Ms Nick Wakeman has a thing for Japanese pensioners. “I’ve got a massive crush on old Japanese men, their clothes, and that kind of gentleness that they’ve got,” the designer says excitedly. “Old folks in Japan will wear the same thing that they’ve been wearing for about 50 years. They launder their clothes to perfection and really look after them. There’s something quite delightful about an old man shuffling down the street, and the way they put themselves together.”
The creative director and founder of London-based brand Studio Nicholson, Wakeman makes clothes that give the wearer a sense of individuality and gravitas in a way that feels ageless. The designer has no interest in trends, or in staying ahead of any perceived fashion curve. Instead, she has managed to take that quiet, sartorial magic of dressing for oneself and has distilled it into Studio Nicholson.
“I think quite often we’re classed as a bit bland or a bit Scandi, because we don’t do loads of adornment and paraphernalia, but the reason we don’t is because it doesn’t date,” she says. “Things come and go very quickly and the things that look great today don’t always look great next year.” Studio Nicholson operates on a slightly different wavelength, creating so-called “basics” that are decidedly un-basic.
It helps that Wakeman focuses on fabric and that the clothes are cut with precision into silhouettes that feel palatably classic, but always with a twist, gently pushing the boundaries of stylish menswear in a way that feels dignified and intelligent. The shapes are flattering, and everything comes in natural shades. Colour is a rarity. “I love colour, I’m really interested in it, I just don’t want to have it anywhere near me. There’s none at home and none in my wardrobe.” The designer famously hates flowers, too. “With a passion,” she says. She prefers permanence and longevity, which perhaps explains her love for older generations.
Two years ago, she came across Hironobu, an exceptionally stylish octogenarian from the city of Suzuka in Japan’s Kansai region. “Hironobu lost his wife four years ago, and his grandson Kota began going over to take photos of him to keep him occupied and bring him some joy, and started posting them on Instagram,” Wakeman says. After a friend sent over his profile, Hironobu became the designer’s new style crush.
“I sent him and his grandson a ton of clothes and said, ‘Look, do what you want with them.’ And they’ve started sending me these incredible images back,” she says. It is the brand’s take on what is known in the social media world as “influencer seeding”, but warmer and more authentic. “Hironobu wouldn’t even know what the word influencer meant,” she says. “But he looks better than any model I could hope for, because he’s wearing them in his own environment, and that’s where the beauty is.”
This idea of a senior citizen such as Hironobu, caring for his clothes and taking a real pride in them, is significant to Studio Nicholson, which traffics in the concept of the “modular wardrobe”. Effectively referring to a strong selection of timeless, trusty clothing that you can pair with anything and wear forever, the modular wardrobe is about versatility and again, longevity. The sartorial equivalent of long-term investing in property – “safe as trousers”, if you like – a modular wardrobe is also inherently sustainable. To do it, “find the things that work for you and buy them in bulk, the one T-shirt, or the one jean,” Wakeman says. “It might be a painful experience finding that one thing, but it’s worth it because it’ll last you for life.”
Perfecting the “one” T-shirt, jacket or pair of trousers is a granular practice, but Wakeman works granularly. “I freak out if things aren’t done in the right way,” she says. “I’m really anal about how garments are on the inside. They should be as beautiful inside as they are outside. It’s those details that make a difference. There’s a saying we bandy around a bit which is ‘the JND’ – ‘the just-noticeable difference’ – which sets you apart from the gang.”
Wakeman’s simplest advice for cultivating the JND in your own outfit? Good trousers. Studio Nicholson’s best-selling item is its Volume Pant, a wide-leg statement trouser that is baggy in that B-boy kind of way, but more polished and grownup. This, too, was inspired by people-watching in Japan. “I saw this guy walking down the street in Tokyo in these big trousers,” she says. “I didn’t take a photo or anything, but I just couldn’t stop thinking about them, so when I got home, I drew it out with my pattern cutter, with the curve, and said it has to be exactly like that.”
"I’ve got a massive crush on old Japanese men, their clothes, and that kind of gentleness that they’ve got"
They’ve been a huge success. “Without that pant, we wouldn’t be here anymore, because it sells so much,” she says. The success of the trouser, she tells MR PORTER, is more to do with how they move with the body than how they look on their own. “It’s when people move that you get a sense of who they are, it’s not static. [With trousers,] it’s all about how it falls from the hip and where the pleat goes.” Again, the JND.
“There’s that thing where you see a supremely well-dressed human being walking down the road, and you can’t work out why they look better than everyone else,” she says. “It could be because they’ve had their jacket made for them, or perhaps the cloth hangs well, or the fabric is outstanding, or just that they’ve pressed it to perfection. But what is it that sets them apart? That’s what I’m always looking for.”