John Simons has never been a major retailer, only ever running one small London shop after another but his influence is immeasurable. Mods, skinheads, suedeheads and gentlemen of a discerning nature with an appreciation of American Ivy League and European styles have made the pilgrimages to his shops in search of corduroy coats, soft shoulder seersucker jackets, madras shirts, loafers and wing-tipped brogues. If you wonder how much sway a single outlet could have made then one only has to mention the word Harrington. Universally understood, it was John Simons who nicknamed the Baracuta G9 sports jacket after the character Rodney Harrington, who wore one in the 60s soap opera Peyton Place. The rest, as they say… But mass market acceptance has never been Simons’ goal, it’s been about doing the little things well.
Now subject of a new hour-long documentary, John Simons: A Modernist, it’s only right a man whose life is driven by the inexorably linked holy trinity of music, art and clothes is celebrated by filmmakers Lee Cogswell and Mark Baxter, following their similar projects about Tubby Hayes and Sir Peter Blake, and written by Jason Jules after the relief on finding John Simons hadn’t, as per rumour, died.
The film is tightly edited with, as clichéd as it sounds, a modernist eye for detail: all contributors add something to the overall effect, nothing is wasted and everything is in its place like a well ordered sock drawer. Whether famous names such as Paul Weller, Kevin Rowland, Suggs, Paul Smith, the ever-effusive Robert Elms or regular customers from Simons’ shops, they all compliment the look, although none are captioned as coolly as the mysterious David Rosen, “Space Agent”.
They, and John Simons himself, give a fascinating account of humble beginnings under the Hackney Empire and on Walthamstow Market; to the move to the suburban blues delta of Richmond in ’64; then the Squire Shop in Soho in ’67; Covent Garden in ’82 and on to it’s current location in Marylebone.
As noted by Robert Elms, Simons was taking stock originally made for American advertising agents but once adopted on the street here they didn’t look like American advertising agents but “well dressed English street urchins.” A point underscored by Simons, “They were Jack The Lads, no way were they Harvard graduates, let me tell you that”.
You may never have shopped in a Simons shop, you may find the look overly conservative - I used to pop into the J. Simons shop when it was in Covent Garden but at a time I wanted to look like The Stones in Green Park or The Smoke on Beat Club so I found everything too ‘old man’, a position, for some reason, I’ve reconsidered in recent years… - but that’s not central to appreciating this inspiring film.
John Simons: A Modernist is about an unswerving passion and an unshakable belief. The clothes Simons has sold for over half a century have remained true to his devotion to Ivy League style, modern jazz and the beat generation. A place where clothes, music and the arts converge in harmony outside the vagaries of passing trends. It’s a philosophy best described by Paul Weller, who with customary bluntness says, “He’s never diverted from what his passion is, this is what he loves and what he’s into. If you don’t like it, don’t fucking come”. From the mouth of one modernist to another.
John Simons: A Modernist, a Mono Media Films/Garmsville production, is out now and available from John Simons online.