It was a game-changing, pulse-racing moment in advertising history when hunky Nick Kamen stripped down to his undies in a laundrette to get his Levi 501s washed. But did you notice the boxers?
Behind these pristine white classics were not just Nick Kamen, but a 157-year history of British garment-making. Sunspel was founded by Thomas Hill in 1860 in Nottingham – the capital of Britain’s hosiery and lace industry – to supply the British Empire with high-quality underwear. Thomas Hill was one of the great early British industrialists and a fabric innovator, who developed fine cotton and wool jersey and introduced luxurious Sea Island cotton in 1885. Sunspel subsequently produced one of the world’s earliest T-shirts in an innovative, light, cellular fabric, designed to be worn as an undergarment. In 1947 John Hill, great grandson of the founder, introduced the American boxer short to Britain, innovating the design by introducing a comfortable back panel.
The factory moved to Long Eaton in 1937, where the 19th-century redbrick mill remains Sunspel’s heart and soul. A team of skilled seamstresses continues to handcraft its classic T-shirts in much the same way as they have since 1937.
The label was family-run until 2005, when it was acquired by Nicholas Brooke, who has continued to innovate without losing Thomas Hill’s vision of creating understated, versatile, essential clothing from beautiful fabrics. Shortly after he took over, Sunspel was commissioned to produce Daniel Craig’s polo shirts, T-shirts and underwear for the James Bond film Casino Royale, released in 2006. ‘I thought it would be a perfect collaboration of quality and Britishness. He looks very sexy and happy in their clothing,’ said the award-winning costume designer Lindy Hemming. The Riviera Polo Shirt – with its updated spin on an original 1950s design – became as much of a Sunspel icon as the original British boxers had in the 1980s, and helped to establish Bond’s new, modern image.
Sunspel’s philosophy is to create modern everyday luxury clothing in an understated aesthetic, paying rigorous attention to detail in both design and manufacture. Key pieces remain the perfect T-shirt (updated with a two-fold jersey fabric), the British boxer short (now in a variety of cuts and the finest, softest cotton) and the polo shirt.
Apart from James Bond, other noteworthy clients include Eddie Redmayne, Liam and Noel Gallagher, Rufus Sewell, Alexa Chung, Sophie Dahl, Dominic West and Sir Ben Kingsley. ‘We have a wide range of customers,’ says Nicholas, ‘from older men who have bought Sunspel for years, to a younger, more fashion-conscious crowd. They all appreciate high-quality fabrics, precise fit, the utmost comfort and timeless, classic styles.’
Sunspel now has five stores in London, one in Berlin and three in Japan and stays true to its founding principles by continuing to explore fabric innovations, such as organic cotton. It has been working with the first new mill to open in England for over 50 years to develop a unique English cotton for an archive-inspired collection. Tradition and innovation, again working hand-in-hand, take this company striding into the 21st century.
SUNSPEL 11-15 CHILTERN STREET, LONDON, W1U 7PG +44 (0)20 7009 0650