Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Style Salvage Speaks to... Nick Thomas

Ever since Steve visited John Smedley's base deep in the Derbyshire Dales we have not looked at this brands knitwear in the same way. John Smedley may have been churning out quality knitwear for two hundred and twenty five years, but it has lost none of its passion, sense of craft and desire to innovate. This family business has been at Lea Mills since the birth of the industrial revolution, back when the first factories and looms were being built. That is a heritage to be proud of and something that should not be dismissed lightly. The essence of a John Smedley piece of knitwear is a blend of the traditional and the contemporary, from the way it is made, to the way it is worn. As ever, the best design is understated. But it should never go underrated which is why we caught up with Head Menswear Designer, Nick Thomas. You might be surprised to find out that soon after being awarded top prize at River Island's Graduate Fashion Week in 2007 he found himself working at one of the best knitwear companies in the world and he has never looked back. Here we talk to the young designer about his path to John Smedley, the hands-on satisfaction of knitwear and here his thoughts on the Aw10 collection...

John Smedley's workers of old

SS: You studied at the University of West of England and won the top price at River Island's Graduate Fashion week in 2007 and spent your work placement at John Smedley and now find yourself as Head of Menswear Design. Your career has moved so fast and now you find yourself at one of the best knitwear companies in the world. How did it all go so right for you?
Nick Thomas: I must admit that when I first started I did often have to pinch myself, to see a design grow from start to finish; seeing it on a hanger in a store is amazing. I suppose my placement here was the deciding factor, I wrote to them by chance to see if I could come up for just two weeks in the summer holidays. Although it was only a short stay it made such an impact on my own perception of design, the reality of deadlines, production, prototype development all of which really informed my final collection and the way in which I applied myself to my work. I think people saw this in my work and my attitude, I suppose it was being exposed to the reality rather than the dream, but don’t get me wrong, I do still pinch myself occasionally!

SS: What attracted you to knitwear design in particular?
Nick Thomas: I had a great tutor who also had his own label in Milan and he was a real advocate for knitwear, although ironically it was the knit room which was the quietest. This meant we had great one-on-one with our technician, so because there was time (and the highly sought after commodity of space!) I could explore and experiment, and with knitwear time is such an important factor. I think also the hands-on aspect of working with yarn, the tactile nature of swatches, the ‘you won’t defeat me’ attitude after dropping yet another stitch, and seeing something come from nothing before your eyes, it’s really satisfying.

SS: Having made fine knitwear in the Derbyshire Dales for over 225 years now, John Smedley's name has become synonymous with quality knits but what does John Smedley mean to you? What makes it so special to you?
Nick Thomas: We have been known for producing classic pieces for many years; these garments are our bread and butter and represent the best fits offered with the best choice of necklines, available in a great range of colours, sometimes over twenty, every season. But then there are also the seasonal pieces which range from classic two colour stripes to intarsias which use nearly all of the colour palette. We combine the best of our heritage with the most cutting edge technology, and it works perfectly to create this unique product.

What makes it particularly special to me is that we do it here, in England and its effects are far reaching. Ultimately, we are a fashion brand, producing seasonal collections but this can seem quite two-dimensional and beyond it is a story which involves so much more. Over thirty people are part of the life of the garment and it’s that attention to detail that is so hard to find anymore. Also, there is a real community and family spirit within the factories which is great for someone who lives far away from their own.

Two looks from the brands tailoring capsule collection for Aw09

SS: Talk us through the first and last items you remember designing for John Smedley...
Nick Thomas: Well the first were some designs which I produced whilst on my placement. I came up with some pieces inspired by the heritage of Britain, specifically rain. There was a blue, grey and white random stripe roll collar and a broken stripe intarsia piece which was inspired by light breaking in water. They were put in to the AW07 range, and I was still in University at the time, so that was a real buzz. The most recent would be my Spring 11 prototypes but they’ll have to be kept under wraps for now!

SS: How do you see the brand developing over the next couple of years?
Nick Thomas: We’ve got some really exciting things lined up. More recently we launched our sock range and the men’s tailored collection. I’m really glad to be a part of this in particular, we’ve still got a great story to tell with the garments being made in England and cloth sourced locally too, so to see the John Smedley man grow and be able to offer top-to-toe dressing is great, a real new beginning for the brand.

