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Ben Olins runs Herb Lester Associates, a unique publishing house which since 2010 has released a variety of engaging and sometimes titillatingly bizarre city maps and travel guides, exploring many of the world’s most celebrated cities from overlooked and unconventional angles. In addition to this, Herb Lester has released a plethora of work centred around crucial pop-culture phenomena. Most recently they celebrated the release of Illustrated Ivy, the launch of which was held at none other than the John Simons storefront, documenting the work of Japanese illustrator Kazuo Hozumi and providing crucial context to an understanding of Japan’s long-documented obsession with all things Ivy. We sat down with Ben to discuss his love of loafers, his first visits to the store and how the symbiotic nature of music, style and culture informs his work at Herb Lester.
1. Can you remember the very first piece of clothing you purchased with your own paycheque? What was it and where was this purchase made?
It’s a long time ago but I’d guess my earliest paycheques went on records rather than clothes. One item I remember from that period was a pair of brown suede Beatle boots, which I saved for and had made by the Little Shoe Box on Holloway Road. Their main business seemed to be fetish shoes, which meant they could do pretty much anything. These were the boots of my dreams at the time: centre-seam, side-zipped rather than an elastic gusset and with a lowish heel. It was impossible to find something with these details off the shelf in those days. My job was as a foot messenger, running around the West End delivering documents, so these were a highly impractical buy.
2. When was your first visit to the shop and what were your first impressions?
Probably around 1989, to buy loafers. It would have been Dexter first and then later Sebago and to this day I still have a much-repaired pair of each. That Russell Street shop seemed like its own world, located in what to me was an obscure part of Covent Garden that I would always struggle to find. I wish I could claim that I walked through the door and had an epiphany; I was too young and foolish for that. I knew immediately that the shop was special, but I couldn’t quite understand it. I recognised it as a shop for men who loved clothes, yet it wasn’t for any subculture, nor was it mainstream; it was baffling but intriguing.
3. What item of clothing could you not live without?
Loafers. I like them all: beef roll, tassel, flat strap. Maybe not kiltie. Of all the many pairs I have owned, the Rancourt for John Simons are my favourites and I’m not just saying that. Supremely comfortable and beautifully understated.
4. What is your number one style tip for the readers at home?
Never wear anything ‘with a twist’.
5. Do you have a sartorial hero?
Not really, I tend to admire particular looks and outfits, which are not always indicators of how someone actually dressed – Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, John Cassavetes in Rosemary’s Baby, Michael Parks in The Idol. One exception might be Anthony Perkins, who not only dressed in pretty much pure Ivy style throughout his life, but somehow managed to do it on-screen as well as off.
6. If you could choose to attend a concert from any artist, dead or alive, who would it be and what would you wear?
There are so, so many. Jerry Lee Lewis when he came back to England in ’62, after his fall from grace. Little Richard in the same year, after he renounced rock’n’roll for religion and then went back to the devil’s music. As an added bonus, I’d go to the Liverpool Empire show which had the Beatles as support.
Possibly top of the list would be Bob Dylan at the Royal Albert Hall, 26 May 1966. It’s not the famous “Judas!” show, although it’s the same tour and is an equally thrilling performance. It is also geographically more convenient for me. I would wear a dark, muted madras jacket, navy trousers, cordovan venetian loafers, not-too-pale blue shirt and silk knitted tie in a shade to complement the madras. I doubt Dylan would approve but I’m past the age for polka dots. If I can have one more it would be the Velvet Underground at the Dom, New York, 1966, to which I’d wear a tobacco suede G9-style jacket, navy popover shirt, wheat Levi’s and loafers. Which is basically what I wear most days. I wouldn’t want to stand out too much in that environment.
7. Do you feel that your profession has impacted your style? Or do you feel as if your sense of style has impacted your choice of profession?
There’s no dress code when you work for yourself, so I wear what I like, and what’s appropriate for whatever I’m doing that day. That can be moving heavy boxes around our freezing storage unit (Champion sweatshirt from John Simons, Levi’s) or, more enjoyably, being out at a meeting, which is an opportunity to wear something like a herringbone tweed or corduroy jacket, again this would possibly be from John Simons.
Music, books, magazines and clothes are my abiding obsessions, so – and I’ve not given this much thought until now – I guess I’ve found a way to put all those things together in my work. My business is publishing, and I’ve sometimes used that as a means to explore those other things. The Herb Lester catalogue is full of them: crime fiction maps; guides to the New York of Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground; one of the earliest Herb Lester guides was about the shops, clubs, and bars of 1960s London, which included The Squire Shop, run by John Simons. And of course, our most recent publication, Illustrated Ivy, which featured the work of Kazuo Hozumi. Fortunately, my obsessions run deep, so there’s plenty more to explore.
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