COLOURFUL blazers are synonymous with Henley Royal Regatta and, at this time of year, a familiar
COLOURFUL blazers are synonymous with Henley Royal Regatta and, at this time of year, a familiar sight on our streets as rowing crews from around the world visit for the annual competition.
It is therefore appropriate that many of these fine examples of bespoke tailoring were made right here in Henley — but it wasn’t always like that.
Collier & Robinson, based at Henley Enterprise Park, off Greys Road, was founded only 14 years ago by husband and wife Mark and Kristie Shemilt.
Mrs Shemilt, 40, recalls: “Mark was born and bred in Henley and he thought it was criminal that there was nowhere in town that made blazers since Henley is the home of British rowing.
“Although he didn’t row himself, he had quite a few friends in the rowing community.”
Now she is the company’s creative director leading a small team of workers that makes up to 60 blazers a week.
Mrs Shemilt was born in England but raised in South Africa and studied at the college of fashion design in Cape Town.
After working for a fashion house in the port city for a number of years, she returned to Britain in 1998.
She completed an evening course at the London College of Fashion Design before working as a British Airways air stewardess for two years.
She met her husband in 2000 at Henley Royal Regatta.
The couple were on holiday together in Bali when he suggested the idea of a blazer business.
He was in a band with rowers Matt Richardson and friends with Justin Sutherland, now director of rowing at Upper Thames Rowing Club.
The couple decided on a business name that combined Mr Shemilt’s mother’s maiden name, Collier, and his wife’s maiden name, Robinson, and got to work.
The couple soon began receiving orders, mainly from London clubs.
Mrs Shemilt says: “It started from there — one sewing machine and me cutting and making everything, hand- sewing on buttons.”
News of her tailoring skills spread by word of mouth and soon Henley Rowing Club, Upper Thames, Shiplake College and the Oratory School were knocking on the door.
At first the clients were all men but Collier & Robinson is equally proud of its fitted ladies’ blazers and now about 40 per cent of the firm’s customers are female.
As the business has grown, so has the staff, who include production manager Jo Eddon and embroiderer Pauline Thomas.
Mrs Shemilt admits that having three children in two years, including twins, slowed things down but orders rocketed in 2012, the year of the London Olympics, and since then the business has expanded.
Collier & Robinson is now making blazers for clients in America, including Brown University, Cornell, Columbia, Princeton and Stanford, as well as Hong Kong and Europe, including Germany, Sweden and Â Holland.
It is also the supplier of the Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club and the Blues blazers.
As demand has grown, Mrs Shemilt has been keen to ensure that tradition is maintained.
The history of the blazer dates back more than 160 years.
Lady Margaret Boat Club’s vivid scarlet jackets, first worn in 1852, were called “blazers” and the term stuck.
They have now become one of the most recognisable items of clothing associated with the sport.
Mrs Shemilt says: “We like to think Henley Royal Regatta was instrumental in that. We’re carrying on that tradition and still doing it in Henley.”
She recalls one occasion when a Dutch crew from Skadi collected their blazers the night before the first day of the regatta.
“They just looked at these blazers and one of them said, ‘they’re sick!’. I thought ‘they don’t like them’ but then I found out that ‘sick’ meant they loved them!”
Another customer, a businessman from Rhode Island, extended a meeting by a day so that he could come and see the firm’s workshop.
The firm’s American orders were boosted in 2014 by a book called Rowing Blazers by Jack Carlson, the US national team cox, which featured Collier & Robinson.
“The Americans... they love the whole Englishness of it,” says Mrs Shemilt.
All the materials used to make a blazer are sourced in England with the fabric woven in Yorkshire.
It takes about five hours to make one garment.
Mrs Shemilt explains: “If the customer is happy with the price we’ll go ahead and I’ll start designing and ask if they have an existing blazer they would like us to work with. Typically, the colours of the blazer will mimic the oar tips.”
The customer decides whether to have stripes or a single colour with edging. Mrs Shemilt will produce a computer-generated design and send them fabric samples.
“We’ll throw ideas around between us,” she says. “I’ll either order in fabric from our supplier and different colours of edging or I’ll give the go-ahead for the mill in Yorkshire to weave the stripe.”
All the blazers are custom-made from scratch and she has even flown to Germany to measure up a client.
“We just personalise it to how they want it,” says Mrs Shemilt. “The fabric from the mill takes about 10 to 12 weeks to weave.”
A vital feature of any blazer is its crest and some customers have formed a club just so they can have a blazer.
One such club was the Henley Old Rogues Society, which included local chef and restaurateur Antony Worrall Thompson, and Mrs Shemilt designed their crest.
To make a blazer, the fabric is cut and then all the parts are placed in a bag ready to be sewn together. It takes four to six weeks to complete a plain blazer with edging and about 14 weeks for a striped blazer. Each blazer costs, on average, £250.
Mrs Shemilt says: “We want them to be made in Henley. It wouldn’t be the same if we sent them to Hong Kong to be made. I like to see every stage of the process.
“The customer can come in and see how their blazer is being made and try it on. I personally deliver all our blazers to overseas customers. They are so happy, they love them.”
The business has been based at Henley Enterprise Park for seven years and the workshop is now equipped with five sewing machines, an iron, a press and buttonhole machines.
Mrs Shemilt admits her job isn’t nine to five and she can work until the early hours but says her children, Toby, nine, and twins Ottilie and Amelie, seven, are her priority.
Even so, she is amazed at how rapidly the business has grown and is grateful to her late father-in-law, Mike Shemilt, who died last year, for showing faith in it.
“He was amazing businessman,” she says. “He always believed in the business, probably more than I did. If I had a business issue I could always approach him.”
Mrs Shemilt hopes that Collier & Robinson will continue for a long time to come.
“I feel very honoured to be able to be part of such a tradition,” she says. “There’s no other sport with this pageantry of blazers and colour and teamwork.
“I’m amazed that there are still people out there who want blazers and I don’t know where they keep coming from. I always say ‘it can’t be any busier than last year’ but it always is.”