Toby Luper did not see eye to eye with the world of law and event-ually moved into the family tailoring empire before circumstances forced him to make a big decision. He spoke to Ismail Mulla.
Toby Luper’s family ran a successful tailoring empire when he was growing up so it’s little wonder that he’s well versed in what does and doesn’t make a good suit.
“I’m wearing a suit today that I’ve not been able to get into for five years because I’ve put so much weight on but I’ve lost that weight,” he says. “I’m wearing a suit today that I wore for my wedding, which was 17 years ago. Does it look like a 17-year-old suit to you?”
Truth be told it looked like the ensemble he was wearing had just been tailored. His point is: “quality lasts”.
That was an ethos that ran through his father’s Leeds-based business Executex. It’s one that he swears by with his own business Hemingway Tailors.
While his father may have overseen a tailoring empire employing 1,200 people at its peak and the family’s heritage in the industry may have stretched back 100 years – Mr Luper’s great grandfather was also a tailor – it wasn’t a given that he too would end up in the same trade.
His father Stanley wanted him to become a lawyer. In fact he went to study the subject at university.
“I left university at 19 because I failed my law exams,” Mr Luper says. “In those days you had to pass every element as one in every year. I failed my land law part of the exams and I knew that I would never pass it if I stayed to be 100 there.”
Mr Luper’s dad wanted him to go back to study law but he refused. In return Stanley Luper refused to allow him into the family business.
“So I started my own business, which was a retail, pile it high, sell it cheap type of a business,” Mr Luper said.
He sold that business in 1976 at the age of 23 and was planning on going travelling, when he got a call from his father.
Mr Luper said: “On the Friday when I sold it he said ‘what are you going to do with the money?’
“I said I’m going to go to the South of France with my girlfriend. He said not with that money you’re not. He said be at the factory at 6.45 on Monday morning.”
On the Monday morning he was handed a brush and told to go and sweep the warehouse. Mr Luper would spend the next few years learning every aspect of the family business alongside his brother, John, who was already in the family business.
Being the son of the owner didn’t make it any easier for Mr Luper. Colleagues would often play practical jokes.
“As you can imagine the son of the boss wasn’t treated as well,” he laughs. “They played a number of jokes on me but they only played them once.”
He recalls one incident when the tailors knocked a box of pins off the table leaving a young Toby Luper to pick them off the floor.
“The following day they did the same thing,” Mr Luper said. “This time I brought a magnet in.”
Executex made garments for several household names like Burberry and Burton. Mr Luper learned everything about the business including how to make garments.
A craft that he was able to put into good use after tragedy struck. His brother John was murdered in 2004. To this day those responsible have not been found.
The two brothers shared ownership of Executex. They had bought various clothing businesses to expand the family firm. His brother’s death prompted Mr Luper to sell the family business.
Mr Luper said: “When my brother died, I’d just turned 50. I still think about my brother every day. It took me a long time to adjust to what I was going to do with my life and how I was going to do it.
“I thought that I only really know two things. That’s tailoring and property. Those are the only things I knew. It wasn’t a good time to go into property in 2008/09.”
Having formed Hemingway Tailors in 2006, he slowly grew the business from ground up as all his contacts previously were on the wholesale or retail side of tailoring.
“I now have around 1,500 clients across the world and I travel to America, Canada and Europe,” Mr Luper says.
Finding customers to scale the business has been the biggest challenge for Mr Luper. Bespoke tailoring is a very “personal business”, he added. That’s where the next challenge lies for Mr Luper.
The master tailor said: “I’m 65 this year. I would like to retire at some point or take it easier.
“I would like to find somebody or a combination of people to come and join me and work with me for a period of time; gradually take over my business.”
Mr Luper says that his business wasn’t easy to sell due to the social nature of it. He added: “My clients become my friends. Unless I find the right type of person that gets on with my current clientele it’s not going to work.”
Hemingway, which employs four people, does both made-to-measure and fully bespoke. But what’s the difference?
Mr Luper said: “The difference between the two is comparing a Jaguar with a Bentley. Both great cars and both do the job but they’re made differently. The former is primarily made by machine from templates and the latter is made primarily by hand. That’s the difference.
“A made to measure suit is made and adjusted from a pre-formed template or pattern. Whereas with bespoke you draft everything from the start.”
The greatest lesson that he learnt under his father was to run a clothing business you had to know how to make the garment.
“He also sent me to work with cloth mills so I understood the manufacturing processes of cloth,” Mr Luper said. “Today you get students who have done design courses but they have not been taught anything about cloth.”
Dressing trends are changing. Ties are out, waistcoats are in, due to a certain football manager. People are opting for a more casual look in the office with jacket and trouser combinations. All of which Mr Luper is capable of catering for. The firm also sees a lot of growth in the ladieswear market.
Over the years tailoring has seen huge changes with an increase in mechanisation and many tailoring businesses shifting abroad.
However, one thing remains a constant and that is Mr Luper’s eye for textile detail.
Date of birth: December 1953
Favourite holiday destination: Mallorca
Last book read: The Damned United – David Peace
Favourite film: Darkest Hour in recent times, Kelly’s Heroes is my all-time favourite
Favourite song: Proud by Heather Small
Car driven: Grand Cherokee Jeep
Most proud of: My wife, children and grandchildren
Education: Moortown County Primary School; Leeds Grammar School; Carmel College (Wallingford); Park Lane College in Leeds, Leeds Polytechnic, where I studied law but flunked out after one year.