Home > Gear > Motoring > Q&A: Alex Innes, Rolls-Royce’s Head of Coachbuild Design takes us inside the bespoke process
Q&A: Alex Innes, Rolls-Royce’s Head of Coachbuild Design takes us inside the bespoke process

It takes a great deal of courage to take the creative helm of a car brand, so imagine if you’re tasked to be in charge of all multi-million dollar, ultra-personalised Rolls-Royces that roll out of the Goodwood headquarters. 

Fortunately, there’s Alex Innes. He’s a lot younger than you would expect to be Head of Coachbuild Design, especially in a marque which has — for decades — catered to a more mature set while sitting above the rest in terms of luxury and performance.

Alex Innes. (Image: Jake Curtis)

Yet it was his poise and very apparent devotion to his craft that assured us that he was in the right place. Well-versed in industrial and automotive design, Innes had started his tenure with the firm straight out of the college. Over the years he’s managed to work his way up to one of Rolls-Royce’s most valued and storied department, the Coachbuilding division, where its most valued customers commission the cars that have made the firm so famous for today. 

Rolls-Royce makes one of the biggest cars around, but it’s here that even the smallest details are accounted for. Innes joins a team of extraordinary designers, engineers and craftsmen who bring these ambitious and personal visions to reality. The timeless legacy of its Bespoke creations have never ceased to amaze, especially evident by the fact that Innes’ latest and most expensive project to date — last year’s Sweptail — was in fact inspired by the coach-built Rolls-Royces of the ‘20s and ‘30s. 

It’s a huge responsibility to bear the burden of keeping both the firm’s reputation intact and its influential clients happy, but Innes clearly loves his job – although this creativity would later on reveal the occupational hazard of not being able to settle on a colour for his own Rolls-Royce.

Here, we dive deep into the world of Rolls-Royce’s Bespoke division and talk about the lost art of coachbuilding, designing the Sweptail, and the future of customisation at the firm. 

How important really, is the bespoke arm to Rolls-Royce?

Quite honestly, I feel that it’s the single most important and defining element of Rolls-Royce. I think first of all you’ve got to understand that this is a brand with a highly emotional proposition. What Bespoke does is that it shifts the perception of the brand, not just by merely satisfying the individual tastes of the customers, but in terms of the wider perception of what Rolls-Royce is, Bespoke is the single most powerful element. It’s incredibly important, and we often do say that “Bespoke is Rolls-Royce” — that’s the tagline.

How do you think Bespoke at Rolls-Royce stands out from the personalisation services anywhere else then?

Sketch of the Rolls-Royce Maharaja Peacock bespoke car.

I can very proudly say that we stand head and shoulders above the rest in the industry. But what’s more important to understand is the approach and the methodology of Bespoke. That word has been overused in the modern context, where typically there’s a list of predefined options after scratching away at the surface. 

At Rolls-Royce, we’re not merely sitting with customers and saying “by the way here are a list of options you may choose from”, we’re actually putting them in front of the design team, which is very unusual in itself. They do not expect to talk to a salesperson about how they can customise the cars of their dreams; they want to talk to the designers and everyone involved in defining what they want. Interestingly, it brings us more in line with the luxury sector as a whole, just as how you would expect the dynamics to be if you’re building a house or commissioning a yacht. It would start with a blank canvas and a conversation. 

So what’s the design process like if someone came to you with a request for car customisation?

There’s no typical process, because it completely depends on what the clients want. I’ve been involved in projects that have run for many, many years, and I’ve been in projects that have been resolved over a coffee. It’s really anywhere in between. 

Do they fly down to Goodwood to speak with you and the team?

Yes, a large percentage of them do. Goodwood is, in my opinion, the best representation of the brand anywhere in the world, because it’s where you’ll find not only the highest concentration of our cars, but also where you’ll see all the cars that will eventually travel to different parts of the world in one location — and that makes it very unique. So I would say as a shop window into the brand it makes for the perfect backdrop. 

Having that said our customers are also very busy people, so we try to make the process as effortless as possible for them; sometimes we travel to them instead. I’ve actually travelled to this region plenty of times to meet customers on a personal level in their private residences. I’ve also flown to far-flung places on occasion, or met with them on their yachts, even had a meeting on a plane once. You really do integrate yourself into their lives, but the most important thing is that the customers are relaxed, because this is a creative conversation I want to have with them. I’ve often found it most effective when they’ve been on holiday, they’re more relaxed and open in their discussion about design.

What’s the most important thing you always have to keep in mind when you design a bespoke car?

A craftsman hand-paints flowers onto the Rolls-Royce Serenity Phantom. (Image: James Lipman)

To listen. I think to really understand what the customer wants — and that doesn’t necessarily come by way of conversation. It’s about picking up on all the nuances, all the little things that they may reference; understanding the world that they live in, their tastes, and what they surround themselves with in terms of their interests.

We’ve had instances where we’ve come to them with a proposal that was slightly different than what they’ve asked for, but they’re still blown away by how well it was informed by the lives that they’ve described to us.

How do you then draw the line between accommodating your customers and the safety of the car?

I think there’s a perception that our customers are often challenging individuals with far-flung ideas, but the reality is somewhat different. They’ve come to us because they’re deep aficionados of the brand. They love everything about it, and all they’re looking to do is carefully overlay what you’ll typically recognise as a Rolls-Royce with their personal touch — be it a paint job, or the inclusion of some details. They’re not looking to change anything that is sacrosanct about the brand as a recognisable entity. 

We absolutely do not compromise on safety in any regard. We’ve gone to extraordinary lengths in the past to work around the complexity of a car, because we understanding that they are ultimately works of art. Yet at the end of the day they fulfil a very complex function of being a car.

