In Conversation with Ian Maclean, Managing Director of John Smedley
Luxury knitwear brand John Smedley has long been a favourite of Ape to Gentleman- famed for its fine cotton and merino wool staples from polo shirts to sweaters. The Derbyshire factory where all John Smedley wear is manufactured is just five minutes from Ape’s HQ, so the brand has an extra special place in our hearts.
Earlier this month we were invited to take a factory tour hosted by Ian Maclean, Managing Director of John Smedley. Not only was it a great opportunity to see the AW17 collection, which you can find below, but an education into the levels of detail that John Smedley go to produce only the finest quality of finished product. We also had sometime to sit down with Ian in his office to ask some questions (see below) about the brand. We learned not only does Ian have a personal affection and commitment to the brand but so does everyone who works there- they are proud of John Smedley, and so they should be. For any of you who are not familiar with the brand, you need to take a closer look, and if you are familiar, then you know what I’m talking about.
CC: What makes John Smedley so good?
IM: Around the factory you see the attention to detail that people put on making the garments. That’s a cultural thing, my colleagues who work on the garments, everything from spinning to knitting to dyeing, they’re all very concerned with quality. The quality of the garment overrides many other decisions. Of course, that means it’s costly. People don’t just let stuff through if they don’t feel it’s the right quality, and all of that adds cost. But ultimately it’s one of the very core issues which differentiates John Smedley from everybody else, and I think you can only appreciate that when years later a satisfied customer returns a garment that they’ve had for maybe twenty years, and they’d love it if you’d repair it, and there’s no expectation that you can, because we don’t advertise any kind of repair process, but of course we can. You’ve seen the invisible mending going on, the most skilled hand process we have is to mend things, and so we can do that to the garment and send that to the customer, and they are overwhelmingly appreciative of that, and when we can see a garment that’s been so well cared for over so many years really brings home to you what we’re doing at the front end of the process to create that result, so I think that’s a really important aspect of the business that’s taken me a long time to learn. We have people who’ve worked here for a long time and generations of them working here, that culturally really feel the quality is the number one issue for them. If you go back slightly before that, it doesn’t matter what you do in the factory with the materials once you’ve got them, but a key element of quality is what is the quality of the raw material that you’re buying to create the garment. And again we go to extraordinary lengths to acquire the best quality raw materials, and historically they’ve been two types: fine Merino wool, and very fine Sea Island cotton. Are you aware of what Sea Island cotton is?
CC: A little bit, I think John mentioned three different types, it would be good to know more about these and what places you source it from.
IM: When you say Sea Island cotton, people often think of a sunny island with a palm tree in the Caribbean, but that’s not what Sea Island cotton is. Technically Sea Island cotton is what they call a market grade of cotton. So you know there’s a global marketplace for cotton, cotton is grown in lots of different places in vast quantities, and as it comes off the farms and into the marketplace its graded like anything else. You have rubbish cotton at the bottom, a vast amount of cotton in the mid market and some cotton gets to the top, and its measured by the length of the fibre, the thinness of it, the strength of it, the whiteness of it, and it appears right at the very very top, and historically in this market based process where people go in and bid for the cotton that they want for the thing that they want to make, whether its a woven shirt, a pair of jeans, or whatever it might be, you go in and buy the cotton that you need for your garment.
The very very top cotton was known as Sea Island cotton. That’s the name it was given. It was like calling a vacuum cleaner a Hoover, it became a generic term, and it comes from, originally, two hundred years ago, growing this cotton seed in a place called the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia in the USA. That’s where it was born, but it very quickly migrated to other places around the world, so you kind of lose the origin of it, that’s irrelevant now, but what’s relevant is that its the best cotton you can buy, and thats what John Smedley has bought since before records began, John Smedley just goes straight to the top.
