Real-life succession

16 Jun 2023

David and Elliot Mason at their Soho boutique; images by Sean Oshea
David and Elliot Mason at their Soho boutique; images by Sean Oshea

Mason & Sons's origin was not accidental. In many ways, founder (and father) David had no choice in the matter - it was always meant to be. Looking at his grandfather getting ready for Church on Sunday as a young child, he saw the transformational power clothing could bring. The way he suddenly morphed into a gentleman with his trilby, shaved, pristine, shirt pressed.

Whilst studying Chemistry at university, and still with a deep underlying love for fashion, David became a “Saturday boy” at a clothing shop, and found his friends wanting him to make trousers like the ones he wore for himself. His then employer simply said; “I’ll show you how to make them.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

Today, David works in partnership with his youngest 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. We visited their shop in Soho within the iconic Ham Yard Hotel to talk all things luxury and legacy.

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 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 trips was a London 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 has the 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 shop. Then, when I was a little older, I was allowed to run errands in the shop, help and run 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 we invented, or the United Kingdom invented, and then it spread all across the world, which is fantastic. But then everything you can get made here, you can now get made elsewhere, probably at a more affordable price. So really what we are saying now is that although many things were invented here, it's harder to get those products manufactured in the UK, where they first originated. 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 that remainimg small pool of people who still have the skill set to produce these incredible things, otherwise, you know, it could go 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. 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 for that as well.

So that was an instant success for us and the timing was good, we did the relaunch to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Bond films. The Olympic games were being hosted in London at the time and you saw 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.

Mason and Sons

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 the same story with the glasses really, because of our latest brand Ed Scarlet. Ed Scarlet started manufacturing frames in the 1700s right here in Soho. He invented the contemporary spectacle frame you now see today with hinges. So the glasses market is saturated by his original invention, which he invented 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.

It's the same with our clothing business. We have Anthony Sinclair, who is James Bond's Taylor, and then we have another brand called Mr. Fish, who is David Bowie's dressmaker.

David: We also saw an opportunity to have a multi-brand retail space for glasses, which we are sitting in now, which like our clothing business is promoting British brands.

Elliot: We've got Kirk and Kirk, Goldsmith Reynold and of course Ed Scarlet. And 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 sign saying ‘Spex Shop’.

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 were the brand to open up to a new market by making the first fashion-focused frames. And they were based on Poland Street in Soho. So everything leads us back to Soho.

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. I think also what makes a Mason and Sons space is that we don't take ourselves too seriously. I think that's probably a common theme throughout everything we do actually, not just the locations.

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 cottage in Houston, Texas and an apartment in New York. So those are residential premises. So this is slightly different to the previous Mason and Sons. The other Mason and Sons locations are filled with British furniture and 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 everybody else, many glasses stores are generic. It would be easy just to stack products from floor to ceiling with frames. We're looking to create a luxurious 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 we do different things in the business. So 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.

And Elliot?

Elliot: Oh no, I definitely don't have bigger aspirations than Dad. It's like an episode of succession, isn't it? Although it would just be one season rather than four. 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 get to do what we want. And that's something.

David Mason