March 2021 8 Min Read

Interview: Simon Crompton

By Russell Sheldrake

A man whose voice has risen above the general chatter of fashion blogs and influencers. Simon Crompton has become an oracle for those who seek information, detailed reviews and honest takes on the finest menswear in the world. Founding Permanent Style in 2007, he has grown his platform into one of the preeminent spaces for craft-based menswear companies to be seen and talked about.

We sat down for a socially distanced chat while restrictions were still in place here in London, about his decision to step out from his 9-5 on his own, to the state of menswear here in the UK and around the world. Covering topics from the rise of sustainability and green-washing to a shift of focusing on craft and how products are made rather than how they look. As someone who has been imbedded in this industry for years now, his insights offer an unfiltered view of an industry that is often covered in PR bluff and marketing hype.

Can you tell us a little bit about what got you started in menswear and this journey that led to you running a publication such as Permanent Style?

I worked as a financial journalist for quite a long time and then I started the blog at the time when they started to become fashionable or interesting. I got into menswear when a lot of people in my office would wear suits a lot of the time, as did I.

I started to get a bit of money for the first time and wanted to know what went into making a good suit, how I could get one that was good quality. I think I bought a suit from Zara or somewhere like that and I was very disappointed as it just didn’t look good and I didn’t know why, I couldn’t work it out. Maybe having quite an analytical frame of mind, and a journalistic one as well, I was quite keen to find out why that was. I started looking into it and writing down what I had discovered. It was really the encouragement from a friend of mine, a colleague at work who encouraged me to start a blog and I’m very glad that they did as that’s where it all started.

Now that the site has been up-and-running for a number of years, would you say you’ve found yourself becoming more and more specialised as the years go by?

If anything, we started out very specialised and then my writing broadened out over time. So it started out just being very much about tailoring and at the very beginning I was concerned with what was the very best quality you could possibly buy. So we were writing a lot about suits at the beginning and it was about buying the best quality suit you could afford and then spending good money getting them altered to fit better, for example. And then over a few years when I had a bit more money trying to get entry level bespoke suits for example and getting very excited about that and then over time gradually moving up to better quality and bespoke shirts and then shoes and everything else.

I’d say in the last 3-5 years we’ve broadened out a bit more as the site’s got bigger as well, we’re still looking at the finest clothes that are out there most of the time and that’s best captured in the book that I wrote 6 years ago now called The Finest Menswear in the World. Which is really quite a deep dive into that area, but we really cover more mainstream now, some really good made-to-measure tailoring as well as some of the top bespoke, and we also cover a greater range of styles. So it’s about casual and weekend-wear for the guys wearing tailoring during the week as well just being suits and shoes.

Something that stands out when reading Permanent Style’s reviews is the depth and detail to which you go into. Do you think this approach is partly why this platform has resonated with such a large number of people?

Yeah, I think a lot of that approach has. In a way I think I‘ve been quite fortunate as it’s still quite different from what you see in most fashion media out there. It’s so much more direct and more personal but also high quality. There’s very little out there that’s as high quality as you would get in a professional magazine but also quite honest and authentic. There’s a lot of blogs and social media where the quality isn’t really that good but is quite honest, but you need to have both. There’s no point in being honest if it’s not a very informed opinion. If you haven’t actually tried anything else to compare it to or if you don’t know anything about the clothes and what makes them good or bad then there’s not really much point.

'If anything, we started out very specialised and then my writing broadened out over time.'

Did you find that you had that considered opinion very early on in Permanent Style or did it take a while to build it up?

I think I didn’t have the same knowledge from the start, but I definitely had the same journalistic approach as that’s just what my day job was. As an example, and I know we talked about this in The Finest Menswear in the World book, people say that hand sewing a shirt, for example, is great and a sign of quality but most of the time people just accept that as given and think great, someone in the shirt shop has told me that. But if you ask the next question, why, why is it a sign of quality. Is it just because it looks prettier or is doing something functional that’s different? Most people just don’t ask those kinds of questions and they just assume, because it’s more expensive or it comes from a big brand that it’s better in some way that they can’t quite understand but it’s very possible to ask better questions and understand that well.

Switching tack slightly, onto menswear as a whole, do you think that London, and England as a whole, holds a special place in the global menswear universe?

London and England as a whole certainly has a very important place in the history of menswear. Italy has taken over in a lot of ways, especially from a manufacturing point of view, as we just don’t have many good suit factories here, for example. The US is certainly the biggest market for it, but it hasn’t really had the same domestic production or history, so it doesn’t have the same influence.

