John Simons – the shop, the history, the influence

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In normal menswear - not even classic menswear, but everyday, everybody menswear, everything outside big fashion brands - retailers can often have more influence than designers.

People like Charlie Davidson of The Andover Shop, Isabel Ettedgui of Connolly, and more recently Mark and Alan at The Armoury, have an influence that is easily underrated - certainly compared to the big-name designers, which get a lot of column inches but few guys actually wear.

One big name in that list is John Simons, the Ivy League outfitter who has been running shops in London since the 1960s, and still has a store on Chiltern Street. 

Today the shop is largely run by his son, Paul, and they are currently revamping the website - which will make it easier for those outside London to browse the Ivy-obsessed craft-driven clothing.

This felt like an appropriate time, therefore, to talk about John’s influence, and how it has affected the traditions of menswear in the UK. 

John’s career goes back to the 1950s, having started his own clothing enterprise when he was 15, working at various menswear stores like Cecil Gee, and then having different stores of his own - including The Ivy Shop in Richmond, where I grew up. 

He is known for bringing the Ivy League Look to the UK. But what I find most interesting is how that look and ethos changed as soon as he started selling it. This was the late 1950s, and in the US Ivy was very much associated with the upper class of the East Coast, and its elite universities. 

But in the UK, the men that took it up were often working class. They might have been young, but they were certainly not collegiate. “I was bringing over these clothes that were worn by rich kids and business executives, and they were being adopted by lads,” says John. “They put their own spin on it - it didn’t look the same, but it really looked sharp.”

This is a quote from the excellent documentary on John, A Modernist, that was released a few years ago, written by Jason Jules. 

Another commentator in the film compares the change to pop music: “It was like British beat bands copying the US sound - like the Small Faces wanting to be like Otis Redding. No one ended up sounding like the bands they copied, but they created something great in the process.”

It’s particularly interesting, of course, given our recent discussions of Ivy style here on PS, and how much it can be trapped by restrictive rules, or cultural baggage. 

British youth had no such problems, and John’s style influenced generations of Mods, then later youth movements like skinheads and suedeheads. The button-down shirt, gingham check, the Harrington jacket, the three-button suit: all gained very different associations. 

Of these, the suedehead look is probably the one readers will most identify with. It was neat and tailored, with brogues or loafers rather than the skinheads’ boots, and Sta-Prest trousers rather than jeans. The shirts were button-down, with a back pleat and locker loop - but made by Ben Sherman and closely fitted.

“It was a very clean, very wearable look,” comments long-time customer Paul Weller in the film. “Smart but relaxed - taking that American banker look and making it cooler - something British youth are very good at.”

Various commentators also refer to the working class’s love of dressing up: of an almost obsessive desire to look sharp on a Friday night after a long week. Of spending money on clothes because there was little else to show off with. 

From 1981 John had his own shop in Covent Garden, and was something of an island of sanity in the world of oversized styles and designers (“everyone looked like Kevin Keegan, with big hair and big shoulders - just wearing plain straight trousers made you stand out!”). 

Then in 2011 he moved to Chiltern Street - although the current store still has much of the feel of earlier iterations, like hand-written prices and original brand advertising on the walls. 

The hand-written notes connect to the best menswear lore about John: that he coined the term Harrington jacket.

The story goes that John was selling the G9 golfing jackets from Baracuta, in the Richmond shop, and wrote a note in the window to highlight that this was the ‘Rodney Harrington style’, referring to a current US soap opera. 

It became the name the jacket was known by, and that little note - calligraphy written in felt tip - generated a term that is now almost generic for a short cotton windbreaker.

These heritage brands were always a crucial part of the ethos for John. And it is this focus that I think makes John Simons relevant to all PS readers, whether the Ivy aesthetic - and what it became in the UK - fits with their personal style or not.

John was the first retailer in the UK to sell Bass, and the first outside France to stock Paraboot. He brought in varsity-jacket maker Golden Bear, Dehen from the US too, and Vetra. 

History and manufacturing were always key to the offering, and it was quickly international - not just Pendleton in the US, but GRP in Italy too, or Laurence J Smith from Scotland. He was the first, and in some cases is still the only physical retailer, in the country.

