The Modernist: An Interview With John Simons

Going into London’s J. Simons store is like stepping into a time machine. You’re immediately transported into an era of jazz, of illustrated advertisements, and good clothes. But for those that can’t make it into the brick and mortar store, the 2018 film John Simons – A Modernist, is your next best hope at getting the John Simons experience.

The documentary begins by presenting Simons’ personal history, how he got into fashion and how he got his start in the business. It traces his roots from a young boy inspired by his uncles’ clothes, to a distributive trades student, to a young man retailing and designing clothes. The film runs chronologically and outlines his influences and innovations while simultaneously telling his history in the business. It is peppered with interviews with well known musicians, designers, writers, and longtime customers, each contributing a different aspect of what Simons has done for the world of menswear and what he means to each of them individually. It also goes into the ethos behind the clothes and what they mean to different people, exposing a whole community of people connected by these clothes. 

While in London on a semester abroad, I was able to sit down with Mr. Simons and ask him about the movie and his long career. The following is our interview. — TREVOR JONES

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IVY STYLE: Your shop proudly displays you’ve been around since 1955. Granted, you’ve been open under different names, the film says your first shop was opened in 1963. Why have 1955 as a date, then?

JOHN SIMONS: 1955 was a time I was at school, but because I came from a tailoring family and had a lot of ideas on clothing, I was already testing the water with them. So in effect, I started my career in men’s clothing while still at school in 1955.

IS: Your early fashion influences seem to be from your family, specifically your uncles. What did they pass on to you in terms of guidance?

JS: The guidance would be in the happening, not in the words. First of all, a few of my dad’s brothers were single guys with quite good disposable income and they would often get their clothes made, and they would often take their favorite nephew with them to the tailor and hang out. As well, our family had a very well known men’s hairdresser, and all the smart guys would go in there. They even sold silk ties, and you know what a kid’s like: I’d be hanging out there and was like a piece of blotting paper. So I grew up with that, it was everyday food and drink to me.

IS: A lot of emphasis in the movie is put on the term modernist. What did that term mean to you in the ‘50s when you were getting started on your menswear journey?

JS: Well the term modernist was somebody who was born coming out of the second world war. At art college I became interested in art and jazz. I used to try to play the saxophone, so I was interested in all the modern movements. All the record covers with young jazz musicians in America were all modernist because they were all sporting the Ivy League Look. That’s how I learned it, and my son learned it the same way. Not by me saying “Look this is fashion,” but hanging out with me all the time and picking it up. Modernism today is a little harder to find because postmodernism has come along and diluted a lot of modernism, but modernism, when I was young, was everywhere.

IS: Your first shop seemed to be more geared towards mod clothing. You were inspired by it, but also helped to outline its look. What was special to you about the mod look, and are any of your clothes still inspired by it?

JS: Nothing was special to me about the mod look, the mod look grew out of what I did. I was portraying the Ivy League Look which, as it happens, was the birth of the mod look. Short collegiate haircuts, crewneck sweater, blazer, brogues, loafers — that’s what I was showing. Take Ivy, and all that stuff. And that’s what I was showing, so I was not influenced by mod. The only word we used when I was 15 was modernist, and the modernist tends to wear the Ivy League Look. A slim look, so, if anything, a little arrogant, but the mod look grew out of what I did.

IS: The Ivy League Look was at its peak in America during your youth and through your first shops. It inspired your clothes with things like natural shoulders and buttondown collars. What drew you to the look and what does it mean to you 50 years later?

JS: It was the modern look. Anyone who had their eyes on the Atlantic ocean would be looking over at the States and beginning to see this kind of collegiate uniform, from the Ivy clad universities and diluting into a Mid-Atlantic look and even something of an English look and they all fused together.

IS: The film mentions Jewish immigrants were interested in your clothes. However, your second or third shop was in Richmond, which is known to be a more posh area. Why have your clothes been adopted by people from different classes?

JS: Well the Jewish thing is merley about tailoring. Jewish people usually had their tailoring made bespoke. But that didn’t mean it was an overlap to the Ivy League situation. In terms of less wealthy people, for some strange reason, the mod look that grew out of the Ivy look was predominantly working class. The Ivy League Look was not necessarily working class, although it was an egalitarian look that enveloped the whole of the US. I mean everybody was wearing it to some extent, certainly by the time I got to the States in ‘66 the shops were just chock-a-block with it. So in England the expression of it was confused with the mods coming along through modernism and, for whatever reason, these tended to be working class guys. Eventually, it has gone through all.

IS: As an American, I have extremely negative connotations of the term skinhead. I had never heard of suedeheads either. In modern America, skinheads are shabbily dressed racists. What were the skinheads and suedeheads that frequented your shop like?

