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Rest in Peace, Jack Wills?

What does the name Jack Wills mean to you? Private education? Preppy university students? An obnoxious sense of entitlement? Whatever comes to mind when you hear the name, I’ll bet my bottom dollar it’s not Sports Direct – the celebrated clothing warehouse and purveyor of the most budget-friendly tracksuits the UK has to offer. And yet, if you peruse the rails of Sports Direct today, you will indeed find Jack Wills clobber nestling there. Everything from their jeans to their shirts, jumpers and chinos can be found, just along from the Lonsdale sweatshirts and the multipacks of Slazenger sports socks. In fact, the owners of Sports Direct acquired Jack Wills back in 2019 when it went into administration, but it’s only recently that I’ve noticed Jack Wills attire being stocked in Sports Direct’s own shops. And it comes as quite a shock.

Not so long ago, Jack Wills was a by-word for public school style. Back in the mid-noughties, when I was at university, the students who wore Jack Wills were nicknamed “raahs”. The company had a shop in Fulham and the founder was on The Rich List. And now… this! It’s an amazingly dramatic rise and fall, all in the space of just twenty years. But perhaps what’s most interesting is what it tells us about the magic of brand image.

- Jack Wills
- Jack Wills

When you look at the Jack Wills gear today, hanging there in Sports Direct, there’s nothing remotely tempting about it. It’s not just that you don’t particularly fancy buying it – it’s that you’re actively put off. Don’t get me wrong, I love Sports Direct; it’s an enjoyable place to wander around in and an excellent shop for sports equipment and trainers. But, with this being said, I don’t ever think of it as somewhere to go for nice clothes. It’s purely functional – just one step up from a street market. In other words, it’s not at all an appropriate place from which to sell something that’s supposed to have a bit of social status. By putting Jack Wills in there, you’re not just creating a bizarre juxtaposition; you’re also destroying the Jack Wills image and totally devaluing the brand. 

After all, what is it that we’re really doing when we buy brands like Jack Wills and Ralph Lauren; or even Gucci or Hermès? We’re not buying clothes: we’re buying an image. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are trying to be a certain type of person by purchasing and wearing those garments. What all brands want to do is to get through to us and convince us to buy into their particular image. But it takes more than just the clothes themselves to do this. You could think of the whole thing as one big magic trick that is dependent on the staging, the lighting, sleight of hand and the patter of the magician. For brands, it’s the considered design of the shops, the particular atmosphere you experience when you walk through the door, the meticulously planned advertising campaigns, the careful pricing strategy and the company’s cultural associations that all come together to create the illusion. If all of these elements are combined well, we, the shoppers, are sold on the image.

- Jack Wills
- Jack Wills

Jack Wills did an excellent job of setting itself up in the right way, right from the beginning. Its image was very distinctive – unapologetically preppy and unapologetically associated with a certain social tribe. All of the ingredients of a strong brand image were there – so much so that you weren’t especially aware of them. Now, when you see the clothes in the context of the cheap and cheerful world of Sports Direct, you get this weird jolt; suddenly, the illusion has been stripped from before your eyes, like a heavily made-up and coiffured pop star left out in the rain until the make-up runs and the hair collapses and the glamour is all gone to reveal nothing but an ordinary human being. You realise that, all along, Jack Wills was just a few blokes flogging you some shirts and jeans. And once the illusion is destroyed, paying over the odds for these run-of-the-mill togs just seems plain silly.

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