The big interview: David Gandy
British supermodel David Gandy has already made three outfit changes before we meet after hours at Henry Poole, the first tailor to open on Savile Row. It’s a particularly grim late October evening – cinematic slanting rain slickens the streets during my brisk walk down ‘the Row’.
Despite the spiteful weather, Gandy looks pristine, and is the picture of serenity when he rises from a chestnut brown Chesterfield to greet me. Dressed in a sky blue shirt that accentuates his muscular physique, his smart-casual look is completed with a skinny black tie and pale blue jeans.
Known for his glossy black locks, chiselled jawline, piercing blue eyes and abs you could grate Gouda on, at 38 Gandy is in enviably good shape, the flecks of grey at his temples and laughter lines around his eyes adding to rather than detracting from his charm.
Setting up shop on Savile Row in 1846, Henry Poole has dressed everyone from princes to prime ministers, including Sir Winston Churchill, who used to smoke cigars during his fittings.
The setting for the interview is apt, as Gandy and his new business partner, Stewart Lee, have just launched a gin called Savile Row, inspired by the famous street. Priced at £38.95 a bottle, the citrus-forward spirit went on sale at Fortnum & Mason in October following a star-studded launch at Gieves & Hawkes.
“Our gin is high-end but it’s an attainable luxury, which is how I’ve had success with all of my brands so far – none of the products are particularly cheap, but none of them are hugely expensive either,” says Gandy of Savile Row, which is on pour at Home House, Morton’s and The Mandrake hotel, and has been name as the official gin of London Fashion Week Men’s.
While he has long dreamt of adding a London Dry Gin to his ever-growing portfolio of British brands, this isn’t his first foray into the drinks industry. In 2011 Gandy took part in Martini’s ‘Luck is an Attitude’ ad campaign, and a year later was made the brand ambassador for Johnnie Walker Blue Label.
Gin, however, is his spirit of choice, and he’s somewhat disparaging about whisky. “It’s a love it or hate it drink. Mad Men did wonderful things for whisky and suddenly everyone wanted to be like Don Draper, then the show finished and people realised that they didn’t like it that much,” he says.
Conversely, he believes gin has the versatility to appeal to a broad range of palates. Having talked to a number of friends in the drinks industry and met with a handful of gin brands with the view to investing in them, keen to work with a start-up rather than an established brand, Gandy bided his time and ended up bumping into Lee at an event at Henry Poole where some of the first samples of Savile Row were on pour.
A publisher by trade – among the many titles he produces is Savile Row Style – Lee had been secretly hoping to enlist Gandy as both an investor and brand ambassador for his start-up, the idea for which came about during an eventful drinking session with friends last spring.
The timing of their fortuitous meeting couldn’t have been better. “I do my due diligence before embarking on any new investment project, but everything came together very easily with this one,” Gandy admits.
In late 2017, Lee was looking for a new challenge and came up with the idea of creating a gin that could capitalise on his close connections with the tailors on Savile Row. “It was either a mad or a genius idea – I wasn’t sure at the time.
“I love gin and think I am the only person who could have done Savile Row Gin, given my contacts,” says Lee, who is the cheeky chappy in the double act, complementing and contrasting with Gandy’s more serious demeanour. Keen to champion promising British businesses, Gandy applauds Lee’s gumption to turn his idea into a reality.
“So many people talk about doing something but they never actually do it because they’re scared to. But everything starts with that mad moment. I would rather start something and fail because at least I’ve attempted it, and had a good time doing it,” he says.
While Lee has created a premium product worthy of its Savile Row name, the development of the gin was anything but sophisticated. His market research involved inviting a load of mates round to taste their way through miniatures of all the major gin brands to work out what kind of flavour profile Lee wanted for his own.
“It soon became apparent that I wanted a citrus-forward gin and one of my friends suggested using kumquat, which we’ve really highlighted as a botanical,” says Lee, who created his first batch by infusing his chosen 12 botanicals, including lemon peel, kaffir lime leaves, meadowsweet and black pepper, in a distillate, the result of which, he admits, was “shocking”.
Enlisting the help of Nicholas Cook of The Gin Guild, Lee approached Rob Dorsett of Langley Distillery in the West Midlands and asked if he might like to make Savile Row as a sideline. Accepting the challenge, Dorsett’s first few batches weren’t smooth enough for Lee’s liking, but, having settled on a strength of 42% ABV, Savile Row came into its own. Gandy says: “At 45% you get more burn and lose the smoothness of the gin.
The thing I like about Savile Row is that it’s so smooth you can drink it straight. I’m not into flavoured tonics and elaborate garnishes – I like the idea of drinking it pure.” He is keen to educate consumers that while great when paired with a good quality tonic, gin can be enjoyable on its own.
While gin releases are two a penny at the moment, Gandy is confident that Savile Row can carve a niche in the increasingly crowded category. “People know the likes of Hendrick’s and Sipsmith, but there are a lot of smaller brands consumers are unfamiliar with.
