One of the most telling facts about Patrick Johnson, the Australian tailor behind P. Johnson, comes well after our interview has officially concluded. Johnson is in New York for his brand’s first official U.S. trunk show, and as we’re exiting the Bowery Hotel on the Friday before the show starts, he tells me that during his younger years he had trained to become a winemaker, only to learn that he had a serious allergy to a key ingredient in wine. It’s the sort of discovery that would have crippled a lesser man, and yet Patrick tells me this story with a wide grin on his face. In fact he says just about everything with that grin on his face. By the time Patrick learned of his allergy he had already found a new passion, clothing. Winemaking is a career, but it’s also a labor of love, much like tailoring. And so he traded one passion pursuit for another, becoming the most famous name in Australian menswear, and growing his eponymous label from one small tailoring shop into a global business, one that is large enough to require regular visits to America, with a permanent New York City shop on the way.
ACL: You’re pretty established in Australia, what made you guys want to start looking towards the states?
PJ: Well, the Australian market is quite a small market. We obviously enjoy it there, but it’s pretty small. We have a lot of clients who live in America, either Americans or ex-pats, and so we decided after a while that we’d start showing here, basically just to grow a bit. To grow inside of Australia, from a business point of view, we’d have to change our aesthetic a little bit and I didn’t want to do that. So yeah, just client demand and a bit of an adventure, get us outside of our comfort zone a bit.
ACL: So how many times have you shown here?
PJ: This is our first time showing, but I’ve come over to see clients quite a lot before. This is our first showing to the broader public though, which is exciting.
ACL: As you said, you guys aren’t very traditional, and your cut, I would say, is quite contemporary. Have you had to adjust your fit and style at all to the American market?
PJ: Not really. Our philosophy is that we love comfort, but also something that’s going to flattering, which I don’t think should be adjusted for any market. Obviously there’s a case where you like giving customers what they want, but it also has to be right. And so it’s a hard balance. We often get in Australia, these customers that want stuff really tight, and that’s another hard thing because we have to say “Come on mate, you’re going to be living in this thing,” so it’s that fine line.
We find, through not being patronizing about it, but in a way that explains the theory behind our cut to your clients with a bit of education, that they like it. Our stuff is also really light, really soft too so you don’t really want that too loose. But some of the guys in Chicago like it a little bit looser, while New York actually is quite contemporary of course because it’s the capital of the world.
ACL: And I would imagine that if people are coming to you, at this point, they’re looking for your exact style. So to get some background, how long has P. Johnson been around for now?
PJ: In Australia we’ve been around for five, six years, so with the cut we have it’s often seen on me, or Tom (Riley) who is one of the tailors, or on one of the apprentices, and we’re all pretty young guys. We cut stuff for older clientele as well in a slightly looser fit, but the fundamental of what we like is just soft tailoring, nothing so baggy that it’s unattractive, but nothing so slim that it’s also unattractive, so it’s this fine line, this balance. I’ve got some clients that wear very loose wide trousers, but they’re 6 foot 7, and it looks good on them. It’s about getting that balance and catering a little to each client, which the fun part of the job.
ACL: I think with P. Johnson, what brings guys in is that cut, and so a handful of years ago when you all started, was the cut something that you had developed from day one?
PJ: I was in London, working and studying with a tailor for about eight years, and that’s something (the cut) that you develop. We’re drawn to, although I did all of my training in England, and my family have an English background, I’m drawn to the Italian look, and the Italian cut a bit more, probably because of the climate in Australia, and how I grew up. I like a really sporty, contemporary looking suit, I don’t like this whole thing of trying to harken back to a bygone era, I think it’s ridiculous because suits are very relevant now, we don’t need to make them relevant for the next generation, they just are. We just need to push forward with that.
In terms of the cut, yeah it’s something that, maybe as I get older the cut will change a little bit, but I don’t really think so. As long as it’s comfortable, and it’s flattering, and it’s functional, then it works.
ACL: You mentioned that you were studying with a tailor out there in England, so how did you get involved with men’s clothing and what was the inspiration there?
