Grace Hammond speaks to the self-taught designer of a luxury country clothing brand which is inspired by an English ideal and character.
When Gary Newbold was a professional international racing cyclist in his 20s, he became used to dressing in the best sports gear on the planet. “I had all the best kit thrown at me, made from the finest fabrics of the time and from then on only luxury clothing would do,” he says.
Based in France for several years and representing Team GB on several occasions, it was a big blow when he had to retire aged 28. “I could speak French and ride a bicycle, but I didn’t have a clue what to do with my life. When I came back from France I was totally lost.”
A family friend stepped in to offer him a job as a commercial agent selling cashmere sweaters, and while he loved the luxury textiles, he hated selling, even though he was ultra-successful. After parting ways with his employer, and with some money in the bank, Gary’s life was about to become more interesting.
“My love for fabrics led me to teach myself pattern-making and design and I put my money into a small factory in 1995 and employed local machinists in York. I discovered a real passion for making and had plenty of orders. If you make things well people will buy the best.”
He had a small unit in Fossgate, but due to “a mix of naivety and disorganisation” the business folded in 1999.
Just days later he received a call from Barbour, famed for its wax cotton clothing, to say Dame Margaret Barbour had one of his jackets and loved it. “There I was again wondering what to do next, when I was invited to a meeting by Barbour in South Shields. I became head of design.”
His six years with Barbour and later freelancing for the likes of Ralph Lauren gave him an insight into how to make his creativity pay and, armed with his commercial knowledge, Gary had the skills to launch his own brand English Utopia in 2012. After working for brands with a strong heritage and travelling the world to find the best fabrics I’d discovered a sense of how I could reinterpret the traditional notion of luxury country clothing, inspired by the English countryside. My collections tell a story of Englishness.”
Utopia, for Gary, now 57, is having the freedom to design away from the corporate world and is also a nod to Sir Thomas More, author of Utopia – a satire of an imaginary world – which Gary studied during a degree in history at the University of York. His balloon logo was sparked by seeing hot air balloons ascend from York Racecourse.
“My country clothing is for everyone, not only those who hunt, shoot and fish and is not part of an elitist dress code. It’s elegant, stylish and practical, with technical and performance elements,” he says.
Tweed, quilted and wax cotton jackets for men and women are staples of the English Utopia brand. What is unique in his wax cotton clothing, is an additional waterproof and windproof layer between the cotton outer and lining.
Jacket names taken from the Romantic period include Ivanhoe, Lancelot, Hotspur and Robin Hood, the latter featuring fabric from Halley Stephensons in Scotland, leather collar and cuffs and a detachable hood. This signature design is called Isolt in the women’s version.
His beautifully elegant tweed jackets and three-quarter length coats for women may be embellished with a faux fur collar and detachable lining, are showerproof and keep you snug down to -2 degrees. Wool tweed is sourced from Mallalieus of Delph and cotton linings from Como in Italy. Even the quilt and fleece jackets are suitable for light showers with soft Italian microfibres and nubuck leather collars in some styles.
“The word luxury is misused by many manufacturers,” Gary says. “But English Utopia uses unrivalled fabrics, which is why this covetable clothing is not the cheapest, but worth the price.”
Gary makes all the patterns and cuts most of the fabric himself, employing freelance machinists in York at his workshop. A new venture is a shop window for English Utopia garments at the Rattle Owl restaurant in York’s Micklegate. “I needed a small space to do my design work on a computer and it affords me that. We have products in the window and if people call by and I’m there, they are always very welcome. However most of the time these days I’m busy making patterns and cutting fabric over at our workshop unit.
“Until 2016 we didn’t have a website and we only sold to other stores, but the B2B model was killing us.
“We couldn’t afford the huge capital outlay required to make it and buy stock in advance. Furthermore, it was becoming increasingly difficult to get physical shelf space as the bigger brands would always take precedence.
“From 2016 with tremendous help and advice from a good friend James Norwich, we switched to a B2C (business to consumer) model via the Internet.
“Buying directly from English Utopia via our website allows us to make locally, using the best fabrics in the world and whilst some of our jackets are expensive, we feel that this is our niche. The only concession to this is that we supply around 30 stores in the USA.”
Gary feels that all his life experiences have brought him to this point.
“When I was a cyclist, he adds, “one of my old coaches said that if I want to win money, I won’t win races, but if I want to win races, I might win some money. It’s the same with what I do now.”
Prices range from £159 to £3,000.
English Utopia country clothing can be bought at www.englishutopia.com