LONDON, United Kingdom — A Levi’s advertisement in 1985 showed a buff, young model washing his jeans at the laundromat, wearing nothing but a pair of crisp, white boxer shorts. He was wearing little-known British label Sunspel and the popular image brought the brand into the zeitgeist.
Having started out in 1860s supplying underwear to the British Empire, Sunspel designed the first pair of boxer shorts in 1947 and built up a business selling Sea Island cotton t-shirts and underwear. But the 1980s revival boosted by the Levi’s advertisement wasn’t to last. A lack of investment in new products, a shift in consumer preferences to different styles and brands and a reliance on making private-label underwear for other labels, left the Long Eaton, Derbyshire-based business in distress. The owner was Peter Hill, the 81-year-old great grandson of the founder Thomas Hill and a chance encounter with ex-barrister turned brand manager Nicholas Brooke in 2005 was the start of Sunspel’s second revival.
“I went and saw him, saw this incredible history, he explained the fabrics and the expertise of the people making everything. I fell in love with it straight away, the amazing story that simply wasn’t being told and the way it was presented wasn’t giving it it’s due,” said chief executive Nick Brooke in the brand’s Chiltern Street store in London’s fashionable Marylebone.
With business partner Dominic Hazlehurst, Brooke took over the business with a “small loan” and some borrowings against the existing factory. 12 years later it is an £11.5 million ($15.2 million) business, with 20 percent year-on-year growth for the last three years.
Brooke’s first step was modernising the brand from an old-fashioned one to a heritage label with a contemporary spin for a younger customer. The target audience went from a 60-plus male buying merino wool long johns and cotton boxer shorts to a 30-year old creative who liked design, simplicity and quality. The prices also jumped about 20 percent. The first collection was a set of t-shirts, polo shirts whom they sold to via fashion-forward independents like Oi Polloi in Manchester.
He significantly cut back on wholesale, as well as the white label underwear it made for brands like Paul Smith and Richard James, the Savile Row tailor. We realised the product was so good “it should be being done for the brand” and not for other labels, Brooke said. Today, white label is about 1 percent of the business, from 15 percent. They still supply Harrods and Margaret Howell.
He also cut their reliance on Japanese buyers like United Arrows, Beams and Ships, from 40 percent of the business to about 10 percent today. The feeling was “it must not be reliant on Japan, it must be a British brand for a British customer,” said Nick. “Too many brands rely on Britishness to sell overseas but they aren’t relevant to a British customer. If part of your brand DNA is actually British then you have to be relevant to people in this country and young people, otherwise your not going to grow.”
That is one core reason behind the brand’s success in a crowded $28.5 billion designer menswear market, according to Brian Trunzo, senior menswear editor at WGSN the fashion forecaster in New York. “You can’t invent that kind of heritage, having 150 years of business to your name,” he said. “At the point of sale, for that wealthy, considered luxury customer, obviously there are a lot of high-quality products but if you given him a story as well, a story that’s authentic, that gets picked up immediately and they become a loyal customer. It’s about storytelling.”
It wasn’t an overnight success. The first year in 2005 revenues reached just £1.6 million. The brand needed to reinvest in the factory, add designers, new products and marketing.
A key turning point for the brand was the arrival of Jonathan Anderson as creative director in 2009.
A key turning point for the brand was the arrival of Jonathan Anderson as creative director in 2009. The then-relatively unknown designer — who now heads design at his namesake J.W. Anderson label and at Loewe — contacted Sunspel about designing for them because of his obsession with British manufacturing, said Brooke. He was made creative director a year later and set about updating the fit of the products, the packaging and the branding — that all hadn’t been changed since the 1970s. He was a “catalyst for change,” by adding new products with a modern design while retaining elements from Sunspel’s archive and the expertise of their English factory in Long Eaton, where they develop new fabrics and still make about one-fifth of all their products. He left in 2013 when LVMH bought a stake in his own label and he was appointed creative director of Loewe.
One popular design from Anderson is the £145 ($190) grey melange hoodie that uses an old loopback cotton fabric they updated. Today the design team is lead by Pascale Pinxt who has adding womenswear, women’s underwear and collaborations like the Ian Fleming Foundation collection of woven cotton shirts and knits using Sea Island cotton from Jamaica, where the author wrote Goldeneye.
“We limited what we tried to present. The great t-shirt in core colours and a seasonal palette, our polo t-shirt and underwear,” said Brooke of his first collection. The type of product Sunspel offers, like a $100 white cotton t-shirt, might historically be supplied by catwalk designers in their pre-collections, but as brands like Givenchy and Gucci inject more trend-led design and brand DNA into these this has changed, said Damien Paul, head of menswear at Matchesfashion.com. “This left a gap for items such as the perfect crew neck sweater, t-shirt and so on, and I feel this created an opportunity for other brands to fill in the gaps in men’s wardrobes. Sunspel as a fine jersey specialist is one label that I feel benefitted from this. Their heritage is in underwear but they have brilliantly developed their fine jersey offer and hit the sweet spot mixing classic design with attention to detail in fabrication and cut.”
It has started to translate across the globe too. In the US, Barneys New York, Saks Fifth Avenue and Ron Herman stock Sunspel’s t-shirts, as well as influencing stockists like Mr Porter, Le Bon Marché, Selfridges and Harrods.
But Sunspel really gained sales momentum once it launched its own retail stores. The first was a small corner space in Redchurch street in Shoreditch in 2010, when the area was still considered part of the London’s edgier East End and the only other retailers in the area were French brand APC and Aesop. “It was a statement. We were setting up the positioning of the brand as contemporary,” said Brooke. The stores have modular adjustable clothes rails, light wood flooring and spacious, clean lines that reflect the brand’s pared-back aesthetic and allowed Sunspel to better control the customer-brand experience. With low rents, the brand broke even in its first year. Today the store has tripled in size, and J Crew and Versace’s Versus label are neighbours.
“It created a repeat customer and a loyal customer who is an advocate of the brand and that’s incredibly important,” Brooke said. In fact, the CEO said he never opens with an immediate expectation of growth, rather the stores become more successful as loyalty increases. The success of Shoreditch prompted another five stores in London in five years, another in the Mitte area in Berlin and this year they opened three in Japan with a partner.
Brooke said they are looking to open in New York and a pop-up in Paris. That’s supported by an online site that accounts for 30 to 40 percent of sales, driven in part by repeat buyers stocking up on favourite items like polo shirts.
“My long-term ambition is for Sunspel to have a global footprint of stores in strategic cities. I don’t have a picture of large amount of stores. I don’t think that’s the future. A smaller number of very beautiful stores supported by online — that tells the story.”
With a repeat customer interested in their core product offer, retail industry veteran and consultant Richard Hyman said the British brand looks set for further growth.
“Sunspel have got something, I think. It is extremely challenging out there, the customer has more choice than ever before and you have to be extraordinarily good and differentiated to really stand out and the interesting thing about Sunspel is the way in which it stands out, its a relatively subtle nuanced brand,” Hyman said. “Longevity is about getting those customers to experience what you offer and want to come back for more, that is the key in my view, and I have to say, Sunspel have caught my eye, I think they look quite interesting commercially.”
Editor's Note: This article was revised on November 14, 2017. A previous version of this article misstated that following a Levi’s ad in 1985, Sunspel went from making up 1 percent to 20 percent of the UK underwear market over the next five years. This is incorrect.