The wide, wooden floorboards are creaking beneath your feet. You hear the saxophones and stand-up basses — so characteristic of Golden Age jazz — just audible over the bustle of conversation from a few guys in the corner; today’s topic is the latest cricket match, but it could just as easily be the newest café on the block or, more pertinent to our surroundings, the pros and cons of the beefroll version of leather penny loafers. Those are the regulars. There’s wool everywhere, and in many forms: stacks of Shetland sweaters, hand-tailored sport coats, neatly pressed trousers, raglan-sleeve overcoats. Closing the door behind you to shut out the rest of Marylebone, you have officially entered the world of John Simons.
This was the scene I encountered when I first walked into the London retailer in 2018. And indeed I frequently encountered the same scene upon countless visits back. The last time I was in the shop — January of 2020 — it was par for the course. But then, who could have known that, in less than two months’ time, the world would be facing a situation that not only affected each and every one of us, but changed the very fabric of life as we knew it?
John Simons (the man) is credited to be the first person to put American Ivy Style into a British context, laying the groundwork in the early 1960’s for a style that would later become known as Mod. His love of all things Ivy rubbed off on the London youths who would line up outside his shop to be outfitted in the latest button-down collar Oxford shirt or herringbone-tweed sport coat. By the end of that decade, he was the go-to man for the Mods who had practically taken over the English capital. By the 1980’s, he was outfitting New Wave royalty such as Kevin Rowland of Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Suggs of Madness, and Paul Weller of The Jam and The Style Council (and with whom Simons currently collaborates on a line of sweaters). In recent years, the brand John Simons (currently managed by John’s son, Paul Simons) has had a huge resurgence in popularity, thanks to the internet, from all over the globe. Open in different locations and under various names, there has continuously been a John Simons shop in London since 1963.
In the nine months since the Covid-19 pandemic really started taking its toll, John Simons, like many other businesses, has not been immune to its wake of mayhem. Just before 2020 at long last came to an end, I was able to catch up with son Paul to see how the team has managed to steer the business to the path of least-possible-harm. — TREVOR JONES
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IS: How has the business been faring through the pandemic?
PS: As for many businesses it has been a difficult time. When the first lockdown was introduced, we were forced to close our store on March 22nd, which meant that we went from taking the majority of our business in-store, to being entirely dependent on online trading.
IS: And how did you respond to this new landscape you were forced to face?
PS: It was somewhat disorientating. We had not yet been provided with clear guidelines from the government as to what support we could expect, and there was a general air of uncertainty. Essentially, our response was to increase our online offerings and our social media presence. We then began recycling and repurposing old garments from our archives such as our madras shirts, which, with the help of a local tailor, we were able to use to create new face masks and narrow ties, and which are unique to John Simons Apparel.
IS: Things in London seemed to be going pretty well over the summer. What did things look like for you then?
PS: This summer was an optimistic period in London. Restrictions began to be lifted and, once it was safe to re-open, our business returned in a manner that was comparable to the pre-pandemic climate.
IS: Unfortunately, that period of optimism has since ended. What has the latest shutdown in the UK meant for you guys?
PS: It has certainly been a disruption but at the same time, our online business has grown and this has coincided with the launch of several new products, including our new Made in London overcoats, Harringtons, and Golfer jackets.
IS: What have been your biggest sellers throughout the whole situation?
PS: In terms of quantity, it has most definitely been our Madras face masks. However, our new line of overcoats has done extremely well this year and have proven to be a favorite with customers, both old and new alike. This is quite intuitive, as the one-piece raglan construction means that it suits a variety of different body shapes and sizes, and works as a unisex item also.
IS: More than just business, the shop acts as a makeshift salon for the regulars to pop in: a community connected by clothes. How have you managed maintaining that community throughout all this?
PS: Through social media! The laid-back and cozy atmosphere of the shop can never truly be replicated in the digital-sphere, but we try to remain open, approachable and engaging in any way that we can through our social media platforms.
IS: What has John’s role been at the shop through all this?
PS: Predominantly background support. John has been shielding during the lockdown period, but is always on hand to impart his sage advice and history and knowledge of the products. His contributions remain invaluable and pertinent to this day.
IS: Has there been anything else newsworthy lately?
PS: Yes, we have been extremely excited about our new Mingus Golfer Jacket! The Mingus combines the detailing of our classic Golfer Jacket with the seamless one-piece raglan sleeve of our overcoats. It has been another best seller of late.