In an age where everyone buys almost everything off the internet, sometimes from far-flung warehouses located in other countries, it’s easy to forget the important role certain brick-and-mortars played in shaping regional taste. These retailers, who were often small and independent haberdasheries, were the original tastemakers. Fred Seagal, for example, was once thought of as the gateway into the Los Angeles fashion market; Louis Boston introduced many to the comfort of Italian tailoring. In fact, Luciano Barbera got his start in marketing tailored clothing because of a suggestion from Murray Pearlstein, Louis Boston’s late proprietor. The two worked together to develop a line of ready-to-wear Italian suits and sport coats, which was initially aimed at the New England market.
John Simons is considered by some to be the patron saint of English Ivy for the same reasons. For the last sixty years, he’s been a steadfast evangelist for the same kind of clothes — J. Keydge natural-shouldered jackets, Florsheim Imperial brogues, Bass penny loafers, button-down shirts, and other things Ivy. He introduced the look to English shores in the 1950s and has stuck with it ever since, proving there’s such a thing as classic style.
More importantly, he’s played an important role in shaping British taste. For almost three generations, mods, suedeheads, and skinheads (a term for a section of working class youths before the name became associated with racists) have gone to John Simons to look street-smart and well-heeled. John Simons was also the one who gave Harrington jackets their name. Originally referred to as golf jackets, Simons remembers the time when he climbed into his shop window to write on the buff-colored card attached to a store display jacket: “The Rodney Harrington Style.” It was reference to how Rodney Harrington in Peyton Place wore the same model. Now the name is everywhere.
This Monday, Mono Media is releasing a film about John Simons by Jason Jules. Some readers may recognize Jason as the face of Drake’s, but he’s also a vet in the London arts scene, having worked as a club promoter, PR rep, and fashion industry consultant. His film, titled A Modernist, is about a shop he loves, the clothing inside, and the store’s connection to culture. We sat down with Jason to talk about his film, Ivy Style, and other topics.
How did this project start?
I’ve known John’s shop since I was a kid. When it comes to Ivy Style, jazz, and modernism, John was Wikipedia before Wikipedia. Discovering his shop was a real eye opener for me. I was already into beat poetry and jazz at the time, but his shop pulled everything together. It has authenticity; it’s a place I can trust. I know if I go there with my eyes closed, pick up something from a rail in my size, it’ll always be the right thing. There’s not a single questionable item in the store.
Later, when I started making short films, it occurred to me that I should do something on John Simons. I put it off for a while, and then I heard a rumor John passed away. Thankfully, that turned out to be untrue, but the rumor kicked me into gear. What was originally supposed to be a five-minute nod to important influences in my life eventually grew into this hour-long feature on the shop and its clothes, as well the cultural attendants that came with them.
You mentioned trust. When I was a kid, I remember certain stores having an incredible amount of influence. If something was carried there, it was considered good. Do you think that’s still possible with the internet? Stores are so untethered by geography nowadays, people are constantly comparison shopping online. Loyalty seems like it’s at an all-time low.
I do, partly because I think certain stores offer a curational experience. I can walk past an art gallery, for example, and look at the work through the window. But that’s not the same as going inside and walking through the gallery, talking with the curator, and learning more about the pieces. Stores that give you a similar experience are the ones that will flourish. Think of shops such as Supreme or John Simons. Even if you go in there and get nothing but a conversation, you’ll walk out with something. You’re being exposed to a set of inherent values and taste markers that are almost too nuanced to grasp if you purely shop online.
John Simons has also historically sat in the middle of some important cultural movements — his influence on mods, skinheads, suedeheads, etc.
John has a deep understanding of clothing, and he loves sharing it with people, regardless of their background. That’s one reason why there was, and still is, such diversity among his customers. He sold to kids who were into reggae and ska, just as he sold to advertising executives. He treated everyone equally.
That wasn’t always true elsewhere. There were some stores in Mayfair or tailors on Savile Row where, if you didn’t fit a certain archetype, you may have been met with a level of resistance or snobbery. John never did that; he welcomed everyone. He was never a mod or skinhead himself, but his clothes appealed to all those people. And he had a knack for putting his store in forward facing areas. At one point, he had a shop in the Soho area of London, just as the place was becoming an advertising hub. There were film companies and advertising agencies up one way, then music venues down the other. Right in the middle was John Simons’ Squire shop, so you got business people and music fans coming into the same store, buying the same clothes.
What do you think drew mods and skinheads to these clothes?
