How a former barrister rebooted a struggling business that began by selling boxer shorts to the British Empire with a focus on simplicity, an inspired retail strategy and the design eye of J.W. Anderson.

LONDON, United Kingdom — A Levi’s advertisement in 1985 showed a buff, young model washing his jeans at the laundromat, wearing nothing but a pair of crisp, white boxer shorts. He was wearing little-known British label Sunspel and the popular image brought the brand into the zeitgeist.

Having started out in 1860s supplying underwear to the British Empire, Sunspel designed the first pair of boxer shorts in 1947 and built up a business selling Sea Island cotton t-shirts and underwear. But the 1980s revival boosted by the Levi’s advertisement wasn’t to last. A lack of investment in new products, a shift in consumer preferences to different styles and brands and a reliance on making private-label underwear for other labels, left the Long Eaton, Derbyshire-based business in distress. The owner was Peter Hill, the 81-year-old great grandson of the founder Thomas Hill and a chance encounter with ex-barrister turned brand manager Nicholas Brooke in 2005 was the start of Sunspel’s second revival.

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“I went and saw him, saw this incredible history, he explained the fabrics and the expertise of the people making everything. I fell in love with it straight away, the amazing story that simply wasn’t being told and the way it was presented wasn’t giving it it’s due,” said chief executive Nick Brooke in the brand’s Chiltern Street store in London’s fashionable Marylebone.

 

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