In Medias Res: Patrick Johnson
In Medias Res: Patrick Johnson
- Words Chris Fenimore
- Date July 9, 2019
"In Medias Res" is a column in which photographer Chris Fenimore links up with some of fashion's most interesting people to see what they're wearing throughout the week.
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You once said “growing up in South Australia, you either become a doctor, a lawyer or a winemaker.” You are none of those things. What led you into tailoring?
Growing up in South Australia, half of my time was spent in the country with my mother, and the other half in Adelaide with my father. I would say I had as close to a perfect childhood as one could have: lots of space and time to have fun and make trouble, and loving parents and siblings that kept me on my toes. After finishing school, I studied science in Adelaide, specializing in Oenology (winemaking). As a career this wasn't for me, however I enjoyed the degree and met some really interesting people including Tom Riley, who would later become my business partner in P. Johnson. After my final exam, (literally that day) I jumped on a plane to Europe. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do but I knew I needed to put some time aside for some deep thought and this needed to be in a new place. I moved to a small village in the South of France, near Montpellier. I spoke no French and they spoke even less English, the perfect place for me to get lonely and work out what I wanted to do. I got a job in the lab at the local winery and submerged myself in literature for the next five months. I did get lonely but it was a good kind of lonely; the kind that changed my way of seeing things and helped me discover what was important to me.
From here I moved to London, where I enrolled to study menswear at Central Saint Martins and pattern cutting at London College of Fashion. As fate would have it I ended up working for a shirt-maker in Chelsea named Rob Emmett. Rob, who is Australian by birth, moved to the UK to finish his schooling and ended up studying his tailoring apprenticeship in Switzerland. He is a character. I worked for Rob for about 7 years all up, and I not only learnt a great deal about tailoring but also about running a small business. It was a fun time. It was then that I met Tamsin, my future wife. At the risk of sounding cheesy, I knew straight away that I wanted to spend all of my time with her. She needed to head back to Australia so I (semi-reluctantly) followed. It was here then that I started P. Johnson in January, 2009.
How did you become interested in men’s fashion?
As long as I can remember, I have been interested in clothing. Mum tells me that I was a total pain to get dressed as I child. She used to make all of our cloths and she really dressed us up in some pretty interesting get ups. My parents separated when I was 5 and I was lucky that they both chose excellent partners. It was my step father, a man named Creagh O’Connor who really taught me about tailoring and the more classic way of dressing. He had his suits made on Saville Row, shirts on Jeremy street and shoes in St. James. He had the most immaculate dressing room. I used to sneak into it and look at all of his shirts freshly pressed, his ties all lined up, his watches and hats—beautiful. He taught me the basics, and from there it grew. I would say that for me my interest has always been in style rather than fashion.
You grew the business from the ground up, without outside investment. How did you manage that?
I have always had a very clear idea about what I wanted to create with P. Johnson. I want to help people dress better in a waste-free way. I want to help people have simple, functional wardrobes full of beautifully made clothing that enriches their lives. Most importantly, I want our clients to enjoy the process. My approach has always been a slow and steady one. I started the business with 1500 pounds so I guess I didn't really have an option. Having little money in the early days was a very good problem to have. It forces you to think differently and be much more creative.
From that standing start we have grown to a retail business with 42 people across seven locations and a production business in Tuscany with 68 artisans. I was very fortunate that my first employee was my best friend and now business partner Tom Riley. Tom, along with my wife Tam, has been by my side every step of the way and he is an exceptional person—Tam isn’t bad either! We have been able to build a team of passionate, hard working people that are now more like family than employees. That’s not to say we haven’t made some mistakes on the people front, however with the right culture, the bad eggs leave and it becomes easier to attract good people. I think of P. Johnson more like a Grand Hotel than a retail clothing business. It takes time to build a Grand Hotel; It’s not fast fashion, or really even fashion at all. It’s an experience. My team and I want to build something that lasts hundreds of years—something that is unique to us. We never really look at what others are doing. We never compete with them and never compare ourselves to them. We just try and get better every day. I have never understood people who copy another person’s work. So far, in order to build P. Johnson, I haven’t had to seek outside investment. Maybe this won’t always be the case. Who knows. But for now we are happy. Slow and steady.
I think your brand has a very distinct visual language, from your Instagram to what the clothes actually look like. How important is branding for you?
For me, branded image is more about a sort of personal integrity, not something so calculated. It's a constant visual conversation about the things that excite and inspire you and you feel strongly for, so the audience gets a very clear and honest insight into who you are. It’s not a coldly worked out exercise, as branding often is. Our brand has more to do with an attitude than an image. To be interesting to me, a brand has to be pure and unique and that can only happen if you stay true to your story and don’t get distracted by what others are doing.
Your tailoring is certainly not traditional; how did you arrive at P. Johnson’s look, feel and construction?
