British t-shirt pioneer Sunspel opens first Australian store

An English clothing brand that claims a pioneering role in creating the world's most ubiquitous wardrobe staple, the t-shirt, has arrived in Australia and set up its first shop in Melbourne.

Sunspel was founded more than 150 years ago, in 1860, and claims to have offered a form of the t-shirt – not so-named until much later – in its range almost since its inception. That's to the likely chagrin of the US Navy, which claims the credit for inventing (and naming) the garment for its personnel to wear as an undershirt in 1913.

(James Bond) looks very sexy and happy in their clothing.

Lindy Hemming, costume designer

Now located in a chic Melbourne shopping strip on Gertrude St in Fitzroy, Sunspel offers a wide array of high-quality casualwear for both men and women, including the t-shirts that have been such a linchpin of its range.

With lightweight but extremely strong t-shirts made from superfine Egyptian and Sea Island cotton (grown in Jamaica and spun in Switzerland), Sunspel hopes to persuade Australian men that parting with $100, or even as much as $300, represents good value for a t-shirt. Its hoodies and track pants will retail for $290 and $210 respectively.

At a little less than the price of a pair of English hand-made shoes, Sunspel's Sea Island t-shirt conjures up that oft-used (and as often misused) title 'everyday luxury'.

The luxury tee?

Sunspel's CEO Nicholas Brooke, visiting Melbourne for the store opening, sidesteps the debate over whether a relatively simple, everyday item can simultaneously be luxurious.

"To some extent we avoid the term; it's just really great quality product," he says.

However, when his brand has attracted leading designers including Paul Smith, Margaret Howell, Thom Brown and Kris Van Assche – who have all had pieces made in the Sunspel factory – it's a hard conclusion to avoid.

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Then there's the label's very real connection to James Bond, the world's most luxuriously attired silver-screen hero.

The spy who loves them

Brooke is understandably very proud of the fact that Academy Award-winning costume designer Lindy Hemming asked Sunspel to design much of Bond's casualwear for the films Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.

Says Hemming: "I thought that it would be a perfect collaboration of quality and Britishness to ask Sunspel to create all his t-shirts, polo shirts and underwear, which they duly did so, excellently. He looks very sexy and happy in their clothing."

The Riviera polo shirt, which features an eye-catching loose weave, is perhaps one of the most affordable and achievable ways for a man to pull-off some authentic Bond style.

"We originally developed the fabric and the style in the 1950s, but was then redesigned for Daniel Craig in Casino Royale," Brooke says. "It's unique, we invented it."

A local drawcard

While's Sunspel's association with Bond is undoubtedly a great way for the label to draw the attention of new customers, many discerning Australians may already be very much aware of it.

"Australia is doing disproportionately well online ... it's what you'd call an outlier," Brooke says. "It's a noticeably big market for us which made us feel that there was a demand for the brand and the product. And people were coming back and buying it again so we clearly thought they liked it."

When Brooke and co-owner Dominic Hazlehurst decided to expand the business internationally, Sunspel's strong online sales to Australia made it feel like a natural fit. However, there were other factors in the decision.

"Our oldest wholesale account, dating way back to the 1950s, is [Melbourne menswear retailer] Henry Bucks," Brooke says, adding he also took advice from a London neighbour.

"I'm also very close to the guys at Aesop [skin, hair and body products retailer]. Our first store in London was next to their first store in London; in Redchurch Street, Shoreditch.

"They said Melbourne would fit perfectly from the climate perspective and if you do go, Gertrude Street is really like Redchurch Street. Sometimes when you're faced with that, you just go 'great'."

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