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Phil James, 51: Pivoting to a Parallel Career in Age-Inclusive Clothing

After making his own clothes as a teenager, Phil James turned to commercial photography for a lifelong career. Now he has pivoted back to garments with his age-inclusive workwear-meets-style clothing brand &SONS. He tells us about his collection, his obsessive attention to detail, and how his business is going strong, even through lockdown.

By Paul Lackner

I have been a graphic designer and creative director for forty years. Over that time, I have had the good fortune to work with many lifestyle brands. Every so often, I come across a label that particularly resonates. &SONS in the UK, created 51-year-old Phil James from Cheltenham UK, was just such a brand. It really should’ve come as no surprise, then, that it is run by a creative, making clothes that are practical and functional for our specific day-to-day needs and look so damn good. But nothing comes out of a vacuum. Phil was making his own clothes as a teenager, cutting up vintage garments and merging them with something else, not wanting to wear the same clothes as everyone else. Now, with &SONS, he gets a second bite at that apple.

Fashion is often thought of as a business for the young. How is age an asset for you?

I think you reach an age where you are comfortable in your own skin, which means you are comfortable in what you wear. This is essentially the inspiration behind &SONS.

Balancing Workwear and Style

What was the original inspiration behind &SONS?

The idea really came from necessity… I am a photographer and wanted a certain look that was a balance between functional and stylish, something I could work hard in when shooting but also feel comfortable when talking to clients at agencies, etc. I was ordering from 10 different websites to achieve the look I wanted but it still didn’t feel perfect. I figured there must be other creatives out there who wanted that layered workwear look and would appreciate buying it all from one website. That was the seed of starting the clothing brand, I guess. The brand name came from seeing an old building years ago on a shoot that had lost part of its sign but still had the …&SONS on the end. I registered the domain name there and then and thought I would use it one day…

“I guess initially I was making clothes for myself”

Your brand strategy is very age inclusive. What motivated that approach?

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I guess initially I was making clothes for myself and people of my era but we soon realized our customer demographic was much wider, 25 – 60 and both men and women. That said, I think the majority are the ‘forgotten’ section of the market, 30 – 50 with a disposable income. They still want to wear quality and look cool.

There is a very considered aesthetic at work here. Describe your design process.

I am old school so I always start with a sketch, get the idea out of my head. I then source mood images, swatches of fabrics, hardware, etc, and play around for a bit. We then create a design pack and commission the factory to make a sample. We have our fitting model wear the sample and we make adjustments to the overall fit and maybe fine-tune some details. Then we make an amends sheet for the design-tech pack and send to the factory for final production.

Do you have a creative routine?

I wake up very early, make fresh coffee, and read for an hour before the house stirs… I also get any ideas out of my head and into my notebook.

“The last 2 months have been our strongest ever — a lot of home shopping seems to be happening”

How did you start?

Very humbly! In 2016, we launched through Kickstarter and have been growing ever since. Remarkably, the Covid crisis has had no effect on our business; in fact, the last 2 months have been our strongest ever, — a lot of home shopping seems to be happening. We are very lucky that our supply chain has not been affected, the factories have been able to keep up the deliveries, which has not been the case with a number of firms that manufacture in China and India.

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How has your home life been affected by the crisis? 

Personally, I have found the lockdown to be a way of moving slower, thinking more clearly, and spending stress-free time with my family. I feel very lucky to be safely at home with them during such a worldwide crisis.

“Fitness is a big part of my life”

What is your fitness routine? It seems very impressive.

I do try to stay fit. I do a boot camp 3 times a week and then I lift weights with a trainer 3 times a week. It really helps. Fitness is a big part of my life, it keeps me feeling my best. 

The Carver jacket

What’s on the office playlist at &SONS?

I have an eclectic taste so it can be anything from my early years like the Cocteau Twins / Joy Division / Echo & the Bunnymen to current favorites like Editors / White Lies / Interpol. I get pushed some great music from Spotify too… currently listening to Gengahr’s album “Sanctuary.”

Signature Pieces

What would you consider your “signature” piece?

The Carver jacket is our most popular garment and heads up our “chore” jacket range. It looks “worn in” already. I think it perfectly balances workwear with comfort and style. The Sunday Shirt also does very well for us.

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Do you have a favorite piece in your line?

My personal favorite is the off-white Elder Henley. It’s the first garment I designed and I think it’s the foundation of the range, the perfect base layer. It was the workwear staple garment from the past and just looks better with age. 

“I’m a bit OCD about comfort and fabrics being tactile”

Honestly, there isn’t anything in your line that misses the mark. Who is primarily responsible for your designs?

Currently, I design everything. I think being a photographer has made me focus on all the details and I’m a bit OCD about comfort and fabrics being tactile.  

Your goal was to have 100% made in the UK by 2020. How is that working out?

It’s very tough. Brexit hasn’t helped, of course, and a lot of costs to produce here may go up, so we are waiting to see. We have opened a small factory in Birmingham now and this is producing some of our “Made in Britain” range. We have also started weaving our own denim in the North of England. The plan is to expand UK production as much as we can. I think, realistically, we might end up at around 75%. 25%? There are so many unknowns at the moment, unfortunately.

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Bespoke and Ethical Denim

Does all your denim come from Hewitt Heritage?

Our GB denims, the Cutter and Rocker, are made from Hewitt Heritage bespoke denim and created for us. Our new Frontier denims are made from ISKO denim who are doing great things with recycling and ethical production. 

For the garments not currently made in the UK, where are they produced?

These are produced in Turkey currently. 

What’s Next

What can we look forward to from &SONS in 2020?

We will be expanding the core range with new colours and some SS20 lighter garments like workwear chinos, T-shirts, caps. We have some exciting collabs with great brands/celebs coming soon, too. We have a new Hardwear collection. Future plans will be womenswear, definitely.

&SONS’ attention to detail is simply brilliant — tactile, timeless, detailed, classic, and cool. They aspire to build an honest, aspirational lifestyle brand and change how men wear clothes in life and work.

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Paul G Lackner is a contributor to AGEIST. https://www.acumium.com/meet-the-team/paul-lackner.

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