F.M. Allen is one of those brands that you may not know about, but they’ve been making quality goods for a while. Since 1947, to be exact. The safari-inspired brand keeps it classy, but with just enough of a dandy feel to set themselves apart. We were thrilled to speak with the brand’s president, Will Woods, a man with something that too many people in the fashion world lack: a sense of history — history of menswear, and history of his brand.
Tell us a little about the history of F.M. ALLEN. How did you become involved with the company?
The company is named after Frank Murray Allen, who was one of the last great gentleman hunters and African safari guides. He was a man with an amazing passion for life and lived life to its very fullest, and it’s that same spirit that guides us today.
Allen was born in England in 1906. As a boy, he loved the outdoors and spent almost all of his time growing up in the woods in and around Windsor Forest. The gypsies that lived in the area taught him how to hunt, and one of them gave him the nickname “Bunny” because he loved to trap rabbits. He had a warm, gentle nature and was extremely charismatic, and the nickname Bunny stuck with him the rest of his life.
Bunny had two older brothers that moved to East Africa in the early 1920s and he followed them, leaving England for Kenya in 1927. What he lacked in experience, he made up for in natural hunting instincts and charm — both extremely valuable traits in the old time safari camp setting — and he quickly found himself hunting and guiding with some of the legendary professional hunters of that time; guys like Denys Finch-Hatton, Bror Blixen and Philip Percival.
After serving in World War II, Allen set himself up in 1947 as a full time professional hunter and safari guide. He was highly sought after as a guide, leading safaris for the Prince of Wales, Prince Aly Khan, dozens of Hollywood legends of that time, and even Mick Jagger. He didn’t retire until 1996 at the age of 90 – as I mentioned, he just loved life and lived it to the absolute fullest. He passed away in 2002. A friend of mine thought it was great story that didn’t deserve to die along with him so he approached the family about using the name, and opened a store in New York City selling safari-related clothing, campaign antiques and booking trips to Africa.
Two of my great passions in life are men’s clothing and the outdoors. So, fast forward a few years and the business was sort of drifting along without a real clear direction, and I approached him about buying the business, and did that in 2008.
Where is the company now and where is it headed?
The first thing I did after purchasing the company was to shutter the travel business, simply because it didn’t fit with the retail side and would be difficult to grow to any kind of scale. Obviously, my passion being clothing, I wanted to expand that part of the business, but to accomplish that I knew I had to be more broad than simply “Africa” or “safari” technical type clothing that the company had been selling. At the same time, I am downright maniacal about staying true to the heritage of the brand, and in order to do that I had to really look at who Bunny Allen was and draw inspiration from that.
Well, Allen was first and foremost an Englishman, and more specifically, and Englishman that loved the outdoors. Having grown up in the South with a love for the outdoors, and an appreciation for classic style and well-made things that could be handed down from one generation to the next, that wasn’t a huge leap for me. So, we set out to create a line of English-inspired gentleman’s sportswear, accessories and unique gifts, and that is what we are today.
We have two retail stores – on Madison Avenue in New York and our flagship in my adopted hometown of Franklin, Tennessee, just outside of Nashville. We do all of our design work out of an office here in Franklin. We mailed our first printed-paper catalog this fall and also offer most of our line through our website, FMAllen.com. We are focused on expanding the direct (mail order and internet) business in 2010 and plan to open at least two more retail stores in 2011.
We’ve really focused on classic design, quality of construction and unique fabrics. Our small size has made it possible to work with some true artisans – people that we feel are simply the best in the world at what they do – and so far, the response has been fantastic. Given the state of the world around us, we’ve been amazed thus far. We’re just really excited to be taking it to a bigger audience now.
Describe the design process.
We have a small design team that has a pretty interesting past. Their backgrounds include producing technical garments for venerable outfitters like Willis & Geiger and Abercrombie & Fitch (the outfitter that went out of business in 1977, not the current iteration), as well as more elegant sportswear and items for Paul Stuart and Brooks Brothers. I think the garments we come up with reflect a blending of those two very different worlds. Their input and ideas is balanced by a couple of us that don’t have technical design experience but are just extremely passionate about men’s clothing.
We’ve noticed you have an affinity for tattersall. What’s with that?
Tattersall patterns are quintessential English country. The name comes from Tattersall’s, the legendary horse auction house in London. They began auctioning horses in the mid-1700s and are still the main auctioneer of racehorses in the U.K. today. Tattersall’s covered the horses crossing the auction blocks in blankets with the multi-colored yarn checks on light backgrounds and the patterns ultimately became synonymous with those blankets. Obviously, given their history and heritage, tattersalls -in many different forms, colors and levels of formality – are a cornerstone of our shirtings.
How do you guys straddle the line between safari-friendly and classic English sartorialist friendly?
I don’t think the two things are necessarily mutually exclusive. As I mentioned, we view anything that is “English country” as fair game for us in terms of inspiration. I see safari, both in terms of our direct heritage and as a rite of passage for Englismen during Allen’s era, as very much a part of that.
How do you think the safari look fits into modern aesthetics?
“Safari” as a design theme seems to come and go every few years for major retailers but it is part of our DNA. We use what we think of as a “safari” silhouette – basically car coat in length, suppressed at the waist, symmetrical in terms of double front pockets at the chest and waist – as a driver of much of outerwear design and for pieces that go far beyond what people traditionally think of as “safari.” Examples of that would be bush-style jackets done in leather and shearling in our Fall 2010 collection. In terms of shirtings, the bush or “camp” style shirts as they’re sometimes called elsewhere – for us, double front pockets with military point pockets and working sleeve roll slings – is the base of our sport shirt design. We’ve done these in a variety of fabrics, from chambrays in the Fall/Winter to gingham twills in the Spring/Summer, both short and long sleeve. We feel that both that safari outerwear silhouette and the bush style shirts of as timeless.
To what extent are designs made for safaris and to what extent are they made for the aesthetics?
I’m not sure there’s a huge distinction, though we do offer pieces that would certainly be considered more technically oriented. On the technical side, I feel strongly that our Ventile hunt safari collection, which includes a jacket, a windstopper jac-shirt and, coming this spring, a vest, is the best of breed. We also produce a line of purpose-built shirts, pants and shorts in various weights in our DeserDry performance fabrics. At the same time, we also offer several bush-style shirts in more traditional 100% cotton poplins and brushed twills in earth tone colors that are extremely popular with people going on safari. It really just depends on what the individual will be doing while they’re in Africa.
Check out the brand on the web at fmallen.com.
Check out Will Woods’ 5 Essentials here.