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Englishness and ethics the rebirth of luxe

Timothy Barber
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KEVIN Baker is getting extremely excited about a pair of leather eyeshades. You might think those crinkled polyester items you nab off the plane are all that&rsquo;s needed to keep the light out, but those created by Baker&rsquo;s company, Thomas Lyte, are another proposition all together. Made from fine, vegetable-tanned leather, lined with flower-patterned silk and hand-stitched by a person who teaches hand-stitching at Central St Martins College of Art &amp; Design, these are the pinnacle of eye-shades.<br /><br />&ldquo;It&rsquo;s about the detail that goes into every little feature of a product, that&rsquo;s what makes it exclusive and special, even in a pair of eye-shades,&rdquo; the entrepreneur enthuses.<br /><br />Baker describes himself as &ldquo;fanatical about products&rdquo;. A former director of marketing for established luxe company Alfred Dunhill, he says from his earliest days he wanted to build his own brand. &ldquo;And it had to be in luxury. It&rsquo;s that step between being commercial &ndash; and I&rsquo;m certainly a capitalist &ndash; and art.&rdquo;<br /><br />He launched Thomas Lyte two years ago as a producer of leather goods and other items &ndash; from hip flasks and cufflinks to poker sets and fountain pens &ndash; for the corporate gifts market, but the company has moved swiftly into the wholesale arena. So far products have been available through the company&rsquo;s website, but things will really move on when the first Thomas Lyte store opens in Mayfair this February. Baker declares this to be the first step in becoming &ldquo;a global English luxury brand, in which we control the manufacture, design and materials.&rdquo;<br /><br /><strong>EXCLUSIVITY</strong><br />That may seem massively ambitious, but Baker believes space in the market has been left by bigger brands who he blames for diluting the exclusivity and craftsmanship on which luxury depends.<br /><br />&ldquo;They&rsquo;re so obsessed with making their margins that they&rsquo;ve moved production to Asia, ramped it up, and now it has no rarity &ndash; it&rsquo;s the emperor&rsquo;s new clothes of luxury.&rdquo;<br /><br />Baker is making it his mission to put the emperor&rsquo;s clothes back on, and he has a clear idea of where they&rsquo;re located. &ldquo;We say we have five pillars for everything we make. It&rsquo;s English, it&rsquo;s heritage, it&rsquo;s modern too, it&rsquo;s artistic, and it&rsquo;s ethical.&rdquo;<br /><br />On the latter point, Baker is committing to using sustainable materials, and he&rsquo;s also set up a foundation to sponsor young and upcoming craftspeople. He laments the fact that such is the &ldquo;abused&rdquo; state of this country&rsquo;s manufacturing sector, Thomas Lyte leather products &ndash; while of ineffably English design and sensibility &ndash; must be hand-made in Italy. <br /><br />He&rsquo;s hoping his company can be a catalyst to bring such skills back home. A side business producing silverware is already being highly successful in this respect, with a workshop in the East End processing commissions including several major international sports trophies. The workshop will also be spearheading Baker&rsquo;s plans to bring fine silver objects back to fashionable dining tables.<br /><br />But what of that name? Thomas Lyte, Baker explains, was an 18th century intellectual and geneologist who charted King James I&rsquo;s ancestry back to a king of ancient Britain. The jewelled locket the monarch gave Lyte in thanks now sits in the British museum, and is an early example of a then-revolutionary method of cutting diamonds for added sparkle and shine.<br /><br />Baker realised he&rsquo;d found the name he was looking for, with its associations of heraldry, antiquity, and a rich period in English history. &ldquo;That whole era, with embroidered clothes, jewels suddenly sparkling &ndash; I thought: my god, it&rsquo;s the birth of luxury,&rdquo; he says.<br /><br />The rebirth starts here. www.thomaslyte.com