Vintage clothing collector-turned-designer Neil Starr boasts one of the most covetable collections of vintage Barbour and Belstaff wax jackets in the world. But it was his love of a particular vintage military-issue sweater model, the Submariner, which prompted this London-based bloke to create his own menswear collection, North Sea Clothing. Offering contemporary clothes (and now shoes) inspired by retro classics, his need-to-know label masterfully serves them up with simple, effective details and fits that are more modern and slim than the antiquated original gems on which they’re based.
“I will only design and produce an item that I would want to wear myself,” says Starr, whose highly wearable wares are sold directly on the brand’s online shop and in better specialty boutiques across the globe. The collection’s prices range from a T-shirt for £50 (approx. $70) to a cardigan for £275 (approx. $390).
Here, “North Sea Neil” explains how and why his still small, hands-on family venture has emerged as a truly shipshape standout in the oft-murky ocean of present-day fashion labels….
What is the history of North Sea Clothing?
North Sea Clothing began around a decade ago. It existed for several years making just one jumper, the Submariner. In my background as a vintage dealer, I used to sell many original Royal Navy war-issue Submariners. More importantly, I would wear them too. When these originals dried up, I decided to re-create it, with the same wool and the same specifications as the original design. I came up with the brand name after a nickname I had been given, North Sea Neil, in light of my winter uniform, the original Submariner with a vintage Royal Navy Patrol coat. I created the logo, combining the iconic diver’s helmet with fish emblems, inspired by London lampposts, alluding to the brand’s home, London.
What is your design background?
I have always worked with clothes. My first job as a kid was in the local men’s clothing store in the village I grew up in, outside London. There I cultivated my tastes and moved into the vintage scene soon after. I started wearing, collecting and then selling vintage clothes, and developed a successful career selling vintage clothing and accessories for many years. I regularly sold at London’s Portobello Market, quickly garnered a reputation, and began selling around the world – to the States and Japan in particular. High fashion labels would buy from my vintage selections and I realized I had an “eye” for design that seemed to come naturally.
How has the brand evolved since you first started with the Submariner?
I started with the intention to make just the Submariner and this was the case for several years. It was genuinely customer demand that pushed me on to design and develop new styles. So I developed the Expedition Shawl collar, which was almost as popular, and propelled the brand into another market. Once I found myself in the “fashion” market (which is not our only market, I hasten to add), I discovered the industry demand to create something new each season. So, this we do. But, we will always make our classic styles, and we will not dilute our aesthetic, even if it means creating less products.
How would you describe the essence and aesthetic of NSC?
NSC has a rugged and practical aesthetic. The roots of most styles come from vintage inspiration, but the functionality in contemporary use must always equal the design.
What are some of your key pieces?
The Submariner emulates the Royal Navy issue sweaters. The Expedition is a style that motorcyclists adopted to wear under their wax jackets in the 1950s. The Service Jumper hints to the wax jacket styling with its shoulder and elbow patches. These sell well to the motorcycle scene today. And the Engineer V neck is our version of a vintage ’50s mechanic sweater.
What are the current bestsellers?
Now we are moving into spring/summer, our plimsolls are possibly our bestselling item and The Marine shoes are proving really popular. Although this is closely followed by our ¾ sleeve henley T-shirts. The unusual sleeve length has attracted that market that is looking for a good basic with a slightly more interesting silhouette.
What sets NSC apart from other brands?
We produce a small range of products, and we make them well. While our range has [recently] expanded from knitwear into some spring/summer products, even these are a niche range, and produced in a limited color palette, navy blue and ecru.
Our broad spectrum of customers also sets us apart. Yes, we are in the fashion market, but we also sell to a fantastic selection of what I call “good stores.” They don’t need something new every season. Their customers are discerning about what they buy; the quality, the fit. They are grown-up men who know exactly what they want and when they find the perfect garment they buy one in every color.
Who are your customers specifically?
Our distinct silhouettes have attracted the fashion market while the genuine warmth and usefulness has attracted many more: explorers, mountain climbers, fisherman, dads and sons. Our customers are young and old, large and small. We make our jumpers in a wide range of sizes to cater to all of them.
Where are the pieces manufactured?
All our knitwear is made in the UK, with British wool. This is very important and what gives our knits their distinctive feel. We have gone to Europe for the production of our plimsolls, as nowhere can vulcanize rubber in the UK. Our T-shirts are now made in Portugal. We feel strongly about keeping all of our production in Europe.
What’s next for the brand?
We are working on a small range of swimwear to expand our spring/summer line. Being known as a “winter brand” we are working hard to create spring/summer garments with as much quality and integrity as our knitwear. So far we seem to be doing very well.