The mighty grey mass of the North Sea looms large over the land. The rhythm of the rain, the wind and the swell of the waves conjure up battleship grey images of oil rigs, submarines, fishermen happed and wrapped up for stormy weather.
No room for fashion in this tough deep sea with beards, pea coats, waterproofs, knitted hats and most of all hard wearing knitwear it was only a matter of time before the stylish began to look offshore. As ever, for those prepared to dig deeper the rewards were much greater. Under the sea it was inside the submarines that the best knitwear was to be found. Never produced in the same numbers as army surplus staples or even Navy peacoats, these were reserved for rare breed submariners. The surplus that did exist was going to run out one day and it did.
One man set sail and submerged himself in a quest to recreate these jumpers to the original quality specifications diving in head first and if you read the comments section on his website you will see the appreciation that lands back at his door for the depths he was prepared to go to.
They smell, they itch, some of them say, but the people who own these pieces are very attached to them. They want one in every colour. Not fashion colours but authentic colours. This knitwear is built to last, to keep you warm, to keep its shape, to wash itself, to keep the rain out, is there anything it can’t do?
Neil Starr of North Sea Clothing tells us how he adapted his favourite jumper into both hard wearing hard-wear for hipsters, and classic style for seafaring folk. He tinkered with the fit to make it fit today’s man and set out to create a brand that stood for authenticity but was not afraid to extend his fleet of products. North Sea Clothing now do scarves and even vulcanised footwear but it all revolves around the submariner knitwear and apart from the shoes it’s all still made in the UK.
Your come from a background in vintage clothing?
I always had an interest in vintage since I was a kid so ended up dealing in men’s vintage clothing for many years on all the London markets. I specialised in vintage motorcycle and military gear, but always had my eye open for other interesting pieces. I still have a nice collection.
Do you remember when you first came across the Naval knitwear that became the inspiration for what you do now?
The original WW1 & WW2 Submariner was my own wardrobe staple as well as something that would always sell well. When the surplus supply sweaters dried up in the 1990’s I decided to develop it myself, and re-make the same jumper from the same wool. North Sea Clothing was created soon after. Initially we made just the Submariner in ecru. We altered the shape slightly, as some of the originals were designed to go over your jacket, like a big sack. The North Sea Clothing Submariner was made more suitable and flattering for modern guys, but with the same quality specification and detailing as the War issue originals.
The brand is called North Sea Clothing but other than the name, do you have any personal connection to the North Sea?
I’m from Norfolk so spent time by the North Sea as a child. I’m happy to be close to any sea. It’s good for the soul.
Your sweaters still seem to be genuinely used by seafaring folk?
We get all types of customers, from North Sea divers and Polar explorers, to the bloke next door who just wants a good looking warm jumper. They were used in the 2013 Shackleton Epic Expedition which covered land and sea, and we have received many great photos from happy customers who have travelled to extreme environments with their North Sea Clothing jumper.
Your comments section on your website tells of dedicated customers delighted with their purchases. Really really, delighted. They like to comment on how much they like what you do ?
I’ve always tried to deal directly with anyone who needs info regarding what we do. This extends to making sure they get a much needed jumper in time for a cold trip, or a birthday. I hope it is this personal service as well as the product itself that inspires so many customers to get in touch to thank us, or even send photos.
I met you in Paris back in June this year when you were showing your collection for next summer and there was a great new colour you were showing, but in general you stick to quite a narrow colour palette?
Oh yes. Though it is wider now. Why complicate things too much when Navy Blue and Ecru are so good?
What’s the appeal of North Sea Clothing to the likes of Dover Street Market?
Yes it’s interesting that such a high fashion company such a Comme des Garcon want to stock a brand like us. Maybe it’s that our products are very wearable, uncomplicated and well made.
Where do you make, and has the knitwear changed much since the original idea?
We make almost everything here in England apart from our deck shoes, as there is nobody vulcanising rubber footwear in the UK at present. The very first jumper we ever made (The Submariner) is still in the range and it hasn’t changed at all. It’s the classic. The quality of the knitwear is also exactly the same. All that has changed is that we offer more styles, and will be adding some women’s knitwear soon and more summer knits.
From Portobello Market to Dover Street Market, J. Crew and Japan the Submariner can be found across oceans and seas as Neil has become the chandler of style to the new recruits to the North Sea Navy ( and they are about to let women join in too ! )
Interview by Gordon Ritchie | Images by Tsvetelina Ivanova