Interview: Duncan Quinn

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Walk far enough east along Spring Street in New York City, past flocks of tourists and striving fashionistas buffeting big label shops in SoHo, and you eventually reach NoLIta (North of Little Italy), where the crowds are thinner, the stores less flashy and the real estate is more affordable. While great food and clothing can be had, you do need to know where to look, especially if you are trying to find Duncan Quinn’s eponymous bespoke suiting shop.

The blue and green fronting, colourful suits and accessories in the window – especially the umbrellas – are striking, but the storefront is so narrow you could miss it if you blinked. If such a low profile seems surprising – especially given Duncan’s preference for bold colours and distinctive patterns – after a moment’s reflection the message is clear: If you want something everyone else is looking for, go back to SoHo. 

Duncan opened his first shop, in New York City, in 2003, largely out of a desire to do something more interesting than his job as a corporate lawyer. ‘What happened in essence was that I started a store for fun for me and my friends as a sideline to my day job.’ Duncan was originally trained as a barrister in the UK, where he was born and raised, but moved to New York in 1998, eventually practicing with the law firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP.

Never a conformist, sartorially or otherwise, Duncan grew increasingly tired of corporate law (which he derides as ‘decision by committee at every level’) and eventually used the shop as a way to do something more entrepreneurial. ‘I was just frustrated and decided to have some fun and spank my Amex to the tune of $25,000 and see what happened.’

What happened was a label that quickly became successful as a distinctive voice in American men’s tailoring. Duncan’s website describes him as ‘arguably one of the handful of people responsible for the resurgence of men’s tailoring in the USA’. Brazen self-promotion? Not entirely: In 2004, the New York Times dubbed Duncan and three other menswear designers – including Thom Browne and Andrew Harmon – America’s new ‘Men of the Cloth’. The label’s success has continued, growing to include locations in Los Angeles, Miami and Dallas, and Duncan has since left the law to focus on his menswear business full-time.

‘I started the store in NY when people in the US were nearly all still wearing mass-produced suits that were cut for the lowest common denominator… I just decided that there was no way that metric worked for me.’

Take a stroll through any of his shops and you quickly get an idea of what ‘works for Duncan’: sharp suits flashing colour and hints of British sensibility (think side vents and hacking pockets), shirts in bold colours cut close to the body, and a full range of colourful furnishings, including ties, cuff links, shoes, umbrellas and motorcycle helmets. ‘Everything we do is an extension of the things I enjoy and my own particular take on life.’ 

Sorry, motorcycle helmets? ‘I tripped and fell awkwardly in a bar called Momo in 1996 and met a guy who is a legend in his own lunchtime. As a result I ended up riding around on the latest test bikes. I liked the helmets; they were unique and interesting. Very Steve McQueen. They’re pretty much the only thing in the stores that we don’t make ourselves.’

It’s these sorts of chance encounters that make-up Duncan’s ‘particular take on life’. Another example is how Duncan came to spend so much time as a youth living in the South of France. ‘When my father was at Scotland Yard in the 1980s the chief of police of Nice’s criminal division was seeking a young English lad to help his son learn English…’ That lad would be Duncan, and Nice’s chief of police turned out to be a classic bon vivant, sharing with his young tutor a taste for wine, food and most importantly, interesting people. (Except, alas, for the son: ‘We hated each other’s guts’.) 

So much decadence makes me wonder whether Duncan ever took corporate law seriously. (From DuncanQuinn.com: ‘Duncan likes nothing better than to sit and watch the world go by in Cours Saleya…’ As this reporter can attest, not a pastime typically enjoyed by Wall Street lawyers.)

So, what’s the story? ‘Ha! That was the time honoured tradition of honour thy father and mother. My father was in the flying squad and the Criminal Investigation Department for thirty years so he thought being a lawyer was the soft touch way to a nice life. I guess he never met any bankers!’

Is running a menswear business really less demanding than working as a corporate attorney? ‘Well, I semi-seriously look at it as me having retired when I gave up practicing law. I work very hard but its not a job, and I’m lucky that people find what I do interesting enough to part with their hard-earned cash which funds what I enjoy.’

Sounds pretty good. Any advice for people – say, budding Oxford entrepreneurs – looking to replicate that kind of success in their own life?

‘Ultimately it’s all about stories. If you don’t have any you need to live life a little more and accrue some.’

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