While most fashion brands strive to associate themselves with celebrity collaborators or push their design directors to the forefront of our consciousness, Ted Baker London remains the big label with no recognizable face. The name speaks for itself.
There is no Ted Baker; he's a creation of Ray Kelvin, the company's founder and CEO. Kelvin is an enigmatic character – a mix of Michael Caine and Willy Wonka – who keeps Ted Baker's designs in the public eye by staying out of it. He even goes so far as to hide or obscure his face in photos. The company is "not about one individual," Kelvin tells me during a visit to the company's London headquarters, affectionately called the Ugly Brown Building in the British press. Despite the mystery (and maybe because of it), Ted Baker has reached super-brand status with more than 200 stores around the world. It's now ramping up its Canadian presence, with a new location opening in Toronto's Eaton Centre on Oct. 30 – its second in the country. The store will house not only its clothing lines, but a watchmaker, an optician, a perfumery and a tea and cake shop.
"When I started the business, I could never have believed it would be anything like this," Kelvin says while looking around his firm's buzzing cafeteria. Dozens of employees are taking their lunch together, and Kelvin greets many of them as he passes by. Though he is a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, he possesses no haughtiness. In fact, when you meet him for the first time, he will probably ask for a hug. Yet behind his jovial nature and feel-good mantras ("I tell everyone here, 'Love every day' "), there is a savvy businessman. Having descended from a family of retailers, Kelvin came up with the idea for his company on a fishing expedition and opened a men's-shirting shop in Glasgow in 1988. He had no advertising budget so he offered a free laundry service to create repeat business. "I was only hoping to survive," he says of the early days.
While the brand has expanded to women's wear, men's clothing and suiting (as well as casual knits and polos) remain a focus. Chipper details usually reserved for high-end designer garments, such as boldly printed linings on jackets, are what set Ted Baker London apart from other mid-range brands. "[Ray] doesn't take himself or fashion too seriously, making it less intimidating to a male consumer than it otherwise might be," Canadian fashion personality Glen Baxter says. "He seems to be having fun with the brand now more than ever, and this lightheartedness is resonating with the consumer."
"The playful design touches also represent its quintessentially British sensibility, which Canadian shoppers appreciate," says Charlotte Jenkins, a men's-wear operations manager at Gotstyle, a Toronto retailer that has carried the line for seven years. "We love everything British – I think it's a kind of pride in our heritage." She adds: Ted Baker is "quirky but not weird," a balance Jenkins says works for her customers.
The clothes are well-placed in the underserved mid-range price point – somewhere between Zara and Zegna. A checked cotton shirt from the brand's main line runs at $175 – not within the average person's budget but less expensive than many designer duds.
"I didn't want to make clothes for wealthy people, and I didn't want to make clothes to help people with their confidence," Kelvin says. "I wanted to make real clothes for real people who really appreciate fashion, and want to enjoy something that they can afford."
Ted Baker Grooming locations, which dot London's urban landscape, are another example of the fair-minded identity of the brand, with customers lining up for a haircut or hot Turkish shave (a service Kelvin discovered while travelling in the Middle East). The vibe is reminiscent of an old barbershop, where status didn't preclude preferential treatment.
Baxter, a fan of the brand, has observed its growth not only through the opening of bricks-and-mortar locations but on social media. Ted Baker London has over 123,000 Instagram followers and uses "more hashtags than you can shake a stick at," he says. This emphasis on modern social engagement (the company does not advertise) leads back to the early days of the brand. "We were an exponent of social media but without the technology," Kelvin says. "This business has been built up by word of mouth."