Reshuffling the Deck: Daisy Knatchbull tells us why tailoring is not just for boys
Tempus meets The Deck founder and women's tailoring doyenne, who's tailored suits have changed the rule of Ascot
When she became the first woman to enter the hallowed Royal Enclosure at Royal Ascot wearing top hat and tails in 2017, Daisy Knatchbull not only stood tradition on its head, she almost single-handedly made it cool and sexy for women to claim the suit as their own.
“A suit isn’t a male thing, that’s just what we’ve been told,” says the stylish fashion disrupter, who last year opened her London-based tailoring house The Deck, which exclusively makes suits to order for women.
As she acknowledges, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect, coinciding with both the sartorial revival of the suit and a gear shift in the female empowerment movement. “What I like to say is, luxury is not just about the product or experience but the ethos that underpins that,” says Knatchbull over lattes in a café near her boutique on the Savile Row satellite of Lower Sloane Street, Chelsea. “As trouser suits have increasingly become a go-to in a woman’s wardrobe so, too, has what they represent: strength and independence.”
Certainly, her clients wholeheartedly agree, with orders outstripping sales projections and a growing number of high-profile women opting to dazzle in The Deck on the red carpet, including The Crown actress Gillian Anderson and British-American model Arizona Muse. The fact that one of her three-piece summer suits is featured in the 2020 Royal Ascot style guide – released in anticipation of the equestrian event usually held each year in June – is proof, indeed, of how far she’s come; or, more accurately perhaps, of how much attitudes have changed in the four years since she made that show-stopping entrance.
Knatchbull, 27, first had a hunch that she was on to something special when she was working as communications director for renowned Savile Row menswear tailor Huntsman & Sons. “I was lucky enough to be given the chance to have my own suit made and I will never forget wearing it for the first time, and the incredible feeling of confidence and empowerment that it gave me,” she says. “Every time I put that suit on I felt like a million dollars.”
Wearing bespoke morning dress to Royal Ascot seemed a natural step, if a somewhat daunting one at the time. “I was absolutely terrified walking into the Royal Enclosure,” recalls Knatchbull. “I could hear comments from certain men, saying things such as: ‘Rules aren’t there to be broken.’ They did try to stop me by suggesting I wasn’t wearing the correct footwear – I was in a six-inch pair of Louboutin heels – but they eventually let me in and I was clapped into the Royal Enclosure, which was really lovely. I also received so many positive comments from fellow female racegoers asking where they could buy [a morning suit]." >>
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Knatchbull, who comes from a long line of dynamic, feisty women – her great-grandmother was Edwina Mountbatten, the last Vicereine of India – quickly realised this was the proverbial gap in the market she’d been looking for, having long nurtured an ambition to start her own fashion business. She’d been obsessed with fashion since childhood and can remember sitting with her paternal grandmother “pawing through the pages of Vogue and her talking me through the different epochs of fashion”.
“It’s very clichéd, but I loved the way clothes made me feel,” she says, the epitome of androgynous chic in tailored trousers, black polo neck and Veja trainers. “There are pictures of me at eight in some ridiculous feather boa and hat. I always liked dressing up but I also went through a tomboy phase and used to hate putting on a dress. I love dresses now, don’t get me wrong, but I’m much more of a trouser-wearing girl. That feeling has really stayed with me as I have defined what I really like in fashion. I always felt sexy and more comfortable and elegant in really beautifully cut trousers and a shirt.”
After interning for various magazines, including assisting the late fashion director Lucy Ewing at The Sunday Times’s Style magazine, she decided she wanted to learn about menswear and tailoring because “the womenswear market just seemed too swamped”. Huntsman proved the ideal springboard for her to branch out on her own, but while she gained invaluable experience working there, she is keen to stress she is not a tailor herself.
“That’s an incredible craft that takes years and years [to learn],” she says. She wanted to hire the “best people in the business” to make investment pieces for women. “Women often feel intimidated to go [to men’s tailors] and don’t feel their bodies are understood,” she says. “Made-to-measure for women is incredibly tricky, and that’s why a lot of people called me crazy when I started out. They’ve put men on the moon, so I’m sure we can tailor suits for women,” she adds with a laugh. With only one other tailor specialising in the female form – Phoebe Gormley of Gormley & Gamble – Knatchbull had to produce a business model from scratch and learn on the job while trying to raise investment.