Really since the 17th century Britain became the home for what is considered more down to earth and less fancy menswear. It was that point when the English court took over from the French court as the centre of men’s fashion. And it’s been like that most of the time since. It’s really only been in the last 100 years that’s started to change slightly.

Crompton focuses on craft-based clothiers and covers everything from shoes to hats and all that falls in between.

Is Savile Row still the be-all and end-all of suits in the UK, or is it possible to look outside of The Row now?

In the UK it pretty much is. The UK has always had that issue that other countries like France have had where the capitol is so big, it tends to dominate everywhere else. In countries like Germany and Italy you get much more regional traditions in tailoring around the country. There are lots of good tailors around the UK, but they tend to be people that have trained in London at a Savile Row tailor and then gone somewhere else as they can get much cheaper rent and offer their suits much cheaper.

Do you think there might be a trend of menswear businesses starting to look outside of London for those sorts of reasons?

Yeah, I think there definitely is. I think there’s more interest now, in the last 15 years or so there’s been a real resurgence in craft and there still are real centres of craft in the UK. The most obvious ones are the shoe industry around Northampton, the weaving industry around Huddersfield and the knitwear industry in Scotland. And those three can all make a claim to be the world leaders for what they do in menswear. Nowhere in the world really is as good as what they do.

I think that’s something that has become of much more interest to people in recent years and those companies and those regions have had much more attention as a result, and that’s great. There are still small pockets of industry below that which are getting a little bit more attention recently. So, things like old cotton in Manchester which Private White have done a great job of being the last remaining factory there, tweed in the Hebrides of Scotland, jewellery in Birmingham. There are lots of those kinds of traditions. Saddlery and that kind of leather work, particularly around the South West of England, so there are lots of those traditions that are getting more attention recently, but I don’t think they are new, it’s more that their decline has been arrested slightly, now people are more interested in what’s British and what’s craft based.

''I think I didn’t have the same knowledge from the start, but I definitely had the same journalistic approach...''

Simon Crompton

Can you tell me a little about your approach to watch collecting? As someone who doesn’t claim to be an expert in watches but is a fashion-forward thinking person, do you seek advice when buying a watch or do you trust your gut and buy something that you think will look good?

I almost see my approach to watches as a secondary area of interest, I guess. Not as big as clothes but the same way I might be interested in cooking or wine or interiors, it’s a secondary area of interest for me. For example, I would say that someone who reads Permanent Style has clothes as a primary interest or passion, as it’s quite detailed and it’s quite a lot of time and energy to read regularly. But I often find that the people who read it say that they become like a hub for their friends and then they’ll have 10-12 friends that will regularly come to them for advice or suggestions. And I would say that group of 10-12 people have clothes as their secondary interest. I think I’m like that with watches. I don’t particularly read watch blogs, I don’t read watch magazines, but I still want to buy watches and own watches that I feel are where I’ve made an educated choice, and where I have made a decision and I value that decision.

Back to menswear, do you think the product-centric trend, as opposed to a more image one, is a good thing for the industry?

I think overall it’s a good thing, but it has dangers that come with it as well. I think we’ve had quite a long time, from as far back as the early 80s up to the 2000s of being particularly image, design and fashion driven with not really much focus on craft and product. So, I think it’s really nice to have a reaction against that and have a generation who want to know about craft and how things are made and particular product. I think that’s very positive. I think the other obvious positive thing about it being product-centric is if we think about how something is made, we are more likely to buy something that is more sensible, that lasts a long time, that we get a lot of value out of. We are now more likely to think about other areas like sustainability as well. We are more likely to support good quality producers and crafts people. So there are lots of positives to it and it’s something that we’ve always written about and is something I would always encourage people to do.

At the same time, I think it’s always worth adding a caveat, that products are great but the most important thing about clothes is to look good. If you lose sight of that then there is a danger on the other side as well. There are certainly people I know who read the blog and they get a little bit too obsessed with things like, where the leather of a shoe comes from or the number of stitches per inch of the welt or whatever it might be. But they lose sight of the fact that their shoes look like they came from the 18th century, and it looks ridiculous. I think you do need that balance. Clothes are mostly there to express your personality and to make you look good in that respect. Just because you’re reacting against a period where it was all about how things looked or a designer name it doesn’t mean design and aesthetics have no value anymore.

'There’s been a real resurgence in craft and there still are real centres of craft in the UK.'

I think everyone is fairly aware of the seasonal trends we have in big fashion, but do you find these smaller craft-based companies follow these seasonal changes and trends or are they more removed from that system?

