Published On: Mon, Feb 16th, 2015

Street Fashion Founders: All About The Duffer of St George

The ‘Duffer of St George’ brand was launched in 1980s London, when a group of young clubbers scraped together the £60 they needed to set up a stall in Camden market and stock it with second hand clothes. The eccentric name, suggesting English tradition seen through a somewhat ironic 80s lens, was bang on trend for the time. The young men had a brilliant instinct for spotting what would turn out to be the latest craze. The stall succeeded and expanded into a shop in Portobello Road.

The clothes stocked were in the styles worn by the most fashionable people on the streets of London: retro, brand-conscious combinations, held together by the confidence of the wearer.

What ever happened to Duffer of St George photo Jim Wright/Cigar Aficionado

What ever happened to Duffer of St George
photo Jim Wright/Cigar Aficionado

Early Days

The four friends – Barrie Sharpe, Clifford Bowen, Eddie Pendergast and Clifford Bowen – travelled far and wide, looking for clothes that appealed to them. The search extended to Europe and as far as the US. The items they shipped back were transatlantic and sporty, with clashing colors. A style hack of the traditionally English and the brashly American came to be their trademark.

They loved American retro sportswear, shoes in particular, importing them in a big way from wherever they could source them on their US trips. The shoes were shipped to London or to Japan, where Duffer had acquired a cult following.

Their mark-ups were as legendary as their clothes. One story went round that £3.00 Marks and Spencer socks were retailing for £15.00 in the Duffer store. Even that didn’t put the customers off. The shop was notably popular with Japanese tourists who wanted to be fashionable at any cost.

The Duffer at the top of its game

The Duffer shop became a place of pilgrimage for the young and the hip. As the trend for their clothes took off, it became harder for the partnership to find the right sort of vintage gear. They started to manufacture limited numbers of their own selected lines. A Soho shop opened in 1989 and became an instant hit.

Ray Petri, one of the decade’s leading stylists declared, ‘This is exactly what I’ve been waiting for’. However, 1989 also saw the first defection from the group of four, as Clive Bowen decided he had had enough and left, at the same time launching a largely unsuccessful lawsuit for anticipated future profits.

The company survived that hiccup, but increased popularity meant that the remaining three had to work hard to stay afloat. They were not natural shopkeepers. In fact, they had a lot of trouble running the business as a profitable concern, in spite of its runaway success and sometimes outrageous prices. As the business grew, the partners tended to hire people who were inspired by street fashion rather than those guided by business brains.

Duffer clothes were being used in fashion shoots and worn by the rich and famous but, by 1995, it was clear that management couldn’t cope and the company was heading for the financial rocks. That’s why the remaining three partners sold a majority share of their company to a German investor, who proceeded to take things in a far more commercial direction. That led to the next defection of a founding member. Barrie Sharpe wasn’t interested in working with the company unless it was motivated by passion for clothes and he left to found his own company, Sharpeye.

The 90s saw the Duffer hoodie proliferate just about everywhere. Its sales were responsible for around 60% of the company’s turnover. Jamie Oliver’s career in media was just starting with the Naked Chef series, and he called Duffer asking for some of their clothes to wear on his new TV show. That led to further fame for the company when Oliver became a star.

Business problems

The company continued successfully on its way, with apparently sound business heads now at the helm, but its fortunes wavered again. A licensing deal with Debenhams led to some poor quality lines hitting the stores and the brand became seriously cheapened. Independent stores stopped stocking Duffer lines.  It seemed that mainstream success had finally proved the undoing of a company that had survived its founders’ early financial recklessness. The Duffer was put into administration (aka bankruptcy for the Americans).

However, The Duffer of St George lived to fight another day, albeit in a barely recognisable form. JD Sports bought the brand, with Marco Cairns hired as creative director. Eddie Pendergast left the company to start a well-respected independent menswear shop, ‘Present’, in Shoreditch.

The Duffer spirit of adventurous men’s fashion isn’t dead.  Duffer Japan is an offshoot of the original company which stayed close to its early vision. It’s now succeeding in taking its Duffer lines back to Europe and the UK. Duffer also lives on in the new ventures of the original partners and in countless other fashion companies started and staffed by Duffer alumni. Above all, its spirit survives on the streets of London and wherever menswear is worn with creative flair.

Guest Author :

Alex Outlaw, an editorial contributor and marketing director for The Idle Man, is always on the lookout for the latest news for men. He likes to keep his eyes on the fashion, music and contemporary culture scene, and then writes about it via social media and various blogs to share with others. Stay in the know on Twitter, here.

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