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Cottoning on

Dominic Hazlehurst, director of Sunspel, on heritage, high quality cotton and reclaiming the word ‘luxury’

Words: Clare Finney

Britain, November 2006, and almost the whole nation is in the cinema. They’re transfixed by the scene that’s unfolding across the big screen. An MI6 agent is giving chase to an adversary in a building site in the Bahamas and, like an urban squirrel, the bad guy has just scrambled up a large crane. He leaps, the agent follows him effortlessly.

We all breathe out with relief. Within moments of the start of Casino Royale, Daniel Craig has assured us that 007 will live another day. So intent are we on watching their death-defying antics, the last thing we’re concentrating on is what Bond and bomb-maker Mollaka are wearing. But even through the mud, grime and blood of a Bond fight, you can tell these are some special t-shirts.

They were Sunspel tees: woven in Nottinghamshire by one of the country’s few remaining garment factories, which dates back centuries. “The company was founded by the Hill family in the 1860s, making everyday items in exceptional fabrics,” current co-owner Dominic Hazlehurst explains. Dominic bought Sunspel nine years ago with friend Nicholas Brooke, when the pair decided to go into business together.

It had expertise, customer loyalty and character, but it also had quirks: “The sizes were out, distorted by the owner because he never wanted to be larger than ‘large’. He’d expanded them over decades,” he explains.

Workplace rivalry
The financial side of the business, conducted by pencil ledgers, was computerised once a year. The entire operation needed major restructuring. There was a hole in the roof, while on the factory floor there was serious workplace rivalry. Many years previously, a disagreement between the two Hill brothers, the last of the line, had divided the business.

Lesser men might have balked at the prospect of such discord, but Dominic just looked to the textiles—fine, jersey-knit cottons, warp knit cottons, fine merino wool and others unique to the company—and to the clothes. Soft, stylish t-shirts and polo shirts were globally sought after, and the boxers had a serious fan base.

“In the archives we found all these letters saying, ‘I’ve been buying your pants for 60 years, and I love them. Can you send me a replacement pair for these?’” ‘These’ would be a pair of underpants, he recalls; clean, but “so old and so worn, the label would have come off and the elastic broken. That’s loyalty.” Yes, as gratifying as such loyalty was, it was problematic too.

The clothing industry was changing. Once a supplier of so-called white label goods, making some products for other brands, this became difficult for Sunspel with foreign competition. “Brands would say ‘We can get it cheaper overseas’, and of course they could,” he sighs. “The point is, we take the quality, fit and comfort of our garments extremely seriously.”

Dominic Hazlehurst, director of Sunspel

The need for change
This comes at a price. A Sunspel item is no bargain buy, but it emanates history, skill and expertise. “There are people whose grandparents worked here,” he continues. “Such a long tradition of manufacturing experience is invaluable and very hard to find.” It brings its own challenges: trying to reconcile the need for change with the brand’s core values was one that preyed heavily on both buyers.

“Peter Hill only sold it to us because he believed we’d be sensitive to that. He was 83,” Dominic explains. With a renewed interest in heritage coinciding neatly with their purchase, it could not have been better timed. With great design and fine materials, Sunspel reached out to those disillusioned with big, shouty labels. “There is often, with these,” he says carefully, “a very clear correlation between the cost of goods and the marketing spend.”

Not so with Sunspel, a company whose background as a manufacturer and fabric developer has made quality the priority. “We don’t have branding on our products. We just have labels on the inside,” he tells me. That said, he has no problem at all with calling Sunspel a luxury brand.

On the contrary, Dominic says, the word ‘luxury’ needs reclaiming. “It was horribly subverted in the eighties when we became a label culture, but fundamentally it should be about an artisan making something beautifully.” The customer takes pride in purchasing and wearing the garment, and the craftsmen takes pride in the process of making—the details of which take some explaining.

Egyptian cotton
“If I took you into the technicalities of that garment’s development and told you why it works and how it works, you might not last the conversation,” Dominic warns. I ask him to try me. He takes a deep breath, points to his t-shirt, a classic navy crew, and starts with the basics.

“Core Sunspel shirts are made from longest staple Egyptian cotton, which we know as Q82. This is the quality number by which we refer to this fabric—it refers to the weight, the thread configuration, the yarn preparation and ultimately how the fabric behaves.”

There are lots of 100 per cent cotton t-shirts around, but the cotton used can vary greatly in its quality. “Cotton is a plant with a bud, and the staple—which is the single strand of cotton you can extract from that bud without knitting it to the next—defines the quality,” explains Dominic. “The longer the staple, the rarer the cotton, and Egyptian cotton—used for Sunspel’s boxers, tees and shirts—is one of the most sought after.”

The experience has certainly changed Dominic’s wardrobe. Before he bought Sunspel, he was not hugely interested in where his clothes came from. Now, he’s a firm believer in understanding the provenance of his garments, just as he is in knowing that his strawberries hail from his back garden. 

A noble process
“I was always interested in making,” he continues. “My father was in the manufacturing industry, so I appreciate the art of taking raw materials, taking time to make something, and then selling what you produce. It’s a noble process.”

What Dominic cannot get, however, is going for profit over product quality. “I hope that things are finally changing,” he says. Sunspel’s success would suggest as much: the brand has launched a popular line of womenswear, they have five stores in London, and plans are underway for the opening of a womenswear boutique at their Chiltern Street store in September.

In recent years, they have collaborated with fine, like-minded brands such as Paul Smith, Fred Perry, Dr Martens and Nicole Farhi. It’s a fairly select list, but as carefully curated as the clothes adorning the boutique’s clean white walls.

There’s no denying the biggest, most impressive collaboration of them all, however: his name is legendary. Bond. James Bond. “There have been so many different characters in film and theatre that I have dressed in Sunspel vests, t-shirts and underwear because they are classic, timeless and beautifully made,” Lindy Hemmings said at the time. “This time, when dressing Daniel Craig as the new James Bond, I thought it would be the perfect collaboration.”

She wasn’t wrong. Sunspel is about quality, heritage, style and Englishness. Shaken up—but in no way stirred.

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