John Simons documentary reveals inside story on man who had an eye for threads
Squire shop in Brewer Street in Soho
06 April, 2018 — By The Xtra Diary
The story of John Simons is the story of British Modernism, but not in terms of some kind of unapproachable architecture or art.
Simons, pictured, is the world famous clothes retailer, who has run shops in the West End for decades.
Now a documentary tells the story of this well-heeled clothing giant and reveals a man whose eye for threads has inspired generations.
Simons was the proprietor of the legendary Squire shop in Brewer Street, Soho from 1967 to the early 1970s, then took on premises in Great Russell Street, Covent Garden from 1982 through to 2009. He can now be found selling his threads in Chiltern Street, Marylebone, a true beacon in the ever-changing face of retail in central London.
And, as the documentary reveals, what is so fascinating is how from clothes, the style he promotes crosses over to all forms of art, music ranging from jazz and reggae across to art and graphic design, taking in everything from the covers of Blue Note records to classic 1950s’ haircuts. He has inspired – and dressed – some of the biggest names in London’s creative industries, and here they come together to sing his praises.
The film unpicks the threads of the post-war world of British fashion, using terrific interviews with names such as Suggs, Paul Weller, Robert Elms, Dylan Jones and Sir Paul Smith and we also hear Simons’s story of the London rag trade.
We learn of his early life, meeting East End Jewish tailors, working as a window dresser for Cecil Gee, while also studying at St Martins School of Art, then based at the Charing Cross Road.
He knew quality when he saw it, and seems to have had a sixth sense as to what people wanted to wear: as broadcaster Robert Elms says, his shop offered “…portals to another world”.
“I grew up in a clothes-orientated family,” says Simons. “I had four uncles and they were all pretty sharp dressers. They weren’t married, I was a favourite nephew, and they would take me out with them to their tailors, to Cecil Gee, where they would pick ties out.
“Cecil Gee had a coffee shop and every Saturday morning there was this Jewish comedian, Vic Wise, who was always having his breakfast there.”
He got a job as a window dresser with Gee and then enrolled in an apprenticeship at the same time at St Martins. And it put John at the centre of an explosion of post-war Modernism.
Hearing Simons speak about how a working-class Londoner had a huge impact on the city is a joy.
One such tale involved him travelling to New York and heading to the Empire State Building, where the main clothing manufacturers of high quality menswear all had offices.
He went in and asked to see what they were selling and was shown, as an afterthought, last season’s shirts and suits and the like, which he could buy cheaply.
As he explains, while such lines might be the previous season for the Americans, they had not been imported in to Britain, so gave him a good range of popular clothes that were economically viable to bring to London writer Jason Jules, who says at the start he decided to make the film after someone had told him Simons had died: “I couldn’t believe it,” he says.
“I thought, I’ll call the shop. John answered and I was so relieved, and realised I should film his story.”
His son, Paul, has taken on the business, with John still involved. They make their own clothes now, too, and take a great pride in the quality of how each piece is made.
So, long live King John, a man whose eye for a good pair of strides has shaped British fashion and much, much more.
John Simons: A Modernist is out on DVD from www.monomediafilms.london on April 23 and a screening on May 12 at Regent Street Cinema.