John Michael Ingram, one of the innovators of British men’s fashion in the late 1950s and 1960s and the founder of the Design Intelligence forecasting agency in the late 1970s, has died at the age of 83.
Born on February 1 1931 into a family that ran women’s clothes shops in London, Ingram opened his own business, John Michael, at 170 Kings Road, Chelsea in 1957, a few years after Mary Quant had established her ground-breaking Bazaar womenswear boutique close by. His shop was alongside Sidney Smith’s, the main men’s outfitter of the day. Only in his mid-twenties, Ingram’s great innovation was to offer trendy clothes for men.
In his 2011 memoir The Day of the Peacock: Style for Men 1963-1973 (V&A Publishing), veteran fashion writer Geoffrey Aquilina Ross noted: “Coming from a family of retailers, (Ingram) understood exactly how to approach men’s fashion and, with little competition to consider, he introduced clothes that were quietly innovative in design, neither brash nor brazen. His were the good-taste clothes of the day.”
In contrast to the sometimes gaudy garments offered by John Stephens – the “founder of Carnaby Street” – and Cecil Gee in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue, Ingram’s eye produced a more refined wardrobe for the peacocks of the Swinging Sixties. From his home in Malta, Aquilina Ross, who was British Vogue’s first menswear editor during the 1960s, told Drapers: “Walking into the John Michael shop days after it opened in the King’s Road was as if you had walked into the Chelsea branch of heaven. The clothes were glorious, nothing like what we were used to finding in department stores or the tiny shops off Shaftesbury Avenue that had cornered the market selling shiny outfits to people in the music business. Here were clothes with a great, youthful fit in bright colours and lightweight fabrics. I bought a seersucker jacket and was the envy of everyone I met. Soon, every art director in the major advertising agencies in London had one too. Mine was baby blue, theirs were pink.
“As for John himself, well, he loved the clothes and the business. When the shop opened in the King’s Road his finger was on the fashion button and he knew it. He was, incidentally, good company and a pleasure to be with.”
Speaking with Drapers, menswear consultant Manny Silverman – former managing director of Moss Bros and in later life a business associate of Ingram – recalled Ingram’s pivotal position in establishing London as the home of dedicated followers of fashion: “[He] was one of the leading commercially creative retail innovators of the 1960s and 1970s; always a leader, never a follower. Without him, Kings Road might never have happened. I know because I was there.”
In his 1971 book on British men’s style Today There Are No Gentlemen, British journalist Nik Cohn quoted Ingram talking about his main achievement. “I created the middle road in male fashion. Before John Michael the only choice was between boredom on the one hand and fancy dress on the other. There was no sensible compromise,” Ingram commented.
The original shop on Kings Road was followed by a store called Sportique on Old Compton Street, Soho, and then a larger John Michael branch at 102-104 Kings Road. Realising the demand for denim jeans Ingram also created The Westerner, one of the earliest examples of a jeanery in the UK. Eventually, Ingram opened a store on Savile Row, where he also established his head office. His final retail concept was Guys and Dolls, a large-format concept that was opened in several towns across the UK.
At the end of the 1970s, Ingram – who had designed collections for US department store chain JC Penney chain as well as Japanese clients – set up Design Intelligence, one of the first fashion trends agencies. Dave Edgar, founder of Shoreditch-based design and branding agency BDA London and previously a partner-founder of The Bureaux agency, was hugely influenced by Ingram’s pioneering work.
Edgar said: “I met John a number of times in the mid-1980s. By then, he had earned himself almost legendary status in the fashion industry. He ran a number of the most iconic shops and had become synonymous with the Kings Road. At that time, this street in Chelsea had become the go-to place for all those involved in the fashion industry from around the world. Having learnt his trade in the retail and ‘own-buy’ sectors (designing and sourcing product to be sold in his own stores), he set up Design Intelligence.
“I left Liverpool Art School in the late 1970s having studied fashion design. I had wanted to study the art of designing clothing because of my passion for men’s clothing and an ability to draw. Unfortunately it was more the study of couture, which took me by surprise. When I met John he reconnected me with very reason I had wanted to study design in the first place – creating product that was commercial because that’s what people wanted.
He continued: “Design Intelligence was focused on the art of providing the clothing industry with what it needed rather than what the art schools thought it needed. This was a time when very few retailers had an in-house design team and John filled this gap, providing both retailers and suppliers with a rare service. John’s retail background and commercial eye enabled him to drive an ethos retailers of today have now embraced as best practice, which is that good design gives your product a competitive advantage.
Edgar said when he established BDA London, he based it “on the same ethos John pioneered all those years ago”, although added he has “had to employ ex-buyers and ex-suppliers and team them with product designers” in order to provide the breadth of services Ingram was able to provide himself.
He concluded: “We owe an enormous amount to John, having built our business model around Design Intelligence. I, personally, owe John even more for reconnecting me with the industry I always wanted to be part of. The retail industry owes a lot to John for pioneering an approach and for showing them how design differential has made British retail some if the best in the world.”
In 1956 Ingram married Sonia Bolsom. Their son Guy is a fashion agent. Their daughter Tamara has had a career in advertising. Ingram was a devoted grandfather to Dominic, Max, Anya and Francesca. He died on June 13 and in keeping with his Jewish faith his funeral was held soon after.