I think the clothes meant different things to different people. I imagine skinheads and suedeheads were reacting against the hippie movement at the time. There was a sort of neatness about the look that appealed to their working class roots, but the clothes also embodied a certain aspirational element. It was looking a bit more accomplished than what your wage packet might suggest. The early mods, on the other hand, often had good jobs and they liked dressing a certain way. But the appeal was still essentially aspirational – looking a bit outward at the time, as opposed to the more insular mindset of the previous generation of kids just coming out of the war.
That kind of sounds like the story of the ‘Lo Heads.
There are some parallels. I think the thing that makes it different is that John’s shop somewhat tempered what people wore. For example, as a kid, if I went into Ralph Lauren or Harrod’s, I knew I would be followed. It was a given, regardless of what I wore. Whereas if I went to John’s shop, I knew I would be welcomed. So for me, and I’m sure a lot of people, going to alternative sources to buy something wasn’t an attractive option. John shop was always the primary source in that way. That meant you interacted with the shop as more than just a retail outlet.
I remember in the ‘80s, I went into John’s shop to buy two Baracuta jackets. I wanted them a size too big, because that was my “look” then, and John told me the fit wasn’t right. I didn’t listen to him at the time because I was young and still finding my way with clothes, but his advice still stuck with me. The service made for a different kind of experience.
Many luxury companies back then worried about working-class people — often ethnic minorities – wearing their clothes because they feared the association devalued their name. What made John different?
It was just the kind of people who worked in the shop. It was always about the clothes and culture. If someone showed an interest in the clothes and culture, they were eager to share their knowledge. And in many ways, they were also “outsiders.” John is a working class Jewish kid from East London. He has an outsider perspective. Some brands are protectionist, but John is an ambassador. Burberry used to vilify people who wore their check head-to-toe, but now they style their clothes the same way on the runway.
Or look at what’s happened with Dapper Dan!
Dapper Dan was public enemy number one for Gucci at one point, and now he’s hailed as the patron saint. There’s a new generation of marketing people, creative directors, and designers inside brands such as Ralph Lauren, Burberry, and Gucci that recognize the value of those outsider perspectives. John, on the other hand, has always been aware of this, so his door was always open to everyone.
In his book Ametora, David Marx wrote about how Ivy Style became its own thing in Japan. People wore things because their cultural heroes in Japan were wearing them, not because they were trying to imitate students at Harvard or Yale. Do you feel that happened with Ivy Style in the UK?
I think that a lot of people were into it in a purely contextual and insular way. After the first wave of modernists, the style was increasingly adopted by kids who wanted to emulate a mod look, and not because they were trying to be Italians. They wore those clothes because their mates were doing it. It becomes very peer-centric, very self-referencing in that way.
For example, I was asked a few years ago how long I’ve been into Ivy. I hadn’t even realized I was into Ivy! I was into button-down shirts and loafers and flat-front trousers. I was into patch pockets and cord jackets. I was into The Graduate and Steve McQueen. I was into Blue Note Records and modern jazz. I liked a certain look that could be defined as Ivy, but for me, it had a different meaning as a kid growing up in London.
Is there still that connection between clothing and culture? The Guardian had an article about how, fifty years ago, you could tell if someone was a mod, punk, hippie, goth, or soulboy from the way they dressed, but that’s harder now since so many people follow the same trends. Are there still youth subcultures that can be identified by the way they dress?
I think there are, but things move so quickly now, it’s hard to recognize something as peripheral. Like, Palace Skateboards used to be super niche five or six years ago. It was just a group of kids making t-shirts and crazy skateboard videos. Now they’re all over the place, and it’s easy to forget they came out of an incredibly small subculture.
Or look at Tyler the Creator and his line, Golf Wang. That originally came out of a subculture and the mainstream didn’t mess with it because they considered the line too obscure, too wild, too odd. Now they’re embraced like latter-day rockstars. It’s just that this transition happens so quickly now, it feels like things can become mainstream almost overnight. But the people behind these things were part of a subculture at one point.
Another brand like this is Trapstar. They started as kids who liked A Bathing Ape, but wanted something more local. They were West London kids who threw parties in other people’s shops and made incredibly high-spec’d t-shirts. They’re very authentic to London streetwear culture, but now their product is being sold internationally and sported by mainstream stars such as Rihanna.
Do you think the internet has homogenized or diversified culture?
I think it’s done both. It’s allowed people to find their own voice and realize there’s a community somewhere that will respond to them without any filter. But there’s also a lot of people who want to be part of a homogenous, mainstream culture. The internet allows for both of those things. I also think we all have both these elements in us. I like pop music, but also weird jazz. I watch Netflix, but also obscure films. The internet allows us to explore both these sides of ourselves, so they can happily co-exist.