JS: It’s a real contradiction in terms, because the skinheads did grow out of mod, and mod grew out of Ivy, but that was later on and was an exaggerated expression of it. Certainly something that I’ve never sold and neither have I ever been interested in it. It did have some racist overtones, but at the same time it had a lot of West Indian guys and white guys mixing together, enjoying the look, listening to reggae music and going to clubs, so it’s a confusion. It’s a confusion of heart, you know? There are some who followed the British National Party model: tough, hard, keep-everyone-out-of-England sort of thing. But there were other guys who mixed together just fine. But I’m not a sociologist. I can only tell you it was culturally confused, and I was certainly on the side of embracing everybody into it.

 

IS: A lot of the interviewees in the documentary talk about clothes as a unifier. Whether they were more wealthy or had to work three jobs to fund their obsession, clothes seemed to be more than just the cloth on their backs. What did clothes mean to people back in those days, and what do they mean to you personally?

JS: As a professional, my interest was in pleasing others. As an individual, their interest was in pleasing themselves and being part of a group. It’s a very different thing to us as professionals. We are embracing large groups of people and finding a way to reconcile that look so that you have some common denominators that can draw all these people together. It’s different to a young guy waking up in the morning and saying “What should I wear today if I wanna get to know a new chick?” As a professional, you’re performing a service for everybody. And you may have started off when you were very young thinking about what you wanted to wear but, eventually, if you’re doing it on a daily basis in a creative way, you’re thinking of everybody, whereas everybody is thinking of themselves.

IS: What do you most like about the Ivy League Look and which of its elements have inspired you most?

JS: What I like most about the look is that it’s cognizant of other looks. The early Ivy League is very cognizant of early English stuff from the first world war period, the natural shoulder was always an element. So it’s this element of longevity, naturalness, relaxed — and it echoed my feelings for music, art and architecture. So, for me, it was a bringing-in-together of all my inner feelings through clothes.

IS: It’s suggested that with the clothes comes an ethos, something you’re buying into. Jazz has inextricable ties to the Ivy League Look, and it’s also influenced you greatly. What is it about jazz that is so special to you? 

JS: The fashion, if you go back to the ‘50s or ‘60s, was standard equipment —  it is certainly not now. The music detached itself from the fashion. Not necessarily both ways: not necessarily wear it, not necessarily get rid of it. But back then, if you looked at the Modern Jazz Quartet or any of the Blue Note covers, you’re going to see guys wearing this narrow look. Everything had to be the modern. But it’s a complicated history. It started off for me with the Stan Kenton movement, which started in the ‘40s. It’s because I grew up with it every day, and I never read about it, I just lived it. So it’s really tricky to just dip into this, but it was a magical time, a finding of a new music and a new way of thinking that detached you from your elderly parents or their stuffy old way of thinking. And the music was a gateway to a new sense of freedom, a shared freedom with other young people, so that you felt uplifted by it.

IS: After many different names, you opened a shop called J. Simons in 1982. What lead you to use to your own name?

JS: Couldn’t think of anything else! No, I do tell the story in the film how that shop came about, because I had a little business going with two other guys where we were manufacturing loafers in Korea and it did reasonably well. So we built up a nice bank account there and they said, “Look, John, we can distribute this and say goodbye, or we’ll leave the money in and if you want to open a shop you’re welcome,” so I went away and thought about it and I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it, I’ll open a shop.” So we started looking around for a shop, and, by coincidence, my name is John Simons, so we called it J. Simons. It was just a natural decision to identify who I was, as previously I’d remained anonymous in a sense.

IS: Since you’ve had a shop by your own name, you’ve been stocking vintage, deadstock and one-off pieces. What lead you to do that at a time when it wasn’t really done? 

JS: Wouldn’t be strictly speaking true to say it wasn’t done, it was beginning to be done. But there was no store that I knew that was selling new clothes that were just dotted with these old things. As far as I knew, we were more or less the first to do that. There were certainly stores who were specializing in vintage clothes, which was like a smorgasbord to me. I only had to walk up the road and cherry-pick some of this stuff. It enabled us to show rare and unusual things at reasonable prices. It’s invaluable to us, we do it today and it works. 

IS: The Ivy League Look has an arbitrary end date of 1967, a time when you were still on one of your first shops. How did you find selling Ivy clothes after that time? Did you lose any business or were customers less receptive to the Ivy items?

