The Fashion Folk S01 ep2 : John De Bruyni, Swaine Adeney Briggs, [London]
Interview with John De Bruyni
If you look at an English motor car – a Rolls Royce, the inside with all the walnut is saying 'We’re still trying to do what we used to'. If you look at a Cadillac it is saying 'One day man will go to Mars' .The people who find their way here, it is an obstacle course, it is a self selective course, unless of course their fathers introduced them, are looking for a modern way of living today, but plugged into the past.
My grandfather was too naughty to be in Holland he was called naughty Peter
De Bruyni and he was supposed to be a medical student but he got in with
rather a rich crowd and failed his exams and one of our ancestors had a
leather tannery in Paris, it was one of the DeBruyni that ran off with one of
Napoleon’s officers and I have seen in the family house the window she
jumped out of. So he went to Paris, learnt the leather business and then
discovered that the Chilean government was giving out land and he went to
KD – When was this?
This was turn of the century and he married an English girl, and the scandal in
the family was that she was only half English, she was half local Indian, which
was a rather rare breed then, the Fuecan Indian. So granny was half Indian,
and half which is why I have very dark complexion, but he wanted his three
sons to come to England, so he sent them to be educated in England, that is
how I am here.
Swain Adeney is an English leather company founded in 1750, very near here
just in Piccadilly to make riding whips and they were granted the first royal
warrant by George the III, as whip makers to the King, which have been for
every monarch since, including the one who abdicated with Mrs. Simpson.
KD – Now whip makers, is this kinky stuff or for the horses?
They are for horses - Yes, some of my friends from San Francisco think it’s an
interesting business. I am actually whip maker to the Queen by royal
KD: So you are the royal whip?
Yes I am the royal whip, yes, and if she needs whip we make them with great
KD – I’m glad you put it that way!
Interesting enough the whips are made out of Kangaroo, which is nice
Commonwealth leather. It is the best leather for plaiting,
KD – Why?
It is soft leather, tough but soft leather.
Thomas Briggs and Sons were umbrella makers, founded in 1836 and during
WWII they both found their young craftsman called up to the war. Thomas
Briggs had a wonderful Paris showroom in Avenue L’Opera so they joined
KD – How did you manage to get here?
I was a customer. Savage thing the English do - send their children away at
the age of 7 and we had to get an umbrella and a leather box for my collars
and I walked in to Swaine Adeney as a 13 year old then, and I have been a
customer ever since.
I got lucky, I was the first person in England to do "Preliminary Chain
Reaction" - make equipment for that. It really took off and it was a great deal
more luck than judgement and when you have a hit product, it was like having
a hit record, so we sold it. Now I thought I could do something for myself. I
made an offer, which was accepted.
We make all the umbrellas for Hermes and I hate making things for other
people, but because they are such demanding taskmasters, I go on doing it.
There is no money in it, but they have forced us to keep up to date with the
latest metal plating and the latest technologies. We also make, I’m a car nut
rather than a horse nut, all the luggage for Rolls Royce, Bentley’s and
particularly Aston Martins. We also work for all brands you know from
When I looked at the business they tried to do too much and I concentrated
back on making our own materials and a little twist with the clothing we made
was all working clothes for real riders and real shooters but the market actually
wanted were those designs and shapes but lighter and using more modern
We never had a royal appointment to Prince Charles for leather goods. We
were always umbrella makers for the Prince of Wales and we started
encouraging him to bring us old designs he had in the office and we repaired
them. We repaired some amazing things. Particularly from the 1920’s. You
remember all those picnic cases those wonderful things, and writing cases. Of
course we drew all the things that came in and we are looking at making these
things again but lighter because people today do not have chauffeurs to carry
If you look at an English motor car – a Rolls Royce, the inside with all the
walnut is saying "We’re still trying to do what we used to" we can’t do it as well
as we used to because can’t afford the time but we are still making If you look
at a Cadillac it is saying "One day man will go to Mars" and it’s looking forward
and I am trying to distil that nostalgia, which is important and we should be
nostalgic but you‘ve got to keep up to date and you have got to be able to say
well now we don’t make whips for horses but we make luggage for Aston
Martins. We don’t make cases that go on ocean liners anymore, we make
laptop cases and understand what an IBM laptop is – do a drop test on it and
so keep up to date. The people who find their way here, it is an obstacle
course, it is a self selective course, unless of course their fathers introduced
them, but they are looking for a modern way of living today, but plugged into
I went through the English Public School system, slightly as an outsider. It
has given me the ability to look and pick up on design trends. Most of the great
designers are slightly marginal where they are or where they want to be and it
gives them a sixth sense of understanding of what is going on. If you are too
integrated you are too relaxed.
KD – What is art?
It is the fixed creativity of the creative instinct in man, from cave paintings
onward. It is also immortality. It is trying to put your stamp on things, which
comes back to the idea of the brand. This is not high art but its furniture – our
leather goods is as much art as Hepplewhite furniture.
If you see a well-dressed Englishman he is an Italian always, because the
English do not look after themselves very well. We have this whole shabby
KD – What is all that about?
It’s very difficult to explain. I took the ex-chairman of Bloomingdales, Mr.
Marvin Traub, wonderful guy to my club. He said, "John why don’t they mend
that sofa?" – it had this great big gash in the leather. I said, "Well Palmerston
probably sat on it" and he said "You know the whole place needs doing up”
and he said "John your store is dirty, it’s dusty." He kept running his finger all
over things, it’s dusty. This is because of the class systems. Someone said to
me "Oh he is the kind of man who has to buy his furniture" in other words he
did not inherit it.
KD: That’s a put-down?
It’s a tremendous put-down.
You cuffs should be slightly frayed for an English gentleman. You must not try
too hard, that is the cult of the amateur. You must not turn up for the shoot in
your absolutely new jacket, it must be worn out and in fact if you look at our
covered coats which have extra seams, those seams were so you would give
the coat to your groom to wear in for you, so when you got it, it was nicely
worn. If his arms were longer than yours, you just chopped it off at the seams
heavy tweed jackets was always worn in by your staff before you wear it so we
are deeply imbued with this idea how everything should be, and nothing should
match. If you go into an English drawing room and the patterns match, this is a
big mistake, a big social blunder. And again I am coming across now as an
observer you see, I understand by observation these English things.
KD: But why? Why do you have to be so goofy?
You also quite like to be insulted if you come into this store.
KD: What? I can see why you love this job.
We do anything for a customer. If a customer asks us nicely, I will get in my
car and drive him to his hotel or whatever, but if the customer is difficult…I
mean we had a man the other day, very senior very very senior in the
Government, bang on our door at two minutes past 6pm and if you have an
electronic cash register, there is nothing you can do. So my wife was there and
she said, "I’m sorry but we’re closed". And he said "You can lose your Royal
Warrant for this for not serving me! Don’t you know who I am?" Do you know
who I am and one of our staff was going out and as she went out, she said
"Robert, could you assist this gentleman, he seems to have forgotten who he
is". Now that is fairly typical treatment of Swaine Adeney to people who are
pushy and difficult. So it’s like a club here. If you’re an old customer, you can
use the telephone, you can use the lavatory, this is your base in London and
that’s the relationship we have with Swaine Adeney customers. They love it
and we pull their leg and they pull ours.
OFFICIAL WEBSITE: John De Bruyni, Swaine Adeney Briggs, London