Taking The Unexpected Road With The Irreverent Richard Nicoll

How does a heritage brand avoid getting stale?

BY Wayne Cheong | Oct 24, 2016 | Fashion

While only a recent presence on the local fashion scene, the Jack Wills brand is big in the UK. It is the label that adorns the outfits of the young and preppy Sloaney crowd—the people who lean towards the “fabulously British” (cribbed from the company’s slogan).

Since its inception in Salcombe, Devon, where the first store opened in 1999, the brand has since expanded to over 80 locations both in the UK as well as internationally. But the preservation of heritage might give way to stagnancy. Time rolls forward as with people’s tastes; thus, to survive, to move with the times, adaptability is needed.

To circumvent extinction, the company roped in Richard Nicoll as its Creative Director. The Australia-raised, London-based designer started out in fine arts before discovering that he had a knack for fashion. His take on modernist classics won him three Association Nationale pour le Développement des Arts de la Mode (ANDAM) prizes in 2008 and his debut at London Fashion Week in 2009 garnered a “Best Young Designer” prize at the Elle Style Awards. So given his CV, there were raised eyebrows when the minimalist designer started working in the sandbox of a youth-marketed megacompany.

Nicoll echoes similar sentiments as well. He speaks to us in a soft contralto as he adds that he knew he could get the job done. “I worked with other youthful brands before, like Fred Perry, and I approach my own collection by looking at wardrobing and lifestyle in my own way. While my peers do more niche products, I feel that my approach is broader,” he says.

The designer admits that he found it challenging to work within a set of guidelines; it didn’t come naturally to him. It took him a few seasons before he finally found comfort in his footing. “It’s not a departure; it’s an evolution,” he explains, “Traditionally, Jack Wills is much more classification-driven and stems from British heritage. I’ve tried to respect that while putting out something younger and fresher.”

His Spring/Summer ’15 collection revolves around the theme of a rite of passage—the moment when you and your friends let go of social constraints and embark on a metaphorical journey. “The brand is very much about that youthful moment in time, where you’re carefree. That kind of optimism, that period that the brand is built upon, when you’re between school and university, when you’re having fun with your group of friends. The DNA of the brand is very much about that,” he notes. “What I’m doing is respecting everything that’s successful about Jack Wills in order to evolve and elevate it.” The first drop of the collection is based on formalwear and heritage, with plenty of Edwardian and Brideshead Revisited references. Drop two is based on the idea of bohemia and casual freedom. Optimism, energy and youthfulness coalesce in his collection.

We point out the somewhat liberal use of Jack Wills’ name on the outfits. Nicoll admits his fondness for it. “It’s just playful really. The company has such a strong identity that I’m embracing it. And since the people at Abercrombie [& Fitch] are getting rid of [their own brand name from their outfits], I really wanted to make the most of it,” he laughs.

His process is fairly traditional. He comes up with the concept for the season and collects visual references that reflect the theme. Then he delivers the theme of the season to his design team, and the designs they send back and his input transform into a dialogue.

Recently, Nicoll ventured to Japan for research into Spring/Summer ’16. The interesting takeaways for him were seeing how the Japanese layer their outfits and the artisanal elements of fashion. “I was at 45RPM,” he says, “and I saw the indigo dye elements that they have. I was interested in mixing up the tech with the artisanal elements. I think Japan has that nice tension between the two.” 

It is easy and cheap to use a word like “colonialism”, when it comes to the expansion plans of a British clothing company, so we’ll settle on “propagation”. It’s an evolutionary tenet that states the survival of the species lies in mass dissemination, but it’s also the refined meeting of consumers’ current tastes and the attraction of new ones. “People age. They’ll leave university for the workforce and I want to provide something they can wear to work,” he says.

Evolution is a long and discriminating process, but in the fashion world, empires rise and crumble within seasons. It’s safe to assume that we won’t see Jack Wills on the extinction list.

From: Esquire Singapore's September 2015 issue.