JS: That date line is not applicable to England, that’s a dateline for the USA. But, it is true to say that the pop music invasion of the early 1970s, that I call the hairy-flairy period, did affect us. But I was a professional, I just carried on selling that, but with our flavor. So we sold less regimentally Ivy League things, and our lapels widened, as at Brooks Brothers, Cable Car Clothiers and J. Press. But I mention those traditional houses because they did try to keep elements of the look in there, although they were cognizant of the new trends. So you had to fight your way through it if you’re going to stay in business, which we did. But I’ve never been collapsed by stuff like that. I could be trendy, but in a different kind of way; we’re trendy now, but not obviously trendy.

IS: Your son, Paul, and employee Sean O’Byrne, are both extremely knowledgeable about the clothes. What do you think about the job they are doing in carrying out your legacy?  

JS: I couldn’t do it, you know. There’s a whole new revolution now, and they do a big element online. I’m physically too old now to do it. Paul has to get patents made and fabrics purchased and get them done and have a life as well. It’s a very demanding thing. But as far as the creative side in my head, that’s still in action.

IS: Why have you been so committed to clothes over such a long period?

JS: I had kids growing up, I was making a living, and it was something that came pretty easily to me. But it wasn’t easy, I tell you that. When you’re running a small business, anyone will tell you it is hard work, because you’ve got to get a lot of money coming in through the till. Doesn’t matter what your politics are, what your dreams are, what your clothes are, at the end of the week you may be creative, you may be bringing up a family, you may be interested in Surrealist art, whatever, but you’ve still got to take that money. Can’t be too highfalutin, it’s got to exist in this world. So you have to try and establish a reputation for decency, sincerity, creativity, and then it will fall into place.

IS: What is the future for menswear as a whole? And the future for you? 

JS: The future of menswear as a whole, because of the Internet, is for shops on the street, they’ve got to have a really interesting Unique Selling Point. So they’ve got to have something that the guy next door has not got, and doing it in a way that the guy next door does not do. So they’ll be selling an element of uniqueness. If you just sell the same which is on the High Street — you see, the High Street is being attacked by the Internet and the out-of-town shopping areas, which do a lot of undercutting, and the footfall there is very good, respective of the Internet. So my answer to that is you need a good USP. For me? I’m an old guy now. My future is to watch them and be pleased how they’re doing and be thrilled that it’s still carrying on. But I’m still there for them if they want me, and, sometimes, I’m still there if they don’t want me.

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John Simons – A Modernist was released in the spring of this year by Mono Media Films. It can be purchased on their website in DVD form, or rented for streaming via Vimeo. John Simons’ shop is located at 46 Chiltern Street, London. His clothes can also be purchased online at www.johnsimons.co.uk 

Trevor Jones is a student at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island. He is from Hamilton, MA on the north shore of Boston and is an avid racquet sports player.

5 Comments on "The Modernist: An Interview With John Simons"

  1. Excellent and informative interview. Mr. Simons says something of great import for the few, the proud, the snobbish – who obsess over the so-called upper class New Englander. The Ivy League Look was something adopted and co-opted, changed and altered, by almost the whole of the United States in mid-century. It was the look of the time. It was trendy. It was *gasp* fashionable! Love the style. Love the history. But it’s just clothes. Ivy style devotees need not insist that everyone who likes the Ivy League FASHION put on an accent and start noshing on lobster rolls in order to be more authentic.

  2. Despite being in the ‘rag trade’ for over 60 years, John Simons still has the great passion for clothes and an eye for what looks right, there’s always something fresh and interesting in his store. Few British men would have any idea what was meant by the term ‘The Ivy League Look’ (albeit that they might well be wearing a Ralph Lauren or Gant shirt),but the look continues to underpin mainstream menswear here as just it does in the USA. Fashion goes through cycles but the basics of the look always seem to come back. In the U.K. much of this must be partly due to John Simons. He has always stayed true to his ideas, working away quietly, doing what he does best but being a major influence on designers like Sir Paul Smith. The internet has probably raised his profile but it’s still incredibly low key with most customers initially making their way to his shop through word of mouth … many have remained as lifelong customers.

  3. I visit John Simons’ store in Chiltern Street whenever I’m in London. Chiltern Street has attracted a wide range of new stores. Sunspel’s shop across the road is well worth a visit, especially at sale time. John Simons offers great value compared to Trunk (a few doors down) and Anglo Italian, a new competitor in the area.

    Marylebone is thriving as, in effect, the “new Kings Road” of fashion. There are lots of new restaurants and bars nearby. If you are in London, forget about Chelsea and Knightsbridge as they have been taken over by Arabs and Russians. Marylebone is the new classy alternative for those with style and good taste.

  4. This is a wonderful interview. I hope we’ll see more from Jones soon.

  5. John Simons has 30% off everything except footwear this weekend.

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