Times are changing at Turnbull & Asser, albeit slowly and carefully. Creative Director, Becky French, joined the ranks of this prestigious English shirtmaker two years ago, and she’s now part-way through an ambitious plan to contemporise one of the oldest names on Jermyn Street, gently moving the Turnbull of today into fresh territory.
It’s a task that’s easier said than done. Turnbull & Asser is an idiosyncratic house, with a strong identity and a loyal, long-standing following. So, French is taking baby-steps, but nevertheless, they’re starting to make a difference.
“There’s a balance to strike in how we maintain the traditional aspects of what we do, and moving forward to stay relevant as a brand,” says French, sitting at one end of the reassuringly heavy, oaken table at the back of Turnbull’s Jermyn Street flagship store. “A lot of what we’re doing with our collection at the moment is about revisiting our role not just as a shirtmaker, but as an outfitter too. We want to ensure that our customers can come to us for something that’s classic, but with an elevated fit, finish and fabrication. If we make a navy blazer with gold buttons, it has to be the best navy blazer – the kind of thing that feels timeless and works as an anchor for your wardrobe.”
If you follow the brand, you’ll have noticed some of these changes over the past couple of seasons. Alongside its core collection of formal shirts, French has worked hard to introduce more separates and outerwear, and Turnbull has also released several capsule collections of shirts with more of a lifestyle focus.
Last winter, the ‘Weekend Collection’ introduced a series of relaxed shirts in cashmere-cotton denim with some nods to Western styling and a slightly looser fit. French has since followed this with a capsule of pastel-coloured linen shirts finished with soft button-down collars, and even a drop of 1970s-inspired sand-washed silk shirts too. These ever-so-slightly more directional pieces help to fuel the idea that Turnbull is keeping pace with modern tastes – making clothes that as useful in different (dare I say casual?) contexts, as well as beautifully made.
This story is gathering pace with the arrival of the brand’s Spring/Summer ’20 collection. Inspired by Turnbull’s long-standing expertise in textile design, French and her team revisited the house’s fabric archive and dissected the work of artists like Anni Albers and Grayson Perry, both of whom are known for their work in textiles. The result is a contemporary collection that feels reassuringly tactile and creative in its outlook.
“There’s a lot coming this season, but one of the highlights is a new jacquard shirt fabric that we’ve developed, inspired by a vintage scarf,” French says. “Normally we’d weave a jacquard in silk for our accessories, but this cloth is a pure cotton shirting and we’ve never made a jacquard shirt before.” You’ll be able to shop this first-of-its-kind fabric later in the season – Turnbull have used it to create a new short-sleeved Holiday Shirt and a sophisticated hidden button-down, as well as a luxurious jacquard dressing gown.
This flexibility in design is made possible in part by Turnbull’s position as a fully fledged maker. All the house’s shirts are made in its own workrooms in Gloucester, which employs close to 100 craftspeople, and its tie workshop in Sidcup turns out over 500 handmade silk ties in a week. This manufacturing clout in turn helps Turnbull’s relationship with many of its suppliers, Thomas Mason included.
Turnbull & Asser and Thomas Mason have a very long history, and I go and visit the archive at least once a year. We spend some time looking at the archive books, figure out what feels right for a particular moment or season, and then use this to inform our own mood boards. That’s how we design a lot of our exclusive shirting fabrics these days.
— Becky French
These exclusives are an important part of Turnbull’s DNA. The brand has woven unique fabrics for decades and French has done a marvellous job of capitalising on this. The SS20 collection is filled with stunning exclusive poplins, sustainable lyocell fabrics, chic stripes and tonal checks. Some pieces, notably the Holiday Shirts coming later this summer, are the perfect showcase for these elevated materials, and deftly demonstrate just how Turnbull & Asser is gently moving its design aesthetic forward – in all the right directions.
“Turnbull is an iconic British shirtmaker,” says French, demurely. “Regardless of your age, if you want a beautiful shirt, you know that you can come to us. What we have to do now is develop a reputation for some of the other classic pieces we make; the outerwear and jackets that are designed to outfit around our shirts, as well as our signature silk accessories too.”
Without doubt, French and her team will do just that. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next.
Thomas Mason is a brand of cotonificio albini s.p.a.
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