I’ll write a separate post about the brands and pieces I like best in the shop. 

All this without mentioning jazz.

Without soft jazz filtering through the shop every day, John Simons would feel like a very different place. 

There is a link between Ivy style, of course, and jazz musicians in their heyday: Lee Morgan in a straight three-button suit, Miles Davis in a sharp narrow tie. 

But there is also an aesthetic that unites the two - urban, sharp, considered. Neat. It is a version of modernism, and it is this that you feel brings the retail choices and the overall attitude together. 

Towards the beginning of that film, John's clothes are said to have ‘meaning’. I was instinctively sceptical of this: clothes can have associations, sure, and be culturally specific. But are some more meaningful? 

It became clear that what they meant was, everything is deliberate. The music, the window dressing, the manufacturer brands; the clothes selected, the way they’re styled: they’re all part of a cohesive whole, a singular attitude. 

John Simons has had that singular approach for more than 65 years, and yet it all feels relevant: raglan coats and shetland sweaters, slim chinos and unstructured tailoring.

Paul Weller is collaborating on a new line of knitwear, and it feels like it could have been sold just as well 40 years ago. Back in the days when John kept Paul’s car for him, in the garage, when he was on holiday.

Follow-up piece on products next week. Photography: Alex Natt @adnatt, except image of John, Marylebone Journal

www.johnsimons.co.uk

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Sam

I have very good memories of buying my first Harrington in the Covent Garden shop on a trip to London in 2008. It was exciting to hear the Peyton Place origins of the Harrington name from the horse’s mouth. John is so friendly and always remembered me on subsequent visits.

The whole mod/skinhead/modernist lineage is a quite fascinating British alternate Ivy universe. Although to be frank I found most people in the documentary to not be terribly convincing ambassadors of the look, besides Jason Jules and John himself.

Anyway, very nice to celebrate John and his shop. One detail I liked in the documentary was his cheekiness in claiming to have been established in 1955, despite opening up shop some years later. ‘But I started thinking about it in 1955!’

Sam

(My comment about ‘most people’ in the documentary is probably rather unfair… I just remember thinking many not looking as stylish as I’d hoped, in a film about style.)

Paul Boileau

I have many fond memories of John’s shop on Russell Street as a frequent visitor in my youth. I bought a pair of Bass weejun loafers there soon after Dexys “Don’t stand me down” album came out in 1985. I found the loafers (still unworn) in their box whilst I was looking for something else just the other day…I promise to wear them when the weather improves in tribute…

Andrew Hughes

When John had his shop in Covent Garden I visited numerous times and bought a few items. John was very knowledgeable, entertaining, and offered great advice, and wouldn’t sell you an item of clothing that he felt didn’t fit or suit you. I remember buying a navy Harrington jacket by Baracuta, a dark green Woolrich Artic Parka, a corduroy jacket by Woolrich, and a few shirts by Hartford.

Richard

I checked out their website and was struck by how inexpensive the jackets are. Then I noticed that they’re entirely unstructured – so presumably no canvas at all as well as no lining, no padding? Is that the main factor in the low price do you suppose Simon? And was that super-level lack of structure de rigeur in the ivy jackets of the past?

Peter Hall

Such happy memories,Simon. I purchased a Harrington and weejuns from said establishment (Covent Garden)and Fred Perry shirts from a shop around the corner . Plenty of suede heads loitering. My weejuns still fit. Sadly, the Perry polos don’t.
Bass weejuns deserve a post of their own.

Kenny

Simon, Do you know what has happened to John Rushton Shoes, another Ivy enthusiast? The company’s website has gone completely. The Facebook page has not been updated since November. I hope it’s not another Covid victim.

Kenny

There’s no need to apologise. I thought that, as you featured John Rushton’s shop on PS several years ago, that you might have some more information. Further online searches this afternoon revealed a few Instagram posts in December but it seems there’s been nothing since then. John Rushton, like John Simons, were revered by Ivy enthusiasts such as Paul Weller.

