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LONDON — The looms at John Smedley’s factory in Derbyshire, England, are humming after 225 years, and the high-end knitwear company has big plans for the future.
The men’s and women’s knitwear firm, which first created long johns, plans to launch a line of technologically advanced, extremely fine woolen sweaters and increase its presence in the U.S. over the next few months. It also will unveil a new logo and decor for its seven stores worldwide — six of which are run by distributors in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.
Founded at the dawn of the industrial revolution — and still owned by 50 members of the Smedley family, forming part of its seventh generation since the label began — the company produces branded collections, as well as knitwear for labels including Comme des Garçons, Vivienne Westwood, Paul Smith and Margaret Howell.
The brand, which produces about 500,000 garments a year, is renowned for its classic V-neck, round-neck and roll-neck sweaters in bright colors such as daffodil, tomato juice and aquamarine.
For spring, its women’s collection features sweater dresses and long cardigans, with prints inspired by the Bauhaus design movement, while its men’s collection, which highlights geek-chic looks, is as popular with the younger fashion-forward set as it is with the more traditional customer.
Wholesale prices range from 5 pounds, or $17 at current exchange, for a pair of merino wool socks to 95 pounds, or $240, for a cashmere knitted sweater.
The collection is available in 52 countries via the company’s transactional Web site, as well as in stores such as Selfridges, Harrods and Harvey Nichols in the U.K.; Hervé Chapelier in Paris; Principe in Italy, and Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys New York and Paul Stuart in the U.S.
Andrew Caughey, John Smedley’s managing director, said the recession offers opportunities for the brand, and the weaker pound will help it to develop new markets.
“In the U.S., we are currently establishing the right infrastructure so that we can be more effective marketing the brand and increase the level of support for our retailers,” said Caughey, whose newly appointed U.S. team will be working directly with key buyers to build relationships and reestablish the brand’s credentials.
Marcus Ratliff, the company’s U.S. consultant based in Norwich, Vt., said he wanted to create fewer obstacles for stores and make the buying process simpler. He also plans to reduce minimum order requirements and swap stock that doesn’t sell in order to reduce the risk to retailers.
The label, which has a turnover of 15.5 million pounds, or $25.1 million, and 440 employees, believes in the old and new working together. At the factory, 21st-century machines sit alongside a collar-knitting machine from the Fifties because management believes the modern models aren’t as good.
Innovation, however, remains of paramount importance. John Smedley’s new line of woolen sweaters, with fibers measuring 13.5 microns, finer than most cashmere, retain the benefits of both materials — the durability of wool and softness of cashmere — will hit stores in September and retail at about 500 pounds, or $818.
The label is proud of its northern roots and heritage, judging by the new store design, recently unveiled at the John Smedley Mayfair flagship in central London. The design incorporates natural materials sourced in Derbyshire, such as slate, stone and oak.
“We have drawn many of the design features from the original John Smedley site at Lea mills with the soft colors of Derbyshire: greens, browns and chalky whites,” said Caughey. “Now that the London store is relaunched, we will establish a common look and feel to our John Smedley branded stores throughout the world.”
The label also plans to reintroduce its jaybird logo, a mark of quality first used in 1784. The jaybird is a species abundant in Derbyshire.
The brand is clearly proud of its staying power, having survived multiple recessions and remaining in Lea Valley while all of its competitors have moved on.
Margaret Howell, who has been working at John Smedley for 30 years, said the company is committed to its product. “They don’t let anything out that is not up to their standards. It’s difficult maintaining those standards over 225 years, as it requires constant monitoring. It’s something that comes from the heart.”