Nicholas Brooke, a management consultant armed with an MBA found himself in the world of garments when he came across Sunspel eight years ago. Founded in 1860, with a factory in Long Eaton that still operates today, he quickly became a man with a mission to turn around a loss making yet storied brand renowned for its underwear into another British heritage powerhouse. Tank's fashion director sat down with him to discuss the perfect T-shirt, British manufacturing expertise and the essence of Englishness.
Caroline Issa When you first came across Sunspel, what was it about the brand that you wanted to buy into and develop?
Nicholas Brooke When I first walked into the business – and I only did that because I had a family connection to the owner – I certainly didn’t think “amazing!” It was a very old factory, the roof was leaking, and actually I thought “my god, this would be unbelievably difficult to take on.” But the more I talked to people, the more I discovered all these incredible stories about this company that they had never told anybody. The factory manager explained that they were making fabrics for brands such as Margaret Howell and Kris Van Assche, so I immediately felt there were people in the industry who really understood the quality of the product. He told me about a fabric Sunspel had invented which was made on lace-making machines, and about several innovative research and development accomplishments. I discovered so much about Sunspel that was totally unique, and began to think that this was an incredible business. But it was also a very unprofitable and tough business; just one that had incredible potential and this amazing heritage. My father's generation all wore Sunspel. I then discovered about our big Japanese market, which the previous owner had no interest in, other than supplying. Here we were selling T-shirts to the coolest stores, retailers like United Arrows…
CI The Japanese retailers are so visionary in digging out British heritage brands and then celebrating and reviving them.
NB And recognising product quality. I knew that once the Japanese consumer has spotted something, they are very knowledgeable and instinctively buy and love it. And that must mean that there is something here with huge potential. So we had to change our mindset from what was then thought of as a manufacturing business, to building value in our brand and product. We knew that our customers were re-buying our T-shirts and were very loyal.
CI In your beginning §stages of a turnaround, did you use the brand story and heritage as your biggest hook, or did you focus on product and R&D?
NB We really focused on product, because you have to do things in stages, and although the product had huge potential and was great quality in comparison to the majority, we were told “have your priorities in the right place. You may think the quality is good but you’ve got to make it better and better.” It was about changing our old thinking as a manufacturer of “make things as cheaply as possible” to “create the best product that will help us as a brand”.
CI You are in a rare position to have your own factory in England. Because it's more local, do the factory workers connect with the three London stores you have, or the brand's stories and its new product development?
NB Just before Christmas we brought some factory personnel up to the stores. We were going to do groups of people, and initially the response was “I don’t want to go to London,” so only 5 or 10 people put their hands up. And they came back from the store visits really understanding what we are trying to do as a brand. I wanted them to see the product hanging on the rails in our stores, because normally the clothes go out from their work station in plastic bags. I wanted them to come look at it in a store and go “wow”. They went to Harrods, they saw our stores and went back and remarked, “It's just amazing what’s happening”, and that spread throughout the company. I regularly go to the factory and yesterday I got so much quality feedback in terms of what we should be doing.
CI Sunspel was the first brand to work with Jonathan Anderson [who replaces Christopher Kane as design consultant for Donatella Versace's Versus label] and recognise him when he was a graduate. How important is it for you to work with a creative director or consultant with an outside perspective on your designs?
NB What’s been interesting with Jonathan is that to start with, he did a lot of things that were actually mistakes. Ideas that didn’t necessarily fit with the brand. And we made errors, too, by going along with them. But then some of the direction that he initiated worked. A good example is our successful loopback sweatshirt that is very popular. That stemmed from an idea Jonathan really pushed, saying he had a vision of how it could be different from a slouchy American brushback sweatshirt. That was his idea, and when he first did it, the fits were a bit difficult and it was a bit too fashion for our customer. But when we tweaked it into our approach about fit then it worked. We got John, our fabric expert who has been at Sunspel probably 30 years, to create a loopback that was the right weight on the front and back. It was a great fusion of idea and technique to create another best-selling basic.
CI So Sunspel isn't a fashion brand as such?
NB We don’t really focus hugely on seasonal stories or introducing completely new collections because what we are doing is focusing on a core product that customers are buying again and again, replenishing with new colours and materials. We are always trying to improve those products, so what we aim to do is make the best lightweight T-shirt on the market. We have core products that we base the business on, they are really good, and we have to constantly improve them. Our Q82 Superfine is still the perfect lightweight T-shirt, but we've just introduced the Sea Island cotton T-shirt and I know that this is simply the best luxury T-shirt you can find.
CI What is Sea Island cotton? It almost feels like a silk, or synthetic.
NB Interestingly, Sunspel was originally Sea Island Textiles Limited in the 1930s, so it was a part of our heritage we started investigating. Sea Island cotton was the best cotton available until the early 1900s. Between 1910-1920 there was a weevil infestation, and it destroyed all the commercial crops grown in Georgia and the Sea Islands in the U.S. Sea Island cotton was the finest grade of cotton, and some of the seeds had also been planted in the Caribbean, but were not cropped commercially there. We tracked it down to Jamaica, where it is handpicked by local communities, which means you are then selecting the superior heads of the very best cotton, rather than a machine churning it out and adding tons of impurities into the mix. After it is handpicked, the cotton is sent to Switzerland where it is knitted on amazing machines which create a very fine knit that is very strong but also has a bit of give to it. Then it is sent to our Long Eaton factory where we have it made up by hand.
CI Truly the ultimate luxury T-shirt. What do you want Sunspel devotees who spend £150 on your most luxurious T-shirt to tell their friends to get them into your stores? What is it that you want Sunspel to really represent?
NB It's an extension of the perfect T-shirt to be honest – a brand with exceptional product. Sunspel is not an elitist brand from a fashion perspective – it's not really about a product that is bought by people who are into fashion, it is bought by 65-year-old businessmen right down to an 18-year-old who finds everyday clothing at Sunspel. The brand is about everyday luxury based on special fabrics, where as much as possible, the materials are developed and innovated by our Long Eaton factory. If we were to produce a peacoat, I would make sure we do a perfect peacoat in terms of the weight of the fabric, the height of the collar, etc. That's what I'm really focused on. We've created polo shirts for Daniel Craig's James Bond in Casino Royale, and the Barbican asked us to remake the swim short worn by Sean Connery in Thunderball and From Russia With Love last year for their Bond exhibition. If I was to hang Sunspel on anything it would be its Englishness, but again that is not something that it is easy to translate in a world where people have all sorts of different connotations to this idea. My definition of Englishness is being self-deprecating, not taking things too seriously, humour, wit, and a certain amount of bloody-minded determination and resolution. All of these apply to how we work at Sunspel.