Sunspel: 150 Years Of British Sportswear Heritage



British heritage brand Sunspel has been producing iconic English clothing for 150 years. Since its inception in 1860, when Thomas Hill founded the firm under his own name to supply the British Empire with high quality underwear, the label has always been an intriguing combination of innovation and tradition. In 2005, the brand was aquired by Nicholas Brooke and Dominic Hazlehurst and together, they’ve been responsible for keeping the brand both relevant and innovative. Drawing on its vast archives and storied past, Sunspel introduced three archival prints for its Spring/Summer 2013 collection. A symbol for things to come, the Airplane graphic was extracted from letterhead used by a Long Eaton travel agent found in the Sunspel archives. The additional two prints are of Bill the Dog, once the mascot at Sunspel, who would trot about the Long Eaton factory in the 1930’s. Here, Mr. Brooke breaks down the influence of Sunspel.

Life+Times: Sunspel has been around for over 150 years. How has the brand changed and evolved, in terms of creative direction, over time?
Nicholas Brooke
: Sunspel’s creative direction (if you can call it that) has moved with the times: in the late 1800s, the focus was on making garments quickly and at costs that were globally competitive. This was the tail end of the industrial revolution and Sunspel was exporting its superior textiles all over the world. Today’s garment industry has many more producers and suppliers than at the time of Sunspel’s founding. Due to that shift in the market, our creative direction is now geared towards producing those superior goods historically associated with Sunspel and maintaining that quality as we update our line’s classic staples. That means always going back and improving things – never being quite satisfied, never being complacent.

L+T: Over time, the brand has certainly evolved. In your role, what do you want to ensure you provide with every garment you create?
: I was a fan of the brand before I owned it– Sunspel has been my go-to for t-shirts, polo shirts and boxer shorts for years, and that’s because Sunspel has always done an excellent job of perfecting the fit and cut of the garments while using superior fabrics. The clothing is made to last and, I believe, improves with age. When I acquired the brand, I worried that it was too old-fashioned and stuck in tradition. Since I’ve owned Sunspel for years, I knew that the product was the stuff people wanted to wear, and I made it my goal to always improve the product being produced. An important consideration for that is making sure that Sunspel is producing contemporary and relevant pieces. These are clothes that are meant to defy trends, and be something that, because of the fabric, the fit, the cut, and the care taken with each item’s construction, that someone can wear forever.

L+T: British heritage seems to be something that is embedded in the DNA of the Sunspel brand. Is this something that is still important to the design process?
: Our heritage is important in that it frames our whole design process, but that doesn’t mean it need to appear in an obvious way on the finished product. Sunspel is British and does have heritage but the last thing we would want to overemphasize are those characteristics, or let them totally influence the final look and feel of our garments. We want people all over the world to be attracted to our clothes because of their fit, cut and styling, and let the quality and heritage of the Sunspel name speak for itself.

L+T: You acquired the brand in 2005. What was the mission behind this? Why was this something you wanted to do?
: After acquiring the company, I had two missions: one being short term and the other long term. The company was on its way to extinction; the factory wasn’t being well kept, and this had an effect on Sunspel’s morale and its output. Now that we’ve reestablished a quality production site, I’ve focused on my long term mission, which was to restore the brand to its original status as one of the best menswear brands in the world. Part of achieving that aim was updating how we connect Sunspel to our customers; we sell our product directly through our e-commerce site and retail locations. I believe that we have reached our short term goal and we are beginning to realize that longer term vision.

L+T: The design philosophy of the brand is characterized by simplicity and comfort. Sunspel pay rigorous attention to detail in design as well as manufacture, which is why their garments are considered classics. What are some items from your collection that you think every man should own? Why?
: The Sunspel white t-shirt is superb, you will find no better t-shirt anywhere else. It just feels fantastic, and it fits so well you don’t feel like you are wearing it. Even if you only have one, it will be your favorite shirt in your closet. It can be your only shirt, if you want: the fit will continue to improve the more that you wear it. Our Riviera Polo is distinctive too, it is made from a special fabric that is lighter weight and more comfortable than Pique. This is the polo that Daniel Craig wore in navy in the Bond film, Casino Royale. Another one of our staples is the white boxer short: it’s cut is unique to Sunspel and makes the shorts both classic and modern. Lastly, if every man is permitted one luxury, he should own one of our exceptional Sea Island cotton t-shirts. Cultivated in the Caribbean islands, this exceptional material is the rarest type of cotton– completely feather like. It is then spun in Switzerland and sewn together by hand by one seamstress in the Long Eaton factory in England. The quality is simply unparalleled.

L+T: For your Spring/Summer 2013 collection, you drew upon three archival prints – can you tell us a little bit about these?
: The idea for both prints came from letters and photographs in the Sunspel factory’s archive. In particular, the airplane graphic was from a letter written by a travel agent in Long Eaton, Nottingham to the Sunspel’s owner in the 1950’s before setting out his holiday plans. The dog is taken from a photograph of Bill the Dog, once the mascot at Sunspel, who would trot about the Long Eaton factory in the 1930s. They’re all consistent with our brand now: a respect and loyalty to Sunspel’s heritage while remaining very much a brand of today.

L+T: Why did you decide on these three prints in particular?
: These prints are both aesthetically interesting, but they all have relevance today. People often talk about Sunspel being the ideal travel wardrobe, which is representative of the airplane. Dogs play an important role in the lives of so many people at Sunspel today as well as old owners. It felt like a link to the past, but again, still current.

L+T: What can we expect from the brand moving forward?
: We will definitely be working to create new garments in exceptional fabrics – we will be launching some great swim shorts in June. It would be nice to open more shops in new markets and in fact, we are planning a pop up store in New York for this June.