Following his father’s sudden death, Simon Whitaker embraced the pain of a life-changing bereavement and harnessed the hurt into a source of creativity to follow his inherent passion for fashion.
Matthew Thomas checks in with the master debonair himself, Simon Whitaker, for an exclusive chat about his brand new store at Mackie’s Corner, improving men’s mental health through fashion and helping to shape the future of Sunderland…
Tell us a little about yourself? When did the enthusiasm for fashion begin?
Where do I start? I’m 48 years old, Sunderland born and I have worked many jobs, in many industries for 15 years. I worked my way up to a very senior sales role before I set up Master Debonair.
How did the inspiration for Master Debonair come about?
I get asked this a lot and it’s not Peaky Blinders! The inspiration for Master Debonair?
I lost my Dad suddenly in November 2016 and it made me realize that I needed to take it easy after working flat out on my career for way too long and stop neglecting myself and family.
When I was getting my outfit ready for his funeral, I wanted a different tie clip, lapel pin, pocket square but couldn’t find anything special.
My dad was such a great dresser and loved his clothes. I think that’s where my passion for clothes came from.
I came away from his funeral and wondered if I could set up a menswear company selling things I couldn’t find anywhere. It began to snowball as I bought accessories from the Far East, set up a Facebook page then found a few suit suppliers, shoes and shirts.
I built our first website from scratch, showcased style icons we liked on Facebook and it just went nuts!
How is Master Debonair different from other menswear brands?
I’d say we are more focused on the experience in-store. We put so much effort into making our shops a relaxed environment for visitors.
I much prefer the ‘less- polished’ approach and what you see is what you get with us – we don’t take ourselves too seriously and want to have fun with Master Debonair – both in-store and online.
How do you source new styles and ranges for Master Debonair?
I look at refreshing our collections every 3 monthS and ensure we have a core collection throughout the year.
Launching the casualwear aspect in 2019 gave us the twist to Master Debonair that we were searching for, rather than just out and out formalwear. I love the smart casual look of a shirt, waistcoat, blazer, jeans and brogues – it’s timeless.
When I buy new products I tend to buy looks, not individual products. When I see new seasonal items, I can pull them out and create looks from the pieces. I find it easier to shop that way myself and our customers like that about us.
It seems that more and more gentlemen are taking pride in their clothing and appearance now. Do you feel that the perception of menswear and self-care has changed over the years?
Yes massively! The fact that skin products and mens makeup is a huge market tells you that.
What I love about our offering here at Master Debonair, is that customers walk into the store feeling not-so confident and walk out feeling incredible in their new outfits.
Our customers vary massively and each individual may have a slightly different way of wearing our products or styling them, but they all want to feel great in what they wear.
Men seem more at ease talking about clothes and their personal appearance now and I love that.
The brand is founded on a concept of ‘effortlessly stylish’ clothing – talk a bit about what that means to you?
I always say I get dressed in the dark, but what I mean by that is I can pull an outfit together in minutes. It’s effortless and based around a lot of customer feedback.
I feel sometimes the more thought you put in you can look too polished. That’s ok for some but I love the crossover of casual and formal wear, tearing up the rule book and going with whatever it is you’re feeling.
I want to make it easy for the men and women who shop with us to look and most importantly, feel great.
Master Debonair has won a raft of awards since its inception, is there a particular achievement that stands out or means more than others?
This is a tough question. The two, highly-coveted Drapers awards were huge, milestone achievements for us.
To be recognised in your own industry is a big one for us and then to win best new independent within the first year then to win best retailer in 2019 was totally unexpected.
I get goosebumps just talking about it!
A day in the life…
My world is a whirlwind journey at the minute.
I wake up most mornings no later than 6am and go to personal training two mornings a week, as well as embarking on a bike ride on a Sunday. I’ve learnt ‘me’ time is very important and I treasure it.
I start my working week on a Sunday at 5pm once our shops close preparing for a Monday – I don’t get Monday blues!
My role is product selection, weekly purchasing, content creation, wandering round the city looking at new ideas, drinking 10 double espressos per day and overseeing my management team.
I like to meet businesses, speak to our customers on social media and try new places for coffee and cheesecake!
Let’s talk about your new store in Sunderland. What was it that made Mackie’s Corner such an attractive location to open a new store?
I looked at Mackie’s Corner over 2 years ago. There were hardly any other businesses in the building and it was incredibly derelict.
In December last year, I decided to walk over and have another look. I just knew Master Debonair to be in Mackie’s Corner.
Plus with being Sunderland born and bred, I knew this was an opportunity to play a small part in the redevelopment of the city.
Anything interesting to come out of the renovation? Did you come across any period gems?
We’ve unearthed so many incredible things during the renovation. Uncovering the original steel staircase is the biggest find which is being carefully restored to its former glory.
We’ve come across all kinds of old receipts, newspapers from the 60s, a tin of peas, cigarette boxes and so on. We’re going to frame and display them all around the shop!
What can people expect when walking through the doors at Master Debonair?
A warm welcome, glass of water, hot brew or beer plus a very, very relaxed environment.
There’ll be chairs where you can hang out and no pushy sales. We are here to help.
Our shops were designed around hotel lounges/bars and we want visitors to stay as long as they like and we don’t expect people to walk out after making a purchase.
We’re a community here at Master Debonair.
Do you think that people now have a greater interest in local business and if so, do you see this lasting?
Now is the time for the independent sector. I believe the independent market gives so much better service and an experience than the corporations.
I see local coffee shops in Sunderland promoting other coffee shops. I’ve travelled all over and never seen this before.
You can now visit Master Debonair’s flagship store at Mackie’s Corner.