Liam Jefferies meets the doyenne of Stanley Biggs, a menswear company with one foot set firmly in history.
For some, there is no beating vintage. A vintage duffel coat found in the back of a surplus store will invoke a greater sense of worth than a similar model churned out by the thousands in some overseas sweatshop and destined for the high street sales rail. It is rare, however, to find brands which embody the same notions of design, craftsmanship and longevity of the apparel of yesteryear.
One such brand is Stanley Biggs. Located in the Midlands, Biggs is a heritage clothiers unashamedly inspired by the past. Taking inspiration from early 20th Century designs, and with an ethos evoked by a tale of true gallantry from the history books, Stanley Biggs is no mere nom de plume adopted to instill a sense of archaic gravitas, but an actual person from whom the brand name is derived.
Born in London in 1919, Stanley Douglas Biggs joined up to serve at the beginning of the Second World War, as a medical orderly in the 181st Airlanding Field Ambulance Unit of the Royal Army Medical Corps. His unit would go on to take part in the Battle of Arnhem during the ill-fated Operation Market Garden in September 1944.
Even being captured by the Boche did not dampen Biggs’ spirit and wit. His comrade Tom Bannister, quoted in Niall Cherry’s book Red Berets and Red Crosses, recalled: “The SS marched all the orderlies outside and lined us up with hands on heads near the garage we were using as a mortuary. It looked as though that was it. I was standing next to a chap named Stan Biggs, and he looked across to me, grinned and said ‘Well, there is one thing, Tom, they won’t have far to carry us’.”
It was on 25th September 1944, less than a year until the end of the war, that Private Biggs lost his life, when a stray shell hit another hotel he and other injured soldiers were holed up in during a barrage of the Oosterbeek Perimeter.
Stanley Biggs is buried in Arnhem Oosterbeek Airborne Cemetery in the Netherlands, and it was here that Sophie Bainbridge looked up her great grandmother’s name, Biggs, and has since pieced together the story of her heroic ancestor, after which her brand is named. During Christmas 2018 the brand was devised over a roaring fire and, since then, Sophie has helmed the creation of everything from the branding and logo to the designs of the clothing itself.
“I have had a passion,” Sophie told The Chap, “for collecting vintage artefacts since I was 15 years old, so it was inevitable that anything I did would have an organic leaning toward heritage products and bygone eras. I have another business called Old Time Design Company that I run with my husband, which focuses on accurately reproducing items and clothing from the 1940s era. When we wanted to look at style influences of previous eras, it made sense to start another brand that allowed us to do this with the originality we wanted to achieve. In April 2019, Stanley Biggs was founded.”
It is this dedication to the designs of yore that is evident in the brand’s range of products. From collegiate scarves and ringspun jerseys recalling mid-century sporting uniforms, to early 20th century-influenced boots produced in collaboration with heritage bootmakers William Lennon & Co.
One can even acquire an authentic reproduction of the Royal Air Force Mark VIII Flying Goggles, but it is in Stanley Biggs’ superlative knitwear, made in England from 100% British wool, that the quality is in abundance. A Chap favourite from Stanley Biggs’ archive is the marvellously two-toned ‘Hannay’ roll-neck. Named after the protagonist of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, Major General Sir Richard Hannay, the natural grey and Celtic green tones evoke images of the landscape of Britain described in the book, and as seen in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 adaptation. The jumper features a high waistband and can be worn long (ideally tucked into breeks) or rolled up to double down on the insulating properties of 100% British wool.
“The 1930s is an era we know well,” says Sophie, “through our experience and interest in vintage products, so we have a collection that is built around the everyday aesthetic of products that hark back to that time, but with our own bespoke touch of modernity and spirit. Our thick wool knitwear is 100% Made in Britain.”
Another icon of British knitwear lovingly recreated is the ‘Eliot’ – a Gansey (or Guernsey), a distinctive woollen sweater nicknamed “Seamen’s Iron” by fisherman for the protective qualities it offers against wind and water. Featuring a traditional square stand-up collar and dropped shoulder synonymous with seafaring garb, the article gains its moniker from poet and novelist Mary Anne Evans (alias George Eliot) whose works are considered to contain some of the best and most detailed depictions of the British countryside. But the key ingredient is quality:
“First and foremost,” says Sophie, “we source fabrics and materials that are the best, to our knowledge. We locate the best manufacturers based on their capability, merit and their ethical approach. It is because we believe in supporting craftsmanship and methodology that a lot of our manufacturing partners are located in the North and Midlands of England. However, our merino wool comes from New Zealand, so we don’t exclude manufacturers and suppliers from further afield.”
“We make our products here because, for the garments we have focused on, UK craftsmanship and fabrics are the best there is. Of course the Made in Britain element adds to the story and enhances the aesthetic of the Stanley Biggs brand, which is typically British and heritage led. We are proud of that and the organic nature in which it has been achieved.
“We want to capture a bygone era but in our own ‘Stanley Biggs’ way. There are a lot of influences and we are proud to be a heritage brand, but this has been carefully curated to be worn comfortably and with versatility in mind for the modern day man (or lady).”