Of course the volume of it, where it’s grown and who it’s grown by shrinks and evolves and mutates over time, and today our source is in America, so there are very specific farmers in the US growing very specific cotton for us, and we buy, if not their whole capacity, then quite a big part of their capacity. You have to have a direct relationship with them because they have to plan ahead, or they’ll grow something else, like tobacco or something. On the Merino side it’s a bit different. The fine Merino growing is actually quite a lot bigger as an industry. It’s located in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa predominantly. It just so happens that we’ve built a relationship over I’d say, 25 years, with New Zealand farmers, and again, specific farmers, we’re not talking just going in the market to buy some Merino, we buy it from specific farms in New Zealand, and again it’s all about those farmers having a choice each year to either grow deer or grow beef or grow Marino sheep, and like any commodity the prices can go up and down, so we try to give them some stability of price to be able to invest, to grow, again to the staple length, the crimp, the micron, and the whiteness that we need for our very fine garments. So that’s a lot of story right there, but if you don’t start there, then everything else doesn’t come out at the end.
CC: John mentioned that it gets treated in Italy, is that right?
IM: That’s right yeah, so we’ve always had the capacity to dye cotton here, but dyeing wool is a different process, it’s a lot messier and uses a lot more complex chemical processes, and we’ve never had the ability to do that here, so it’s always been done somewhere else, and it just happens that in the last 15 to 20 years it’s been done in Italy, because the Italians retain some of these key skills that you don’t find anywhere else. Like cotton spinning, like dyeing, like making buttons, we don’t do that anymore.
So you’ve got the beginning part of the process, the raw materials, that’s very important, you’ve got what happens in the factory, that’s also very important, and I think you’ve got other peripherals like the issue of colour, so what distinguishes John Smedley is, we don’t just produce 6 colours in a season, like the three core colours and a couple of fashion colours, we walk an individual path and choose our own pretty colours that we like, some of which relate to what’s going on in the season and others which we feel strongly about just in their own right.
CC: So you don’t follow recommendations?
IM: We do a bit, but when you do that kind of research, and I’ve been involved in that for quite a long time, you find that actually, even though you get some guidance, the potential spectrum is still very very wide. For any season, it’s possibly almost complete luck whether you pitch up on the exact colour of the season, but it just allows us to create our own. In fact, I’ve found over the years that a number of other businesses particularly Italian businesses, follow us. We’re quite a leader in that regard. Other businesses look to our colours to get their own. Because of the way we manufacture, the process is very long, so we choose our colours for a season, sometimes before other brands do, brands that can react in the market quicker than us can sometimes see our colour choices and then implement them in their own garments, so in a sense we are a colour leader. Then I suppose the only final thing is how do you take care of your customers once you’ve got the product close to where they are, and broadly speaking you’ve got the three main channels, you’ve got the traditional wholesale channels, so I put my garments into Harvey Nichols or Selfridges, or an independent retailer. I have my web business, which is a big business today for us, and I’ve got a couple of my own retail stores in London, and through our long term relationship with a Japanese distributor, they have five John Smedley retail stores in Japan, so really I’m looking at a portfolio of seven retail stores where I can influence much more directly the relationship between the store staff and the consumer.
I think one of the things we benefit from is being long term, being consistent in the marketplace, having the high quality, and the consistency of product. You start to win fans in the supply chain, so department store buyers or retail buyers may move around jobs to different places, but they’ll buy John Smedley wherever they go, retail store staff move around fairly consistently, but again, once you’ve got them as fans they become your advocates in the marketplace so we put quite a lot of effort into training them both store and we invite retailers to come here, into this very room, and talk with Jessica and others about the quality, do a factory tour, and all that kind of stuff. So again, if you can build all of that up, you put across a lot of confidence to the consumer, because if the guy or the girl on the floor loves the product, loves the quality, maybe has even been to the factory, they’re your strongest advocate really, and that all helps.
CC: Would you say then, since you touched upon it a few seconds ago, is Japan your biggest market?
It’s the biggest export market, we know from our archive work, I don’t know if anybody’s talked to you about the archive?
CC: Yes, we went and had a look.
