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Jonny & Mark Wilkinson

The launch came as a surprise, but rugby stars Jonny and Mark Wilkinson’s Fineside clothing brand has the potential to break out from the scrum of menswear competitors.

When news of rugby players Jonny and Mark Wilkinson’s menswear venture reached Drapers, it was met with some bewilderment. Even more remarkable was that the launch satisfied the brothers’ “lifelong ambition to work together on a range of clothing”.

Really? As far as Jonny is concerned at least, could a man with such talent - the poster boy of English rugby - admirable work ethic and famous single-mindedness towards a sport he excelled at be that interested in fashion? “You’d be surprised,” he replies, his muscular frame sporting a T-shirt from his Fineside collection. “I remember going out for dinner with my family in full Andre Agassi gear. I was 23.” A great sportsman turned fashion entrepreneur, with a sense of humour (he was actually eight) - Drapers could get on board with that.

And the wit runs in the family. “Personally, I wanted to launch a clothing line because Jonny’s trainers were always about £20 more expensive than mine [when we were growing up]. They had the air bubble in them,” adds older brother Mark. The two played together at Newcastle Falcons and the bond they shared as boys has evidently continued.

But when Drapers’ notebook comes out, the banter dies down, as the Wilkinsons know they will have to silence the fashion critics by proving that Fineside isn’t just trading off Jonny’s name.

“In a way, it could have been a lot easier to launch a rugby shirt with the number 10 on the back [Jonny’s England shirt number],” Jonny explains. “But we want to make this a viable business.” Cashing in on a short-term, celebrity-inspired range “doesn’t appeal to us or our mission statement”, adds Mark. “We’re conscious of what people think.”

You can tell. As we go through the clothing rail housing pieces from Fineside’s autumn 11 collection, which launches online this month, the Wilkinsons fall silent and appear anxious as they await the Drapers verdict. But they needn’t be. The collection, made in Portugal, is still small (only nine pieces) but the quality and functionality of each garment is clear to the touch. Soft cotton T-shirts with shifted seams at £25 allow for movement - the core message behind the brand - as does the armpit gusset and articulated sleeves of a sweatshirt. An impressive Cocona jacket is excellent value at £175 and hidden media loops - for iPods and the like - support the ethos behind this functional and design-led label. For spring 12, when an extra four or five pieces will be added, polos and short-sleeved shirts will help Fineside develop a full menswear offer.

Jonny says the idea for the design signature comes from when the brothers went from hanging out in sports clothes as boys to needing to smarten up as adults, but at the same time wanted to retain sportswear’s feeling of movement. “[Fineside] has the fashion element but it gives you the ability to move, to feel free. And with my [previous] involvement with Hackett, it has that same understated look. We’ve seen an opportunity to create great clothes that fit us and hopefully others, too,” Jonny explains, as I steal a glance at his arms, which are far bigger than most people’s.

“And sometimes you can buy a sweatshirt and after a while it ends up having that billowing feeling. This silhouette tapers, it’s designed to flatter,” adds Mark.
The brothers recruited parkour superstar Sébastien Foucan to road test and advise on the collection, and feature in some campaign images (Jonny and Mark also model the offer), a clever move in terms of branding and marketing, as one challenge the label could face as an online-only business is how to convey the quality and functionality of what are essentially pared-down pieces.

The parkour association also helps Fineside establish its place in the market. On the one hand, the timing of the launch couldn’t be better, given the resurgence of menswear, particularly the heritage and workwear trends, where technical fabrics and styling are key. On the other hand, Fineside lacks the heritage of brands the Wilkinsons admire and see it alongside, such as Carhartt.

Technology focus

But Fineside’s youth and associations with a skilled, street-style sport could add weight to its mission of becoming a respected brand that puts technology and innovation - rather than heritage - at the fore. Liam Gallagher’s menswear brand Pretty Green, which only launched in 2008, is a good example of how a celebrity-inspired brand can succeed provided it has a point of difference.

As well as the Wilkinsons (who own the business outright without external investment), Fineside’s team comprises an in-house designer and director Dan Devine, formerly of premium
indie Cruise, who hasn’t ruled out the possibility of wholesaling the collection after the first few seasons.

But now Jonny has been picked for the England World Cup squad, he’ll have to spend less time on the brand in person. “It’s exciting and frustrating,” he admits. “I’m so obsessive about my career, and now I’m also obsessive about this.”

It does make you wonder whether a large part of the reason for launching a clothing line was, for Jonny, at least, linked to his prolonged injury period.
“We did start discussing it in 2007. It was a good period of self-discovery and it showed just how fragile a career is, especially one like mine,” he admits. “I want [Fineside] to last as long as it possibly can. It’s not a joke; it means something.” l

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