When Rahs Move On: Whatever Happened to Jack Wills?
Jack Wills used to be the outfitters of every young gilet-wearer. What happened?
Its logo is a pheasant. A pheasant wearing a top hat and holding a cane. When the creators of Jack Wills sat around a table to craft their brand, a game bird in formal wear was the image they wanted to project, to embody who they truly are. In retrospect, the bird was an ideal choice – it tells you everything you need to know about a brand aimed at a very specific type of upper-middle class youth.
Why so many kids from 2008 to 2011 would lust after having that emblem on their chest is, on the surface, a mystery. Jack Wills was founded in 1999 in Salcombe, Devon by two friends, Peter Williams and Robert Shaw. Were they aware that their brand would soon be the most feverishly sought after label for a troupe of posh GCSE and A Level kids? Perhaps not. But if you were a posh young person living in the south of England around that time, a JW hoodie, flip-flops and flannel shorts was the dress code. Whether you loved it or hated it, its existence was inescapable.
After years of relative silence, JW has emerged into the mainstream once again in the past month. An ad of theirs showing an underwear party was deemed "too sexualised" for teens by the Advertising Standards Authority and subsequently banned. More dire than this publicity: its losses. Its backer, with almost a third stake in the company, is reportedly keen to jump ship after a few years of unpleasing sales. How did it get from Home Counties glory to struggling to sell on the investment market?
Jack Wills arrived out of nowhere. Its catalogue – known as the Handbook – was passed around classrooms at a time when print was still holy and fashion and lifestyle brands told you how to be thin and white through a medium other than Instagram. In it were students laughing with milky teeth, cruising around in cars, toasting marshmallows in bikinis and horseback riding. The rah uniform was complete: for girls, a back-brushed blonde ponytail or bun, real UGG boots, JW tracksuit bottoms and a JW shirt, parts of which could be adapted to suit a school uniform – the tiniest peak of a logo on a vest top under your school shirt was enough. For boys, it was essentially the same.
Most teenagers had at least one stock item. If you were rich, you'd have a range of options, worn with Abercrombie & Fitch, Ralph Lauren and Topshop. Those less fortunate either resentfully spouted that Jack Wills was a load of bollocks (why would anyone want to pay loads of money on vests and tracksuits – sleepover gear – instead of normal clothes?), or caved and bought something cheap like socks, mugs or key-rings, or a singular hoodie with birthday money. This was how the second-wave Jack Wills troupe emerged, emulating the look with River Island "uggs" and H&M shirts.
A job at Jack Wills meant you were part of the inner circle. Holly, 21, worked in the Chichester branch during the brand's 2008 - 2011 heyday. "Among my peers, it was a serious achievement," she says. "When I got the job it was a huge confidence boost." She saw the hunger for the label first-hand. "We used to get a load of girls coming in holding all their books and stationery, and say, 'My bag just broke. Can I have a Jack Wills carrier bag?' In Chichester, carrying the pink and blue bag was a real accessory. It was practically better than the clothes because the stripes were so visible."
Holly also remembers the celebrity clientele – like Dan Gillespie, lead singer of The Feeling. "He was buying a lot of stuff, and I asked if it was for anything in particular," she says, "And he said, 'No, I just like having spare cardigans around the house.'"
Beyond retail, every year there was a chance for one youth who truly embodied the brand to blag the "Best Summer Job in Great Britain", to be one of the JW Seasonnaires. Obnoxiously assertive, posh and adventurous, the Seasonnaires would be taken around to party and be a rep for the brand.
Those outside the bubble saw it clearly. A 2010 Mumsnet thread dedicated to parents diverting shopping trips to the store said it all. According to Jan: "It is for teenagers with no style, whose parents have more money than sense imho. Ridiculous prices and not v nice." In Lovesunnydays' view: "It's a VERY private school 'I want it' kind of shop. We are not of the polo playing/private school chump/yuppie brigade and thank god as the pressure to keep up with other kids wearing that would be heartbreaking." For non-moneyed parents, it was too far a stretch of both pocket and imagination.
Jack Wills Christmas 2009 campaign
The success of Jack Wills was everything its founders could have hoped for. Rich kids owned it all and poor kids wished they could own it all.
The attempt to associate JW with a specific youth elite was careful and deliberate. In an essay on the "heraldry" of Jack Wills by Dr Daniel Smith of Anglia Ruskin University, the sociologist talks about "Jack Wills" as an imaginary ancestor of the British gentry who wants to outfit a new generation of rich millennials. The two founders named the company after one of their grandfathers, Jack Williams, but cleverly shortened the name to Wills. Wills is the Prince of England, synonymous with strawberries and cream, Wimbledon and the counties. Wills is class and money and, most importantly, character.