PJ: I was very interested from a young age of course. I grew up on a farm which was pretty isolated, but my stepfather had his suits made on Savile Row. So, coming from that rural background, I went to London and started studying at a fashion college there, and they had a really good menswear course. I started that, and I enjoyed it, but it probably wasn’t a good fit for me, because I was looking for a more hands on, practical approach, and so by chance I started working with this tailor, which was great. He really took me under his wing, a guy called Robert Emmett, and he really showed me the direction that I could take in men’s clothing and tailoring. He took me around to Italy, showed me workshops, showed me how to run workshops, showed me how to work with different fabric mills, so I was incredibly lucky from that point of view.
And then from there, I moved back to Australia, and I actually wasn’t keen to move to Australia, but my wife is from Melbourne and she wanted to be close to her mum, which always happens. And so what we were doing got taken up really well in Australia, what we’re doing, and we just slowly grew. It started off with just me, and then Tom came on who is my business partner, and slowly, slowly, slowly, it grew. So that’s our mode, we’re not in a rush, we go really slowly, and if the customers allow it we grow. We’re not into big advertising campaigns, or pushing ourselves too much. This is all I know how to do, I’m not in menswear cause I went on the internet and I saw this phenomenon, I’m not into that whole “hashtag menswear” thing, for me this is my career.
ACL: The curve caught up to you.
PJ: Maybe, or maybe I was part of the curve and I didn’t know it. This is it. It’s a pretty exciting time in that menswear space right now, I think it’s actually the most exciting time. We’ve seen the internet come through and sort of do it’s thing a little bit, and now’s the time where we’re getting a little bit more refinement in it, and better product, and better results, with more professionals working in it, and good things happening.
ACL: P. Johnson is unique in that you’re not a ready-to-wear brand and you’re not a big fashion house generating seasonal collections, and yet you are still able to generate a lot of interest and buzz around your products. Is this something organic or is this something you consciously work to achieve?
PJ: We’ve been quite fortunate with that. Maybe the separation with being in Australia is a good thing, because you see these photographs and we’re in the sun, and it’s all really nice and you guys are in the middle of winter. But, for us, my philosophy behind it is, and this sounds slightly corny, but I love value. I love value in clothing, true value, when you go into a store and you can say “wow that’s worth it, that’s good,” no matter what it is. So when I came back, I thought Australia has appalling value in clothing. You can’t imagine. You go into a shop there, and you’re spending so much money on things that just aren’t worth it. We had this philosophy from the beginning, and it was, whatever we offered, we wanted it to be the best value on the market internationally.
ACL: You mentioned that Australia has poor value in clothing, why do you think this is the case?
PJ: There’s a couple of reasons. Firstly, the isolation factor, so the internet has helped throw us in from this point of view. We are really isolated, and even geographically inside Australia, population density wise, it’s really spread out, so it’s a tiny market. People look at Australia and they go “well, you got twenty-three million people,” but out of that the actual market that’s interested in this stuff, and you could probably call that the “luxury market,” for lack of a better term, and I know that’s been bastardized a lot recently, but it’s tiny. I think it’s .07% of total retail sales, which compared to the 3% you guys have over here, you can imagine.
You look at a company like Apple, whose highest number of stores per capita in the world are in Australia, because we’re just so spread out. That’s been one big factor behind it, but we’re seeing the mood changing a little bit, because of the internet, because we can instantly go on and see what’s happening everywhere.
ACL: So how many suits do you cut a year?
PJ: Oh god, that’s a good question, and actually it sounds ridiculous but I don’t know. Only because we, and maybe this sounds a little bit weird, but we actively try not to look at that at all. We made a conscious decision to be a business that isn’t pushed forward by sales or numbers or anything, we look more at the customers and how much we’re satisfying them on a day to day basis. So what I really keep an eye on is if there are any dissatisfied customers. You’re always going to have people that are unhappy with something, so I try to make everyone happy. We look at the number of re-orders we get from customers and the customer base grows a lot more.
ACL: So year to year do you continuously have to bring newer and more unique fabrics to your customers, or do you find that your customers are becoming more knowledgable and therefore they come to you looking for a specific fabric or style?
