Sunday 4 December 2016

Pinstripes and beards: clothes for a new Ireland

Louis Copeland weathered the rough. Now the tailor - and his clients - have come out swinging, says Sarah McCabe

Published 24/04/2016 | 02:30

Master tailor Louis Copeland III loves the sentimental side to selling suits. Photo: David Conachy
Master tailor Louis Copeland III loves the sentimental side to selling suits. Photo: David Conachy

On the short stroll between Louis Copeland's headquarters and Brother Hubbard, one of Dublin's most popular coffee shops, a multitude of shopkeepers call out greetings from their doorways to master tailor Louis Copeland as we walk and talk our way through city centre Dublin.

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People overuse the phrase 'institution' - but in Copeland's case it is about right. Four generations of his family have sold clothing here.

Historically significant Capel Street is fast becoming one of Dublin's most fashionable districts. And Copeland is delighted at its renaissance, he tells me over a strong cup of tea.

"It's great to see the likes of Brother Hubbard on Capel Street, it's kind of giving a new lease of life to the area," he says.

"Of all the stores we have, Capel Street would have been perceived as the worst location. If you had somebody coming from the UK who wanted to open a high-class menswear store, Capel Street would be the last place they would choose. But as it happens, it's our flagship and it does the biggest turnover."

It was clear from an early age that Louis III would follow his father and grandfather into business. He left school at 14 and went to technical school on Parnell Square to study tailoring and textiles. He took over the family business in his mid-20s, when it was still just one store.

Today it is a different story. Under his control it expanded rapidly, growing to six outlets plus a Gant menswear store and website.

"Up-to-the-minute clothes, and old-fashioned service" is the secret, he says.

It's not all high-end. "We have suits from €300 up to €3,000. The average would be €500/€600 up to €1,200."

The business was hit hard by the recession, with revenue dropping around 40pc. It has still not recovered fully, down about a quarter on peak levels.

"Like everyone we cut costs to survive," Copeland says. But there were no store closures - bar one outlet at Terminal 1 in Dublin Airport (the opening of T2 took away too much of its customer base). The plan for now is consolidation, not new stores.

"We still have a long way to go to get back to where we were seven years ago."

Property speculation also hurt him on a personal level.

"One thing we got involved in, like everybody else, was buying properties we didn't need… if I was to give one lesson to business people I'd say: stick to the knitting. The things I got involved in that I didn't know about, I got my fingers burned. Stick to what you know."

But the recession brought good news for the business too. "People were happier to dress down during the boom," he says. "I think dressing down can dress down your head too. I've noticed recently that people are starting to up their game."

Certain professions aren't afraid to wear pinstripes once again. "Prominent stripes on suits were a no-no for a few years because people associated them with bankers and so on. But now it's swinging back."

Pressure on costs also encouraged the business to develop its own-brand lines which is now paying off.

"It's probably about 50pc of turnover now," he says. A recent own-brand project is a collaboration with TV's Darren Kennedy, a regular on best-dressed lists. Their Spring/Summer collection will launch in May, their sixth season together.

"It opens a new avenue for us. We might have been known in the past for a more conservative, classic suit - Darren is very stylish and he has brought a different angle to our business. He's a fresh pair of eyes and brings a different consumer."

However, it's a fighter, rather than a fashion maven, who has had the biggest impact on his business of late.

"We've made a lot of suits for Conor McGregor, we would have dressed him at the early stages. He has great style and he is a great showman.

"You see young people going around today in three-piece suits and dickie bows - and the amount of people with beards - he has definitely set a trend. He has upped people's game as regards dressing up."

Ronan O'Gara, Pierce Brosnan and Bono have also worn his suits.

"But the most important person for us is the normal business person," says Louis.

Surely he must be forgetting the groom.

"Weddings are a huge business for us now, more so than ever before," he agrees. "People are really dressing up."

Gay weddings, of course, give them "two bites at the cherry" - two grooms to suit up.

It is still very much a family business. His son Louis (39), a business studies graduate, is heavily involved, while his brother Adrian, and his son Adrian, run the Galway store.

He loves that there is an emotional, sentimental element to selling suits - something that you don't find elsewhere in retail.

"A couple of times a year you'll have someone coming in who wants to buy a suit for their father. I'll ask them to bring their father in and they'll say he's just died - but he always wanted to be buried in a Louis Copeland suit."

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