For the latest edition of My Watch, we took a stroll down Savile Row to meet with Benjamin Phillips of Drake’s. Ben has become known online for his unique style, working the shop floor at Drake’s for some years now and advising customers on their purchases. We had a chat with him about his special Omega Speedmaster, one of two identical models that he owns.
Firstly, let’s talk about your pre-Drake’s days, because you played in a band before that, right?
Yeah, I played in some hardcore bands while working in the tattoo industry. I used to own a tattoo shop called "Swansea Tattoo Company". I did that for six years until my business partner bought me out, when my wife and I decided to move to London.
And how long were you playing in the band for?
Well, that was something that we did on and off for maybe eight years or so, it was never full time. We did release records and tour, but it was mostly something that we did for fun.
You didn’t have big plans of trying to ‘make it’?
No, that was never an interest, in truth.
You’ve always been interested in music, and vinyl in particular. Where did that interest come from?
I just remember being three years old and seeing Adam Ant for the first time, and thinking, wow. Later down the line, someone gave me a mixtape with all sorts on it, including Adam and the Ants, Madness, that kind of thing; I couldn’t stop listening to it.
Not a bad introduction to music…
Yeah, that got me interested in music from a very young age, and it became increasingly important to me.
"My mum played the piano, but my dad was almost too tough to like anything"
Were your parents musically interested at all?
Not really. My mum played the piano, but my dad was almost too tough to like anything [laughs].
Like a classic Welsh, Swansea guy?
Yeah, well my dad was from the docks in Llanelli and was a tough, tough man. He worked in the mines as a child and on the railways as an adult. He ended up becoming an engineer, opened up a business doing that and did really well for himself: he grafted, moving the family from working class to middle class. He was working class done good, you know?
Presumably he didn’t have a taste for Adam and the Ants…
Yeah, not so much. My cousin once did the Adam Ant make-up on me and he was not happy [laughs].
[Laughs] What happened…
He sent me straight to the bathroom to get rid of it. He was a pretty straight forward sort of guy. In fact, I tell everyone a classic story about him which some people find a bit of a bummer…
I asked my dad when I was three, “Dad, what am I getting for Christmas?” and he said, “Never expect anything out of life son, that way you won’t get disappointed.”
[Laughs] Wow… at the age of three…
[Laughs] Yeah, that was what he was like. I also remember asking him once, “Dad, are we rich?” and he said, “No son, I’m rich. You have nothing.”
[Laughs] He had a sense of humour on him then…
This was just his way, you know? He worked hard for everything he got and I think he wanted me to understand that kind of mentality.
What sparked the tattoo industry departure?
I lost the passion for the industry. It’s an area which has changed a hell of a lot since things like Miami Ink being on TV; it used to be a very different thing. As soon as there is a load of money flying about, inevitably people get involved solely for the money side of things, and that’s just not for me.
Right… so you’re much more passion driven than anything else, career-wise…
Where did menswear and clothing come into the fold?
I had always had an interest, since a young age at school. I don’t know if it was an element of one-upmanship, but I remember always wanting the limited edition trainers, rather than the normal ones. There was a feeling of, no one else will have these, which was important to me for some reason.
[Laughs] Yeah, maybe. I’ve always been a big guy. I was the fat kid at school, so maybe in my head I thought if I put these cool trainers on… I’ve never really thought about this, but there could be something there.
Did your tastes develop from particular subcultures?
Definitely. All those things fit together, in a sense. I’m really into my music, I’m still really into tattoos, I’m into clothing and I’m really into Brazilian jiu-jitsu. There is a creativity to all those things, and they all flow together really well.
"This is why I love Drake’s so much, because the emphasis is always on doing something good."
They all fit into a specific mindset?
To an extent, yeah. This is why I love Drake’s so much, because the emphasis is always on doing something good. Obviously the business has to make money, but they never take shortcuts; that’s very important to me. I’m really not into people who just do things for the money.
It has to be done for the love of it?
Not even necessarily the love of it, but anything should just be done to the best of your ability and when you’re doing a good job, the money will come.
Speaking of Drake’s, how did you come to work with them?
I was a huge fan of the brand and had been a customer of theirs for some time. In fact, I got married in a Drake’s tie. Every time I came to London, I would visit the store, and read their blog when I was away. The way I got a job: I just kind of hassled them until they gave me one [laughs].
[Laughs] That’s one tactic…
I was lucky, really. I had a friend who knew Michael Hill, and he introduced us. An opening came up shortly after and I wound up landing a job with them.
So, the pestering worked?
[Laughs] Yeah, I suppose it did.
Did you ever have ambitions of getting into tailoring?
I definitely had a passion for it, but I don’t know if I saw myself going into it. I couldn’t see myself anywhere else on the Row, I just wanted to work for Drake’s.
You’ve kind of become a known personality in the industry, right?
That’s for you to say, not me [laughs].
"It’s not like a celebrity thing, which some people on Instagram might think. You know, I work in retail… [laughs]"
Well, you have certainly garnered a following for your personal style.
Yeah, and it’s great when people follow my Instagram or the Drake’s account and become familiar with the staff. It’s quite nice when someone comes in having seen something you’ve worn on Instagram, and wants to buy it. It’s not like a celebrity thing, which some people on Instagram might think. You know, I work in retail… [laughs]
Perhaps it's the difference between accidentally becoming known and seeking-it.