IM: Oh great, of course John’s one of the key volunteers there, so that project is seven years now that we’ve been working on the archive, and it’s very well organised today. At the start we didn’t know what we had, but today we do. And of course what they’re doing now is they’re following stories or bringing stories out of the history of the company, and one of the things we specifically looked at was Japan, how long we’ve been doing business in Japan, and I didn’t know this, but apparently a good source of historical information is shipping records. So shipping records of who was on what ship going where, stored somewhere, I can’t remember exactly where, go back to the year dot.
So we discovered that Mr Smedley went on a ship to Japan in 1913, over a hundred years ago. And from that you start to get orders from Japan for garments, and in the archive they have several garments which are specific to the Japanese market dating back to I think 1914-1916. So we know we’ve been doing business in Japan for a hundred years, and with our current distributor, 40 years, well, 39 years actually. And they, over 40 years, have evolved their business, not just to be an agent, most of our relationships across different markets are with agents, so the agent goes out to our favourite retailers, collects orders, gives them to us, and we ship it to the retailers. This business has evolved to be an agent, a distributor, and a retailer in its own right. So they are taking orders from customers, but they are also distributing, and they’ve built up this little portfolio of retail stores with the John Smedley name on, so in Ginza, which is probably the number one retail place in Japan, there is a John Smedley shop. it’s not our shop, it’s their shop, but we’ve allowed them to brand it with our name. That’s the second strongest market for us outside of the UK.
CC: I’ve noticed in the past few seasons you’ve done quite a few collaborations with British designers. How do they come about, and do you have any collaborations in the pipeline in the future
IM: Yeah, probably Jessica’s a better one to answer that one for me, but I can tell you the history, the history’s quite interesting. Again, looking through the archive, you can see we’ve collaborated with all kinds of brands and designers from the big classic luxury brands like Hermes and Chanel and Yves Saint-Laurent and all those kinds of people, through Vivienne Westwood, Paul Smith, again British designers. Japanese designers, Junya Watanabe is one of our current collaborators, has been for many years actually. What’s interesting is they sort of come and go, in the past we’ve not been as proactive and gone out to source these ideas, they’ve just sort of happened, they’re useful to us in a couple of ways actually.
One is creatively, for our designers who of course we have in house who work for us all the time to acquire new ideas from inside design sources, so it’s just one of those kind of sources of creativity that designers get. And then the other interesting aspect of collaboration is the technical aspect. So I very clearly remember, although it was quite a long time ago, the Vivienne Westwood collaboration, and what she provided to us was a series of very creatively but roughly drawn sketches. So we have to turn that into garments.
CC: Like a creative interpreter?
IM: That’s right. So there’s partly the creative interpretation but then there’s the technical, how do you literally build this thing that the designer has envisaged, and that provides us with lots of entertainment internally, all the way from design to technical design actually to manufacture. The way we look at it is it kind of keeps us on our toes. Being quite isolated here not even in London, miles from London, you can be a little bit insular. But to bring people from the outside to challenge what you’re doing, bring new ideas show you that the way to make a collar could be slightly different from the way you’ve done it, is really a positive thing to do. Those two aspects, we’ve always benefitted from. In the most recent phase of collaboration, we’ve taken a much more deliberate approach, and said that here we have menswear and womenswear, and those two products evolve in very different ways for the consumer. Menswear, we’ve found, is I’d say, easier to develop, it has been easier to develop it because if you just tweak the size of the collar, that solves a problem to a degree.
With womenswear it’s all about shape and material and it’s much more complex. We had got into a repetitive cycle of producing stripy twin sets. We looked very old, we looked very out of fashion, and we weren’t moving forward, and we weren’t appealing to retail customers and retail buyers. We thought we need to give this a shove or a kick or an impetus to change quite rapidly, and we thought let’s partner with up and coming British designers of womenswear, and let’s bring their ideas and and see how that changes what we do for ourselves. That’s been very invigorating for us and the pitch from us is, when you’re a young up and coming small designer with a small business, it’s very costly to go abroad to get something designed, developed and made. It could potentially be much easier to do it here because you’re up the road, you drive from London or wherever, and we use that pitch, as well as you’re a British designer, let’s try and make it in Britain story, to bring these designers on board, and we found it actually very easy to sell them that idea or those two ideas, and we’ve been doing it for I think two or three seasons now.
