An abridged version of a chapter in 'British Commerce and Industry'
published in 1934.
For the House of Asprey itself lays claim to a comparatively humble origin in a small shop in Bond Street, and another in the neighbouring Albemarle Street. During the last century its fame for beautiful dressing-cases for ladies and gentlemen extended quickly over the civilized world. All articles of choice workmanship and materials became their specialities. So much so that even to-day when any piece of work by unknown producers comes to be examined by competent critics the opinion generally expressed may be "Good, but it is not Asprey!"
From the two original small shops the business has grown to the dimensions of its present palatial quarters in New Bond Street. A part of these premises once comprised the dwelling apartments of the late Sir Henry Irving, the original ceilings and doors being now carefully preserved. From dressing-case makers of world-wide repute, the House's activities have been extended to cover almost all articles of exclusive design and high quality, whether for personal adornment, or personal accompaniment, or to endow with richness and beauty the tables and homes of families of refinement and discernment.
From generation to generation the policy of the House has been one of meticulous care in the selection of the very best handicraftsmen and materials, combined with a careful study of the desires and requirements of its natural patrons. Travelled customers have frequently expressed their opinion that there is no such range of interesting shops to be seen in the world for the display of beauty, taste, and variety as is to be found at Aspreys'. No such galaxy of genius in craftsmanship, and artistic triumph. As every traveller to the United States of America pays homage in New York to the Fifth Avenue, in Paris to the Rue de la Paix, Rome to her Corso, and to the Unter den Linden in Berlin, so London stakes her pride on Bond Street. And the business of Asprey and Company, Ltd., which combines the actual manufacture of its products with their retailing to the public, may justly claim to be worthy of the locality in which its activities have been situated for over a century.
In 1902 Asprey acquired an extremely valuable business of a similar nature to its own. This belonged to an owner who never advertised in any circumstances, and could never be persuaded to do so. When it was suggested to him his answer was - My customers and my goods do that for me without any cost, and if I were to advertise they would all leave me." The superexcellence of his work was well known, and he enjoyed the patronage of the highest clientele in the realm, and of the royalties and aristocracies of the world.
As he deliberately and determinedly refrained from advertising his name is never mentioned. Indeed, a main stipulation in the sale of his business to the Asprey interests provided that no mention of him, or of his business, or in fact of the sale itself, should be made for any purpose of advertisement. It used to be said of him that his hooks were a veritable directory of the aristocracy and gentry of the British Isles, also of portions of the Empire, and to a large extent of the aristocracies of all the civilized nations. What a business! And this has been Asprey's for over thirty years! The value of such a possession is difficult to compute, but it is obviously enormous. Naturally, his connections, united to those of Asprey, were invaluable, and with all his drawings, models, castings and all technical and historical information, they were a powerful adjunct to the business.
The two most renowned houses of a like kind in the world thus became one under Asprey.
It is interesting to note that one of the present Directors of Asprey, Mr. A. W. Hilling, was at this grand old house for nearly twenty-five years. At eighty-four years of age he is still to be found at his desk, being now visited and greeted annually by clients from all parts of the world, many of whom are the grandchildren of those of two generations ago, who first made his acquaintance. Three also of the present assistants at Aspreys' were with that house, although it ceased to exist separately over thirty years ago.
Many people of the present day would find some interest in the facts and fancies of fashion at the time Asprey was established. In those days all the young ladies and gentlemen of position were provided at about the age of twenty-one with a wood dressing- case fitted with the requisites for dressing. This was regarded as an absolute necessity. Generally Asprey had to furnish their patrons with very luxurious examples of their craft, both in the wood selected and the choice of fittings. The latter were either plain or handsomely cut-glass bottles, with mountings in silver or gold, chased or engraved. Many noble and wealthy families would order dressing-cases to be made with gold mountings to the bottles, and trays set with precious stones such as diamonds, rubies, or sapphires monograms and coronets also set with precious stones. For many years Asprey had practically a monopoly of this very specialized craft.
Time, however, brought considerable changes of fashion and the lordly dressing- ease of those early days has gone through several stages of evolution to the fashion of the present day. As Continental travel increased during the last century the old heavy wood dressing-case had to give way to the fitted travelling bag. This, while more practical, was also made in a most luxurious style, quite as much so as the old dressing-case.