I have been a customer of John Rushton for many years and I’m very concerned by those recent developments. If his business has ceased trading, it will be sorely missed. Hopefully, my fears are unfounded.

Andrew Sidford

Kenny, John Rushton has been taken over by Sanders now. The shop is still there and still open, but it only stocks Sanders now.

Kenny

Andrew, many thanks for the update. It’s slightly disappointing news as, over many years, I have bought other brands from the shop. Does John still run it or has he retired following the sale of his business? In any case, I hope that he is good health in these hazardous times.

Rik

I’m sorry to hear this. Like you Kenny I’ve bought many pairs of shoes from John over the years. I hope he’s ok

Peter Hall

Just had a browse around their web store. Alan Paine merino roll necks are rather nice.
Nice to see they stock Failsworth hats. I have a solid collection,but…

Ollie

Like you Simon , my well worn Red Wings got an outing in the snow yesterday. Bought from Simons in Russell St in the early 90’s , and stretched to fit on an ancient machine at the rear of the shop, they are still my favourite winter boots.
Back in the jazz revival/Perrier craze of the 80’s Simons supplied my Bass wejuns and Alden wingtip brogues . I do feel nostalgic for the days when ‘fashion’ was based on ones’ musical tribe before the ubiquity of ‘designer’ labels .

Dr Peter

Terrific article, Simon, and as someone who lives on this side of the Atlantic (that vast country that just got liberated again) and has many Ivy items in his wardrobe, your piece on John Simon was an eye-opener. In fact, on the Ask Andy group, we have been discussing the evolution of Trad, so I alerted that group to your post. One question: How can one obtain a copy of the “John Simons: A Modernist” DVD?

Alex

Hi Dr Peter – you can buy and watch online (I think) via Vimeo
https://vimeo.com/ondemand/johnsimonsamodernist
Hope this works in the US … nerd point but the DVD may not work on a US player (unless you have a multi-region one)

Anonymous

Thanks very much indeed.

Anonymous

Thank you, Alex. I’ll take a look at the link.

Kim

Yes. It works in the U.S. Thanks.

Triskel

A message to Peter Hall. Please consider carefully before buying the Alan Paine knitwear. It is not of the quality it was. That may or may not be related to the items now being made in China. However, the current range bag and pill very badly – in a way those of 30 years ago certainly didn’t.

Peter Hall

Thank you. I will wait until I can visit the shop

Alex M

Great article Simon – thank you. Probably my favourite shop in London – for all the reasons you’ve written about. Spot on.

Dan

Nice article. I appreciate it as an American reader of your site. Also, the reference to Golden Bear caught my eye as I have a light brown/cognac moto jacket purchased from them a few years ago. One of my favorite pieces and the leather has started to age well. I did not know much about Golden Bear before then, but after reading up on their background, they are a long time shop located in San Francisco, California USA. In any event, glad to see Golden Bear made it into Permanent Style.

Christopher

Dear Simon,

thank you for the post, which broadened my mind and screen time with visiting the online shop and instagram site

Jonathan Kalman

Thank you for giving due ( in fact overdue) credit to John Simons. He has been one of the most influential figures in London menswear for 60 years. I bought my first button down shirt at the Ivy Shop in Richmond when I was eleven and followed John to The Squire Shop in Soho in the early 1970’s. I didn’t know about Saville Row or Jermyn Street then but it was shops like these that first made me interested in clothes. The shop in Chiltern Street continues to stock great items, both obvious and those that have attracted John’s excellent eye.

Matthew V

Great article about a very important shop, I remember the Covent Garden store as well as knowing the new location.

Once a mod(ernist) always a mod, they say, and that is true for me since I first took an interest in clothes, starting with the mod revival in 78 onwards. To me much of the heavily influenced Italian clothes which we all love now has roots in Modernism, but then again Modernism was essentially picking the best of Ivy League and Italian style, ‘cool’ clothes.

The advert / brochure extract from 1970 is amazing really, all three images show clothes that we still would buy today, still relevant and still fresh.

My daughter is working on her thesis, which is essentially about women and their role in modernism, but I will get her to watch the film. I had already mentioned the shop to her as a good reference point.