CC: Have you seen that influence the direction you’re going, because we’ve seen you go more fashion focused and planning your product categories.
IM: Yes, absolutely. Many of these shapes and styles have come from that work, and they’ve got us into a position of talking to, and into many retailers who have never looked at us before. Well, I’d say they probably looked at us 30 years ago, but then they got bored of us, and now they’re looking at us again because of this kind of work. I think I can see with this project, you can keep renewing it each time, so I think we’re certainly not bored of it yet, and we’ll keep going for a while.
CC: You touched on it briefly, but how does one look after the Smedley’s, like if there’s a nick?
IM: That’s definitely not a question for me, I’d need to get Tim Clarke, my technical manager, to tell you about that, because he’s very good at that.
CC: But is it something someone can just write to you and send there garments, or they can do something at home?
IM: I think we do publish stuff on the web about it, I think there’s a ‘how to care for your garments’ section on the internet, and I’m pretty sure we put it into our wholesale and our training information as well for retail wholesalers to pass on that knowledge to consumers, so it’s available.
CC: Do you want to share a few more things about the factory which could be quite interesting for us?
IM: Yeah, I think knitting is very interesting, because one of the things you should know is that in England, or even in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, we are the only remaining fine gauge knitter left with any volume at all. There’s probably one or two which can produce garments in the hundreds, but in terms of producing 350,000 or 400,000 garments a year, there’s absolutely nobody. Any knitters that you do come across are much heavier gauge knitters working for the fast fashion businesses, like Next, ASOS, and people like that, and they’re doing it on modern machines, probably whole garment machines as well. But in terms of fine knit, whether it’s cotton or Merino, or even Kashmir, there’s nobody. So that’s pretty scary.
CC: So there’s pressure on you?
IM: From many aspects, when there was a big industry, let’s say 30 years ago, there’s a few statistics, because I’m not just involved in John Smedley, I’m involved in the industry more widely through a body called UKFT, or UK Fashion Textiles, which is the trade body, so I’m a director of them, and have been for a couple of years. So that’s been great for me because I’ve been able to see a much wider range of industry and realise what’s there and what isn’t anymore. One of the statistics I recall from a presentation I went to, was in 1982, there were about a million people in Britain working in garment manufacture. That’s shirts, trousers, suits, ties, and knitwear, everything wrapped up in one. One million. Today there’s a hundred thousand. So 90% of it has gone, and as I said, in fine gauge knitwear, all of it’s gone, apart from us. So when you have an industry with a million people in it, you have not just an entity like this, which is making the garments, you have machine manufacturers, you have engineers, you have dyers, you have spinners. This morning, the BBC were up in Manchester at the new cotton spinning mill in Manchester, it was on BBC Breakfast. So there you go, there’s the first spinner to set up in 30 years, so 30 years ago there would have been other cotton spinners in this country, there’s only one now. What you lose when you lose the industry, is you lose an ecosystem, it’s like chopping down a rainforest. You lose everything. So how do we survive that?
Well what it does is it puts the pressure on us to have all of those skills almost internally. So at the back of the factory, I don’t know if John mentioned it, we have a guy who used to work in the knitting machine manufacturing industry in Leicester or Loughborough. When that disappeared he wanted to keep going, but he didn’t have anywhere to go. So we gave him a workshop at the back of our factory, and his job today is not so much making machines, because nobody in Britain makes machines, but because there’s machines out there, he repairs them and replaces the parts, and builds new parts, but because the knitting industry is much migrated from Britain to other countries, he travels a lot. He services machines in Bangladesh, in India, in Eastern Europe, all kinds of other countries. But if he wasn’t here, we probably couldn’t operate as a business. Those old English made machines need a lot of care and attention, it’s like a really old car, you have to tweak them all the time to keep them going. And the onus of doing that is you can’t just call up an engineer from Leicester and bring them over in the day, it literally has to be here. And all of that stuff is the same way, whether it’s training people, in any skill, it’s now done here, and not done in Belper or Leicester, or Nottingham, or anywhere else, you have to just do it here. And all of that has really changed the game, and it puts a lot of pressure on us. So there’s a degree of self reliance.
