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Simon Carter: The duke of dandy

Fashion designer Simon Carter on being the 'king of cuffs', the erasure of boundaries in men's style, and the charm of bug-print shirts

Simon Carter at his store in Phoenix Mall, Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Simon Carter at his store in Phoenix Mall, Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

He is known as the “king of quirk", the “duke of dandy" and the “ambassador of accessories", among other such sobriquets. “Officially, it’s just duke of dandy," says Simon Carter.

Dressed in a jacket over a shirt that has bugs printed on it, Carter was in Mumbai earlier this month to launch the second store (at Phoenix Market City in Kurla) of his eponymous menswear brand in India. The first store of the brand (in partnership with Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail Ltd) opened in Chennai in July.

“The press has referenced me as ‘king of cuffs’ because I owned that niche—probably still do. The niche is smaller, since fewer people wear cufflinks but it’s a small kingdom to be a king of," the British designer says, laughing.

Besides his rather quirky designs, Carter has another idiosyncrasy: he has worn two watches, one on either wrist, since he was a teenager. “It’s randomly selected, whatever comes out of the drawer. It’s just the thing I do," he adds, during a meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel in the city. Edited excerpts:

Simon Carter is known as a mid-level brand in the UK?

In the UK, it ends up being a mid-level brand because of the price point. A shirt like this (points to what he is wearing) in the UK would retail for £150 (around Rs13,000). That’s going to restrict who can afford to buy it. It would be frighteningly expensive for India—we are not priced like that here (the entire range is priced between Rs3,000-14,000). So if this project is to work in India, my role is to infuse it with the dandy dust of Simon Carter—but it’s for the team to come up with a price-wise sweet spot.

Ours is an aspirational (brand), but is not out of reach. I have often said this, it’s beginners’ luxury. The customer probably aspires to a Paul Smith—he and I share a certain aesthetic of handwriting. But his products are considerably more expensive. We get a drift of that customer, who really can’t afford £175 for a shirt or £650 for a suit.

Stylistically, are the products different in India compared to the UK?

The DNA of the brand is going to be the same all the way through. Certainly the fits are different here—slimmer blocks compared to the UK, which is a broader figure. Stylistically, no. What has been achieved here is absolutely Simon Carter on a global scale.

What’s new in men’s styles?

You need to get into a Simon Carter store to find out; you need to release your inner dandy. The big change in men’s fashion—it’s more change of style than fashion—are these interesting fabrics that we produce, detailed and rich, like in India, accessories and the colours that are not gender-specific. A decade ago, a man probably would not be seen dead with three bracelets (Carter wears them). All of those boundaries and boxes have gone. There is no colour a man can’t wear and that’s a fantastic development.

How’s Simon Carter adapting to changes in fashion?

It’s more of the same really—about being bold, adventurous. We are seeing a return of some interesting takes on stripes. We have put them out and people say that’s nice, but “I really want the shirt with insects on it" or “that thing with hot-air balloons".

One of the things I spend my time thinking is the fine line between what is novel and what is novelty—novel is new, novelty is a fad. Disney and cartoon characters in ties and socks is not novel—it is novelty, and should be banned. I don’t follow a fashion and I don’t believe my clothes are all about fashion. I am a great believer in personal style, it’s individual and it’s something you create. Fashion is something you follow.

What are the specific forthcoming changes to men’s shirts, like collars or cuffs, and trousers?

We are seeing more of the cutaway collar coming back. We have stuck to the same shapes that work. There is no real reason to play with that. Collars haven’t changed much; if anything, they are getting smaller. There’s a lot of talk on bigger, looser trousers, but it’s probably going be a fringe thing. Most guys who go to the gym will still want a slim trouser or a spray-on jeans. Our classic chinos/trousers are slim, not particularly fitted. It’s flattering without being hugging.

Is style age-specific?

I don’t think age has anything to do with it; you can wear whatever you want. Isn’t it fantastic that older men are able to wear not just my brand but express themselves as well? That’s the biggest change we have witnessed over the last decade.

Older people should make sure they trim their ear hair, nothing is more ageing. No matter how old you are, wear clothes that fit well—there’s nothing worse than clothes that are too tight or baggy.

Do distinctions of business dressing and casual exist any more?

I think the distinction is broken down. I am here at a press event in smart jeans and a conversational shirt. There are no rules anymore. There are some occasions, like a wedding, where you need to be smart. What I build in my products is maximum versatility; you should be able to wear my clothes for more than one function and purpose. I am asking you to pay Rs3,000 plus for a shirt. I don’t want you to feel you can wear it only once. The challenge is to come with another reason for people to buy another product the next season.

Should people buy based on need or trend?

I just want them to buy on the basis of want. Nobody needs a shirt with mushrooms on it. You don’t wake up and go, “where can I find a shirt with mushrooms on it?" You go to the store and that environment is all about generating (a desire) and creating something so beautiful that you want it.

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