When a family tradition is passed down through the generations greatness can evolve. This is a story about Sunspel and how they built their luxury clothing empire.
An iconic British style, Sunspel has been making underwear since 1860. In 1947 it was the first firm to introduce the boxer short to Britain. Over the years, Sunspel has gained a dedicated following. This has been achieved through the production of high-quality wardrobe staples for both men and women that look and feel luxurious.
Today Sunspel is an authentic English heritage brand that makes exceptional quality, everyday clothing from beautiful fabrics. But it came from humble beginnings.
How they were founded
The founder, Thomas Arthur Hill, was born in 1822. Eleventh of 12 children, his father was a hosiery maker in Nottingham, England. Thomas quickly joined the family business. In 1860 he established Sunspel which has continued to be a family business to this day.
Thomas was a fabric innovator. His vision to create simple, everyday clothing from beautiful fabrics lives on in Sunspel today.
He opened his textile factory in Newdigate, Nottingham which became the centre of the British lace making industry. Using his fabric expertise, he produced lightweight, soft clothing in very fine cotton. This pioneered the development of luxury underwear, as we know them today.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Sunspel built a significant export business across what was then the British Empire. They were one of the earliest British companies to export to the Far East. It was also during this period that Sunspel developed its unique Sea Island cotton fabrics. These were sourced from the West Indies and used in the most luxurious of its products.
Influence of war
The near total collapse of world trade after the financial crash of 1929 forced the company to downsize. The factory moved from Nottingham to Long Eaton, where it remains today. The business focused on selling its premium line of Sea Island cotton underwear.
The outbreak of the Second World War changed the company’s direction again. They began to move away from luxury products to the production of utility garments for the war effort.
Their first resurgence
In 1947, Thomas’ grandson, John Hill, left the post-war gloom of Britain for the glamour of boom-time America. Influenced by the ideas and innovations of New York he brought the boxer short to the UK and perfected its design. The first Sunspel boxers were made from Sea Island cotton and designed for comfort. Sunspel boxers continue to be made in the finest fabrics and to this original pattern.
The boxer short achieved icon status in 1985 when Levis launched the ad to beat all ads. Featuring a young Nick Kamen removing his Levi’s to wash them in a launderette while he sat nonchalantly reading in nothing but his Sunspel boxers.
However, the 1980s-revival wasn’t to last. A lack of investment in new products and a shift in consumer preferences left the business in distress.
Their second resurgence
A chance encounter in 2005 between the 81-year-old owner, Peter Hill, and brand manager Nicholas Brooke was the start of Sunspel’s second resurgence. With business partner Dominic Hazlehurst, Brooke took over the business with a small loan and some borrowings. Thirteen years later it is an £11.5 million (€13.2 million) business, with 20% year-on-year growth for the last three years.
Brooke’s modernised the brand creating a heritage label with a contemporary spin for a younger customer. The target audience went from a 60-plus male buying merino wool long johns to a 30-year old creative who liked design, simplicity and quality.
Today, Sunspel are creating something new and modern from six generations of textile innovation and old school tradition. It’s this unconventional connection between past and future that allows them to create their unique aesthetic.
Unlike most clothing brands, their first concern is not how their clothes look but about the quality of the design, the fit and the make-up; so that anyone investing in a Sunspel garment knows they’re investing in an item of real value. It’s about bringing a luxury mindset to well-crafted clothes that can and should be worn every day.
Sunspel are proud of their history. The tradition that they practice and that is evident on their website and adjoining blog. Their founding story sits pride of place on their website illustrated with wonderful photos from the company’s past.
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