The story of James Bond's favourite T-shirt brand

Nick Brooke, CEO of Sunspel, on why there’s more to the brand than boxers


T-shirts, vests and boxer shorts may be the simplest items in one’s wardrobe, but they’re often the hardest to get right. At Sunspel’s factory in Long Eaton, Derbyshire, classic everyday basics are the subject of daily deliberation.

The British heritage brand moved to Long Eaton from its birthplace in nearby Nottingham in 1937, the same year it changed its name from Sea Island Textiles Ltd. Today, the red brick buildings also house a design studio, archive and head office. In the workrooms, expertly trained craftspeople finish the brand’s signature items in a series of labour-intensive steps, most of them still carried out by hand. At Sunspel,
 an everyday item such as the T-shirt is elevated to a luxury product, crafted in soft materials such as Sea Island, jersey and cellular warp knit cotton, and each product must pass stringent quality controls, which even include a metal detector test.

In an adjacent building is the archive, where a 2,000 item-strong collection of historic photos, correspondence, printing plates and garments illustrates Sunspel’s pioneering story. Thomas Arthur Hill, son of hosiery maker John Pinkerton Hill, established the brand as a textile factory in Newdigate, Nottingham, in 1860. He specialised in lightweight, easy-to-wear cotton garments and underwear, including buttoned undershirts that rank as some of the earliest T-shirts. In the early 20th century, Hill’s expertise stretched across the Empire as Sunspel was exported to far-flung places including the Far East.

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Hill introduced the factory to prestige cloths – in particular, fine Sea Island cotton sourced from the West Indies. Following the financial crash, the company moved to its current address, where it perfected its range of Sea Island underwear. After WW2, during which Sunspel helped the war effort with much- needed utility garments, Hill’s son John left the UK for the bright lights of Manhattan. He returned to Long Eaton with American boxer shorts and created a streamlined British version with a new back panel in lieu of the traditional middle seam, and flat-locked seams for ease of wear.

The design proved a runaway success, and Sunspel boxers are still the sartorial stars of the show: in 1985, model Nick Kamen famously revealed his in the now iconic Levi’s 501 ‘Launderette’ advert. Some might say the boxers outstripped the jeans: young men wanted the same neat, stylish underwear. Nick Brooke admits he was one of them. “My first clothing purchase with my own money was a pair of Sunspel boxer shorts,” he remembers today. “I knew [Sunspel] for underwear, boxer shorts and T-shirts.”

Following a career as a barrister and business consultancy roles with Marakon Associates and American Express, Brooke acquired Sunspel with the firm’s present director, Dominic Hazlehurst, in 2005. “I was looking to take on a challenge,” he says. So, when, by pure chance, an aunt of Brooke’s wife mentioned the Long Eaton site, his interest was piqued. Sunspel’s then 81-year-old owner was difficult to win over – he even attempted to divert Brooke by sending him to the wrong train station – but the businessman eventually succeeded.

Under Brooke’s guidance, Sunspel has expanded its offering. In 2012, it reintroduced products finished in Sea Island cotton; a year later, the team turned its attention to the revival of its womenswear. “Women kept saying, ‘I wear my boyfriend’s T-shirt, because it’s so comfortable,’” explains Brooke.

Sunspel’s first standalone shop opened in 2010 on Redchurch Street in East London – a forward- thinking location chosen by then creative director Jonathan Anderson – and it has since added a second UK outpost in Soho, and storefronts in Berlin and Japan, where today there are three boutiques.

Understated designs include cotton twill chinos, jeans in Japanese selvedge denim, and zipped and hooded cashmere sweaters. This spring, a navy pleated skirt is made of tropical wool. “The designs
are undoubtedly modern,” says Brooke. “The fabric and the feel retains a core of what we’ve always been about: a soft, comfortable, lightweight fabric inherited from the past.”

For the 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale, Sunspel – in partnership with costume designer Lindy Hemming – created a line of T-shirts and polo shirts for Daniel Craig. This season, it has delved further into 007’s world with a capsule collection in association with The Ian Fleming Estate. The English author was a fan of Sea Island cotton, which proved the ideal fabric to wear during his jaunts to Goldeneye, his Jamaican estate. It was here that he penned all his James Bond adventures, with the agent dressed in the same cloth.

The new capsule collection includes vacation-ready fine knitwear, camp collar shirts and T-shirts, still a Sunspel forte. “[When] you go to your drawer, they are the ones that you want to put on because they are that much more comfortable,” says Brooke.

Image by Tori Ferenc

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