Well there isn’t really a history of tailoring in Australia, so we could write our own story. For us there is an emphasis on comfort here. Comfortable people tend to get through life a little easier it seems, and the basis of style actually being a product of comfort. Tailoring’s strict exterior doesn’t always allow for this, so its an exercise in making things natural, soft and flexible. A lot of traditional tailoring did have a strong emphasis on comfort. Perhaps that subsided for a while. We believe in using a lot of handwork when constructing our garments. This helps make our clothes more naturally flexible and comfortable. I guess our look wasn’t really ‘arrived’ at, but it took time and will continue to change further I suspect. We are constantly looking for new methods of construction, new fabrics and technologies that we can use. That’s the exciting part.
Your wife designs your showrooms. Do you guys find it easy to work together? Is it difficult to maintain both a romantic and a professional relationship?
Yes, Tam designs all of our spaces. Tam is very easy to work with because she is naturally brilliant at what she does. Her philosophy about being unique and true to herself is the same as mine. She is always pushing herself to try new things. This is why no two of our showrooms look alike. We love working together so much we even share an office. She probably finds me annoying as a client but she has my measure so knows how to manage my neuroses. I am lucky enough to help her with her projects as well. It’s nice to get your head out of the gutters sometimes.
Who is the P. Johnson customer? Does he differ from country to country?
Our customer base is very diverse in terms of age and demographic. They all aspire to be better though. We have people who just need this process to be easy and those who never want to leave the store, it’s great.
Was it always in your plans to have a wholesale line in addition to your made-to-measure suiting?
No. It just made sense to extend the experience when we’re not always easy enough to get to. Ready to wear only makes up a very small percentage of our total output so really it’s a tiny part of our business and one that I don’t want to grow much more. I don’t want to just make stuff; I want to create unique experiences that make a difference to my clients lives. That becomes a lot harder when it’s outside of your own spaces.
Are wedding suits a large part of your business? There's a lot of pressure there...
Yes, and a critical chance to engage someone with the whole process of making clothes rather than buying clothes. It’s great seeing someone’s eyes light up once they see it’s not that intimidating. We love weddings. We can prove to our client the shopping process need not be stressful and something arduous, but fun, like they should be. We’re very focused on made-to-measure. I feel it’s the best way to get the result we are after, as well as being waste free.
What do you think makes for a good retail experience?
A good retail experience should be generous. It should make someone comfortable and should be natural. The interior needs to set a standard and yet offer a lot to look at, as well as challenge the customer. Perhaps the only way to affect people’s tastes is to challenge them constantly. It should also be informative—it needs to teach someone something, otherwise they can buy clothes from anywhere. We share our best people around the stores to inject them with the right feeling and attitude. Trunkshows don’t have the showroom to help so they really need to have a great ‘people’ experience.
Do you have any style icons?
Lots. Check out #pjticon. I like people who dress for and are true to themselves.
How often are you traveling? Can you share some of your favorite places on the road?
Most weeks. I really love traveling and I love it the most when I have the family with me, which we try to do this as much as possible. Favorites are hard for me because it really depends what mood you are in. I love my breakfasts at Balthazar in New York, lunch in Milan at Erbu Brusca, martinis at Duke’s in London and a casual dinner at Les Enfants du Marché in Paris. My favorite store was Arny’s in Paris (still mourning the loss of that one) but now it’s probably my local hardware store. In terms of hotels, I can’t go past Le Sirenuse in Positano for service and interior, L’ Colombe d’or for that court yard and Palazzo Margarita for that cinema, the garden and making the best gluten free pasta in the world. I am also pretty fond of La Posta Vecchia, the old Getty mansion just outside of Rome.
If you knew your next meal was your last, what would it be?
That’s a bit morbid. I would have to go with a curry from Gymkhana in London. I would then go past China Tang for the duck before shimmering past dukes for about 10 martinis. I want to feel nothing at the end.
What’s the last clothing item you purchased?
I bought a new dressing gown from Youth and Beauty in Tokyo. Great store. I also brought a pair of 1990’s Levi’s from them.
The prevailing fashion trends are in many ways the antithesis of your brand. Do you pay attention to what’s happening in the fashion world?
Not really. I just try and improve what I am doing. Of course I am influenced in some way, more from the past. My design probably gets more influenced from art and interior design than other clothing designers. But Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren have always been the two clothing designers I look up to. It’s more than an appreciation with these two. I am grateful for what they have done.
What's your ultimate grail?
I have a bit of an obsession with old French eyewear, especially Masion Bonnet. I would love to get my hands on the original light tortoiseshell pair that they made for Aristotle Onassis.
How do you start your day?
I wake up around 5:30am. That’s pretty normal in Australia. I go to the beach (when I am in Sydney), then get to my breakfast spot. I’ll read, have a coffee, eat, call the team in New York, then meditate. I only exercise in the afternoon. It’s too painful for me in the morning.
What do you do with your spare time when you’re not working on your brand?
I have two children who are both very good company. I spend most of my free time with them. We entertain a lot so it’s usually with friends around. Apart from that, I split my time between losing games of backgammon to my wife and reading.
Where do you see P. Johnson in five years?
I see it being better, not necessarily bigger.
What does the rest of 2019 look like for Patrick Johnson?