There are several bits of news surrounding John Simons, the so-called patron saint of English Ivy (it’s been so long I’m not sure who coined that term; it might have been here).
First off, the documentary about him, “A Modernist,” by Jason Jules and Lee Cogswell, is complete and has been getting theatrical screenings in London. One scheduled for April 27 was sold out months in advance, but there are still tickets for a May 12 screeing. More information can be found on this page for Regent Street Cinema.
Here’s the trailer:
In addition, a publication called Hole & Corner recently ran a piece by writer Andy Thomas, who has kindly allowed us to share it here. Congrats to Jules, Simons, and all those involved for their contributions to global Ivy and to global Ivy scholarship. — CC
“It may only have been a small shop tucked away in what was at that time, a rather quiet corner of Covent Garden, but John Simons’ clothes shop became the fulcrum of a whole kind of scene,” writes JP Gaul in The Ivy Look. “Men of all backgrounds came together to get hold of the very best of traditional American style Oxford cloth button down popovers from Troy Guild, soft, finely tailored natural shoulder jackets from Linet, the G9 blousen jacket, it really was all there.”
It was 1981 and JP Gaul was doing what in the know modernists had been doing since the sixties, searching the rails of John Simons’ shop to feed their Ivy League habit. And nearly forty years on from the mod revival, John Simons’ latest store on London’s Chiltern Street is equally revered by men who know their Wingtips from their Weejuns.
Brought up in Hackney, East London, John Simons’ passion for clothes began at an early age. “My dad had several brothers and I remember when I was about 11 or 12 them travelling to Europe and bringing these lovely clothes back with them,” he tells me sitting below a row of Pendleton board shirts and J Keydge Ivy Slack jackets in the Marylebone store he now runs with his son Paul.
The year was 1952 and Simons would spend the weekends at his family’s barbers shop on the Kingsland Road, Dalston, watching the sharply dressed men of his neighbourhood. “Back then everyone went to bespoke tailors and the East End was full of them, places like Alfred Myers and Millers,” he recalls. It wasn’t long before John was being measured up at his first tailors. “I got a shirt made for my Bar mitzvah on Kingsland Waste market, Dalston, by Ron Hitchins,” he says. “He was a barrow boy turned sculptor and cutting edge shirt designer who was also a renowned flamenco dancer, so a real new wave individual.” Simons would soon be meeting other alluring London characters when he started working in the West End as an apprentice window dresser at Cecil Gee on Charing Cross Road.
“The man who gave England the new stylish continental look,” in the words of Paul Anderson in Mods: The New Religion, Cecil Gee opened up a whole new world to the young East Ender. “It really was a case of right place, right time. You had people like Ronnie Scott coming in buying his stuff. He was a real handsome guy and would always have an incredible woman on his arm,” says Simons. “And Soho was such an amazing place then, full of brilliant artists, photographers and musicians and I started to hang out with these people. If you went to a jazz club like Cy Laurie’s you’d get the barrow boys next to the landed gentry so it was a real eye opener for me. Of course you also had Ronnie’s and The Flamingo and other little jazz clubs like The Florida, there were so many places like that.”
A new underground movement was taking root in Soho and John was there at the start, hanging out at the famous 2i’s coffee shop and getting suits made at Sam Arkus tailors on Berwick Street. “Being a little 16 year old kid I was like a piece of blotting paper soaking in all this new music, style and art. And soon us young guys into all this stuff were being called modernists,” he recalls. “We were buying all the modern jazz records coming out of America and seeing all the covers with people like Miles Davis, Chet Baker and Jimmy Smith all looking extremely stylish. Then working in Soho you’d see all these young Italian waiters who were really well dressed. So these were all expressions of modernism coming from both America and Europe.”
Central to the modernists’ style aesthetic was the Ivy League look that would seep into the public’s consciousness through film stars like Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and Anthony Perkins. “I first became aware of the Ivy League style around the age of 15 when I started looking in the windows of Austin’s store on Shaftesbury Avenue,” says Simons. “I started to yearn for a shirt like the American ones I saw. And as a youngster this whole silhouette just became really hip to me.”
When did Simons first become aware of the term Ivy League? “By around ‘56 or ’57 it was a commonly used expression and it was written in the back of all the old jackets,” he says. “In America, Ivy League was an egalitarian tradition and a rigid format of dress. And they did it in an incredible way. Everyone wore it. Around 1959 the Ivy shape held around 80% of the male market – from thugs to presidents.”
Inspired by both American and European tailoring but wanting to provide something fresh for London’s young modernists, in 1963 Simons opened his first shop Clothesville, next door to the Hackney Empire. “The first pieces were inspired by a short corduroy coat by Burberry but with a button down collar,” he says. “We followed it with these reefer jackets. It was basically things that we wanted to wear.”
After the success of the Hackney store, he opened another Clothesville in Walthamstow, but it was in South West London that Simons really made his name. “Back then Richmond was quite a jumping place and a lot of people hung out there,” he says. “I used to go there a lot in the evening with a girlfriend to a coffee bar called the L’Auberge. One day we were walking up Hill Rise and we saw an empty shop and that was how The Ivy Shop was born.”
Opening in the summer of 1965 at the height of the mod movement, The Ivy Shop really took off after Simons started to travel to New York. “I was buying all the clearance lines over there and their dead stock was our brilliant new stock,” he says. “And it wasn’t too hard to get hold of this stuff at a decent price as I was the only one from England doing it.”
Haspel seersucker jackets, Bass Weejuns loafers, Oxford shirts by Lion of Troy or Sero button downs with the perfect roll, The Ivy Shop dressed the sharpest mods from across London. “Although we were originally an Ivy League shop, we became like a pivot point for the mods,” says Simons. There was one item that came to become most associated with the shop, the Harrington G9 jacket named by Simons after a character in Peyton Place played by Ryan O’Neal who wore the jacket. “I went to see Baracuta (the company who made the G9) and asked if I could see their export stuff,” recalls Simons. “There was this guy called John Beddingfield who was a great jazz drummer working there. He took a shine to us and he would take the slight seconds and put them aside for us at really low prices. So we started to get this exclusive stuff and that really helped to launch us. And all this was informing the new mod culture that had been created by then.” In 1969 he opened his first West End store The Squire Shop on Brewer Street followed two years later by The Village Gate on Old Compton Street.
Despite what John calls the “hairy and flarey” post sixties period making a small modernist retailer less viable, by the late 1970s the mod revival had created a new interest in the old Ivy League styles. In a new documentary on John Simons The Neat Offensive, Paul Weller recalls first going to the J.Simons’ store on Covent Garden’s Russell Street: “It was interesting for me just to find stuff that I hadn’t seen for such a long time and I didn’t think was being made any more.” The film, which also features long time admirers Kevin Rowland, Robert Elms, and GQ Editor Dylan Jones, is a fitting tribute to Simons’ 60 years in retail. “Whether I’ve still got the same passion now I’m not sure but I can pull it out whenever I need to,” Simons says. “It’s always inside me.”