How P JOHNSON burst out of Australia to become the world’s next great custom suit maker…
Australia is known for many things — surfing, of course. The Outback. Maybe, if we’re being generous, even Aussie pinot noir. But with all due respect, the country’s two primary fashion exports have been ghastly Coogi sweaters and an unfortunate swimwear line known as Funky Trunks.
“I’m from the bottom of the world,” says designer Patrick Johnson, as cheerful and self-deprecating as anyone you could meet Down Under. “We literally are the last stop. And we understand we’re not at the centre of the world, so we don’t have any ego attached. I’m just literally looking at our clients going, How can I make these guys really comfortable, look really cool, and dress in a really easy, natural way?”
His solution is tailoring. And if the idea of a tailored suit seems the opposite of “easy” and “natural,” hang on. “We’ve always been on the casual side of tailoring,” Johnson says. “We focus on softness and lightweightness.” That means natural shoulders, as opposed to the stiff British shoulder pads that make you look like you’re guarding Westminster. It means cuffs with functioning buttons, so you can roll up your sleeves. It means pants so comfortable they may as well have a drawstring. It means jackets that are, as Johnson says, “completely unstructured. And I don’t mean ‘unstructured’ like it’s got no lining in it. It’s made with no structure on the inside whatsoever, which is a pretty unique thing and something we specialise in.”
P Johnson, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, has grown from a little Aussie brand into an international player with showrooms in Sydney, Melbourne, London, and New York City. All of its tailored clothes are made in Tuscany.
Johnson, 37, grew up in South Australia. All the cities you’ve heard of are on the country’s east coast. He lived his “whole life outside,” riding motorbikes and horses, which was typical for a kid from that part of the world. An interest in fashion was not. But he had an example in his own house that set him on his path.
“I first got interested in clothing because my stepfather, a fantastic man, was really into clothing,” Johnson says. “He would go to Savile Row twice a year, every year, and get his suits made.” When it came time for college, Johnson enrolled in Central Saint Martins of London — generally considered to be the world’s premier fashion school — and then promptly dropped out to apprentice under master shirtmaker Robert Emmett. The two met when Johnson, on his way to a pub, literally bumped into Emmett in front of the master’s shop in Chelsea. After seven years with Emmett, Johnson struck out on his own.
His company’s rise over the past decade tracks with a global boom in affordable custom suiting, from retailers like Suitsupply to online companies that will make you a suit after you take your measurements yourself, as if that could possibly be accurate. “It takes me a year to train one of our guys just to take measurements—just measurements! — because it’s a really hard thing to do well,” Johnson says. “Not only are you learning the technical side, but you’re learning to read someone. You learn to listen to somebody and understand what they want and need in their life. And that takes time.”
P Johnson cuts an individual suiting pattern for every single client, and its clothes are hand-stitched rather than slapped together with glue. It’s not trying to sell the most suits. It’s trying to sell the best suits at its price point, creating a value proposition and an aesthetic. “I don’t want my clients to have a big wardrobe,” Johnson says. “I think they should have a very concise wardrobe that serves them really well.” All of this distinguishes his brand from competitors at its price point. “Look at different car manufacturers,” Johnson says. “They use all the same materials, but they’re producing very, very different things. The raw materials that go into a Porsche 911 Carrera are pretty bloody similar to something that goes into a Kia.”
The company has now expanded into off-the-rack clothes, with capsule lines for Barneys and Mr Porter. Those clothes (think chambray shirts and French terry shorts) are even easier to wear. But think of them as appetisers to the entrée: Johnson says 95 percent of his business is still custom. Suits are what he wants to make, and what he wants you to wear. “A lot of men don’t have that many suits in their wardrobe,” Johnson says. “You may as well get it right.” ■
by NICK MARINO
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