PJ: A touch of both. It’s been a little bit tricky because we’ve seen our “menswear customers” who are going online and seeing what’s happening in that scene, we’ve seen the back of that wave, as in guys wearing double-breasted jackets and the shoes with the monk straps. It was hard, because we like to talk guys down from that a little bit, because we know they’ll be sick of suit in three months time. And that’s something that genuinely upsets, because I don’t want one of my suits hanging in someone’s wardrobe and them never wearing it. That’s depressing to me. We actively discourage guys from buying more than one suit at one time, maybe two if they’re a current customer, and maybe three if they’re really sure. But, guys come in an go “I want ten suits,” and that’s madness. Like come on mate, let’s enjoy this process, and we go through their wardrobe.
We try and grow around 30% a year, no more than that, because we’re really restricted by people. Our guys who come on as trainee tailors with us, it takes a lot of time to train them, not only in the fitting, but also just in our approach to tailoring, because we’re not really sales-y, but you do have to have the customer service side. So, we try not to grow too quickly, and it’s a constant conversation we have. The young guys are obviously really enthusiastic and want to do this and that, but I say “ok cool, but if we do that, is that the best result for the customer? Are they going to be happy with that? Are we pushing the right message?”
ACL: Could you talk a little bit about your relationship with the Italian tailoring workshops that you work with? I would assume you all don’t own those shops out there do you?
PJ: No, we don’t own them, but what we do, we actually own a part of the production so that we guarantee a certain level of production, and then we invest in all the cloths, and a lot of the machines. A lot of these guys actually don’t have many customers, so we’re sort of pushing their business along.
I just love technology and clothing. I’m very much for the future of this industry, and I love all the handwork, but you can only have that stuff if it is going to be cost effective, and if it is going to be relevant. So we’ve been very fortunate with the workshops that we’ve worked with to be in this time where eight years ago even they would’ve laughed at me, “oh you’re an Australian? You want to come work with us? Hah, we don’t need you.” But because of what happened with the Italian market, they had to look for new customers, and we came along. I was banging on the doors of these workshops for ages and they were just saying, “no, no, no, no,” and then one day they were like “come in, it’s cool,” and we’ve been able to build up these relationships with these different companies.
ACL: It’s all visual, and the way that your suits are cut, and that soft Italian look, it does look really nice on the internet, I think it’s that simple.
PJ: Yeah, I’m really happy with that.
ACL: Along those lines, and you’re a guy whose look really does lean very Italian, but who did you want to emulate stylistically when you got into this whole thing?
PJ: For me Attolini is just phenomenal, and is my favorite tailor. For sure. I remember seeing my first Attolini suit, my stepdad actually had one, and it’s just beautiful. Such a beautiful thing. It’s not a look that I’d ever wear, because it just doesn’t suit me.
Definitely growing up I was really big into, and this sounds quite weird coming from a kid in the country, but I loved Yves Saint Laurent. There were a lot more womenswear designers I was looking at because, there just wasn’t much in menswear. I grew up on a farm where I was wearing moleskins, R.M. Williams moleskins, cruising around my dirt bike.
I also love all the heritage brands, and by that I don’t mean this new wave of heritage brands, I mean the genuine heritage brands. Well, these brands are all genuine heritage, but the term heritage is a thing now. I mean Anderson & Sheppard, I love what they do. Again not a look I’d ever wear, because I’m not eighty years old yet.
But again, I always get drawn back to Neapolitan tailoring. It’s just the sense that it’s something so pure, and beautiful. Naples is a really interesting case because of the way it has been so isolated. In every sense Naples is isolated, so it has been able to preserve that 1950’s, 1960’s tailoring tradition naturally. It’s not trying to, it just did, because there was nothing else. It’s just the pure sense, it hasn’t been bastardized, it’s just there. I mean some Neapolitan brands are bastardizing it for sure, but there a few that are just pure. It’s beautiful.
ACL: How does your current New York customer differ from your customers in Australia, and other parts of the world?