It’s March 1983, the heady first sun of spring and I am working in Covent Garden in central London. The market has only recently been redeveloped and the narrow lanes that would later become stuffed with global cookie brands and millions of tourist were still an insider’s haunt. The Bernard Stone bookstore with its life size sculpture of Sigmund Freud stands in Floral St where Paul Smith is yet to make it down from Nottingham, ace animator Bob Godfrey (Roobarb & Custard, Henry’s Cat) has an effigy of Margaret Thatcher hanging from a gibbet outside his Neal St office and you can still catch the likes of Chet Baker at the Canteen (ex-Blitz) albeit with an all British sidemen. Of course we also have the much lamented FLIP on Long Acre where many a lunch time is spent searching the racks (to be subject of a later post).
A short walk across the other side of the ‘Garden from where I worked in Langley St, is the cult J Simons shop. With my meager salary of £60pw (before tax!) most lunchtimes see me stuck in the office with a large Food for Thought wholefood takeaway for fear of window shopping bringing me down. However, once a month I get paid and then I can ‘afford’ to wander the stores knowing if I see something in the window of S Fisher’s I can go inside and try it on with cash in my pocket.
My colleagues at work (all much older than my tender 17 years) spend all their earnings on drinking at lunchtime in the classic British fashion. I however, calculate pints of beer in the number of second hand button down shirts I can buy at FLIP and will not be swayed from my FLIP hunting missions. This fine day however, I am crossing the piazza to the formidable J Simons where I will buy my first ever brand new button down shirt. I push the door open and inside the store a short guy with a grown out crew cut is leaning against a wooden counter and looks me up and down as I enter. The door closes onto an Aladdin’s cave of wood, loafers, wool and leather. I can sense that his radar for potential customers is 100% accurate, but I’m no browser, I’ve got cash. With a swift visual appraisal of my collar size John Simons (as I later discover the man to be) steps forward on one weejun’d foot and deftly yanks out a stack of neatly packaged oxford shirts.
I know all the little details that separate American clothing from its dull British High St counterpart from my FLIP hunting. The arcana of the small blue tags with white or silver stitched lettering, the clothing worker’s union stamps on inside pockets, the perfect roll on the placement of collar buttons, but this is the first time I’ve seen a brand new US made button down shirt in all it’s packaged glory. I select a classic blue oxford short sleeve because summer’s coming and it’s the Sero brand that I want, the one I’ve seen in the window over the preceeding weeks. I make the purchase with a cheque for £24.95 and walk out with my first J Simons carrier bag, back across the piazza, past my tipsy work colleagues outside the pub, and straight into my tiny shared office. Great, it’s empty. Everyone is still at lunch. I take off the frayed second hand Brooks Brothers long sleeve and put on my brand new Sero shirt, and step back out into the sunlight to find the cheapest sandwich I can buy because now I am going to be broke for the rest of the month.
As I turn from Langley St into Long Acre pass other 17 year olds. They wear mullets, chemically bleached Levis Orange Tabs with frayed bottoms and waffle v-necks.
Jump forward to early 2009 – many years and many more shirts have come and gone. I’m reading a post on FNB about the shirts John Simons used to sell and it occurs to me that maybe these companies no longer exist. If they don’t exist any longer it’s like a rare LP, right? You don’t just want it, you need it. At any price.
Mmmm. Here we go…
Fortunately, after some hours of online searching I found a someone who had a bunch of shirts for sale. The seller had posted the worst imaginable photo taken by anyone wanting to sell something. He had placed the shirts on the floor on a highly patterned carpet and between the flash reflection on the plastic bags, the distance of the camera and the small section of the image that actually contained the shirts it was virtually impossible to see anything. The seller didn’t mention whether or not they were vintage but there was just enough detail to see some clues. He also mentioned the key words ‘Sero the Purist’. One of the shirts was a Sero and they were my size. I quickly sent a polite email to the seller asking if he would consider shipping the UK. A week passed, I got no response and the auction ended. Then out of the blue a few days later, the seller sent me a nice friendly email saying that he’d relisted them and if I wanted to buy them from England I was welcome. Say no more.
The shirts arrived whilst I working abroad and Mrs Weejun got to the parcel first, opening the package (I thought they might need airing, she said) and texted me: “Funny shirts arrived with 1 extra free must the strange orange one?”
The extra one was in fact a narrow collar button down short sleeve in a grey/white stripe with the Franklin Simon brand, unfortunately a little too large for me. Amongst the shirts were a light green Sero The Purist and a classic blue ‘own maker’ branded shirt that looks to be made by Gant as it has the back collar button and locker loop (but no G on the hem). Of course a couple of the other shirts were 60/40 poly/cotton mix as to be expected from the late 60s but still…
Below are some images including the Before (buying) and After (receiving).
As I sit and type this on a March saturday morning some 26 years after that first Sero purchase, I’m listening out for the knock of the postman who will bring another EIGHT of these gems from my secret source, (who’s turned out to be a great guy with some funny stories) including another two Seros, one a white short sleeve cousin to my original 1983 model.