Q&A: IAN MACLEAN
The managing director of John Smedley on centuries of heritage, the appeal of quality fabrics and how central heating changed the brand’s business model
Words: Jackie Modlinger
The John Smedley brand was founded back in 1784, making it the grand-pappy of them all—the world’s oldest knitwear factory—and it is still based at its historic home in Lea Mills, Matlock, Derbyshire. It represents fashion with a past and with a future; evolution, rather than revolution. Here, quality and style are quintessential, achieved by subtle twists and tweaks, staying true to those deep roots, rather than a change-everything-all-of-the-time ethos.
The firm has morphed from its foundations (long johns, mainly) to modern fashion, while remaining faithful to the magic of its staple fabrics: pure, natural sea island cotton, merino wool, silk and cashmere. The home-grown factor is another plus—while most of the clothes bought in the UK hail from far-flung places, John Smedley’s remain homespun: “Made in Great Britain” features on the tag-line of every garment it makes.
Not that John Smedley is in any way insular. In particular, its connections with Japan—now the brand’s biggest export market—go back a long way. The archive features several garments geared to the Japanese market dating back more than 100 years, and it’s a relationship that has continued to flourish.
The new spring/summer collection is, according to design director Jess McGuire-Dudley, “inspired by the rolling, wild and romantic British countryside—its hilltops, marshland and stretches of beaches with the wind whipping in your hair.” In short, it has a strong botanical vibe. Floral prints are prevalent. Rhododendrons and ferns are recurrent, the former being the favourite flower of former owner John Marsden-Smedley’s beloved wife Gertrude, whose memory inspired Lea Gardens, where he collated two acres of flowers—including more than 350 species of the rhododendron in memory of his love for her—before his death aged 92 in 1959.
For women, black flowers bloom all over cornflower blue or fuchsia pink long-sleeved sweaters and signature polo tees with matching flowing pants. Prefer plain to print? Then team trousers with a solid, like a tonal v-neck top. Sheer sea island cotton translates into a pleat-front sleeveless dress, or tunic version paired with trousers. For guys, fronds of black ferns feature on avocado-green tees, while a moss-green windcheater-style cardigan zips seamlessly over a classic white tee. Favourite navy/white fine stripes and contrast solid/stripes lend a new twist to men’s Breton tees and sweaters.
Fools rush in, so perhaps the secret of John Smedley’s success is that it sets its own pace. It’s still spreading its wings and currently has just three London stores: Brook Street in Mayfair, Jermyn Street in St James’s, and as of November last year, New Cavendish Street in Marylebone.
Designed in conjunction with Andrew Martin of AMD Interior Architecture and the team at Liberty Interiors, the store is well-edited and minimal, spread over two floors, with both men’s and womenswear on each, as well as a selection of books on each level. While the décor here reflects the Brook Street flagship, this store also has its own identity, being softer and brighter, fusing ancient and modern with some familial touches.
A nod towards the house’s heritage is reflected with rose-polished Derbyshire marble, while steel rocking systems are redolent of the firm’s manufacturing process. Vintage Ercol furniture has been recycled by John Smedley’s own Lea Mills craftsmen, their celebrated ultra-fine merino wool serving as seating covers. Tom Raffield’s bespoke wooden lighting, an original touch, has been individually steam-bent at his Cornwall workshop.
John Smedley remains a family business and managing director Ian Maclean is eighth generation. Over to him...
What does it feel like to have inherited the reins of such a long-standing family business?
It is both an honour and a great responsibility. One of the reasons that John Smedley still trades as a company after 235 years is that my predecessors made great decisions, and I very much hope that I can follow in their footsteps. More than 350 people work at John Smedley and their livelihoods—and those of their families—depend to a degree on me setting the right direction and keeping the business healthy.
How did it all start?
It all started in 1784, right at the beginning of the industrial revolution, spinning cotton into yarn, that was knitted by the new industrial machines into long—warm!—underwear. Underwear was the staple product of our business right until the 1950s, when there was a big transition into outerwear—jumpers, shirts, scarves. We are exclusively outerwear today.
