In Sydney, where summer temperatures soar up to 40°C, and a token six-week winter hovers at a temperate 15°C, the quotidian local uniform is understandably light on both cloth and coverage. So much so, that for much of our fledgling sartorial history, Australian fashion output has largely been denied by swimwear, activewear, and denim – all of which we proudly excel at.
Custom suiting, crafted entirely by hand, hasn’t traditionally been part of the picture. Sydney-sider Patrick Johnson of P. Johnson Tailors, however, has set about changing all that since he set up his business in 2008. The 36-year-old designer rightly believes that men should be well dressed, but also that strictly cut Italian wool suits should be a thing of the past. His designs fit with the Aussie lifestyle – think lighter fabrics in a contemporary colour palette, and looser cuts. “I wanted something that was soft and natural, and had a sense of sensuality to it,” he says of his line of understated, yet expertly crafted, suits, shirts, and separates. “That’s the way younger people want to wear clothes.”
Sitting on a sofa in his Paddington showroom, Johnson, known as Patch to his friends, is a model of his brand of laid-back elegance. He’s dressed in a faded denim shirt with a Mao collar, and relaxed summer trousers cut in a wool, silk, and linen mix cloth called Solaro. This weave was initially developed by the British for the Indian climate, and Johnson has updated it. “This way we can have a lighter weight cloth that ages beautifully and is very soft to touch,” he says, pulling gently on the fabric.
Johnson started his career in London under the tutelage of Chelsea-based shirtmaker Robert Emmett while studying menswear at Central Saint Martins. A chance encounter with Emmett led the young Aussie (then in his early 20s) to abandon his studies in favour of learning the trade on the job. He worked his way up from the shop floor to production, eventually launching Emmett’s line of custom suiting. Back then, Johnson believed this line of work was only possible in Europe. “I remember thinking, I’ve got five years of doing this thing that I love in London, but then I have to go home and become a banker, or work in a winery,” he recalls.
“It hadn’t occurred to me that I could do this forever.” Johnson’s childhood took place in a “rural bubble” in South Australia, where he kicked around exclusively in R.M. Williams. “I had no idea that people wore suits in Australia – I didn’t think this could work here.”
Unforeseen circumstances saw Johnson and his then- girlfriend (now wife) Tamsin heading homeward from Europe, where he gradually set about building a customer base for his custom suiting. Humble beginnings travelling from city to city to visit clients transformed into a formidable empire, and P. Johnson Tailors currently has appointment only showrooms in Sydney, Melbourne, New York, and London.
Designed by his wife, who happens to be one of Australia’s most coveted young interior designers, each showroom is customised to suit its unique surroundings. The Sydney showroom is a destination store situated off the beaten track in Paddington’s leafy, sleepy lanes. It resembles a spacious art gallery with industrial windows, awash with a playful colour palette. The central pit is blanketed in a Barragán pink plush carpet, and there is a mix of custom made and antique furniture, including a 1970s Fornasetti breakfast table and a Murano glass chandelier. The surrounding walls are postered with artwork by a roster of contemporary Australian artists, such as Esther Stuart, Jonathan Zawada, and Brendan Huntley. “People can relax in here and not have to think about the clothing too much,” Johnson says. The New York showroom on Spring Street has the same welcoming atmosphere and generous sense of space with couches for customers to rest their weary legs, but it is fitted out in hushed, neutral tones. “New York has so much energy, so it’s something of a sanctuary from the bustling city below,” he says. “We want people to walk out of the hectic city and have space to breathe.”
In order to get your hands on a piece of P. Johnson, you might technically need to make an appointment, but he doesn’t want to promote an elitist ethos and encourages people to drop in whenever they like. “I like those retail experiences where you’re getting personal attention, but I don’t like being inaccessible – I’m Australian,” he holds his hands up and laughs. He commutes from his beachside home in Tamarama to his Paddington showroom, where there are three seamstresses and four tailors on any given weekday.
Johnson has 48 tailors on staff, and even those not working on the showroom floor are required to undertake regular training. He admits that it is very intense: “A lot of people don’t make it through the first six months.” This rigorous process is all part of the promise of modern luxury, an experience that Johnson hopes to constantly redefine. One of his custom suits takes his workshop in Carrara, Italy, around six weeks to make, but he’s hoping to challenge even that. “Traditional bespoke can be six months, but who’s got six months?” he says, shaking his head. “My dream is to be able to make a beautiful handmade garment for a good price in a week. I know it can be done, but we haven’t worked out how yet.”
If he succeeds, such a premise will further challenge the model of ready-to-wear, something Johnson eschews, aside from his line of knitwear, to avoid the waste of overproduction. He’s not here to dress the masses, nor does he want his customers to own an excessive number of his suits. He can count just five in his own wardrobe at any given time, and often encourages regulars to wear new styles with older pieces. “You know when you’re having a good morning, and you’re walking down the street, and you have a movie playing in your head of how you want your life to be?” he says, thoughtfully, of his ethos. “When I sit down with someone I try to work out what their movie is: What are they thinking about? Who do they want to be? When they wake up in the morning, I want to make the process of getting dressed easy and enjoyable for them.”