So, John moved into Chiltern Street around the time Trunk started, both pioneers of this location, save for Grey Flannel which I remember visiting back in the 1980s.

Looking forward to being able visit these shops again in person, internet shopping just isn’t the same.

Alex

It looks like Grey Flannel has been acquired by Timothy Everest (the man himself not the company that bears his name …) and is the HQ for his MbE (Made by Everyone) line of MTM and bespoke … I don’t know if this means many of the brands carried by Grey Flannel previously will continue to be available

Gus Forsythe

Just a brilliant shop for men of all ages and sizes : no passing fades, just genuine beautiful clothes. If you want a business suit go to a tailor , if you want an unstructured jacket that looks classic and sharp go to John Simons! Their customer service is brilliant, whether you’re a 15 year old mod or a 57 year old overweight man ! Was in Florence on holiday 2 years ago , and was asked by a thirty something Italian chap where I got my jacket ! Nuff said

Stephen

Hi Simon,
Very interesting article and a bit nostalgic as whilst I don’t personally know John, I was around this environment and some of his compatriots in the 70s. It’s a great point you make around retailers having more influence than designers. They could be seen and should be appreciated in a similar way to curators of an art exhibition. Arguably a more difficult task as they need to be more commercially viable as well.
Where I think John stands out is that he maintains a certain aesthetic and manages an evolve to remain relevant. Long may this last.
I look forward to visiting the shop again in the future.

I. Vee

Actually, the Ivy League style quickly became very much an “everyman” style in the US, almost the default menswear style, despite this article’s assertion that it remained associated with the “upper class of the East Coast”. It was everywhere in the US, and long before Simons started peddling it overseas.

I. Vee

It was very common by the 50s. I have photos of my non-Ivy League educated middle-class father sporting all of the styles, and he was most definitely not what you would call fashion conscious. It was everywhere.

Paul Adderley

We used to have the odd pilgrimage to the Richmond shop in the late 70’s And I’ve been visiting John’s shop in Covent Garden and Marylebone ever since. Many a time I’ve gone in for a browse and John has convinced me to buy something I never knew I needed. Never regretted it though. John is the Guvnor and his shop is a work of art.

Andy Wagon

A really good write up about my favourite clothes shop Simon. You summed up the differing views on the Ivy look very well. In the USA it carries overtones of wealthy connections, the establishment and somehow being a ‘gentleman’, preferably a country gentleman. Brits and Europeans are more likely associate it with jazz and modernism, an urban way of dressing stemming from a wish to look ‘sharp’ and imperceptibly different to the norm. The 1970 graphic of the suedeheads was exactly how I aspired to look in that year when I was 16 – although not so menacing!

Josh

A great follow-on to the Ivy post last week; keen to read the product focus piece coming next, especially as there’s no possibility of visiting the store in person at the moment.

Gerry Nelson

Hi Simon,
I got The Modernist screened over here in Melbourne and that was my introduction to John and the shop. I’ve since bought a few things from the shop including a couple of the Paul Weller jumpers which are lovely.
I’m so glad you’ve featured John on your blog. He and the shop are treasures.
Kind Regards,
Gerry

Patrick

As an “older” East Coast American now resident in London, discovering John Simons shop was a special treat. Having grown up with the clothes, I can attest that the look is thoroughly authentic yet still has a modern aesthetic. They manage to thread that needle brilliantly. Great style and experience every time I go to Chiltern Street.

Chris Firmin

No mention of JS’s wonderful Squire shop in Brewer Street , Soho around 1967 and 68 ? Loads of soft collared , button down American shirts, especially gingham short sleeved, so much better than Ben Sherman. And wonderful hand stitched Sebago loafers that were and still are among the toughest wearing shoes.
The Squire shop was an essential stop on our trips ‘Up West’ in the days when the ‘mod’ cult was effectively dead but ‘Modernist’ style was still adaptable – style over mere fashion.

Barry. Kemp

Still have my Brogues from. The Ivy Shop Richmond cica. 1968 I was a Suedehead. Harrington. Jkt. Staprest Tonic Suits etc. Great. Times