With thanks to winq.com for permission to reproduce
For three decades Simon Carter’s eponymous clothing and accessories brand has delivered fashion dotted with gentle humour to those seeking an essence of what it means to be British. And we rather like that in our Style Award-winner
Text by Matthew Cain
“I’m only an expert at one thing,” Simon Carter tells me, “and that’s being Simon Carter.”
If this is the case, it’s perhaps just as well that he’s been able to make a career out of it – and not just any career but a very successful one. As his business celebrates its 30th anniversary, Carter’s products are stocked in prestigious department stores including Liberty, Harrods, Selfridges and Fortnum and Mason, and he has his own flagship stores in London, Brighton and Toronto. I go to meet him in his Mayfair store, which is sleek and elegant but also cosy and welcoming.
If he’s only an expert at being himself, I wonder how this is reflected in his brand. I spot racks of cufflinks in the shape of penguins, pandas and even flying ducks – and put it to Carter that his designs are traditional and masculine but with an eccentricity that can only come from his personality. “Definitely,” he smiles, “100%. I’m drawn to things that are a little bit at the margin, a little bit humorous, a little bit odd, whether it’s a building or an unusual car or a work of art. And I think that infuses everything I do.”
A lifelong lover of antiques, Carter often finds inspiration for his designs on trips to antique fairs. Over the years he’s collected classic cars and motorbikes and his face lights up when he tells me about his love of Whitefriars glass. This is a man who clearly knows what he likes. But this wasn’t always the case. Simon Carter may now be an expert at being Simon Carter, but there was a time when he wasn’t as sure who he was.
At university he studied immunology and, when I ask why, he replies, “Two words… parental pressure. I had a lot of parental pressure to be a doctor, actually, but I didn’t get the good enough grades, so doing a degree in immunology was the runner-up prize.”
We joke about the terrible careers advice both of us were given at school and lament the lack of imagination shown by those who are meant to inspire children to follow their dreams. “I went for a careers assessment and had to tick boxes about what I wanted to do and what I was good at,” he tells me. “And the careers advisor came back to me and said, ‘We’ve clearly identified what you should do and it’s be a shipbroker.’ I mean, how obscure is that?
“I was always more naturally drawn to arts-based subjects as a teenager,” he goes on. “So I was very good at English and French and writing. I was in the school play. I wasn’t particularly good at drawing but I liked it. But those kind of careers at that kind of school in the 1970s were not particularly encouraged. Nobody would have dreamt of ticking the box that said ‘menswear designer’.”
So Carter went along with his parents’ idea that he should study a ‘safe’ subject and pursue a profession that was guaranteed to make him a living. But it was while at university in London that he unlocked the idea of making a career out of his love of design.
At weekends he worked in a vintage clothes shop to help support himself, and one day a customer brought in a 1930s motorcycle brooch to sell. When Carter told his bosses how much he loved it, he was given it in lieu of a day’s wages. He did his research and contracted a Cornish firm to manufacture 100 copies of the design, which he then hawked up and down the King’s Road until one retailer finally agreed to stock them – and the Simon Carter brand was born.
Once he’d finished his degree, Carter secured a job as a trainee menswear buyer at Fenwick department store in Brent Cross, but continued selling men’s jewellery on the side. His hobby soon grew into a profitable business and, despite the continued resistance of his parents, he eventually gave up his career in retail to devote himself to it full-time. Once the business had really taken off, his parents came round to the idea and have since been very supportive.
The Simon Carter brand soon expanded from gentlemen’s jewellery into watches, luggage, leather goods, pens and sunglasses. A full menswear collection launched in the late ’90s and the business branched out into shoes earlier this year. As Carter talks me through a few of the products on the shelves behind him, his sense of pride at the craftsmanship that went into them and the quality of the materials used is evident.
Now 53, Carter splits his time between homes in Thornton Heath and Norfolk, where he lives with the husband he married in May. I ask him if he thinks his identity as a gay man is an important part of who he is and if this is manifested in his designs. There’s a long pause and when he begins to speak it’s much more slowly than before, almost as if he’s thinking aloud.
“No, actually, genuinely I don’t. Having said that, I don’t think I’d be the same designer if I were straight because I don’t think I’d be the same person. But I’m a designer who happens to be gay rather than a gay designer.”
We talk about the clichéd idea that all gay men have great taste, which is often held up as the reason so many of us work in fashion and design. “It’s a really intriguing topic,” he says, “and we’re in the grey area between generalisation which is based on a statistical and empirical set of facts, and stereotypes. Because it is true to say that more gay men have the sensibility and sensitivity to be able to make a room look great. That’s a broad and truthful generalisation. That’s not to say, of course, that some gay men don’t look a complete fright and wouldn’t know the difference between Farrow & Ball and Dulux.”
Even so, I suggest that a straight man interested in tradition and heritage wouldn’t have reinvented or revitalised the cufflink in the way that he did, by playing on that tradition and giving it a mischievous twist. “I’m not going to disagree with you,” he says, “and oddly enough I haven’t ever really thought about it. I just sit down with my not-very-good drawings and draw out cufflinks with interesting details on them. There are some ranges that I’ve done that have been deliberately and provocatively outrageous and camp. But I’m not saying a straight designer would be incapable of doing that, it just perhaps comes a bit more instinctively to me.”
However much they’re influenced by his sexuality, there’s no question that Carter’s designs are very British. During my visit, a pair of Japanese tourists call into the store and enthuse about how British everything is. As you might expect, this reflects the way Carter feels about his country. “Yeah, I am broadly proud of Britain. For somebody who has to travel up with Southern Rail most of the week from Thornton Heath to central London, there are a few things wrong with it. But I think it’s a great country.”
We discuss what exactly the Japanese tourists might mean when they describe his designs as ‘very British’ and struggle to come up with a definitive answer. “I think the nature of Britishness in some respects is that it is very difficult to define,” he says. “There are some things you can articulate, but I think the very Britishness we’re talking about is almost impossible to pin down and that’s what’s so intriguing. But you sort of know it when you see it.”
I ask how he understands what it means to be British and this is a question he has no problem answering. “It’s that acceptance of the outsider. It’s that faded shabby wallpaper at the back end of a National Trust house. It’s somebody that has decided to paint their car pink or is happy to wear clashing colours and goddamn anyone who thinks otherwise. And it’s standing up for an old person with a walking stick on the Tube, which is what happened in front of me today, which was very gratifying. It’s a peculiar set of things, but above all I think it’s an individuality.”
Perhaps it’s this individuality, or the understanding of what it means to be the individual that is Simon Carter, that is the secret of his success. He tells me he’s ‘delighted’ to have won Winq’s Style Award and talks excitedly of a future that includes expanding the brand into furniture and opening new shops in India and South Africa.
Other than that, he doesn’t want to make any firm predictions for the future. When he started out on his career as a designer he tells me he had no idea where he’d end up. “But if there’s one thing that I’ve learned on the journey,” he says with a twinkle in his eye, “it’s never to be surprised and to be open to everything.”