Yeah, and it’s the internet, it really doesn’t mean anything.
That, and you were immortalised in a Rose Blake illustrated animation.
Yeah, Sir Peter Blake’s daughter made that. I was chuffed, really happy with that. I love her work and was very familiar with her father’s work.
How did you become interested in watches?
I was into the G-SHOCKs when I was young, I had a few of those.
What sort of age?
Around 17 or 18 maybe, but they’ve always been something I’ve looked at and enjoyed. My biggest regret was not buying the green Rolex Submariner, because I had saved every penny to buy it and I chickened out.
Don’t get me wrong, when I say every penny I had, I wouldn’t have even able to afford dinner that evening. But I still wanted it. Something stopped me, and it was such a regret, because I didn’t do anything with that money.
You were just playing it safe?
Yeah, something in my head just said, “You can’t do this.” With hindsight, I should have saved an extra 500 quid so it didn’t completely clean me out.
Did you buy anything instead?
Later down the line, I bought my first ‘expensive’ watch, which was an IWC Spitfire Pilot, but I ended up buying the smaller size.
Yeah, and I have a big wrist, so it just looked like I was wearing a women’s watch [laughs].
It is rather small.
I loved the look, but it just wasn’t right for me.
When did your interest in Omega begin?
Well, I became obsessed with the Speedmaster, like most, because of the moon landings. The whole story of that, plus the watch that went with them, I was sold.
Is choosing watches with broader contexts a pattern we’re detecting?
To be honest, the Spitfire was less to do with the story and more that I just loved how basic it was. Cheap looking isn’t quite the right way to describe it, but I love how low-key it is. No one would assume that it’s an expensive watch, particularly with the ten quid NATO strap I put on it. Someone with the knowledge might give you the nod for it though.
Sort of like the limited trainers.
To an extent. I’m always more drawn to the build quality than the flashiness of it, which is the same for clothing. You could be wearing something that cost £10,000 or £20, it wouldn’t matter to me. If I like it, I like it.
"I think a lot of people are very used to seeing the usual suspects from Rolex and other brands, so it’s a nice break from the norm."
Which makes sense for the Speedmaster, very utilitarian and well built.
It’s low-key, but I get a lot of compliments on it actually. I think a lot of people are very used to seeing the usual suspects from Rolex and other brands, so it’s a nice break from the norm. That’s not a swipe at Rolex by any means, because I love their watches, and I fully intend to buy a Kermit one day.
A stainless steel retirement watch rather than the typical gold, maybe?
So, you actually have two identical Omega Speedmasters right?
Yeah, the first one I bought the first week we opened the tattoo shop and the second was a gift.
So, the first…
My business partner dashed into the shop and said, “Ben, do you have a grand and a half lying around?” My heart sunk, because we had just spent £25,000 on the shop fit which was intended to cost £10,000 and I thought, “What now?”
He told me that the jewellers around the corner had a Speedmaster and so off I went to see it. It wasn’t the professional, and it wasn’t the manual calibre, but I just loved it. I asked the guy if he would do me a better deal if I paid cash, to which he said, “Nope.”
[Laughs] Good negotiation.
I said, “Cool, I’ll take it.” The guy I bought it from ended-up becoming a good friend over the years. He sold me my wife’s engagement ring, he’s great.
So, where did the second identical Speedmaster come into the picture?
I’d sent mine off to be serviced at Omega, which takes four to six weeks, and I was having lunch in the very restaurant we are currently sitting-in, and my friend John asks me, “Where’s your watch Ben?” I told him it was off with Omega and would be back soon, to which he said, “I’ve got one in my drawer at home, you can have it.”
I was like, “You what?” He said, “Yeah, just have it, it’s been sitting there for eight years doing nothing, you have it.” I told him that I would have to give him something for it and he said, “Ben, it would be the most expensive price you’ve ever paid for something.” I said, “What’s that then…” He said, “It will cost you friendship.” [laughs].
[Laughs] That’s great. That’s extraordinarily generous.
Yeah, he’s a very close friend of mine.
How do you decide which to wear?
The one John gave me is a little more aged, the lume has gone a nice yellowish colour, so I’ve put that one on a NATO strap, as it looks a little more informal. It’s become my weekend watch.
Something a little more casual for the days off.
Yeah, though sometimes I wear that one if I just feel like it.
There’s something nice about having a personal or emotional story attached to a watch like that.
Yeah, it’s very special to me for that reason.
Are there other watches on your hit-list?
I’d really like to get an Omega Railmaster at some point because of my family ties with the railways. I think that will be my next watch, actually.
That’s quite fitting because that was designed specifically for railway engineers, like your father.
Yeah, I’m a big fan. That long relationship with the railways is important to me and my family. My father, my uncle, my cousins, they all worked on the railways.
It would make a nice memento to that.
Yeah, it would. I’m also a big fan of the Cartier Tank, that’s just so classic and is something I’d like to get at some stage.
On a final note, can you shed some light on the Drake’s Swatch obsession?
[Laughs] It’s a bit of fun really. There’s something quite funny about wearing a beautifully tailored suit, paired with a colourful and fun watch like a Swatch. It’s kind of an anti-establishment, do-your-own-thing vibe.
You can follow Ben on instagram here.