When the fitted bag ousted the wood dressing-case the population of the country was increasing from its eight to twelve millions in the first decade of the century to twenty-five millions in the middle of the century. Aspreys' trade, however, was not confined to the British Isles. It embraced the leading families on the Continent of Europe, the United States of America and British Colonies, where populations were also on the increase. A monopoly of trade as in the heavy wood dressing-case era could hardly combine under the new conditions. Asprey could not be expected to provide for all. From the position of having almost a monopoly, therefore, it continued to supply the demand for especially exclusive designs and standards of achievement, where these were required. This demand was in itself expanding, and has never ceased to expand with the intellectual advance of all classes in the community. The greater trade coincided with the evolution of the wood dressing-case to the more portable dressing-bag, and the further and later evolution to the fitted suit-case," which, as its name implies, was made to contain not only the necessary dressing fittings, but the equally necessary clothing, enabling a lady or gentleman to travel in perfect comfort for many miles either in the United Kingdom or abroad.
Having reached the fitted suit-case period the variations of it in size, shape, and arrangement of fittings have become almost endless.
Aspreys' have not only experts at their factories, but also at their Bond Street establishment who supply sketches for fitted suit-cases of every description. These artists are often called on to provide drawings at a minute's notice while discussing the wishes and requirements of a client. In addition to these the chief artist, who is a gifted and expert designer, deals with the embellishment of monograms, cyphers, coronets and crowns, both English and Foreign. A rough sketch is usually agreed on at an interview, and the finished drawing forwarded in a few days.
There is an ever-continuing scope for originality in the designing of modern dressing- cases, and one of the most recent successes from the famous Asprey establishment is depicted here. It is a small, light case fitted in one compartment, with just enough room in another to hold any necessary clothing for a night or two during and after travelling. It was no sooner exhibited with an accompanying slogan "All I want until the luggage arrives " than it caught the eye of a lady. She made a purchase on the spot and she proved to be only the first of a large number of daily visitors who have added this to their previous possessions.
Equally enterprising has been the invention of the Asprey unleakable bottle for use either separately or in dressing-cases. Even the best of fittings are subject to imperfections arising from long use, but the newly-patented device eliminates all possibility of leakages, and this is naturally a most important consideration when clothes are packed in the modern-type cases.
Aspreys' policy of meticulous care in the selection of the finest material, and the engagement of the very best handicraftsmen who are artists in their work, and, through the very nature of their connection are enlightened by the refined taste of their cultured clientele, is responsible for the great reputation the House enjoys all over the world.
The high level of work and of materials is ensured by the ownership of two first-class well-equipped factories in the Euston Road, the entire outputs of which are disposed of at the Bond Street range of shops. This possession is of extreme and unique value, for as the factories are modern and all appliances of the latest types, and the specialized craftsmen of undoubted experience, skill and knowledge, the final creations cannot be surpassed.
Besides excellence of craftsmanship, an equally high standard is maintained in the quality of the materials admitted into the craftsmen's hands. Gold and silver take care of themselves in a sense by law and custom, but other valuable substances such as ivory, leather, costly wood of various kinds, and semi-precious stones, have to be valued and obtained at their true commercial worth, or mischief will be done to the house vending such goods. This necessitates the employment of trained, experienced, and tested expert judgment.
What advertisement can be more impressive than the finished creation conceived and begun in this way? The fame of the name of Asprey is due to the quality of the Asprey product, and the Asprey standard has grown into a proverb—a proverb, as stated before, which is generally expressed by contrast with other examples when examined, which may be " Good, but not Asprey."
The plain lesson to be learnt by all manufacturing houses according to the motto of Asprey is "Let your work be unquestionably and really first rate, and the advertising value of it is automatic, whilst all discerning people will appreciate that its cost is but a little extra! "
Asprey is interesting, therefore, from the modern business point of view. There is still room for much conflict of opinion as to the value of advertising, and as to the merits of articles of mass production against those of special individual skill and artistic craftsmanship. Present-day distributing houses might conclude that a great deal of business must be lost to any house that does not advertise. On the other side, the reply might be that advertising, particularly of the kind utilized by the great stores, for their wares of mass production would ruin utterly the special kind of trade which is enjoyed by Asprey. Different considerations affect the manufacture of each type of goods, and probably different considerations must affect the methods to be employed respectively in their sale.
