John Simons is described as “British Menswear’s unsung hero, a man who brought the classic Ivy League look from America to these shores he has been at the very forefront of British Menswear since the 1950s.
An Eastender, John has been operating in London all his life, and currently is based on Chiltern Street in W1. His shops have always been a treasure trove of styles and products that have attracted Mods, Suedeheads, Skinheads and just simply those who like the feel of a nice shirt, well cut trousers and a decent pair of shoes.
The film about John and his role in fashion, styling and Modernism, simply entitled “A Modernist” is a 55 minute documentary made by Mono Media Films that lovingly tells the tale of the rise from selling clothes in the street to building an empire based on his reputation for quality, style and attention to detail.
With appearances from a list of highly regarded style icons such as Paul Weller, Suggs, Robert Elms, Kevin Rowland and designer Paul Smith, this is a highly recommended journey into one mans love of clothing and style that has helped shape the looks of generations past and present.
Merc was delighted to catch up with the films producer Mark Baxter to find a little bit more about the man behind the Modernist, and a man those in the know owe a great deal of gratitude, Mr John Simons.
John Simons and Mark Baxter, Modernists!
The name John Simons will always be linked with the Modernist and Ivy League fashion style, could you explain to a new comer to the scene exactly what you view as his impact on British Style and Culture?
In a word immense. He picked up very early on the Modernist way of life post Second World War and that incorporated music, art and architecture. John, a kid from the East End that just 'got it' from the mid 50s and has lived in that way of life ever since. What John does isn't Mod, it is Modernist. He selected, curated even, the best of American clothing and brought it back to the UK and we are still wearing it today - loafers, Harringtons, button down shirts etc...Without John, I don't think it would happened the way it has.
John Simons’ has been Trading in London since the summer of 1964, (currently on Chiltern Street W1) what in your opinion is the reason for his longevity when businesses are struggling, especially in the West End?
John is a retailer, and he has to sell to survive of course, but what he sells really is a lifestyle. Once you have discovered John, you keep going back and that is why he survives and indeed thrives. His customers are in for the duration.
How did the idea for the film The Modernist (Mono Media Films) which you produced first come to light?
The original idea to make the film was down to Jason Jules, who is a well known writer and stylist. Jason started the film a few years back. I was interviewed for the original film by Jason and was a little gutted I wasn't involved with it more. I thought it was a great idea. Then the film stopped due a couple of things mainly money I believe. I had myself interviewed John for our film on Tubby Hayes and then delivered a copy of that to him. He loved it and then said to why don't I finish the film on him? So I met Jason and we looked at the previous footage and there was some problems with that and some of the original interviews were missing for some reason? Anyway, my partner in Mono Media Films Lee Cogswell said he was up for doing it but wanted all the interviews done again. So we called Suggs, Kevin Rowland, Paul Weller etc and asked them to go again. And bless them they did. The only one we couldn't pin down was Sir Paul Smith, so we used some of the original footage on that. So then it was job of finding the money to finish, edit and get the archive in . It is a tough game making independent docs. Jason wrote the treatment and did a great job. Lee our director is a very very talented young man and pulled it all together marvellously. He will go from strength to strength, no stopping him, believe me. My role was logistics really. Finance, locations, getting the interviewees in and comfortable and generally pushing everyone to finish it!
Paul Weller with his copy!
How well did you know John Before making the film and what did he mean to you personally?
In 1984 I was working in Fleet Street and I saw a fella in the street one day, in a Prince of Wales double breasted suit wearing the most amazing shoes. So I asked him where he got them. He said they were Bass Weejuns and he got them in John Simons in Covent Garden. So off I went and walked into the shop. I was instantly in heaven. Such great clobber. I was then in and out of there for all the years they traded up until the lease run out in 2009 I think. I got to know Kenny and Geoff who worked with John then very well. Lovely guys. Then when they reopened in Chiltern Street, I got a call from John's son Paul asking me to do some PR for them and I've been doing that for a couple of years now. It was nice to hook up with them again. John to me is a teacher. He subtly educates me on art, pottery, from the the cut of a jacket to who is on sax on that record. You can't help but learn from this man. I've learnt to shut up talking and just listen to him and I have picked up so much quality info.
What was his reaction when you first mentioned the idea of the film to him?
Well, he knew of the first attempt to make the film and then when that didn't happen, he wasn't sure that it was possible to do it, but I promised him I'd finish it and I rarely say something and don't see it through. Not in my nature.
There are a host of guest appearances from the likes of Paul Weller, Robert Elms, Suggs and Kevin Rowland, what are your favourite stories or memories that were brought to light during the making of the film?
The one thing to say on those names is that they all immediately agreed to do the interviews, no hesitation. They know John is the real deal and they have all learnt so much from him, that I guess they all see it as given something of that knowledge back. For me my favourite interview was with Sir John Hegarty. He is an advertising guru and came up with that Levis advert all those years ago, with the guy taking them off in the launderette. Listening to Sir John talk at our filming of him, was like being in a lecture on clothes. I found it absolutely riveting
Is it true that John is responsible for naming the subculture staple “Harrington Jacket”?
Yes that is the case. He was stocking the G9 model from Baracuta in his 'Ivy' shop in Richmond in the mid 60s. The jacket was then being worn by actor Ryan O'Neal in the TV show 'Peyton Place.' O'Neal played the character Rodney Harrington. John put the jacket in the window and described it as the Rodney Harrington Jacket and over time that was shortened to just the Harrington jacket
How long did the film take to get made from initial inception to the final cut?
Something like four years and that was filming on and off, getting a few quid and then getting a bit more and so a slow process. A real labour of love.
How has the film been received?
It has been very well received. We have sold plenty of DVDs and had some great screenings and some very favourable press. It has only been out a month, so still early days, but no complaints so far. We have sold all over the globe. USA, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Korea, all of Europe, especially in Germany and big support for it in the UK. Our two London screenings both sold out.
How would you describe the importance of John Simons to someone with a taste for style and fashion who may not be aware of him?
I would say this man is the source for a lot of what you are wearing. He imported a lot of it to the UK first and has then continued to sell it. I think the best way to show how important he is is to say Sir Paul Smith has bought a load of clothes in his shop, and I doubt he does that many places elsewhere. I doubt he is short of much in his wardrobe.
John Simons, British menswear’s “best kept secret”!
Clothing initially sold by the likes of John Simons was initially worn as a means of breaking the drab fashion worn in the late 1950s and 60s, what is your personal take on the Style of the present day and who do you think is getting it right?
I have to say for me, the youngsters have lost the way a bit. It is far too casual in general with the tracksuit and trainer look. Not a lot of effort going into it for me. Of course there are few young 'modernists' out there and I see some encouraging signs, but I have to say when I was 18/20, clothes were SO important, they were vital to your every day life. Now it is seems all functional and the same really. Slack is the word I'd use for the majority. Come on you lot, liven it up!
You're a man always out and about, normally in Soho or down at Millwall, what’s next for Mark Baxter?
Yes, I'm not really a 'stay at home' type of guy, though that is slowly changing as I get older. Soho is still a big draw for me, you do meet some 'interesting' characters there and I still love my football and have had a season ticket for The Den for over 20 years or so now, so I commit to the club each season. Good therapy that is. Work wise I am helping Paul 'Smiler' Anderson with his skinhead/suedehead book which will look at the years 1967 - 1973 and that will be out in Spring/Summer 2019. I also have a jazz book or two on the boil also for next year and myself and the very talented Lee Cogswell, have a few ideas on future films currently doing the rounds, so yeah, hectic at the minute. It is the only way.
Words by Richie Kyle