Where Sheep Shearing Meets Fashion: The Story of Johnny Szymanski

Published in Esperanto Magazine:

2014 Creatives Edition – (Introductions in the magazine below)

‘Aleczander Gamboa talks to the fashion designer about how a sheep-shearing legend inspired him to start his own label.’

 

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Johnny Szymanski (Centre) with models wearing Sheep Shearer. Source: Sheep Shearer

 

When Johnny Szymanski arrives for our meeting, the first thing I notice are the clothes he is wearing. Sporting a simple blue t-shirt and a snapback cap with a shearing logo on its front, he is a walking advertisement for his menswear label, Sheep Shearer. Everything he is outfitted in exudes a laid back, countryside feel, perfectly matching his calm and casual demeanour. He sits down and we get to business, flicking through the look book he is currently collating. The photos look terrific – the collections are simple but with a pop of subtle colour. As I talk to him, I’m impressed with his confidence and creative talent – it’s crystal clear that he’s a fashion superstar in the making.

For a very long time, Johnny has wanted to run his own clothing label. An enthusiastic skier, he initially had plans to create a label specialising in skiwear clothing (or as Johnny liked to call it, “clothes that you would wear after skiing,”) but that all changed when he learned about the legend of Jackie Howe, after spending some time at a cattle station in New South Wales. Howe was a prominent sheep shearer in the 1800’s who rose to fame after breaking the daily sheep shearing record in Australia during 1892. According to the legend, he was wearing a navy blue singlet at the time, and as such has been credited as the inventor of the loose, blue singlet seen in many clothing labels today.

“The story is that he was a very big guy – his hands were the size of dinner plates,” Johnny explains. “He was wearing clothes that were restricting the way he was shearing so he ripped the sleeves off which created an undershirt. He asked his mother to make all his shirts like this – thus the iconic loose singlet was born. He was believed to be wearing one of those (in navy blue) when he broke the record of the number of sheep sheared in a day.”

The record that Johnny refers to was 321 sheep sheared in 7 hours and 40 minutes, with over 1000 sheared in a week. The record is still yet to be broken, and while it doesn’t sound like many it should be noted that Jackie Howe accomplished this with manual sheep shearers only – picture a giant pair of scissors.

It came as a major surprise to Johnny that there was still yet to be a clothing brand dedicated to the legendary sheep shearer, especially considering the impact he made on the countryside fashion landscape. Being a cultured man of tradition, Johnny wished to keep the story alive and so he created Sheep Shearer – a brand that stands testament to Australia’s long standing history of sheep shearing and Jackie Howe’s accomplishments.

“The whole brand is built around him. With our limited edition snapback caps, only 321 were made, just like the record he broke. The logo is the shearing blades he used. Everything touches upon the legend and the country lifestyle,” he says. “For example, this blue Sheep Shearer t-shirt I’m wearing right now is called ‘Jackie Blue’ (dark blue). There are other colours we have including ‘smoko’ (dark maroon) which in sheep shearing language means an afternoon break, ‘swagger blue’ (light blue), ‘swagger’ meaning the luckiest shearer in the shed, and ‘gun grey’, the word ‘gun’ used as a name given to the fastest shearer in the shed.”

To spread the word about his new brand, Johnny set out on giving away some of the limited edition caps. One of the people he gave a cap to was Australian Rugby Union god Tom English, who is now an avid fan of the label.

“Before launching, I gave a few of the limited edition caps to some Rugby players when I was in Sydney” he says. “That night I was out with friends at a club and just as I was about to leave someone from across the bar yells ‘Sheep Shearer!’ I had no idea what was going on nor did I have a clue as to who he was. He comes up to me and says ‘That’s a Sheep Shearer cap!’ and I’m like ‘Yeah, and?’ and he replies telling me that he follows Tom English who owns one as well. The man asked me where he could get one and I told him it was my brand. So that feeling of someone recognising the brand before we’d even launched was huge. It was a ‘wow’ moment for me – a huge kick.”

Though it’s very clear that Johnny spent a lot of time planning the label, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the up-and-coming designer. Originally from the United Kingdom, he now lives in Melbourne through a student visa. However, he had previously lived here using a holiday working visa, which unfortunately expired a few days before Sheep Shearerwas set to launch. While other designers are typically worried about possible feedback and last minute event planning, Johnny was more anxious about whether or not he could actually attend his own launch.

He considered the following options. The first option was to cancel the launch, which he felt was impossible as everyone had already been informed about it. The second alternative was to record a rehearsed video. If all else failed, the third course of action would be to skype live at the event. Luckily none of these scenarios came to fruition, as RMIT accepted his student application for a Masters in Fashion and Textiles, and Johnny was able to take the earliest flight back to Melbourne, landing on Australian soil two days before the launch event.

“Overall, I think my mutual feeling about the entire launch was ‘I hope I get there in time’. But once I actually got there, it was a mad rush to get everything done. We were actually steaming the clothes just before we got the call that the first few people had arrived downstairs. Of course, my OCD then kicked in and I was changing everything last minute, but luckily my creative team were able to calm me down.”

Despite Johnny’s frantic race against time, the launch party was a resounding success. With word spreading around the blogosphere and Sheep Shearer being featured in online publications such as The F and Australasian Textiles & Fashion Magazine (ATF), the label was off to a spectacular start. It’ll be making an appearance at the upcoming Jackie Howe Festival of the Golden Shears in Queensland, and will also be featured in the 2014 Fashion Aid event, where the best of the best come together to celebrate the wide scope that is fashion.

Johnny brings his achievements down to having a brand that not only looks good but also feels good, in addition to having a strong backstory as well. However, he attributes much of his success to his support network, with his team solely comprising of friends and family willing to help. His best friend Connor (who he likes to call his “right hand man”) keeps him grounded and sane, while his father, a successful businessman, gives him advice and ideas.

When asked about what fashion means to him, this is what he had to say:

“A lot of people think fashion is clothes, it’s what you simply wear. I think it’s more than that – it’s deeper than that, and it’s wider than that. Nowadays we have fashion in the cars we drive and even in what our garden can look like. It’s a two way thing – fashion is a way of you manifesting your lifestyle but your lifestyle is manifested by your outlook on fashion.”

With insightful wisdom like that, it’s no wonder the label is starting to gain international recognition, with purchases coming in from all over the globe. As a fashion enthusiast myself, I for one am excited to witness the next chapter of Sheep Shearer and what Johnny Szymanski has to offer next.

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