What was the first item of clothing produced by John Smedley?
I am guessing long johns—certainly the oldest item of clothing we possess in our archive is a pair of men’s long johns dating from 1847. We have more than 10,000 garments in our archive today. One hundred per cent made in England, quality, luxury, refinement, craft, design and 25 colours each season… who could want more?
How did the brand morph from making underwear to outerwear?
Simple: in the 1950s, many new homes were fitted with central heating for the first time, so there was no need to wear long underwear in the wintertime indoors any more. The market for underwear shrank rapidly and we had to adapt our business quickly to the new market conditions. You could say that a similar rapid revolution is happening today, but between the number of garments sold in high street shops and online. Again, we are adapting.
You have the royal warrant—when was it awarded?
Our royal warrant of appointment was granted to us by Her Majesty the Queen in 2013. We were delighted to be appointed as her chosen supplier of fine knitwear. In 2014, we welcomed Her Majesty and Prince Philip to John Smedley’s factory at Lea Mills in Derbyshire for a private visit. It was a great day for all our staff and shareholders.
You have three London stores, Marylebone being the most recent—why did you choose this location?
I must confess that I spent a long time researching all of the major retail centres in London! I chose Marylebone for our third store because I felt that the mix of brands in proximity was closely aligned with our understanding of our core consumer, and that the landlord, The Howard de Walden Estate, is well known for taking an enlightened approach towards nurturing and sustaining the conditions where brands like ours can plan for a long-term future in the area. This makes for the right conditions for success going both ways, in my view.
In addition to the above, I would also say that the proximity of Marylebone High Street to all of the many and varied private medical businesses based around Harley Street is of interest to us. I believe that this brings another type of customer into the area; one that has time to shop and visit cafes. I read in the Financial Times recently that the private medical business in London is growing at something like 25 per cent per annum, which is amazing!
The area’s dedication to maintaining a mix of artisan brands, that represent the breadth of long-standing retailers, unique designers and desire to maintain a family-friendly village mentality, is one that we feel completely aligns with our own desires for the brand. We are excited to be alongside other British retailers such as David Mellor and Margaret Howell.
Who is the John Smedley customer?
This is an interesting question. Having spoken directly with many of our customers over the years, I can assuredly tell you that our customer values quality, style and refinement above everything—and this we do our best to capture in all our fine knitwear, all of the time. We find that if we can satisfy these needs, then the demand for our product cuts across age, demographics and location. Both the young and the old buy our brand, in many different countries around the world.
There are also many people in the public eye who wear John Smedley. I can’t list them all, but a few of the most recent that I can recall are Idris Elba, Holly Willoughby, Hugh Jackman, Robert Pattinson, Eddie Redmayne, David Hockney, Paul Weller, Damon Albarn, Frank Lampard, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tracey Emin, and Daniel Craig—who’s local to Marylebone, I think!
How many people do you have in the design team?
Five in total. We have separate designers for our women’s fashion, men’s fashion, classics across both genders, and collaborations.
What are your best sellers?
For menswear, it’s the long-sleeved crew neck merino pullover and the short-sleeved sea island cotton polo neck. For womenswear, it’s the cardigan and roll neck. We do all the best-selling styles in up to 25 colours each season, making them essential for your wardrobe and co-ordinated with everything from formal suits through to weekend leisurewear. More complex and fashion-forward pieces are priced anywhere up to £400, made in cashmere and luxury noble yarns.
Do you consider yourselves a heritage brand?
Of course. We do have a long and distinguished heritage—resulting in great skill in making fine knitwear—but this is not all that keeps us going. We must be appreciated by our customers and seen as fashionable and relevant to their wardrobes at any point in time. This is the challenge: heritage, but always looking to the future.
We are exploring a rich seam of creativity that draws on British art and craft to inspire our seasons currently, and I can see us continuing to work on this for some time to come. It resonates very well with our customers and, just as importantly, excites our team and encourages new and interesting work.