something is made by a tailor, there will always be a label in the inner pocket, with the date and who it was made for.”

The Chelsea set have started flocking back to Cazenove’s door, following in the footsteps of Pippa Middleton, who visited in August and left with an on-trend mid-century military tunic. Another recent visitor was an unnamed “horsey lady” who bought a jacket made by Savile Row tailor Bernard Weatherill, and wore it on television the next week. I think we can all guess who that was...

Cazenove is also welcoming a new generation of customers, many of them the children of those who used to shop at Bertie Wooster. He is delighted that they, like his assistant, local farmer’s son Freddie Walker, are learning to appreciate the delights of vintage clothing - “why pay £100 to hire a dinner jacket when you can buy a beautifully-made vintage one for the same price?” Everything is cleaned before being put on sale by Best Western Dry Cleaners in Newbury, although Cazenove advises against the use of mothballs to store clothes, “because you can never get rid of the smell. The modern solution is vacuum bags - the moths can’t get in there. But really, clothes are made to be worn”.

For someone who has such a love of items with historic value, Cazenove is surprisingly unmaterialistic. He is adamant that he has no plans to build another clothing empire - “there will only ever be the one shop” - and says that his own wardrobe (he lives above and behind the shop) is simply an extension of the stockroom.

“I have between one and 50 coats that I wear at any given time, but I always end up selling them. I’ve just sold my own dinner jacket to a young man for the Feathers Ball (a major event in young London’s society calendar). His mother was desperate, and I knew it would fit him. I’ll find another one for myself before too long”.

Unsaleable - but wearable clothes - are given to homeless shelters for ex-servicemen, and Cazenove has donated particularly special items to museums in the past. “Back in the ’90s, I got a phone call from a man living up a tower block in Tower Hamlets, saying that he had a load of stuff in suitcases with fleur-de-lis on them.

“I was a bit nervous - it wasn’t a nice area back then - but when I got there, it turned out that he was a descendent of Tsar Nicholas’ surgeon, and he had all this amazing Russian gear - suits, minks and Vuitton luggage, as well as letters of correspondence from the Tsar. I valued it fairly and took the whole lot.

“Of course I sold a lot of it, but some, I gave to the Victoria & Albert Museum. It only seemed right, as I’d got such a good deal. There’s leopardskin-lined coat from that collection still on display there to this day.”

Cazenove is always happy to meet potential sellers, citing An Officer and a Gentlemen’s first “big break” as the day that someone brought in their late father’s “lovely old clothes”, and to provide advice - being particularly pleased that he recently assisted someone in selling sashes from the Crimean War for £18,000 for which the seller had originally been offered £60 by a generic antique dealer.

He is also happy to be consulted on potential purchases from elsewhere, particularly if it helps people avoid fakes: “There’s a lot of Edwardian military coats around which are actually copies from China. Swords as well. People are pleased that they’re getting a bargain, but it may not be what they think.”

Up since 2am on the day I interviewed him for a flying visit up to London, Cazenove had already had a successful morning, selling a fur-lined coat, made for the British ambassador to Russia before the Second World War but never worn, to fashion house Ralph Lauren, who will be copying it for a future collection, and displaying the original in its New York flagship store. So, there’s plenty of highs to be had in the vintage clothing game - but how about the lows?

“It’s heartbreaking when you go into the attic of a stately home and see clothes which could have been worth a fortune, and they’re threadbare or moth-eaten. I once visited the Dashwood family, whose ancestor had been a pageboy at the wedding of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert in 1840. Sadly, his outfit was shot through - totally destroyed by moths. All I could rescue were the silver buttons.”

At this Cazenove jumps up and pulls a plastic tub full of the buttons out of a drawer, insisting that I take away with me a small but amazing part of history. I don’t need much persuading, recognising the intrinsic beauty in the small, but weighty nub of tarnished silver, stamped with Queen Victoria’s crown, and immediately deciding that I will get a chain to hang it on.

“Vintage clothes are a talking point; they look good, and they’ve got an artistic and conceptual value; a history, and a hell of a story,” says Cazenove. “Just think about it - the violin from the Titanic’s band has just sold for nearly £1m, and it’s totally unplayable; but clothes you can wear. It’s not about the money for me; it’s about the passion. I would rather spend £100 on a story I can wear on my back than buy a new BMW.”

  • First published in Out & About, 2013

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