Heritage clothing was really big five or six years ago, and now it feels like things have moved on. Is it harder to market this type of film now?
There was a point in the heritage movement where people thought there was a genuine shift in consciousness, that people would always buy less, buy better. Heritage turned out to be a trend, but it was an important trend. I’m not sure what happened, but like you say there was a palpable move away from what was essentially a style of clothing built around nostalgia. What remains of the trend, however, is a heightened appreciation of quality and craft, as well as a new kind of language, which we can apply to everything.
If you look at people who are into sportswear right now, they still talk about how things are made – the weight of the fabric on a t-shirt, how the print is applied. It’s no longer weird to talk about how denim was woven. Even sales assistants in high-street stores want to tell you how a pair of jeans was made.
So, in some ways, it’s become easier to talk about a clothing style that’s been around for more than fifty years. Mainstream journalists don’t look at you funny anymore if you describe your clothes as “Ivy.” At the same time, the social network for this stuff is a little more diffuse, but the people who really appreciate classic clothing will always appreciate it.
Do you think Ivy is ever going to come back in the way it did ten years ago?
I don’t know, but it’s like when the heritage thing was in full swing. Someone asked if I was pissed because all these people were dressing like me. “You’re looking like a trendy!,” they said. I said it’s fine because their interest in Ivy and Americana is a passing thing, for the majority of them, while I’m stuck in this. There will always be enough of us to have a community. This film isn’t for everyone, just as John’s shop isn’t. They’re for people who get it. For me, Ivy never went.
When I look at John Simons’ shop, it strikes me how the same clothes can look different in the UK than they do in the US. You mentioned the diversity among John’s customers, his acceptance and even embracement of others. At the same time, here in the US, Ivy style has lost some of its charm.
Part of that is because some members of the alt-right have picked up Ivy. The other part is how it’s become harder to ignore the uglier associations with the style. My co-writer Pete put it well a few years ago when he said “prep implies privilege and inherited money; some of prep’s charm comes from the unquestioning self confidence bestowed only by independent wealth.” The 1950s boarding schools and universities that originally made Ivy appealing are also the same places that discriminated against minorities around the same period.
Yet, in the UK, these clothes don’t feel like they have that baggage — at least in the way they’re presented at John Simons. They have a different feel, much more modern and even democratic.
I know what you mean. For me, wearing these clothes, I always felt like I was in the process of subverting something. Even if it was just what it means to be a black kid growing up in London, being the only kid in the classroom wearing a button-down shirt. It was about subverting something that’s not supposed to be for you. But in some places, the look has been recast as the uniform of a social and economic elite. It’s harder to ignore how some people are not just taking advantage of their privilege, but even flaunting it.
Sometimes I think the heritage movement is partly connected to where we are now. I remember looking at a really important blog during that period, and they had a list of American-made products, authentic American brands. There were fifty to a hundred brands on that list, everyone from Pendleton to Woolrich, but none of them were Native American. I remember thinking it was so strange. We’re buying into something inclusive and liberating, but there’s also something nebulous around the edges. When Trump won, my girlfriend said, “you know Jason, part of what you’re into is responsible for this.”
[Laughing] A reader once emailed me saying that! He said my writing on clothing was partly responsible for the rise of the alt-right.
I think in recent years, I’ve become more aware of how my interest in Ivy differs from others. I’m purely into a look, whereas some people are into what a look symbolizes — a sort of sanitized version of 1950s America. When I connect the clothes to culture, I connect them to personal heroes, who were often jazz musicians. Or things happening today, so it’s very contemporary for me. I don’t use these clothes to be wistful about the past.
One of the things that appealed to me is how people such as Muhammad Ali, Sidney Poitier, and Miles Davis wore the style. They looked great in Ivy. Fundamentally the style has always had a racial and socio-economic element, but today — just as how Ali, Poitier, and Davis wore it — what’s most important is how you interpret the clothes and how you wear them.
Thanks for your time, Jason!
Readers can purchase DVD copies of A Modernist through Mono Media (the film’s official release is Monday, April 23rd, but pre-orders are available now). Jason is also working on a new book about sneakers, which is slated for release sometime next year. He tells us it’s about where sneaker culture is going, as well as how it impacts the rest of culture — social media, identity, luxury, consumerism, etc. You can keep up with John Simons and Jason Jules through Instagram.