“When I learnt that the Duke of Devonshire used to wear a sweater that said ‘Never Marry a Mitford’, I just thought it was so hilarious and I had some personalised sweaters made as Christmas gifts for my family. People asked where they could get them and we started making them: they love them for shooting parties and during the ski season.”
Pierre Lagrange, owner of Huntsman, is explaining the ducal inspiration behind the entry of Savile Row’s grandest tailor into novelty knitwear. Keeping its target customer in mind, Huntsman has cast Lord Ivar Mountbatten, his husband James Coyle and Mountbatten’s three daughters to model it. An online design service enables shoppers to choose their own colours, words, fonts and necklines.
You can just picture Christmas morning in stately homes the length and breadth of the nation: the rustle and rip of wrapping paper followed by snorts of laughter and cries of “satch fun”.
There is a particularly British weakness for slogans on cushions, slippers and sweaters. And among those for whom novelty knitwear is not just for Christmas but for life, few better represent that glorious national tradition of not taking oneself too seriously than broadcaster Gyles Brandreth, knitwear icon and eponym of a recently relaunched pullover brand Gyles & George. (The “George” refers to its original co-founder, the late George Hostler.)
During the 1980s, when there were four TV channels on which he seemed to appear nonstop, Brandreth claims to have worn more than 1,000 different sweaters, only stopping when he went into politics.
“During the pandemic somebody got hold of me on Twitter and said: ‘Desperate times call for desperate measures, wear the jumpers again, life needs to be brightened up.’ So I got the jumpers out and began wearing them on television, on Zoom and on programmes like This Morning, The One Show and Celebrity Gogglebox. I hadn’t worn many of them for almost 40 years,” says Brandreth, his voice drifting mellifluously down the phone.
For those old enough to remember the 1980s and Brandreth’s pullovers, they are the tea-soaked madeleine that recall a gentler age when British breakfast television was a novelty, when Richard Stilgoe played the piano (there is a keyboard sweater and scarf that, says Brandreth, “strikes the right note”), when “Mad Lizzie” Webb presented workouts, and when Russell Grant told the nation’s horoscopes.
It was a very different world to which those sweaters belonged — back then, most were sold at a boutique on Kensington Church Street — and there they might have stayed had it not been Jack Carlson of Rowing Blazers. Carlson is a remarkable man; a champion American rower and Oxford-educated archaeologist who once worked at the College of Arms. Four and half years ago he opened a preppy sportswear brand called Rowing Blazers, which just opened a pop-up shop in Covent Garden showcasing the revived Gyles & George knits.
Carlson has a touching reverence for British life and lashings of American can-do spirit. Where others might look at the knits and see a charming memento of a vanished era, he saw a “heritage brand” primed for revival.
Carlson set about recreating the benign zaniness of the early 1980s media world: the website for Gyles & George looks like websites would have looked had they existed in the 1980s. At 34, Carlson may not have been born when the nation had breakfast with Brandreth, but he knows his market: US comedians Ziwe Fumudoh and Pete Davidson and basketballer Dwyane Wade have all embraced the Gyles & George look.
Indeed, Carlson has a knack for culturally significant, Thatcher-era British knitwear. He recently also revived Warm & Wonderful, maker of the black sheep jumper famously worn by Diana Princess of Wales (and Emma Corrin in The Crown). At the time, the jumper prompted speculation that she felt herself an outsider in the royal flock.
The people’s princess was also a wearer of Gyles & George knitwear, but you don’t need to be an expert in ovine metaphors to decipher the message of her favourite design. The front read “I’m a luxury . . . ” with the ellipsis leading to the punchline on the back “ . . . few can afford”.
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