Few brands today are able to enjoy such a rich and varied history as Sunspel. A British heritage brand that continues to create the highest quality garments here within the UK, Sunspel was created in its original form in 1860 by Thomas Arthur Hill before moving to its current premises in Long Eaton in 1929.
Born in 1822, Hill was a child of the initial industrial revolution, the eleventh of twelve children and had a father who worked within the hosiery industry – where Hill went on to begin his own career. By 1860 Hill had worked within the industry for many years and decided to make the significant step of creating his own textile factory in New Di Gate, Nottingham. Based on his experience with fabric, he began to make soft, lightweight underwear from the finest cotton, before progressing onto tunics and undershirts, and then t-shirts; a staple of each Sunspel collection still today.
Sunspel enjoyed success during Hill’s lifetime, however it was during the First World War that the brand’s excellent clothing really started to gain attention. It soon became apparent that the wool underwear that was standard issue to the soldiers in the trenches simply wasn’t up to the job, and the military began to look elsewhere for suppliers. Cotton dried quickly and remained comfortable for the wearer in a variety of conditions making it the perfect alternative. This is where Sunspel excelled. Due to conscription however, many of the men from the factory were called out to the French battlefields. As a solution to this, the brand began to employ women within their factory, one of the first to do so even within the textiles industries.
Having successfully navigated the First World War of the twentieth Century, Sunspel soon found itself being thrown into the next. By 1929, it had become one of the premier luxury cotton manufacturers worldwide. Exporting luxury goods to the whole of the British Empire and being one of the first to do so within the Orient, the company enjoyed huge popularity abroad until the company was forced to go back to the drawing board as a result of World War Two. It was now time to create practical clothing for the war, moving back to basic production temporarily. A bomb even fell on the London office of the brand in Bruton Street, resulting in one direct casualty.
After the war had drawn to a close, the Oriental export market that Sunspel once enjoyed had contracted significantly. Changing its direction once more, Sunspel began to concentrate on creating top quality garments for the home market, innovating with and developing new fabrics such as Cellulock (still very popular with brand customers today). From their Long Eaton Factory in Nottingham, they quickly became the premium manufacturer of luxury underwear in the country, introducing the boxer short to the UK in 1947.
Expanding to also supply the RAF, Sunspel began to sit side by side with Parisian Couture in some of the finest boutiques across the world. In 1985 the brand ‘s boxers were featured in an iconic Levi’s 501 advertisement. As Nick Kamen took off his Levi’s in the laundromat to reveal a pair of white Sunspel boxer shorts, an icon was born almost instantaneously.
A more recent development in the brand’s history is Sunspel’s association with the James Bond franchise. Providing Lindy Hemming – Academy Award winning costume designer – with a classic Sunspel Riviera t-shirt for Daniel Craig in ‘Casino Royale’ in 2006, the brand has also recreated Sean Connery’s iconic swimshorts from Thunderball for the 007 exhibition.
Under the ownership of Nick Brooke and Dominic Hazlehurst since 2005, Sunspel continues to understand the importance of preserving traditional techniques and updating them with modern sensibilities. Having collaborated and worked with many upcoming and now famous young designers, such as Jonathan Anderson, Sunspel is a brand that keeps going from strength to strength under their direction – despite everything history may have thrown at it.
Words by Olivia Cooley. Images courtesy of Sunspel