Reluctant immunologist and king of cufflinks, Simon Carter, on the death of the suit and making an impact in India
It’s been a good few months for Simon Carter. His A/W17 collection has been launched. Sales are strong, with plans for international expansion. And, in a slightly unusual turn of events, he’s the lead costume designer for Channel 4’s remake of The Crystal Maze, starring Richard Ayoade.
“I know Richard through work – he wears my shirts a lot,” explains Simon in his Mayfair store, bedecked in comic book wallpaper and his famous bright shirts. “He dropped me an email about six months ago and said, ‘I’m about to start on a big project, would you be my costume designer?’ I said I’d be absolutely delighted to, not knowing what it was. It then kind of unravelled, and it’s just been loads of fun.”
It was a project with a quick turnaround, with no time for special fabrics, but Simon and Richard were clear on the brief: “The look that Richard has is this sort of slightly bewildered Geography teacher, and he’s always loved cord, so we worked with a really great British mill called Brisbane Moss.
“We both decided that a really fine needle cord was a good look. It was a little different, but I didn’t want him to look like we designed something and he reluctantly agreed to wear – we wanted this to be an extension of his personality. He’s asked to keep all the suits.”
For the contestants, Simon, along with British brand Lille Racewear, went back to his love of classic cars, and the heady days of 1950s Silverstone and Goodwood, where the gentleman driver reigned supreme. “Sprinting towards their cars with these jumpsuits on, often, ridiculously, with a tie. I love that,” he enthuses.
This sense of fun runs deep in both Carter and his brand. The design guru and reluctant immunologist – he has a degree in immunology from the University of London – started his career on the King’s Road, part-time in a vintage clothes shop. It was the time of the New Romantics, and Simon was in on the game.
"Someone brought in a vintage motorcyclist’s brooch,” he reflects. “Brooches on men was a big New Romantic thing, so I wore it and everybody said it looked great. I thought OK, I’ll give it a try, and found somebody to make me 100 of them.
“I finished my painful degree and got a job as a buyer in Fenwick. I built this hobby up and up in my spare time, and then took the decision to quit the day job and give it a go. And here we are.”
Simon recently dressed Tom Daley for London Fashion Week Men’s, and counts figures from Paul Merton to Gary Oldman among his loyal customers in Britain. Looking abroad, plans are afoot for an international expansion. It’s not where you might expect; whereas many businesses seem intent on ‘breaking’ China and the United States, Simon is opening six stores in India. The brand has been selling into the country for a decade, but is partnering with the Aditya Birla Group to launch six standalone stores.
“If you want to talk to me about opportunities in China, I’ll give you ten minutes. United States, half an hour,” Simon states decisively. “If you want to talk about India or West Africa, I’ve got all the time you want. I think for most British men’s brands of my size, China is a fool’s errand.
“India is such a colourful country; I use a lot of paisley – and of course it’s so prevalent in India – but they love rich colour, rich design, and have a very sophisticated use of colour palettes. They’re also very interested in all things British.”
Plans are underway to open all six stores (Chennai, Bangalore, Kolkata, Mumbai and two in Delhi) by November. Ambitious, perhaps, but for the man who started as a biologist and brooch seller on the King’s Road, it doesn’t seem particularly far-fetched.
China: a fool's errand?
"I don’t know anybody in my sector who’s making money in China. There are a couple, but that’s because they basically sold their businesses. It will happen, but I think it’s a long time away.
"The Chinese have a large number of middle class, but it’s a tight definition. It doesn’t mean that they’re going to Waitrose, having organic fruit and veg delivered, and have just bought an Audi. It means they’re earning $10,000 a year. By the time one of my shirts gets to India or China, with duties and import costs, you’re talking £180-200. A very small amount of people anywhere can afford it, let alone in a newly emerging market. I’m working with a partner in India to manufacture there, to offer something that isn’t super expensive. You have to be practical, otherwise it’ll really restrict you.
"Most people would expect me to be going after China, because that’s all you read about, but it’s India for me."
The future of City style
"I think the City will inevitably continue to dress down. I can’t see in five, maybe ten years’ time, why the suit would be a requirement for work. Everything has its time and its day.
"If you go back a couple of generations, City workers had to wear a morning coat and top hat. Things gradually become redundant and things change.We’ve seen a shift, where people are wearing a suit by choice. For them, wearing a sharp suit is a statement.
"I think it’s going to eventually become a garment of choice, except for very formal occasions like weddings and funerals. I don’t think, long term, that they’ll survive as a requirement. I suspect that people will choose to go to work in a suit, as they have a wardrobe full of them and it makes them feel smart. But I’ll be very surprised if in a decade’s time they’re a requirement.
"Mark Zuckerberg is hardly a pin-up for style and fashion. He likes a grey t-shirt; he really is Mr GAP. Even if you see thousands of men wearing suits, actually nowadays not many of them are wearing ties, and in truth a fair proportion are probably no longer wearing cufflinks. The next move will be tough for most people, because most men can’t do smart-casual; it’ll be a period of terrible doubt and self-examination. I might be being controversial, but suits only account now for something like nine per cent of the total menswear market. It’s had its fun.
"I’ve gone out on a limb really and predicted the death of the suit in the financial sector – we’re not there yet. I think if in doubt, play it safe. If you’ve got someone who works in a formal part of the City and still wears a suit, often they think that the best way to express their personality is through novelty socks, or a novelty tie. In a civilised society, the socks and ties would all be rounded up and burnt. So resist the urge."