When people see the name Savile Row it stands for something. Gin has an incredible history in the UK, and our brand has a historic name, so hopefully together they will be a powerful combination that’s quintessentially British,” he says. While the gin is currently made at Langleys, Lee is keen for it to eventually be made on Savile Row itself, though where he would house the still remains to be seen.
While he didn’t have to jump through any legal hoops to win the rights to the Savile Row name, for the brand to come to fruition it was paramount for him to win the support of all the tailors on the street.
“There wasn’t a legal issue with the name, but certain people could have blocked it if they had wanted to. Luckily they trusted me to do a good job,” says Lee, who has managed to sweet talk four of the row’s tailors into investing in the brand and has started making bespoke bottlings for them.
During the interview, the head of Henry Poole, Simon Cundy, proudly presents me with his special-edition bottle of Savile Row Gin bearing the tailor’s name. Rather than going for something gaudy and garish, Lee has kept the packaging understated and discreet.
Designed by Micha Weidmann Studio, the pared-down white label with gold and navy blue detailing whispers style rather than shouting it. The only reference to fashion is a pair of interlocking needles laced with gold thread. Taking the bespoke idea further, Gandy is developing a limited edition gift bag for the gin made from the same pinstripe fabric Sir Winston Churchill’s Henry Poole suit was fashioned from in 1936, which Cundy dutifully rolls out for me during the interview.
“As the gin is not yet made on Savile Row we needed that connection for consumers, and with the Churchill pinstripe gift bags, people will be buying into a little bit of British tailoring history,” says Gandy, who says the bag is still in the design stage because he’s a stickler for detail and hasn’t got it exactly right yet.
“I’m very particular about my suits, and want to get the bag just right, so I have asked for a few tweaks here and there, which is basically my life – my life is tweaking,” admits Gandy, who is hoping his creation will help elevate gin into the realm of luxury gifting, rather than people always deferring to whisky or Champagne.
His perfectionist streak runs through everything he does – managing and maintaining ‘brand Gandy’ is a hugely important factor in the model-turned-business mogul’s successful career, and Gandy is becoming increasingly hands-on in controlling the look and feel of the ad campaigns he appears in, such as those for his Marks & Spencer loungewear collection, David Gandy for Autograph.
“When you build a brand you have to be very careful about how it comes across. I’m a perfectionist but am aware that perfection is something in your own mind – it doesn’t really exist,” he says.
Born in Billericay, Essex, in 1980, Gandy’s big break came in 2006 when he was asked to front a campaign for the Dolce & Gabbana fragrance Light Blue, shot by Mario Testino, which included a 50-foot billboard in New York’s Times Square.
His supermodel status was sealed a year later when Testino shot an advert for the fragrance in Capri featuring a toned, tanned Gandy lounging on the rocks in a pair of tight white trunks. Spotting a gap in the market for a bankable male supermodel, Gandy seized his moment. “After the Light Blue campaign I built a brand out of myself based on how the top female supermodels had succeeded. No other guy had really done that before.”
While Gandy has leveraged his looks like no other male model before him, and is now worth an estimated £12.5 million, one myth he is keen to dispel is that he turned down the lead role of Christian Grey in the first film adaptation of EL James’s steamy 50 Shades trilogy.
“I saw a copy of the script for 50 Shades of Grey and had a brief conversation about it with EL James at an event, but I didn’t turn down the role,” he confirms, though isn’t ruling acting out entirely.
“There’s a fascinating script about Winston Churchill’s bodyguard, and I know the person who has the rights to it, which would make the most incredible Netflix series. He was from Essex like me and was the same height as me – 6ft 3 – so if it ever got made then I would definitely go for the part, but it probably never will.”
For now he’s focusing on fashion, the dozen or so British brands he’s invested in, including footwear label David Preston and the London Sock Company, and his latest venture, which he has bold ambitions for, believing that Savile Row Gin has huge potential to succeed both in the US and Asia.
“In the UK we take our history for granted, but in America and Asia they see Britishness and names like Savile Row as having a luxury association, so that will be big for us as we look to export the brand overseas.
“One of the things we don’t do enough in the UK is invest in start-ups, but the beauty of being a small company is that we can work quickly in response to trends.” Online shopping With Savile Row Gin, Gandy will seek to use his social media clout not only get the brand name out there, but also to sell bottles.
In October, Patrón became the first alcoholic drinks brand to start selling its range via Instagram, which seems a logical move for Savile Row, given the celebrity status of its glittering co-owner. “We’re looking to do direct-to-customer sales as there is very much a shift towards online shopping at the moment. I love disrupting different industries, and it’s easier than ever to do that now on social media. How you reach your target market has changed,” says Gandy.
“People in the public eye have such influence on social media now. Ryan Reynolds (owner of Aviation Gin) has millions of followers on Instagram, so he doesn’t need to splash out on marketing and advertising for his brand.” Gandy will, however, be appearing in an ad campaign for Savile Row “when the time is right”. While the world may not need another gin brand, if anyone can make theirs succeed, Gandy can.