In the first part of a new regular series in which we chat to the folks at our favourite menswear stores, we drop in on John Paul Cooper at Liverpool’s luxury menswear boutique Union 22
John Paul Cooper, or ‘JP’ as he’s affectionately known on Merseyside doesn’t half have some stories. Having cut his teeth at northern fashion institution Wade Smith and travelled the world in the name of menswear, he’s got a few tales to tell.
His latest venture with co-founder Dale Allman, Union 22, is a sleek menswear boutique on Liverpool’s majestic Victoria Street. When we visit the store in early January, there’s still evidence of the huge Union House Christmas display, a bold, multi-tiered light display inspired by his time in New York and the likes of Macy’s and Saks.
We sit down with JP to talk Liverpool fashion trends, prized possessions and the Italian luxury menswear revolution he’s bringing to his hometown.
Tell us about the store, how long have you been going for?
We opened on 22 December 2017, so we’re just over a year old. The building, Union House, was the former headquarters of Tetleys Tea and is Grade II listed. Recently we’ve gone to two floors and we’ve brought in more Italian brands. We’ve brought in Brioni(?) which is mega premium and Canali which is luxury and we’ve got Ermangildo Zegna. What we believe since we first opened a year ago is that fashion is moving towards the Italian brands again. The French have sort of had it with the Givenchy and Balmain, especially with all of the printed t-shirts sort of stuff. We’ve come in at an early stage, saying we think it’s going to be moving towards Italian and softer tailoring. We’ve brought in Santoni, which is a luxury footwear brand. Santoni’s leather, it’s that good that IWC use that to make leather watch straps. On the upstairs level we have all our higher price point brands while downstairs, it’s not casual, but not as luxurious.
What’s the story behind the building and the display outside?
The display outside was done by the UK events group. I used to live in New York for about four years and always saw the likes of Sack’s, Macey’s, stuff like that and always wanted to do something on that scale in Liverpool. We teamed up with the UK Events Group and gave them the idea of what we wanted to do. We brought in the ‘Cash for Kids’ charity and too I think we’ve raised around 40k for them. It was our way of saying, this is how we’re going to do Christmas from now on.
Who do you cater for? Who is the typical Union 22 gentleman?
We have everyone from football players to actors, the customer base stretches all the way down to London. We see ourselves as a union and our strapline of sorts is ‘are you part of the union?’ To be one of our regular customers, you can sign up to our loyalty card, we can let you know what new brands are coming in. We source brands that you won’t find anywhere else. Everything we do is usually new to the UK, certainly new to Liverpool or if it’s the same brand as another store, we’ll buy it differently. We’ll buy garments that have luxury detailing, luxury fabrics, cuts, that’s what we look for to make a point of difference.
Tell me about the brands and what’s exclusive to the store?
Mackage is very exclusive. We were the first store to bring it to the north of England. As far as we know, apart from Harrods, we were the first retailer in the UK to buy into Santoni. We were the first for Corneliani in Liverpool, same with Brioni. Again, we believe it’s moving away from the French brands. Liverpool and Amsterdam fashions were very very similar, dominated by French brands. We thought great, everyone’s doing that, let’s get the Italians back on board again so at the moment, we’re the only ones really concentrating on the Italian and British brands.
Do you have any particular pieces that are popular at the moment?
Mackage outerwear is massive. It’s Canadian, waterproof, down-filled, it’s luxury trim. Santoni footwear again, finest leathers in the world, designed and handmade in Italy and the shape of the shoe is very italian, a sleek neat shape. Then Cheaney footwear across the board, fantastic quality and made in Britain.
Are the customers on board with your Italian luxury revolution?
We’ll have a blazer, but inside the blazer will be a chest piece detailing that stands out from any other blazer. Footwear will be, for instance with Corneliani, it will be a trainer with luxury suede detailing on it, but it will be a different shape to any other trainer that’s out there. It’s easily recognisable and now our customers will look at footwear and immediately be able to say, that’s Corneliani, because they recognise the shapes. They’ll see a blazer and they’re looking for a stitching colour detail or a suede trim detail. They notice that, they like it and they like that every brand has heritage and an incredible story behind it.
What stories have you got about the brands?
The people over at Santoni are brilliant, they’re excited for us to be bringing the brand over to the UK and that we’re a small independent. Whenever we sit down with the brands for the first time and give them our story and what we’re trying to do going forward, they are on board with it. They love that we’re not in the main shopping part of the city, we’re slightly out of it in a unique building, from the outside, it’s completely different to other shops in the city centre.
Any memorable characters?
Lardini is one of our new brands. We met the owner [of Lardini] Andrea Lardini and went to the factory in Filottrano where they make the clothes. They make clothes there for everyone; Balenciaga, Burberry, Louis Vuitton. Their signature branding is a flower in the eye of the lapel, it’s a really nice touch. Luxury fabric, very soft construction, very little shoulder pad, if any, which gives it that European shape. Polos, knitwear and trousers made to unbelievable spec. On the trousers, they’ll have a little thin band of rubber that goes on the inside of the waistband to stop your shirt from untucking. They take it down to the finer detail that we and our customers love. So we went to Filottrano, did the whole factory tour with them, they showed us everywhere. Then we went for a meal with them, right on the Adriatic.