What you see down here would back in the day have been supported by a wide network of other people, but today it’s self sufficient in many regards, which is quite interesting, there’s not many other industries like that. So that’s one of the key things here as well as the quality and the people, most interestingly. I think one of the questions I get asked quite often is, you know, “Brexit, oh my god, what’s going to happen?” Of course, we don’t know. We have absolutely no idea. I don’t think even the politicians know. The more I talk to the politicians, the more I realise that they don’t know anything. I think that if one of the results of Brexit is trade barriers, I think we can overcome that as a business and as an industry. Lots of different industries will experience the same thing of course. If there are trade barriers between us and Europe, we will overcome them. My guidance there is I can look in our board minutes for our company going back to the 1920s, even before, we were incorporated as a company in 1896, and so then thereafter you have board meetings and minutes of meetings all the way through the Boer war, the transition from Queen Victoria, the First World War, the Second World War, the Great Depression in between. I can see all of what’s going on through those periods, and of course during the world wars, the business transformed itself from a private manufacturer of stuff you see here to making underwear for the troops. And at the end of the war, all of a sudden, you convert back again. And I think, how did my predecessors manage that? I mean I have some challenges, but that’s extraordinary. To survive that, of course many businesses didn’t.
So you look back through history and you think, they’ve survived very different conditions, so if we have to survive a challenge like trade barriers, then we will survive those. I think the much bigger problem will be to do with people, and the movement of people. Here we don’t have Eastern European employees or employees from Europe generally coming to work for us, but I know more broadly in the industry, whether it’s the making of anything, or lots of things made in London, rely heavily on people coming from Europe to work in the UK. And I think that could be a much much bigger problem as a result of Brexit than any trade barriers we might have to deal with. But we’ll just carry on until we know what’s going to happen. There’s not much you can plan for. You can’t plan if you don’t know what’s going to happen, so we’ll carry on as we are, and we hope some sensible decisions will ultimately be taken on our behalf.
CC: I think Smedley’s strong enough, you’ll do well regardless of whatever.
IM: Yeah, I mean people get very sweaty about the issue of barriers between us and Europe going up where there are no trade barriers now, but we say, hang on a minute, we ship stuff to Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, it’s not impossible. DHL, FedEx, UPS, they generally solve these problems, it’s not that difficult. I think there are other factors which will be more problematic, more around people than anything else, I think.
John Smedley AW17 Collection
For AW17 John Smedley release its Classic Collection- those timeless pieces which never go out of style and for this season named, ‘The Icons’. Inspired by John Smedley’s Hollywood-history with previous wearers of the brand including The Beatles, James Bond and a whole host of other creatives.
The Composition of Knit
For the AW17 John Smedley fashion campaign the focus is on raw materials and a purist approach. Merino Wool, Natural Alpaca, Silk, Wild Bouclé and British Black Sheep’s Wool all take centre stage. We see these fabrics merged with knitted abstract patterns, ribbed and chunky textures, and organic shades of ‘Flare Orange’, ‘Lumsdale’ and ‘Kielder Green’ – the latter of which was a favourite colour of ours on the factory tour, which we referred to as ‘that green’.
Hero pieces include Kilbreck and Moss, a new fluid, heavy shape for menswear in Natural Alpaca and Wild Bouclé textures. Finishing the collection is the Black Sheep signature ranged designed to celebrate the raw beauty of the natural black fibre- with shapes designed to costly envelope the wearer- a note to farmer’s garments of old.
For more information and to buy what we believe is the world’s finest knitwear visit johnsmedley.com now.