I think they are more removed from it. Sometimes almost to an unhelpful degree. It’s almost like a parallel of what we were saying before, where being more interested in product is a very positive thing, but you’ve always got to watch out for the negative flipside of it. In the same way, it’s really good that most menswear companies ignore fashions and don’t pay any attention to them. And shoe companies don’t really follow the trends like big foam soles or whatever it might be. Most of the time that’s very helpful. But almost because they don’t follow these short-term trends, they also have a tendency to ignore the longer term tends.

Most trends in menswear come round every 10 or 20 years. The things like width or rise of trousers, the width of lapels, these kind of things take that amount of time to come around. When Permanent Style first started out it was all about skinny drain pipe trousers and close fitting jackets and you’re coming round to the point now where, the more progressive brands have been doing much more loose, easy fitting tailoring and more of the fashion brands are catching up to that as well. But it’s taken that amount of time for that trend to come through.

At the same time, when I started it was all about very soft shouldered Neapolitan jackets that were completely unstructured and more like a shirt than a jacket. The depressing thing now is that some Savile Row tailors are only just catching up to that trend, some 15 years later. Probably just to the point where some of the fashion brands are doing a lot more square, sharp evening wear-type looking suits instead. I think the best menswear companies don’t feel like they have to follow short term fashions, but long term trends they always keep an eye on.

''Most people just don’t ask those kinds of questions and they just assume, because it’s more expensive or it comes from a big brand that it’s better in some way.''

Simon Crompton

I wanted to switch back to sustainability as well and talk about how much you think the average consumer cares about sustainability. And how much they can do when buying their clothes.

I think people care a lot these days. I think it’s become so dominant that it’s very hard not to care and would be strange not to. Again, young people are caring a lot more as well, as it becomes much more the default setting. I remember when I was young and very in to climate change and global warming back then, but it didn’t seem like something anyone was in to, very much an outsider concern. Whereas now it’s very, very mainstream. It’s definitely something people can do something about. In particularly with small craft-based brands that we cover, you can definitely do something about it because it’s much easier to have a direct connection to the companies.

You can talk to someone in a shop and that person will know the owner of the company. Having the direct connection with them doesn’t really happen with the fashion brands. I think you can be quite informed and educated with how you make your decisions about what you buy. We’ve written a few articles where we’ve talked to a sustainability journalist and expert, and we talked about how menswear compares to other areas of clothing and what you can do to try and do better. The overall conclusions were, by far the best thing you can do is buy less and buy second-hand and resell and reuse. Just consume less. That’s much more important overall than whether you buy leather or don’t buy leather, whether your things are imported from China or not. By far the most important thing is to just consume less.

Do you think those smaller brands are pivoting towards sustainability far quicker and with more agility than the bigger brands are able to?

Good question. I think in theory they would be more agile, because they’re smaller and it is definitely easier for someone at the top of the company to make that kind of decision. I think often their problem is their production processes are quite fixed and there isn’t much they can do about those. If you’re a big producer in a fashion brand and you get work from a certain factory in India, you can say to that factory, “ok, either you change your processes, or we’ll go somewhere else and find a more sustainable supplier.”

With these craft-based brands, they own their own production and to change anything comes at significant cost. So that is tricky. You can improve things like your packaging, which makes a big difference, you can do things like have an active program around reselling old items which can be very positive. But in many ways, they should be able to change more but often it’s more difficult. Also, I think, because they’re small the impact of their changes will be pretty small as well. If an H&M makes a decision around where they’re sourcing things from or about their shipping practices, it makes a much bigger difference than these small menswear companies.

'Most trends in menswear come round every 10 or 20 years.'

Is there anything you suggest someone should do, bar reading PS, if they are looking to get into menswear today?

There is a lot of advice. I think it is very important to focus on getting quality clothing and looking after it well. I think men particularly, find that very enjoyable, and that can be very basic things like being able to darn a sock or wash knitwear well. Getting good clothes and being able to look after them is quite enjoyable and satisfying. I think people often believe if they just get more expensive clothes somehow some satisfaction will come inherently form that but most of the time it doesn’t. It depends on how much time you think about it and spend with it.

I remember someone telling me a while ago that things are only valuable depending on the value that you place on them. Which sounds kind of tautological, but there really is only a certain amount of value you can place on certain things in your life. And if you have 100 suits you cannot place as much value on all of them if you only have 2, that’s just not possible.

So, I think it’s not just about having volume or quality, it’s about having things that you like and looking after them well. If you spent more time in purchasing them, they will be more valuable to you in that way. And then if they last a long time and you’ve looked after them well, you remember polishing those shoes and what they first looked like when you got them and how they look now and how worn in and aged and still beautiful they look. I think that’s when you place real value on things, rather than how much you spent on them.

We would like to thank Simon for taking the time to sit down with us and sharing his passion for menswear. You can read all of his work through his website Permanent Style.