Iconic menswear designer Simon Carter has struck up quite the loyal friendship with Bristol’s flagship store, House of Fraser. It was over 15 years ago when he first visited the store, and this month he returned to personally oversee his brand new spring/summer ’16 collection, some 30 years since he first established Simon Carter British Design.
Ironically, had Simon have followed the advice of his careers advisor while a school student, he might have missed the entire point of his existence. What a loss to the world, that would have been. Instead, after beginning a career in medicine, studying immunology in London in the early 1980s, it was the lure of something slightly off-kilter that would ultimately steer him towards the direction he has since pursued. When asking Simon, whether he has any regrets, he replied:
“No, and society is a better place because I didn’t pursue immunology. I sure as hell would have made a crap doctor and a terrible immunologist. I’d much rather be a passable menswear designer than a terrible doctor.”
Often finding meaning in the periphery of life, Simon’s natural curiosity and gentle humour would carve him a hugely successful name for himself in the fashion world. With designs inspired by his appreciation of antiques and vintage wear, he has evolved to innovate menswear in a constantly shifting world. Retaining individualised charm, and a voice that speaks truly to unconventional modes of being – this is style for the person with a hawk’s eye for detail.
Turning towards his stylistic sensibilities, Simon took up a post as a trainee buyer with Fenwicks, some thirty years ago, and would receive a pewter brooch one day, in lieu of payment. You might say this is far from a fair deal, but not when the rest of the story unfolds.
“I love Bristol. This has always been my favourite branch of House of Fraser.”
This particular brooch proved to be the catalyst – albeit unknowingly – when Simon sourced the supplier of said brooch, in Cornwall, and decided to try his luck at marketing the item in the hip neighbourhood of Chelsea’s King’s Road in London. At the time, punk music was saturating the local landscape, with the typified mods ‘n’ rockers fashion style catching on. Add to this, the New Romantics fashion wave was feeding into the whole vibe on the back of the likes of Spandau Ballet and Adam & the Ants. And so, brooches became the latest craze – with Simon Carter tapping into this niche which would pave the way for his cufflink designs.
We’re holding our conversation between the crisp, ironed trademark Simon Carter shirts, with their quirky prints (including exotic, tropical fish and eyewear emblazoned across the fabric in a very subtle and stylish manner), situated on the upper ground floor of Bristol’s House of Fraser in Cabot Circus. Simon has not long arrived in Bristol, having travelled from Cheltenham – he is doing the rounds, personally visiting the stores who are housing his new products – and he would appear to have all the time in the world.
“I think it’s about being true to yourself and true to a vision. Anybody who is in a creative field has to forge their own path. The brand is about me (it’s all about me) and it does reflect a certain taste. If you go to one of my stores in London, it’s significantly different to this one. It’s far more personal to me.” Simon explains.
As with any life less ordinary, there were a series of serendipitous moments which lead to the present day reality. Though choice and direction often must come consciously, more often than not, it is the subtle clues along the way, which can steer us through particular avenues. Minds that must be opened. Imaginations that must be fired up.
“I never had a career path, mine has been a series of accidents. I am best described as a failed medic. Though studying immunology allowed me to study on the King’s Road in Chelsea – which is when I became quite inspired by retail, fashion and shops. I got a job at Fenwicks, a department store, as a management trainee and it morphed out from there.” Simon recalls.
“I’m a great believer in fate. You have to be open to any possibility.”
The 1980s was an evocative era, regardless. Music, fashion and politics merged to create a highly fertile and creative ground for innovation in an unconventional sense. Things were different, then.
“It’s difficult for people now to know how things were. It was a lot easier then – far fewer menswear brands, less chains. You could just knock on a door and go in. Nobody had to put it before a committee. And it was the time of New Romantics – everybody wanted to buy my pewter brooches, it was the thing.” Simon says.
Having given up caffeine for Lent, Simon is surprisingly calm and patient, considering he has surely answered similarly predictable questions as my own, time after time. Typically, a determined spirit threads through his life, however, which has kept him on track. That, and an undying passion for antiques, vintage wear and his love of croquet. A true English gent.
“I think it’s hard to pin down Britishness. I think that in itself – the quality of Englishness – is hard to pin down. It’s very nebulous. The more you can define Britishness, the less British it becomes. I’m never too sure how to answer that. I suppose I just design things that appeal to me – they end up being very British because that is just within me.” Simon tells me, as we head across to his latest collection of tailored jackets.
Simon picks out a deep, royal blue jacket with velvet trim on the collar, lined with plaid (the replica of which can be found in his shirt styles), with a motif eagle’s head which ties in with his accessories collection. It is all about the detail – and the quality of design, with every penny of the budget going into the products themselves:
“Fabric is really important. There are three things that go into everything I do: originality of design, really great execution of quality, and then good value for money.” Simon explains.
It is clear, as I watch Simon interacting with customers, colleagues from House of Fraser and his team, he is a person of great humility, with sincerity, integrity and a personable honesty that you cannot help but warm to. In this business, it might be integral to remain tough against outside critique, yet Simon has remained very matter of fact about this:
“I think in any business that has got your name above the door, the risk is it becomes too personal. But I learned to become Simon Carter the business, and keep Simon Carter the person, separate. If you took it too personally, you would get hurt.” Simon explains.
“I do love lurking about the markets and auctions, I love finding slightly odd and unusual things.”
His designs have been taken up globally including Bloomingdales in the USA, David Jones in Australia and he also has distribution across Japan, and his footwear range is sold in Singapore. World domination? What’s next? Bristol – that’s what’s next!
“I love Bristol. This has always been my favourite branch of House of Fraser. There are some great little shops here, it’s so great for seeing other places too – Bath, Cheltenham… It’s the best of both worlds.” Simon says.
His unusual prints and fearless approach to defying conventional routes in design, and in life, have earned him a reputation for the past three decades, as someone who never ceases to create the unexpected. With fans the world over, including the likes of Paul Merton, Dara O’Brien, Simon Le Bon and Will Smith, there is always an opportunity for branching into new territory – especially when the only limit is your own imagination:
“I’m a great believer in fate. You have to be open to any possibility. It gets harder as you get older. I once made a new year’s resolution to do or try something new every day. Your mind does tend to close in a bit as you get older.” Simon muses.
Simon’s enduring love for all things vintage and antique, coupled with his sensitivity to the environment and the synergy that can be created between both the natural world and manmade fashion, has fuelled his design – including a Darwin range including panda and frog cufflinks – for the so inclined.
“I’m observant, I often see things that will be an influence. I’ve always been curious about things and not taken anything for granted. I’ve always had an enquiring mind. I love detail. I like doing unexpected things – like putting fish on a shirt. I’m also very into plaid.” Simon says.
Cutting his teeth traipsing through King’s Road in Chelsea in the 1980s, left its mark and ultimately, his appreciation for the independent spirit and market trading has followed him throughout his life, as he explains:
“I do love lurking about the markets and auctions, I love finding slightly odd and unusual things. A lot of the early cufflinks would come from original old pieces that we would buy – that we had a copyright to, I hasten to add – and we would reproduce them ourselves. One of my great loves is buying up old stuff. I once found a whole load of old documents – old wills and insurance documents, and there is a wall in my home just plastered with these. It’s such a point of conversation.”
As Simon takes a sip on his Sicilian lemonade, it’s clear to me that this is a person who will never tire of his truest passion in life. In the saturated world in which we live, that is surely a refreshing change.
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Simon Carter’s latest spring/summer ’16 collection is available now on the upper ground floor of Bristol’s House of Fraser, Cabot Circus.