Since its founding in Hong Kong in 2010, The Armoury has become one of the most admired and closely watched menswear retailers in the world. Much has been made of its wide-ranging eclecticism, which dares to bring under a single roof bespoke and ready-made offerings from Savile Row, Italy, Japan and the United States.
However, The Armoury has also pioneered a new model of brand building for today’s age. By adeptly harnessing the tools of digital and social media to draw attention to its best-in-class offering of men’s classic, tailored clothing and amplify its unique philosophy of cosmopolitan individuality, the brand has reinvigorated tradition and inspired a legion of devotees.
When Mark Cho and Alan See hung out their first shingle in a quiet corridor of Hong Kong’s Pedder Building, there was no reason to believe that they would be able to survive, let alone thrive, in a city teeming with men’s tailors.
Having no real marketing budget, they had to be resourceful, so they began posting photographs of themselves, their tailors and clients, kitted out in The Armoury’s clothes and accessories, on Tumblr.
The photography, the style of which remains the same today, wasn’t over-polished, staged or retouched, just like the images of Scott Schumann and Garance Doré, who were spearheading a new genre of image-making – street fashion photography – at the time.
The philosophy of making real people the stars of the brand continues until today and, indeed, the retailer celebrates the sartorial quirks and idiosyncrasies of a wide cast of characters, including even its own staff who frequently figure in social media, modeling their own distinctive styles of dress (whether vintage, prep or sporty).
Rather than suppressing their individuality to espouse a monolithic corporate style, The Armoury celebrates and actively promotes differences of taste, style and expression, a huge rarity in a world of designer brands accustomed to dictating from on high.
Just as important, this approach is salvation for the man who still needs to wear a suit to the office. The brand presents a full menu of options falling between the antipodes of bog-standard, traditional suiting and unwearable designer clothing.
Because they’ve made it their mission to make classic tailored clothing relevant, Cho and See have no hang-ups about sourcing products from anywhere in the world. What matters is quality and value, rather than restrictive, traditional allegiances which, let’s face it, are increasingly unimportant in today’s flat, border-less world and have only hindered the creation of compelling one-stop retail concept stores.
Compared to The Armoury, traditional models of menswear retail offering products from only one sartorial tradition, i.e. Italy, England or Japan, can feel as anachronistic as spats.
Part and parcel of throwing out the rulebook on how to market menswear, Cho and See have always used their own experiences of discovery and learning as the touchstone of their messaging.
Sharing their reverence for the time-honored craftsmanship and skills that go into a men’s bespoke suit, bag or shoe, they began documenting and sharing their experiences on social media when they launched the business – drawing back the curtain, so to speak, on how suits are made, fabrics are sourced, lasts are created, to create a rich magazine-like stream of content, replete with video.
Given the paucity of imagery and writing on the topic of classic men’s clothing at the time, their content was repurposed, re blogged, linked to and credited among the small but authoritative constellation of menswear bloggers who counted.
Without consciously intending to, Cho and See started what has probably become one of the most successful and compelling online content marketing campaigns in the history of menswear – a campaign and approach which continues until today and now includes an in-house photographer and videographer.
From the very beginning, it has been The Armoury’s mission to be “the best men’s store possible” by “establishing a platform” to introduce the world’s best artisans, no matter how small or remote, to its clients in Hong Kong and, since 2014, New York.
Considering that the tiny production capacity of many artisan and bespoke suppliers usually makes it unattractive to sell outside of their domestic markets, it’s no small feat that The Armoury represents 30 international suppliers from all over the world.
What with the logistics and investment involved in staging trunk shows in Asia and the U.S., one would expect The Armoury to insist on long-term exclusivity with its suppliers.
But Cho and See are only too happy to bring greater attention to the unsung heroes of traditional clothing and see them flourish. Contrast their attitude to the merciless approach of today’s retailers for whom the merchant-supplier relationship is a zero-sum game and The Armoury’s philosophy sounds downright naïve.
But it’s precisely this return to the old-fashioned values of long-term reciprocity and mutual support which can reinvigorate this sector and widen its appeal to a new generation of sartorial connoisseurs.
Ditto the attitude of Cho and See towards former employees who decide to strike out on their own. Regarding Anglo-Italian, a new menswear concept recently launched in London by former employees, Cho says, “They’ve taken inspiration from some of the people we buy from. I don’t consider that copying. Best of luck to them. They were great people.”
“Besides,” he continues, “if something is close to your heart, it’s going to be personal to you. It’s impossible to have a copy of Mark Cho or Alan See running around. There are some weird copies of The Armoury in China. Oftentimes, they don’t think about why something was done in the first place and that’s why they’ll never get it right. They can only be superficial. It doesn’t come from the heart or soul.”
These days, competitors keep a keen eye on new entrants to the Armoury’s stable of talent, eager to poach or at least add them to their own merchandise mix. Rather than worrying about the competition though, Cho and See are sidestepping the problem by creating exclusive products with their top suppliers which celebrate the unique DNA of their brand.
To wit, the Armoury launched its first collection of footwear this month. Based on a proprietary last named Hajime (the Japanese word for “beginning”), the shoes were designed in collaboration with Yohei Fukuda, “one of the greatest bespoke shoemakers in the world,” and are made in Northampton, England where Fukuda once trained.
Saluting the birthplace of The Armoury, each style is named after an important place in Hong Kong (“Wyndham”, “Pedder” and “Gloucester”). As a finishing touch, an illustration of the corresponding place by long-time collaborator Mr. Slowboy appears on each shoe box label.
The collection comprising three styles of classic town oxfords is available in store and online. If ever a series of products could encapsulate the history and philosophy of a company, this is it.
Count on The Armoury to keep on bending the narrative of men’s fashion as Cho and See find new ways to refresh and reinterpret the storied byways of classic menswear.