SS: What item of clothing (if any) do you wish that more men wore?
Nick Thomas: Well I’m quite keen on coloured socks and also patterned ties, and if they match then even better! I developed a couple of knitted ties in our spring 10 range and I haven’t stopped wearing them. Anything with a nod to ‘Dandy’ works for me.

SS: If you could go back in time and experience any fashion moment, what would it be?
Nick Thomas: I remember someone telling me about the moment that the first ever dye colour was discovered, Mauve. What a moment that must have been, to see it appear on cloth, and how different from the normal dreary palettes of yore. It paved the way for brands like us for who colour is integral. We’ve got a lot to be thankful for, it made the world a much more colourful place I’m sure. Mauve is definitely underrated.

John Smedley's AW10 collection ‘The Archivist.’

SS: How would you describe your own style?
Nick Thomas: Four words, Classics with a twist, which is also my working mantra. Give me a cardigan, patterned shirt, and a knitted tie for work and as I have over 50 Smedley pieces now (I’m assured this is perfectly normal) it’s unlikely that I’d be in anything else at the weekend either. Quite classic in a sense, just pepped up with a splash of colour.

SS: Talk us through the Archivist collection...
Nick Thomas: I wanted something quite English in feel so the idea of a librarian was always in the back of my mind. I started to think about collections of other things, antiques, rocks, stamps, that sort of thing. Inspiration came from lots of places like litmus paper for stripes, honeycombs and book spines for intarsias. The colours I focused on are very dramatic, quite rich tones of blue and purples with a deep sea green to add depth. The general feeling for the season was about being more engaged with our surroundings, understanding and appreciating heritage and tradition. The factory itself is a great source of inspiration and the surrounding areas too, like Woolaton hall which houses an amazing collection of taxidermy left by the family whose father observed nature and actually discovered quite a lot of species. The photo shoot was at a local Jacobean hall again steeped in history and the library was the prefect backdrop for the shoot. As well as classic stripes and tipped pieces, I also wanted to have styles that represented that eccentric English style so there are some fun pieces too.

SS: What are you favourite pieces from the collection?
Nick Thomas: I love Frederick cardigan, it’s a longer line, open fronted piece with slanted pockets, great as a lightweight coat and looks perfect for that slightly geek-chic look. All of the intarsias this season were really special and represent a real move forward. Bramley which is a classic round neck sweater with three apples across the front, Elwood which uses a multicoloured honeycomb intarsia, a nice progression of the classic argyle, and Dexter slipover which like Elwood uses nearly every colour in the seasonal palette. We also offered a chunky weight this season produced here at the mill for the first time. A cable crewneck in fluffy white and a jacket with football button detail have a slightly vintage feel but also look really fresh styled in a modern context.

SS: Finally, would you be able to share a few address book recommendation to our readers (hairdressers, tailors, cafes... anything you like really) which we will duly add to our Map.
Nick Thomas: Mine aren’t London based but if anyone ever finds themselves in the east midlands they should definitely check out:
The Walk, Nottingham, a great little tea shop that sells lovely cakes and specialty teas served in mismatched antique cups and saucers.
The antiques shop in Matlock, Derbyshire, a real treasure trove of a place over three floors.
The Ritz cinema, Belper, Derbyshire the way cinemas should be, plush seats and wine and a great selection of films including independents.

An image of reflection. John Smedley's AW10 collection ‘The Archivist.’


Unknown said...

oh merci.
i really quite enjoyed this...especially the pix.

Michael said...

Fascinating - I didn't realise their designer was a recent graduate. Always admired their understated aesthetic, but I like the fact Nick Thomas is taking it in new and interesting directions.

Percy said...

Liking the look of all the new tailoring shebang looks like 2010 could be a really interesting year for them...i look forward!



Lark About said...

I'm a huge fan of John Smedley knitwear and really enjoyed this interview. Thank you for sharing it!

Unknown said...

Great article, I would love to see some moving images of what Nick is talking about. JS story would make an interesting documentary.


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