Certain it is, however, that with the spread of culture in the community, there is an inherent desire among all classes to abandon many types of mass-produced articles and to graduate among those who favour articles of exclusive design, exceptional workmanship and pre-eminent quality. Especially so in those personal adjuncts which are their cachets in the circles in which they move. And for such exclusiveness, and individuality of product Aspreys' is their natural resort.
Aspreys' make and vend a wide range of delectable articles suitable for presentation, many of them at their own factories. From this it may be gathered that Aspreys' also sponsor the best work of other manufacturers. Indeed, the House is a recognized outlet for the best examples of other houses. British to the core, it also acknowledges achievement, particularly when this emanates from a foreign country. A fine example of foreign work finds its way to Asprey, often through the discernment of one of its own patrons. Ladies and gentlemen of leisure, who have both the time and the resources for travel, bring examples of such work to their notice, and their advice is acted upon in view of its practical value.
It is rather difficult to convey to the mind of any reader the extent and variety of the merchandize offered for sale at Aspreys', and be the attempt ever so well done it can never equal a visit to Aspreys' series of interesting boutiques.
Here one can find fitted dressing-bags and suit-cases at every price from a very few pounds to £500 or £1,000, with photographs and estimates belonging to such properties beyond that figure. The sketches furnished by the Asprey experts, which are often carefully made to instructions, enable a client to know precisely what he is going to receive for his money. Asprey insist on this, as much in the interest of the client as of themselves, particularly in the case of the most choice creations. The client knows, therefore, that he is being served by the positive manufacturers with their wide and ripe experience. For, in addition to serving him, Aspreys' have to serve and uphold the great tradition which has been built up from the past. The desire to please, therefore, pervades them, whilst they have also the means to satisfy.
For at Aspreys' the desire is not primarily to sell an article, but to maintain by able endeavour a great reputation that has not been excelled in any other part of the world. All their clientele place their confidence in this tradition. New clients cannot fail to be impressed by fresh and unfailing proofs of it. They demonstrate their pleasure by the increasing frequency of their visits, by their desire to obtain able, instructed, and interested help, and by their propaganda among their friends, thus enlarging the appeal of Asprey to the cultured homes of the world. Thus was the tradition of Asprey built up among the gentle folk of the world, and thus is it being carried on to-day. There is the fullest confidence on both sides.
Neither is this service available only to the more fortunate class which is possessed of a long purse. Such an impression has long ago been dispelled. The prevalent view to-day is that a handbag at a guinea from Asprey is more exclusive, better value, and will give longer service than a similar priced bag which represents a feat of modern engineering rather than of modern craftsmanship. Hence, the spread of the Asprey Product into all homes. Hence, also the inevitable visit to Aspreys' in the round of calls when in London.
British manufacturers in general enjoy their phenomenal reputation and success in the markets of the world through the vision, long views and sterling honesty of the manufacturers themselves, and the relation of Asprey to their numerous clients in all countries may be said to epitomize this enviable position which has been established by the pioneers of the British commercial code.
Members of the Asprey family continue their association with the business, some being in attendance daily at Bond Street. Mr. Phillip R. Asprey and Mr. Eric Asprey are managing directors with Mr. A. W. Hilling. Mr. Hilling is the Grand Old Man of Bond Street and the doyen of his trade, with over sixty-eight years of active work to his credit. His career is phenomenal, not only in length and in knowledge of men and affairs, but also in the affection which a vast host of distinguished friends and patrons throughout the world bear towards him. His son, Mr. J. 0. Hilling, is also a managing director of the company.
The articles illustrated are representative of Aspreys' workmanship in fine quality diamonds, mounted in platinum.
Aspreys' prices are all keen and competitive, whilst the skilled handicraft is obvious to the trained or accustomed eye.
Wider experience than these gentlemen possess, of business on the Bond Street standard and of connections with the lovers of fine creations in all countries, is not easily attainable. If the tradition to which they have succeeded is great and almost unique, the more exacting, in consequence, must be their task in maintaining it; especially as the character of society has changed within recent generations, and the wealth of Great Britain, as of other countries, is being constantly redistributed among all classes, thus introducing an ever-constant stream of new patrons to this historical House.
Source: British Commerce and Industry. The Post-War Transition. 1919-1934.
Published in 1934 by Russell-Square Press
This article was reproduced from Grace's Guide:http://www.gracesguide.co.uk/wiki/Main_Page