“I had 100 coffees in three months and spoke to everyone I ever knew who had a business, whether in the industry or not, and just talked about it non-stop, soaking everything up,” she says. “I needed to raise money but didn’t know how many suits I was going to sell – everything was based on conjecture. I managed to raise £150,000 to help grow and scale the business, to really capture this unfulfilled territory of women looking for bespoke suiting.”
Knatchbull’s businessman father, Philip, is a key mentor and made sure to educate her and her siblings about business from a young age. “We were always taught to understand how much things cost, so I was always very good with my money and financially independent from a young age,” she says.
And the pitfalls of starting her own business? “Loneliness,” she says with candour. “No one ever talks about it, but it’s incredibly lonely, especially not having a co-founder. But why not try and do it on your own? I like to push myself and as long as you’ve got a really good team around you, you are capable of doing much more than you think. A lot of people are hesitant because of fear. I’m trying to avoid basing any decisions on fear but fear of failure is a very real thing and imposter syndrome is particularly prominent among female entrepreneurs. I’m very hard on myself, almost my own worst critic, but I’ve started to celebrate the small things.” >>
Knatchbull can be rightly proud of the “secret space” for women she has created at her bijou atelier. The label offers four styles of suits – just as there are four suits in a deck of cards – but the name also represents a “reshuffling” of traditional tailoring by prioritising women. Each suit comes with an ace of spades stitched into the inner cuff of the right sleeve as a kind of coded message to remind women, “we all have an ace up our sleeve.”
Offering templated styles – ranging from single-breasted and boyfriend-style jackets to cigarette leg and flared trousers – Knatchbull’s suits have a starting point of £2,200. “What you are getting is something you know will fit you like a glove, last a lifetime and become one of the hardest working pieces of clothing in your wardrobe,” she says.
Part of the pleasure of made-to-order is the personalised fittings. “We have a great relationship with all of our clients; we know the ins and outs of their lives,” she adds. “As much as we are delivering a product, it’s also about getting to know the person so you can understand their needs and emotional relationship with clothing.
“A suit is synonymous with so many things. It’s not just how well it fits but how it makes you feel. We have clients who burst into tears because they have never owned a pair of trousers that fit them properly. Women are often pre-programmed [to accept ill-fitting clothes]. Most of us bloat after we eat, so we add side adjusters to keep the trouser shape but allow more room, post-meal. I have size eight feet, so I like to put in hem slits as I get my foot stuck if the trousers are too narrow.”
Model Lauren Hutton, now 76, who set a cover girl record of 26 appearances on the cover of Vogue during her career in the 1970s and 1980s, sums up the appeal of The Deck, describing Knatchbull’s designs as “a peace pill, a rare find. English suits that will lift your spirits, your face and your hair, highlighting your shape and giving you confidence and strength… They are forever fashion.”
While age is clearly no barrier, neither is size. Knatchbull is at pains to point out that “it is so outdated to believe that you have to be skinny and embrace a certain style to wear a suit. I have clients of every different shape and size you can imagine and they all look fantastic.”
Once a client has met with Knatchbull and her head tailor to have her measurements taken, she is invited to make her selection of styling details, including cloth (there are thousands of choices), lining, buttons, pockets, thread colour and even monogramming. Each unique piece is then sent to an atelier in Portugal, where basted garments are crafted by a specialist team of seamstresses. The basted garments are then returned for final adjustments and to ensure the client is happy with the fit.
One of the bonuses of made-to-order is that it ticks the sustainability box as there’s no inventory or leftover stock and off-cuts are recycled. “We’re able to almost eliminate waste entirely,” says Knatchbull. “We only work with Savile Row cloth merchants, so we’re dealing with premium quality natural fibres, 90% of which come from British mills.”
While Knatchbull has been delighted by the support she’s received from Savile Row, she’s in no rush to start designing suits for men. “Right now, I’m enjoying just making for women. It’s in no way a ‘stick it to the man’ business; that has never been my attitude at all. It’s about creating a level playing field.”
As part of her altruistic ethos, Daisy plans to mentor young women from disadvantaged backgrounds. “I want to help girls who don’t have the opportunities I did,” she says. “Only 1% of venture capital backing goes to female businesses and that needs to change. It’s never been a better time to be a woman and I’m excited to run a business that empowers women.”