“It seems you’ve always been attracted to, or led towards . . .”
“Stuff,” replies a wide-eyed John Pearse. For all the vigour he fills it with – through a smoky voice resembling Attenborough’s – the word is knowingly brief. Yet perhaps it’s as convenient to try and capture life as vibrant as his through a single comparison than it is to explain every episode fully. And there are a considerable number of them.
There’s the infamous boutique store Granny Takes a Trip, which Pearse co-established on Chelsea’s King’s Road in 1966; the band he played in, Hapshash and the Coloured Coat, which produced popular posters and gained the adoration of underground music fans (primarily from Amsterdam); and his Federico Fellini-inspired ventures into the film industry.
Such a journey has been fashioned though by Mr Pearse’s primary craft in tailoring. Aged fifteen, he began as a coat maker’s apprentice on Wardour Street – a job that moved him away from his prior, noisy employment in a printing press and towards a trade that would teach him how to make a black mohair suit he’d spotted an Italian neo-realist actor wearing.
“I wanted a suit and I also wanted a quiet job – I had no qualifications, or academia, whatsoever. So I thought, I’ll learn to make the suit, get the suit, and my dreams will be fulfilled.”
Mr Pearse had undoubtedly cottoned on to something with this thinking. Three years after climbing the apprenticeship ladder, he travelled for a few months, returning to London from Torremolinos. “I was with a girl I’d promised to take to see ‘these friends of mine’ over in Baker Street . This continuity of having been on the road and meeting rather sophisticated people meant there was all this energy. And that’s when I met the people who started Granny’s when I was at the ripe old age of seventeen.”
Granny’s was established by the couple on Baker Street – Nigel Weymouth and his girlfriend Sheila Cohen, who poached Mr Pearse for his traditional know-how – Granny Takes a Trip was one of the boutique clothing stores at the centre of London’s swinging psychedelic scene.
“It would have been a Beatle or a Stone or Brigitte Bardot. Everybody – Monica Vitti,” Pearse adds because he can. “And you knew when the planes had landed from San Francisco: there was a whole kind of pilgrimage coming to ‘the land of psychedelia’ at the shop.” Undoubtedly, Granny’s set the trend for designer boutiques by mingling psychedelic styles with Mr Pearse’s traditional Savile Row wisdom.
But Pearse is keen to point out: “If you had a suit made, we never did fittings. It was made, finished and we went. I never remember saying, ‘Can we take this in or do that?’ – it never happened, it was just done. By the same token, someone would come in and say, ‘Do you know the shirts the Beatles were wearing from their Revolver album?’ – which we stopped making when we could have gone on and cashed in. We definitely weren’t interested in cashing-in in any way like that.”
Mr Pearse was also years ahead of today’s clothing trends: “Everyone’s now saying, ‘Let’s have ten weeks of buying second-hand or recycled clothes’, but I’ve been doing that for years.” Just before I press further into questions on the experimental nature of the store, in strolls a tall, handsome, commanding man, in fashionably ideal timing, Mr Pearse drifts towards him for an impromptu fitting session, which serves to answer some of those questions and reveals the nature of change in Mr Pearse’s work over time.
The blue suit tried on by the gentleman sits luxuriously on him, but he has doubts about its jazzy lower quarter, so Mr Pearse agrees to alter it. “That may be a more conservative look that I do for my clients, but let’s face it, they’re older now. But I used to experiment with cloth a lot. I would make a satin shirt that could have been really for a jacket lining. And then there were these pan velvet trousers, which everyone from Jagger and Jimi [Hendrix] split, right down the seam, because they had to be tight and that velvet was very fragile. But nobody would ever complain or return them because that was part of the look.
“I remember at the time the trouser-maker said, ‘You must be crazy doing this, this is mad, this stuff can’t be made,’ and I said, “Just make it and let’s get on with it.” Mr Pearse, it seems, even refashioned himself at one stage. When producer Guy Stevens suggest to him and Nigel Weymouth that “you and anyone in the shop would look great as a band”, the seeds of Hapshash and the Coloured Coat were sown.
Besides the minor issue that Mr Pearse didn’t play an instrument, he went on to tour with the band, playing gigs in Holland (where he tried his hand at the phonofiddle – ‘a one-stringed Irish instrument that made a droning noise’). After the eventual clashing of egos, the band ‘imploded – as the Sex Pistols did in San Antonio, except we did it in Amsterdam.” Nonetheless, the ever-adventurous Mr Pearse soon turned his attention to yet
another creative outlet.
“I got embroiled in the movies after I wound up in Rome. [Federico] Fellini was making Satyricon at that time. I got very interested in cinema just by being in Rome and there was this French contingent of actors and filmmakers there. I thought: ‘This is far more interesting than blokes with a guitar!’ The facts were: the camera’s lousy, the script’s lousy…but the people are beautiful. It was with that kind of attitude I thought I could do a Fellini, [Jean-Luc] Godard, Warhol, in London. So I did, I made a feature film: Moviemaker. That was the beginning of my filmmaking career.”
Faced with the all too common difficulty of raising funds for feature films, however, slowly but surely, Mr Pearse stitched himself back into the tailoring trade. “I moved to where we are now” – an elegant wooden-floored shop in Soho – “in about ’87, starting downstairs. I was still in movies, trying to do projects – whatever I could. Then I remember working on a scene when these girls from Vogue came in – I became distracted and never went back to thinking I would do a movie.”
His appetite for filmmaking may have waned, but perhaps his life was already sufficiently cinematic. If he is his own lead part, then it’s essential to know whether he ever made that Italian suit he wanted as a young boy. “Eventually, yes I did! With help from some of the masters. I then did another suit, then a friend wanted one. So that was another aspect of my entrepreneurial spirit because my friends all wanted suits, so right there I was beginning to do some private work and start my own little business. And then I realised I could do stuff.”
There’s no doubt Mr Pearse can do ‘stuff’ – that mantle of a word, which he seems to wear with more flourish than most.
John Pearse is at 6 Meard Street, Soho, London. Get fitted.