I had the chance to speak with Selena Gibson of Smyth & Gibson after discovering them a few months ago. We spoke about how the brand has grown and developed while the shirt making factory has been working with other brands making shirt ranges. Their focus on quality shirting has lead them to gaining appreciation from some large international retailers, as well as a core set of fans – myself included. Based in Derry, Northern Ireland, making everything by hand on site.
How long has the brand been running for? Were you running the factory first and at one point decided to start creating your own shirt line to go alongside working for brands – or how did it all evolve?
Richard started the brand when he was 22 in 1990. For a few years he did ocean racing and took part in the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1989. To do big races he had to have a few skills, so he learned how to stitch sails and cook (he still is an amazing cook!). Combined with the historic shirt making industry in Northern Ireland he felt that he could use his sail making techniques. So originally he wholesaled Irish linen shirts and then opened a small shop in Belfast. The factory that we own now always made the shirts. In 2006 the old owner wanted to retire so Richard and I bought the factory. Then it had 35 people there and now it is around 60.
To keep the factory really streamlined and efficient, the same people do the same processes so that it is methodical and even. The stitching on our shirts should be 18 stitches per inch and we cut everything by hand so that the ratings are efficient and to match/balance stripes and checks. Working with other brands has evolved to ensure there is always consistent work coming through the factory. Thomas Pink is really our bread and butter as I’m sure you know how expensive it is to grow a brand. But the girls love the Margaret Howell work as the fabrics are just beautiful.
It’s great to hear of British brands manufactured in Britain. But because most of the clothing factories closed down years ago, did you find it challenging setting up and getting hold of the right machinery? Do you think British manufacturing will come back and start to thrive again – or is there not enough demand for it? I know the Japanese, Korean and Chinese love it when it’s Made in UK?
When we bought the factory we set about updating the machinery and it is still on going and seemingly never ending! As we have quite a lot of collar shapes, we have an engineer to adapt the machinery for turning out collars. Derry had quite a few factories that have all closed down so we have managed to buy machines and cutting tables as they have been auctioned off.
With the cost of employment here it is tricky for British manufacturing. There is a demand for it and I hope that with our vertical margin we can really grow Smyth & Gibson. I feel like after all this time and the ball breaking business of running a factory, it sort of deserves too!
You give a nice selection of collars – which is great as a lot of other stores don’t such a wide selection. What collar types do you see coming back into popularity and why do you think that is?
Our best-selling collar at the moment is the Albany. It is a more contemporary cutaway that is edge stitched. For years it was the Classic non fused spread collar, but I think its popularity has waned as its not as easy to iron. Although a floating non-fused collar is very British and won’t disappear. When we design new collars we always make sure they work with both ties and current suiting lapel shapes.
A really strong part of the Smyth & Gibson sales are dinner shirts. They’re quite tricky to make as you have two different weights to fabric which you don’t want to pucker on the seams. The Origami dinner shirt has been huge last season as its quite quirky and really fun.