As a new documentary about his life is released, the Journal meets the highly influential menswear designer John Simons and the son who followed him into the business
Words: Clare Finney
Images: Orlando Gili
“Fashion is one thing; taste is another thing,” Madness frontman Suggs tells the camera, with all the authority of—well, Suggs, clad in a black shirt and creamy fawn jacket. “The clothes John Simons sells are 20 times better than any passing fad I have seen, before or since.” The scene cuts to John Simons himself, arranging shoes, adjusting a sharp cravat—and then Paul Weller appears and describes John’s store as “a revelation”. This is John Simons—A Modernist: a film about the life and times of the most influential, yet perhaps least lauded institution on Chiltern Street.
By now, most people have heard of the Chiltern Firehouse. But if you’re wondering who is dressing the Chiltern Firehouse, you need to walk up the street to John Simons. “They’re good customers of ours, the guys at the Firehouse,” says John. “They all are, in fact, along this street.”
A retailer for nigh on 65 years, and an influencer before the term existed, John has a reputation for dressing the dressers. Customers today range from the chaps working at Sunspel’s store, to Sir Paul Smith. He too appears in the documentary, alongside Kevin Rowland of Dexys Midnight Runners and Dylan Jones, editor of GQ magazine. “If anyone understands the significance of clothes, it’s John Simons,” Dylan states simply. “John got it.” Even John’s windows are “pieces of theatre”, Sir Paul enthusiastically agrees.
Vintage signs, imperial brogues
I gaze across the street, from where John, his son Paul and I are catching up over coffee in a patch of April sunshine. Caught in the unlikely glare, their store front dazzles even more than usual, and the brass rails of button downs, vintage signs and imperial brogues gleam. Above the olive Harrington jacket, which takes pride of place in the display window, the muted grey signage reads “John Simons. Est 1955.”
“I was never seeking all this publicity,” says the man in question. “We’re not show-offs by nature. But the producer Mark Baxter approached us and asked if he could make a documentary about the shop and my life and so on.” John’s no egotist, and Paul, who works in the business, even less so: “I’m really quite a private person.” Nevertheless, after six decades of working in this industry, John has also learnt never to turn down an opportunity.
“You are seen as an underground influence by a few people, and gradually it builds and builds. Now, with the film, we’re interviewed out!” He laughs, but looks a tad weary. He’s used to dressing the stars, not being one, though you might not guess as much from his cropped trousers, bright socks, and—in spite of the unseasonable warmth—eight-piece cap and jacket. His son, Paul, is in chinos and a soft checked shirt: equally on-brand, but younger, as if to exemplify the versatility of the style.
“We are very unusual in that we can have four or five generations in the shop, sometimes at the same time. We can have a 20-year-old punk, standing next to a titled fellow who can hardly stand—and they don’t mind that,” Paul says, with understandable pleasure. “They don’t feel strange at all.”
The secret here is the Ivy League look—or rather, John Simons’ take on the Ivy League look, for “in America, they were buying this stuff without thinking,” recalls Dylan Jones, of the trend’s early years in the fifties and sixties. “John went over and said, that looks great, that looks great, I will take that out and put it in a British context—and suddenly you’re seeing it differently.” In Soho—London’s Soho—far away from the manicured lawns of Harvard and Princeton, the look increasingly known has entered a whole new league of cool. “This was the American look we really liked,” Paul Weller explains. “It had Jewish East End, a bit of West End, a bit of north London, a bit of New York, a bit of Kingston, Jamaica. The look sold,” he continues—and as John Simons sold to London’s musicians, the fans of London’s musicians followed.
“It was clothes—and it was music. You went into that shop, and you heard great music. It just reinforced the idea that those two things go together,” says writer and broadcaster Robert Elms. Music is threaded through John’s clothes like dreams are through Joseph’s. “Not that the music was giving me an idea for a jacket,” he laughs, “but the American musicians wore a look that I liked, and the music was attached to the look.”
Like blotting paper
John was 16 when he got his first job in a clothes shop, and at that age “you’re like blotting paper. You soak up everything. You see it, on the record covers, in films—and you distil it,” says John—as if it’s the most natural thing in the world that he should turn his teenage fandom into one of the most influential menswear shops of the 20th century. “You don’t necessarily consciously think about it, but it works like osmosis. It was there in my group.”
The word ‘group’ is significant—at least, it is for the London John’s referring to here. His was a city colourfully divided. Pick some kids off the street today and you’d probably struggle to identify their cultural tastes, but in John’s era, differences between tribes extended from their choice of music into their gait, the cut of their hair and the style of their clothes. “There aren’t tribes anymore,” says Paul. “It’s ‘a bit from here, a bit from there’ today, whereas even when I was younger—late eighties and nineties—you could tell from the way someone dressed whether they were into punk music or hip hop.”
Is the enduring appeal of the Ivy League look responsible for what is, to some extent, a homogenisation of fashion? After all, you can’t walk along the high street without seeing vestiges of the look in places like Gant, Uniqlo or J Crew. “Well, it’s the look that hasn’t dated. If Paul Newman and Steve McQueen appeared and looked as they did in photos in the sixties, people wouldn’t bat an eyelid—whereas the rock ‘n’ roll look of pork pie hats and tonic suits would look like fancy dress now.”
