When it comes to talent spotting in the fashion world, Harold Tillman is your man.
“Sir Paul Smith got his first job with me,” he says. “He came as a salesperson. When I realised his talent and ability, I said ‘you’re a designer now’.”
We meet in a small Leeds city centre cafe, but the British fashion and retail entrepreneur is impeccably dressed, wearing one of the 30 beautiful suits he has in his wardrobe at any one time, many made by his just-off-Savile Row tailor of 30 years. “I’m his worst customer,” he says. “Very fussy.”
Talent spotting is in fact why Tillman is in Yorkshire, as ambassador and advisor for Lambert’s Yard, a new Leeds city centre retail development that will offer designer fashion and lifestyle brands alongside art collaborations and studios for emerging Yorkshire designers and makers.
It’s a very grand title,” he acknowledges, adding that his ambassadorial remit is broad. Due to open in November, the development is currently being built on Lower Briggate, where Grade II listed Lambert’s House was built around 1600. It’s a collaboration between Leeds-based property developer City Fusion, Leeds City Council and the Centre for Fashion Enterprise (CFE). Retailers (their collections feature here) include Stutterheim, Private White VC, Peridot London and Leeds designer Julia D’Arby.
“You can only be an ambassador if you have got a certain amount of experience,” Tillman says. Experience he has, not least as chairman of the British Fashion Council for six years until his term ended last year.
He owes much of his experience to Yorkshire, too. His father was an apprentice tailor at Benjamin Simon and Montague Burton in Leeds. He met Tillman’s mother, a milliner, during the war, they married and lived in Chapeltown, moving to London just before he was born, although he still has family here. “Our roots have always been in Leeds,” he says.
In London, Tillman’s father began a tailoring workshop which grew into a sizeable factory. Young Harold studied accountancy, then went to the London College of Fashion, one of its first male students. “It was quite nice to be there with loads of girls and I learned so much,” he says. “I had an advantage, because when we talked about pattern cutting and I didn’t quite grasp it, I’d go and talk to my Dad about it.”
He started working for a customer of his father’s, a men’s outfitter, which allowed him to put together his own fashion collection, made by his father’s factory. “The timing was perfection,” Tillman says. “It was The Beatles, Carnaby Street and the King’s Road.” Soon Tillman’s designs were outselling those of the original business and he became MD. As well as discovering Paul Smith, he recruited George Best to endorse the brand.
“Within three years I was the youngest person ever to take a company public on the London Stock Exchange,” he says. “We bought a group of manufacturing businesses all in Leeds, hence me coming back to Leeds again, which was a great pleasure to my father.”
In the early 80s, he took over Leeds manufacturer Sumrie Clothes and in 1999 bought the Baird menswear brands.
“It’s funny, I always come back. This is why I am so interested in this,” he says of Lambert’s Yard. “I have a heart still here. The industry in Leeds was reduced dramatically by imports, tariffs being removed, quotas being removed, competition from low cost countries ultimately ended up demolishing the core of many hundreds of thousands of people’s livelihoods in this area.”
Awarded the CBE in 2010, Tillman himself is no stranger to the ups and downs of fashion and retail. In 2003 he bought Jaeger, was credited with its revival, then bought Aquascutum in 2009, but lost control of both companies in 2012 when debts were sold.
He sees Lambert’s Yard as a regenerating venture. “I despair at times when I see companies taken over by financial people who haven’t got the ability to hire the right people because they don’t know the business,” he says.
“Fashion will always be rocky because you are starting a new business off twice a year. You’ve got to get your product right and you’ve got to be on-trend for the season and then you’ve got to hope that the weather is right for the season – and this is where people get themselves into trouble.”
Now 68, Tillman still has fashion and retail interests, owns a restaurant group with his son and remains passionate about UK design and manufacturing. “What we have to recognise is that the UK is still probably the most inspirational and creative fashion country in the world. We have an edginess and a fearlessness.”
He is chairman of Fashion Matters, which provides scholarships for London College of Fashion students (he’s put in a £1m personal grant). Now he hopes that Lambert’s Yard will generate excitement in Yorkshire, encouraging young people to create and make. London, he says, is overcrowded. “This is a wonderful opportunity to bring it back to its origins.”
Although it has been described as a small “Covent Garden for the North”, Tillman himself sees Lambert’s Yard more as a pioneer, saying: “We’re not copying anybody; we’re actually creating something.”