300-year-old porcelain craftsmen Nymphenburg create the one-of-a-kind porcelain rose display by hand for the Phantom Gallery.

Take for example the Phantom Gallery that we unveiled last year, which was part of the Phantom VIII’s launch. We explored materials that had never been featured in a car before, such as porcelain, plated stainless steel and really exotic feathers. It’s an extraordinary effort in ensuring all these are fit for purpose in a car; no one has ever put porcelain through a shaker test for three weeks and all these temperature cycles before. 

It’s a well-known fact that Rolls-Royce only uses leather from bulls living in pastures that are free from barb wires to prevent scarring. What else should people know about the firm’s dedication to providing only the best?

We have special humidors for storing the wood, and there’s the coach line which is done by hand with a squirrel-haired brush, and there’s the leather exactly as you mentioned. But I think what always excites me is just the sheer amount of effort that goes into the materials that are used. 

On a superficial level, the car is nice and beautifully-appointed, but you’ll be truly amazed when you truly learn of the lengths of preparation that have gone into all of that. Our craftsmen sometimes tell me these tales, for example, about how a piece of wood has taken three months to prepare before going into the car. I’ve been with the firm for 10 years but that level of expertise still blows my mind. 

What is the most challenging part about your job?

It’s the progression of the brand. We’re charged with the responsibility of always making sure the brand remains relevant. This is a respectable institution that needs to be careful fettled and moved into the future. Fortunately, this burden of responsibility that I feel is shared with a lot of many other talented people in the studio (laughs).

You were responsible for designing the Sweptail. What was it like?

The Rolls-Royce Sweptail

It was an extraordinary project to be involved in, because it’s the first and potentially last of its kind. It was a remarkable set of circumstances that even led to that car existing — a trusted engagement of a patron that we’ve had a very strong relationship with. 

The car was four years in the making, but he was incredibly patient. To have that much trust and empowerment as a car designer to create the car of his dreams was just extraordinary, it really was. 

What’s your favourite aspect of it the Sweptail then?

That it even exists! It’s such an exception. Cars are fundamentally still means of transportation, and he had such a strong affection for them that he really wanted to create something that embodied that. We managed to transcend its primary purpose of being a car into something that would be revered as a work of art and a reflection of his personal taste.

We spent nine months just working on the full-sized clay model to get to exactly the form that we were comfortable with. It’s only when you reflect on just the sheer effort that went into the car, that  you realise its realise it’s remarkable that it even exists. Of course it ignited a fascination upon its launch, and nobody had ever come anywhere as close as that car in terms of a singular representation of one person’s vision.

As an SUV, the new Culliann is a vastly different type of beast as compared to what Rolls-Royce used to offer. How has that changed your perception on Bespoke?

The Rolls-Royce Cullinan.

The Cullinan really does point the needle in a different direction in terms of what people would expect of their Rolls-Royce. It makes us more versatile and approachable, and we’re noticing that already by way of some of the Bespoke requests. While personalisation of the Phantom usually underlines a special moment in time or sense of occasion, the Cullinan sees requests for bespoke accoutrements or elements that complement the use of the car. It’s really exciting for us as a design team because it’s starting to really expand the bandwidth of our offerings. 

Now that the luxury market has become so fast-paced and mass market, do you feel that the true art of coachbuilding and the essence of “bespoke” has been lost?

When we talk about the car industry as a while, there is a subtle difference between what is marketed as personalisation versus true bespoke that you can, without any constraint, influence the design of something and curate it to your personal taste. That has been lost to a certain extent, which is also a reflection of the time that we live in. 

Rolls-Royce is the antithesis of that. We proudly stand behind the fact that we’re true to the philosophical representation of the word — when a cloth is cut for a customer at Savile Row and put to one side “to be spoken for”.  

It’s the exact same concept at Goodwood, where you’ll  see the personalised cars that have been moved to one side waiting for delivery. We’re absolutely true to that philosophy and it’s our guiding force in everything we do. 

Do you think that your audience is younger now?

The Rolls-Royce Black Badge.

Yes, we saw a lot of traction for models like the Black Badge, which was designed for younger customers and probably the biggest influencing factor in altering the average age of our customers. It was an incredibly progressive step for the brand to take and it’s opened a new audience to the brand.

Any trends that you’re seeing in customers these days?

I think our customers are becoming much more aware thanks to digital media. The conventional ones are of course where you’ll have your initials embroidered into the seats or a lovely detail painted on the exterior. 

The Phantom Gallery will have the ability to imprint the owner’s DNA and plate it in 24-carat gold.

But there are new innovations such as the Phantom Gallery that we showed last year, where we integrated three-dimensional printed parts for the first time into the cars. In the future, a customer would have a digital profile which would go through a series of algorithms to create a pattern that’s just as unique as they are. 

This is really interesting for the future, the idea of capturing the characteristics of a customer and how it informs the final design.

If you could custom build your own Rolls-Royce, what would it look like?

I think I’d want something very extravagant, definitely a custom-built project of sorts, potentially some sort of two-seater, open-top car maybe. 

What colour would it be?

That I need more time to think about (laughs), I love all sorts of colours. The difficult thing with colours is that it’s highly personal, and each one has a very different personality. The choice isn’t necessarily difficult, but it’s about finding the right mood, ambience or personality that you want it to reflect. 

I always find that amongst the harder decisions to make because then you’re immortalising a single character on a car. I think going back to your question about future trends, we should do one on transitioning colours!

Shatricia Nair
Managing Editor
Shatricia Nair is a motoring, watches, and wellness writer who is perpetually knee-deep in the world of V8s, tourbillons, and the latest fitness trends. She is fuelled by peanut butter and three cups of coffee a day.