235 years in business
“When I think of my great-grandfather, who ran the business from when he was aged 21 to 92, it puts some of the challenges we face today, like Brexit, into context,” Ian Maclean, managing director of British knitwear brand and manufacturer John Smedley, tells Drapers. “He steered the business through the Boer War, World War I, the Great Depression and World War II, right up to the beginning of the 1960s.”
John Smedley was founded in 1784 at Lea Mills in Derbyshire, where it is still based today. It began by creating simple muslin clothes and spinning cotton, before moving into garment production. Among the famous faces to have worn the brand are Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and The Beatles. It has also manufactured knitwear for Vivienne Westwood and Paul Smith.
Maclean, who has been at the helm of the business since 2010, says that a blend of caution, flexibility and an obsession with quality have helped John Smedley weather the past 235 years.
“We’re not into taking big risks because we’re not a big company and we can’t afford to get it wrong,” he says. “We’re never the first into a new market or a new area of retail. We’re willing to wait and see what happens, and follow if it makes sense. Our business rests on customers coming back to us because of the quality, so we’re always very progressive about investing in machinery that will help us improve.
- Find out more on the history of John Smedley: Icons of British fashion
“Another big thing for us is making sure we’re never out of fashion. We have heritage but we can’t only appeal to an older audience. We have to be current for any generation.”
John Smedley might not take unnecessary risks, but the business has had to keep reinventing itself to reflect wider shifts in retailing. As the wholesale market has become more competitive, particularly over the past two decades, the manufacturer has bolstered its own retail offer. It now has three own stores in the UK and seven through a licensing partnership in Japan.
When it comes to the future, Maclean believes that having a strong brand will be key: “Telling powerful stories is only going to become more important. We have to tell customers, that yes, John Smedley comes at a higher price, but it is worth owning because of the quality and the heritage. You have to build an emotional connection with them and cut through all the noise.”