Neil Fennell went from car worker to top tailor in the space of three years. Jon Perks got the measure of him.
As career changes go, there can be few as extreme as Neil Fennell’s.
In the space of five years, the 44-year-old from Stratford-upon-Avon has gone from working on the production line at Rover in Longbridge to crafting bespoke suits for the likes of rugby scrum-half Andy Gomarsall, TV presenter Dave Berry and singer Plan B through his tailoring service, October House.
From cars to stars, you might say.
Originally from Sheldon, Neil’s intriguing story began, like many men in the Midlands, in the motoring industry.
“I was on the production line... yeah, I was a nut and bolt man, fortunately I got out before it all went a bit nasty,” he recalls.
“Me and my younger brother just loved our clothes, and every month we spent many hundreds of pounds in Bakers and Stoodi Bakers and we always got new outfits to wear around the clubs. We were obsessed with fashion, we used to get the train to London to buy outfits – we were like a pair of women.
“People ask me where did it come from, this love of clothes. I think some it is from my dad, who used to work the door at clubs, and he spent hours cleaning his shoes and getting his suit ready and he was obsessed, and I think there’s a bit of that which rubbed off on me, that type of care and pride in clothes.”
It’s one thing having an eye and passion for fashion, but another to cut it (pardon the pun) as a top tailor. Neil’s graduation from amateur obsessive to professional tailor grew from a frustration of not being able to always buy what he wanted.
“You’d try and buy an outfit and it was either out of your price range or you could buy the 42-inch jacket but they only did a 36-inch trouser, so I’d get rather frustrated by it,” he says.
“I went to a jobs fair and spoke to people about setting up your own business, and I thought I’d love to make clothes that I love and hopefully people also love and give them the option of a bespoke suit without stinging them with ridiculous amounts of money.
“My business plan was to offer those options for people on smaller salaries – it might be a one-off for their wedding or for the office.”
Enthusiasm and aptitude were not in short supply, but Neil still needed a little help to pursue his dream – which came in the form of a former Burton menswear factory and TV presenter Dave Berry.
“It’s quite a strange story,” Neil admits.
“I trawled the internet to see if there were any tailoring courses, and obviously there was in Savile Row but you needed this and you needed that [qualification]. In the end I was introduced to someone in Yorkshire who worked from the old Burton factory and he said ‘come up and meet me’. I didn’t know what to expect, and he put his arm around me and said, ‘You’re not a cutting tailor but you know the front end about style and what complements a man’s figure’, and we got on really well. I was up there every other weekend and even booked a week’s holiday up there working with the guys.”
Soon Neil was ready to set up his own bespoke suit company, spending the first two years learning the industry, knowing what cloths to use, making suits for family and friends in small runs of one or two suits a month.
His first big break came two years ago in the form of England rugby star Andy Gomarsall, who commissioned Neil to make him a suit, followed by another jacket. Soon after that, Neil was contacted by TV and radio presenter Dave Berry, who asked the tailor to visit him at the Leicester Square studios of Xfm for an unconventional – and speedy – consultation. Little did he know it would be – to quote Casablanca – the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
“I was so stressed; I was trained but still finding my feet,” says Neil. “I dashed down to London and did a fitting with him in the bathroom of his studio; he was comfortable with me and I knew what he wanted. When the suit arrived it fitted like a dream, and I think he was rather surprised – in a nice way.
“Dave said he’d be wearing it on his current show, and I was so chuffed he was wearing my suit. I got a call a while later: ‘come to London, I want some more suits – and a chat’.
“We got on really well – loved the same things about suits and our stories are really similar – his dad was obsessed with suits, too – so he said ‘do you fancy getting together... you know your industry, I know people who wear suits and can give us good PR.’”
It was October 2008, and soon the two men were working together on the business, which they named October House, because it sounded smart but not stuffy (one of several ideas they came up with at their brainstorm, including such edgy names as ‘Smoking Gun’). Fennell & Berry, Neil admits, sounded too much like a catering firm.
Soon Berry had spread the word to friends and colleagues, including the head of ITV2, 3 and 4 Zai Bennett and Sun showbiz editor Gordon Smart, the latter who brought a friend along...
“We were walking up the stairs to do the suit fitting and he said ‘you don’t mind if my mate comes as well – his name is Liam Gallagher.’” Neil recalls with a smile.
“Probably the biggest one to date is Plan B. I’ve just done a suit for him, sadly it wasn’t quite ready for the [MTV] EMAs,” he adds.
“I had to do the second fitting at Brixton Academy when he was doing a gig. The suit arrived but he was off filming [forthcoming movie] Strickland Banks. I got a call: ‘can you go down to London on Friday and do the suit fitting at Brixton Academy?‘ and I was like ‘woh!’”
While the famous faces are certainly good for business and the company profile, Neil insists that’s not what October House is about. With prices from £499 for a two-piece suit, he’s as eager to see the man on the street – and in the pub – wearing his clothes.
The October House collection already includes shirts and ties and Neil is planning to add accessories and a ladies range when he opens his first permanent outlet, in London, later this year.
That will allow him to concentrate on expanding the business into the Midlands, where he is aware of the great reputations of the likes of Clements & Church and Gieves & Hawkes.
So what makes October House stand out from the bespoke crowd?
“I think we’re trying to put a bit more romance into a suit,” he says. “We’re trying to get the normal guy that goes to a pub wearing a suit; we want a guy to wear that suit, feel great, look casual but also smart.
“I’m not saying Birmingham is backward in fashion – far from it – but I want to bring some of my experience from the London trade back up to Birmingham.
“We are totally trying to stick to our heritage – every cloth is either English or Scottish tweed – and that’s the way we’re going to continue to work.”
October House also prides itself on its little touches – like the surprise ‘hidden embroidery’ in every suit – and its customer service, including a detailed questionnaire customers complete after delivery of their suit.
“We don’t just say ‘there’s your suit – bye,” says Neil. “It’s not purely down to sales, it’s customer service which everyone wants – whether it’s a car or a suit.”
Neil knows a thing or two about both.