Sharp, smart, effortless
As Suggs points out in the film, when the appeal of big flares had died down, this was the look musicians came home to: sharp, smart, but effortless. “As it developed in American colleges, it was an egalitarian way of dressing—a way of dressing that made everyone feel part of the club, even if they weren’t wealthy,” continues Paul. So not preppy then? “No, it gave birth to preppy!” John exclaims. Preppy’s more elitist: think “jumpers tied round your neck, button-down shirt—a stiffer, upper class look,” adds Paul. There are strains of the Ivy League in there, but preppy is less its twin, more its posh little brother. Mod, too, is related but different. “Those guys saw this look and mod developed and evolved from it,” Paul continues. Even punk owes some of its punch to the Ivy League: “It was a reaction against it. Punk was everything this look wasn’t.”
If ‘this look’ sounds hard to define, it’s because it is hard to define. The title of A Modernist is as close as it gets, and the film runs for over 50 minutes. “John sees the big picture of modernism, and the role clothes played in that,” says Robert Elms: progressive, inclusive, with the best bits of past and present interweaving. “It is the only youth culture uniform that doesn’t look ridiculous in retrospect,” states advertising guru John Hegarty. It is Ivy League, via London, via John’s experiences as apprentice window dresser, St Martin’s college student and abstract art and modern jazz lover. It is 60 per cent clothes he and his son Paul choose from various retailers and vintage stores in America and Britain, and 40 per cent their own effortlessly cool, perfectly realised designs.
Paul Simons is a vital part of the business. In fact, while John and I wait for Paul to lock up and join us in the cafe across the street, John tells me seriously, “Paul runs the show now. I’m in two mornings a week, but he’s in charge.” An interior designer and cabbie by training, a window dresser, fashion designer and retailer by birth-right, Paul has inherited his father’s legendary eye.
Black cab license
“My degree in interiors gave me an eye for composition, and what looks ‘right’—but I trained on the job. I’ve always been involved in the shop, in one way or another, throughout my life—and I like clothes, so it evolved that way.” Was it a given that he would work in the shop, just as his father had done? “You must joking!” laughs John. “No, I did other stuff first, but this is how it’s turned out,” Paul smiles. “And the black cab license is a great fall back, if things look iffy in future, Paul. Would keep you from starving, in any case.” John grins.
John’s brand is timeless, but that doesn’t stop it evolving and keeping pace with changes—if not in fashion, then in technology and manufacturing. Though they continue to source much of their stock from America, John and Paul support domestic industry where possible. Indeed, they are currently working closely with several small factories in north London. “It is nice to buy stuff made in this country—and where we don’t, it’s usually because there’s a history of that product being made there. Certain Indian fabrics, leather in Italy, and denim in Japan: they are masters of denim, simply brilliant,” says Paul. Their approach to window design has also shifted over the years. “Windows are slightly more relaxed these days,” John comments. “In the old days it was very disciplined.”
“In the film there are stills of me, aged 15 years old, in the windows working as the assistant to the head window dresser at Cecil Gee on Charing Cross Road,” he continues. Window dressing is John’s original discipline: it was part of his course at St Martin’s, and it was “very good visual training: we covered Bauhaus principles, symmetrical and asymmetrical balance, the golden mean.”
Whirligig of art and music
It proved the perfect education—and, moreover, the perfect place. Working and studying within touching distance of Soho, John was quickly immersed in its whirligig of art and music. “When you’re young, it’s often about getting a little bit of luck, and being in the right place at the right time,” he says sagely. “I was dead lucky to be in Soho in the 1950s.”
When I ask John how the film’s gone down, he tells me the first screening sold out in 24 hours. “Fame at last!” he laughs. “But we really haven’t looked for it. We haven’t sought it at all.” His ascent has been gradual—almost imperceptible. “Back in the day things started in London and gradually spread outwards. It took ages for the drumbeat to travel.” It’s a pace of life he feels nostalgic for—not that he’s sorry to have made the big screen, “but in this technological time everyone knows everything in seconds. It was quite nice, in a way, for things to slowly go around.”
John Simons is online—well, Paul is—but the majority of sales still happen face to face. “I would like to have no website, no social media—nothing but the store,” says Paul wistfully. His dad’s response makes me smile: “It could be done, Paul. I mean you’d have to have a cracking reputation—but it could be done.”
Under the radar
The fact this unacknowledged giant of men’s fashion doubts the cracking-ness of his shop’s reputation is just about the sum of it: “He never struck me as someone who has wanted fame for the sake of it,” observes Dylan Jones. “It actually shows how particular his vision was that he could launch a store like that in the mid-fifties, and it remain under the radar.”
In an age where one B-list celebrity can propel a young designer from an east London garret to the height of fame with just one Instagram post; where independent boutiques quiver and crumble under the shadow of global conglomerates; it’s a relief to know that, sometimes, hard work and passion are rewarded, and cream also rises to the top.