How would you describe the style of Liverpool over the years, past and present? How does your customer fit into this?
The younger Liverpool customer will tend to follow a brand rather than product, whereas our customers are following product over brand. They are looking for key pieces that will fit into their wardrobe and compliment their style. What I would like to say about Union 22 is that if they’re after something a little bit different, a little bit niche, something that they’ve maybe already got in their wardrobe, but with a twist, they will find it here. We’re suited to either the young lad who wants to dress a little bit smarter to the guy who just wants to get rid of his Hugo Boss wardrobe and is saying, ‘I want something completely new, fresh and different.’
How do you think the fashion in Liverpool has changed?
It has always been based very casual and around sports. Hugo Boss conquered the market for seven years in Liverpool with a branded polo in every single colour you could possibly think of. Whereas, we would then go, no branding at all, still a polo but it’s moved from cotton to an extra fine merino gauge, it’s got a little bit more luxury appeal to it. People from Liverpool will always invest in jeans, whether it’s Jacob Cohen or Tramarossa, the jeans don’t tend to move a lot, luxury denim, nice slim fit. But when it comes to torso, outerwear is a big one. Moncler has had complete control over it, but now it’s moving from the branding on the sleeve, to the branding on another part, for instance Mackage on the back of the neck. It’s moving slowly towards luxury.
What were you wearing when you were younger? Were there any embarrassing pieces?
Loads of embarrassing pieces. There’s been that many. I had a leather bomber with a bright orange panel going right down the back of it. I don’t know who made it, but I can remember wearing it, I have pictures. When I was about 15 I also had a Lotto bubble coat, which was reversible and the arms zipped off into a gilet. I reckon that could be up there as one of the worse pieces. Another one was when I was working at Wade Smith, I bought a pair of navy blue Gucci flares made of wool, which were the same width as something from the 70s. That would have been about ‘98. I actually gave them away to a mate of mine that has worked in fashion for years. He wore nothing else but flares and he asked me to dig them out of the wardrobe for him.
Do you keep all of your clothes? Are there any relics in your wardrobe?
I’ve definitely got some relics. I’ve got a light blue Dolce & Gabbana leather coat, very boxy shape. As far as i’m aware, there were only a few ever made in the world and I got one from Wade Smith. I have never worn it out, just kept it. I loved the look of it, but couldn’t put it on.
You’ve worked in luxury fashion for a long time. How has it changed? Where do you think it’s going?
I think it was very sports driven. Especially in Liverpool, for the lads, sportswear was every sport. Golfwear, tenniswear, a little bit before my time to be honest, but I remember when I was growing up and it was a nice smart jumper, cords and a pair of Adidas trainers. The Ben Sherman shirt underneath, that was the kind of look. Then a store like Wade Smith comes in and brings in the likes of Prada Sport, Dolce & Gabbana and more fashion, rather than sportswear. Then it just took off. Over the last few years with outerwear, it’s gone into a lot of the skiwear. Liverpool has gone through the entire sport spectrum. Even into the woolen side with Pringle, Lyle & Scott, Slazenger, Kappa in the 80s, then the shell suit and tracksuit type, then it’s seen its fashion sports pieces come in Valentina Sport, Prada Sport. I actually think, going forward it’s going to go slightly smarter, luxurious cuts. Polo shirts are still a number one in the Liverpool fashion market, but everything is going to raise its game.
Any fond customer memories or characters?
One in particular, a bloke called Peter, he just believes in everything we do. He’s on the same page as us, so whenever we get something new in, we ring him and he can’t wait to come and see it. So the last time we saw him, it was the Limitato t-shirts. I said to him, this guy Terry O’Neill, famous fashion photographer, he’s teamed up with two lads from Sweden, they’ve got this lovely t-shirt brand. He’s given the rights for his photography to be printed on the t-shirt, they’re all limited edition and the print is done in velvet. He couldn’t wait to come in and I knew exactly which design he would go for, so when he came in, he’s looked at it, tried it on and gone ‘Perfect.’ For us, that’s our job done.
Do you have a prized piece of clothing that you own? A favourite piece?
My hat. I’ve got a Borsalino flat cap and every winter I pull it out. It was the first thing I bought when I moved to New York. I came in off the flight and my head was freezing cold, so I went into Manhattan, JJ’s Hat Store on Fifth Avenue. I went in and I have never bought a hat in my life. I walked in and said i’m after some sort of flat cap He looked at me and said “It’s that one.” He gave me a newsboy cap and i’ll never forget what he said. “Fresh off the boat.” I paid it, I walked out and it is my favourite ever purchase.
What’s in store for the year ahead?
New brands on board. As I mentioned earlier, we’ve got the new addition, the upper floor. That was finished just before Christmas. The new season stuff will start coming in at the end of January, start of February. It’s taken us a year to finally get the brand list that we want, so from now, this is Union 22. Pitti this month, flying into Milan and getting the train down to Florence and then we’ve got a couple more brands on our hitlist that we want to approach and then it’ll be nice to catch up with everyone in the industry.
Brioni, Santoni, Canali, Mackage, Ermenegildo Zegna, Tramarossa and Corneliani are all available at Union 22; Union House, 23 Victoria Street, Liverpool, L1 6BD
words by Davey Brett