A Modernist is a film about the life and times of legendary clothing retailer John Simons. Featuring exclusive interviews with musicians Kevin Rowland, Suggs and Paul Weller, broadcaster Robert Elms, art expert Ronnie Archer Morgan, advertising guru Sir John Hegarty and Sir Paul Smith as well as John Simons himself plus music by James Taylor, Stone Foundation, Aunt Nelly, Paul Weller and Lee Cogswell.
This is the story, lovingly told, of one of the worlds great fashion icons and follows in the great traditions of Mono Media’s previous Peter Blake documentary. Visually it packs a punch and with a great story told by all those that have shopped at Johns London shop. This film is for all those that love their clothes and like to look sharp. I took the chance to catch up with Director Lee Cogswell and John Simons himself to discuss the film and to look back on John’s life in fashion.
Interview with Lee Cogswell
Can you give a bit of background and how you got into making films?
I started making films around 10 years. It started as a hobby that slowly took over. I made a few music videos and a short doc piece called Keep On Keeping On, about a soul singer called Nolan Porter. I met Mark Baxter while shooting a music video Stone Foundation and we teamed up and set up Mono Media Films to make our first doc, Tubby Hayes: A Man in a Hurry, together.
How did you get involved and where did the idea come from with making a film about John? Was it on the back of the superb film about Peter Blake, that Mark Baxter was involved with?
No, A Modernist was well underway before we started making the Peter Blake film. Most of the interviews had been filmed and the edit had been started. We had to put this film on hold for a while, while making the Pop Art Life, as we had to work to a much stricter deadline on that. Jason Jules wanted to make a film about John as a thank you to him.
Were you a customer to John’s clothes?
No, I met John when making Tubby Hayes: A Man in a Hurry, back in 2013. A lot of people that I’ve worked with gave so much credit to John for what’s he’s done and so he seemed like an interesting subject.
How did the film take shape? Can go over some of the timeline of the film?
First off, we traced John’s steps and visited the locations of the shops he’d had over the years. We talked about each shop and his time there. We then sat with John at his home and at his current shop and talked further about his career. That gave us the foundation and a structure to build around, with the other people you’ll see in the film.
Was a film always the aim?
Yes. He’s looked up to and held in such high esteem, by so many people, and yet he’s completely unknown to so many others. He’s a great subject. Jason, the writer on this film, along with another crew, set out to make a film about John 3 or 4 years back. That didn’t work out and so myself and Mark Baxter met Jason and talked about his ideas. We decided that it was defiantly a film worth making, even if it hadn’t worked out first time around. So, we teamed up with Jason and set out to make to tell his story and create something that the people wearing his clothes would enjoy watching, and people who’d never heard of him would find interesting.
How did you get some of the names involved with the film? i.e. Weller, Rowland, Suggs etc..
Everybody that we interviewed had a lot of respect and time for John. They’re all into their clothes and had been customers of Johns over the years. They were more than happy to be interviewed and talk about him for that reason.
John is very much, in some quarters, Is underrated and an unknown of his generation, much like those unknown players on northern soul, rare soul tracks. Do you think this is part of the appeal to his customers?
I’m not sure. There may be an element of that, but I think mostly, for these guys that are into there clothes and this style, he get’s it right and they and so they love what he does.
What are your next projects?
We’re in the early stages of pre-production on a couple of music doc pieces that I think will be really interesting. Two subjects that I hold near to heart for different reason. We also have a short film that we’re post production on. Lots to come from Mono Media Films.
Interview with John Simons
Hi John. Just looking at the trailer for the film, it looks like a very special film that tells your story:
Well, it represents something very special to me personally.
Can we steps back in time a little and can you explain why you got into the fashion industry?:
There’s 2 things I have to thank for that. You have my background growing up in an East End clothing family and you have the Beat Generation to thank too. You got Chet Baker, Charlie Parker, all these massive influences on me. In terms of music, clothes, art, culture. So if I touch on my family. I grew up in a family of clothing manufactures except for one exception which was a hair dresser in Kingsland Road, Dalston where all the smart guys used to go, that was my Dad’s sister, and I used to stay there quite a lot, this was when I was 11/12 years old. I was just a normal kid, I wasn’t some sort of lunatic who didn’t like toys or playing in the street with the other kids, I just liked clothes you know.