Jack Wills' shameless revelling in wealth is something quite unique to a high street brand. The company integrated itself deep within the worlds of Oxbridge-favoured sports. Each winter it sponsored the British Universities Snowsports Council's "Main Event" week, hosting parties and après ski. Every summer it hosts the Jack Wills Varsity Polo match at the Guards Polo Club in Berkshire, which includes annual matches between Cambridge and Oxford, Eton and Harrow and Harvard against Yale. In its stores, Jack Wills sells skiwear and swimwear alongside its gym staples.
In its photo campaigns, sports events, the Handbook and it's Seasonnaires, the message is clear: wearers of the brand are the young elite, and either you're with them or you're not.
But as is the fickle nature of massive hype, eventually the brand stopped growing. By 2012, the kind of British celebrities JW's core audience might scoff at – Helen Flanagan, Geri Halliwell, Cheryl Cole – had all been papped wearing the logo. The climate had changed. Jack Wills calls itself "university outfitters", but as tuition fees rocketed, the population of British students entered a state of flux. In an age of austerity, flaunting poshness was seen as gauche. In 2012, Jack Wills' sister brand Aubin and Wills, which was aimed at rich kids who had just left university, was closed after four years of trading.
Is there room to be that obnoxious beyond university years? The answer seems to be no. Would the brand survive for the next generation – one increasingly cynical of a nostalgic Britain that may or may not have ever existed? Just about.
Look around Britain's streets in 2016 and you'll rarely spot a hoodie emblazoned with that fictitious name. But Jack Wills does still exist. And despite its loss making, earlier this year it announced plans to open new stores across Britain and Asia to meet – what they call – growing demand.
Today, when you go to the Jack Wills flagship London store in Covent Garden, its windows are decorated with "50 percent off" decals. This is breaking the key pillar of JW: exclusivity. Back in the day, you'd never see a sale on – why would the brand ever want to attract the nans and the poor kids? Reduced price items were really only open to members of the Jack Wills Outlet, regular shoppers who applied through the site and had to keep buying to preserve their membership.
I spent a couple of hours in the store, hanging out to see what the current crop of JW customers look like. Very few of its target student audience walk through the doors now. There are a few posh mums buying weekend garb for their preppy kids, but mostly it's middle-aged men in Ralph polos and sunglasses shopping for more polos and casual shirts, and the odd young teenager.
One of those is Charlotte, 19, a Topshop and tote bag-wearing blonde girl. She almost seems embarrassed when I ask her why she's here. "The odd person my age might buy something in here, but hardly anyone – and definitely not a branded hoody or T-shirt," she says. "It's supposed to be university outfitters, but no one at my uni wears it. It's probably because all the year sevens wear it."
Another customer, 16-year-old Ellie, a girl with a preppy-casual style, says she's already outgrown it. "I wore it a lot more when I was younger, but it's a bit immature for me now. I still like the different prints they do, though."
The shop assistant who serves me is in his late teens, too, and tells me the store now relies on well-advertised sales and cheaper items, and the odd higher-end item. "There are just a lot of options now with online shopping, so the sales work to pull in new customers," he says. "I work in menswear and we get customers from literally every age group." I look around and see an elderly couple looking at the shirts. It's rare, he says, for someone in the over-18 age group to buy anything with the JW logo on it.
Online, Jack Wills is a ghost. Its YouTube videos – the digital extension of the once much-loved Handbook – have almost no hits. The Summer 2016 campaign video, launched two months ago, has just 8,000 views. In terms of interest, Jack Wills has followed the downward trajectory of British indie music, Bebo and Blackberry – all of which survive today in some modified state, but with almost no appeal to young people. Considering Jack Wills' position in popular British culture today, Holly looks to another oft-ignored dad brand to explain its fate: "I think Jack Wills will always exist in the same way that Fat Face does. Nobody loves Fat Face, but it's where you might go to get a bikini or some shorts, or something like that."
But just because Jack Wills had its British peak, doesn't mean we've lost Britain's young elite; it's just their hair is just a little less back-brushed and they rely more on their Coach handbags and Ted Baker purses than their drawstring duffles. In 2016, the last generation of JW devotees are first jobbers in the city. They still wear blazers and heels on nights out, but those nights are probably more Shoreditch House than Mahiki. They go to Ascot on with four wraps in their pocket and live in beautiful East London loft apartments paid for by their parents. Sportswear brands like Nike, Carhartt or Reebok are king now, and if you want a nice shirt, chinos or footwear, you'd likely turn to a name with proven longevity, like Ralph Lauren, Hunter or North Face.
University outfitters or not, there will always be yacht sailing, King's Road shopping, horse-owning youth with second homes on the Isle of Wight and Tory-voting parents who call their Land Rovers "Landies". Rest assured: no matter what happens to Jack Wills, there will always, always be a prick in a gilet.
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