What year would this have been?
I was born in 1939 and I would spend a lot of time at my Aunties house and my father and my uncles would spend time around there as they wasn’t married and I was like their favourite nephew, so I would get pushed forward to show off. Everyone in those days would have their suits tailermade in those days and so I was kinda trapped into the clothing business. I was a little bit of a musician at that time too, I was learning to play the saxophone at that time and that what made me interested in the American jazz culture. I’m not saying I was a great player and I still play abit today, just for my own entertainment. So as you can see I’ trying to match the 2 influence together.
So this is way before mods and the modernism of the 60’s?
Oh forget it Matt! We’re talking way way before, this is nothing to do with Mod. Absolutely nothing, this was about the Beat Generation which is something that, if really in if you want to study it, it’s very hard to touch or explain if you weren’t there, I’m telling you, it’s very hard to touch, it was very much to do with the music and then the Ivy League clothing. Ivy League was very much the Egalerterian in dress form for everyone in America and it captured the whole market in that early period, which fascinated me.
The luckiest thing that happened to me was I started work as a junior in men’s clothing Smith and Western in Dalston. I got lucky, I was asked to join the display team and I became a assistant window dresser. Doing that changed my life. When I was 16 I went to Cecil Gee who was in Charing Cross Road and at the same time he suggested that I enrol in Saint Martins School of art which was opposite Cecil Gee, which I did. And I studied the Distributed Trades Course there, it wasn’t a fine arts course. After taking this course I started to rub shoulders with those in the fine arts and I even gave some saxophone lessons from there, this is in 1955 and I began to see Soho around that time, which was a happening place even back then, one particular bar was called Sam Widges where they had BeBop music on the jukebox which was a heavy, heavy influence on me at this time. I was very familiar with the Americana of that day as if I lived there almost.
So with Music back then would this be through import records?
Yes, I’d go to a place called Foyles on the first floor where they had a record department and there they had Vogue Records and Esquire records, which were 78 rpm records. I was fascinated by the labels, they just hit the spot you know and with my uncles who had no children they used to take me on holiday with them and I kept seeing all of these records and influences.
How did you go from being a window display artist to owning your own shop?
I worked for 10 years as a display artist, worked for Cecil Gee for 4 years and then for Burberrys for 4 years. I’d get a car and travel round the country doing displays. How I came into business was though a friend of mine and we were looking at all the Ivy League clothing to see if we could recreate it and we found a guy who had a factory below the Hackney Empire. He started to make us clothing that we tried to sell on the markets, the way young guys do today. The entrance to the factory was on a level to the street and so we said to the owner would you like to to turn the entrance into a shop? The owner was ok with us starting up the shop and we went on from there simply which was called Clothesville which was in 1963. I would design a jacket is the morning and it would be in the shop window by the afternoon. We eventually opened a 2nd shop in Hoe Street Walthamstow and then this is the key element we then found a 3rd shop in Richmond, which became The Ivy Shop which is still talked of in hushed tones, at this point the owner of the factory said ‘this is too much for me now’ at this point we said we’ll take this on our own now, which would be late 1963.
What kind of customers did you have in the shop?
Young guys found us as a new beginning, most of the customers were 10 years younger than me. The shop wasn’t the high profile kind of shop as those shops in Carnaby Street was, but was much more influential.
How popular was the shop back then?
On saturdays there would be customers queuing to get into the shop and we developed a lot of customers that loved The Ivy League, the Beat Generation which them turned into what was known at the time to be Modernists, not Mods. They were very smart, they didn’t have a particularly aggressive look though they had a very clean cut look and that grew and grew, and that’s where the Mod relationship grew from, we started an interest in what is now known as the Harrington jackets, there was a programme on TV called Peyton Place, and Rodney Harrington was the star and he wore a particular jacket which was a Barracuta golf jacket and we popularised it in the uk, which is now accepted uniform now.
Who has been the most interesting person you have had in the shop?
We have always tried to be indifferent to their fame. If you have ever been intrusive with someone who is well known , they will be polite but they won’t come back, so we have just accepted everyone who has ever come into the shop. I hope this captures about of my background but to capture the real heart of my background I would hope everyone will see the film.
You can find out more about the film via the official website
All words by Matt Mead. You can find more of Matt’s writing on Louder Than War at his author’s archive.