Johnnie Boden: Anti-fashion for all the family

The clothing titan’s ideal of middle-class life is often derided. Then he hired a child model with a difference

“By the summer of this year, my last pair of supermarket jeans had worn out at the crotch and my much-loved green Boden corduroy jacket had lost all its geography teacher chic,” Boris Johnson complained in a sartorial lesson delivered to readers of The Daily Telegraph last month.

Why would anyone choose to align themselves with the shambolically turned-out BoJo and his Boden “chic”? And yet they do, with more than 50 million Boden catalogues being dispensed each year, making it one of the great British fashion successes of the past two decades.It was David Cameron who really ran up the flag for Johnnie Boden when he sported a pair of his floral shorts for a stage-managed shot on a Cornish beach in the summer of 2008, prompting articles on the rise of “Boden Man”. The shorts, bought for the Conservative leader by his wife Samantha, are the sort of thing Mr Cameron changes into under a Mickey Mouse towel.

Boden, like the Prime Minister and the Mayor of London, is an Old Etonian. He is an unabashed snob who used to hunt in a bowler hat, was known during his Oxford years as a Hooray Henry and organiser of balls, and answers to the nickname of Bodger. His favourite hobby is riding horses “very fast” and – as might be guessed from the PM’s trunks – he has a liking for flowers.

The Boden sell panders to ancient British hang-ups about class and those desperate to climb the social ladder. A Daily Mail writer, bewailing the impact of a newborn on the education and wardrobes of her existing children, sums up the appeal neatly. “My dreams of sending my two little darlings to exclusive prep schools vanish. Any notion of treating them to regular consignments from Mini Boden is forgotten.”

And yet the most recent headlines attracted by this extraordinary mail-order business have been quite different. The appearance of seven-year-old Holly Greenhow as a Boden model in its new winter campaign has won the company worldwide plaudits for inclusivity. Holly has athetoid cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair. “While Holly is just one cute and spunky little girl, Boden’s choice to feature her may help to chip away at the prejudice that disabled kids still face every day,” said one admiring observer.

The initiative was not unprecedented – Marks & Spencer had used a four-year-old boy with Down syndrome in its Christmas advertising last year. But interest in the story in Britain was increased by the fact that Holly had entered a world that is a byword for a certain rather narrow type of ideal: “Bodenland”, as it has been described. This is a place, seen only in the catalogue or on the company’s website, where “happy couples and their adorable offspring” can be seen “sploshing through sunny meadows, running along sandy beaches or bursting through fronds of honeysuckle from the doorways of thatched cottages”, to quote the Sunday Telegraph.

In austerity Britain, Johnnie Boden’s company needs to be more inclusive. Releasing its latest figures in September – which showed overall profit before tax up 36 per cent to £24.3m in 2012 – Boden admitted that trading in its core market of the UK “remains challenging”. Some have identified signs of Johnnie’s horse going lame. The Middle Class Handbook blog posted last year that “the folk at Boden are becoming worried about their label’s connotations of smugness and tweeness”. In a climate of “making do and mending”, Boden clothes were too expensive, it claimed. The sentiments chimed with one contributor on the very middle-class Mumsnet (where Boden clothes are an obsession, especially when there’s an online sale) who said: “When I look at Boden ads I want to say, ‘Stop looking so bloody smug’.”

In a downturn, Johnnie Boden’s perfect world suddenly appears out of reach. It’s not surprising. Boden, 52, has amassed a fortune of £320m and divides his time between homes in west London and Dorset, where he has acquired an entire hamlet for £4.24m. His father was a lieutenant colonel turned Hampshire farmer. Johnnie, after reading philosophy, politics and economics at Oriel College, Oxford, headed to the city to work for Barclays Merchant Bank and then Warburgs. Although he was a hopeless stockbroker, an uncle bequeathed him the £100,000 that enabled him to pursue his dream of a clothes business.

At Eton, he decorated his walls with pictures from Vogue. He was a teenage contributor to Harpers & Queen. And while working on Wall Street – which he “despised” – he admired the way companies such as LL Bean, J Crew and Land’s End sold the preppy look by mail order to the professional classes.

Boden’s first catalogue, in 1991, featured only eight clothing lines, modelled by posh friends. He later remarked that Hugh Grant, with whom he was pals at Oxford, turned down the job because he had a hangover.

After a difficult start, Boden branched into women’s wear (1994) and the Mini Boden children’s range (1996). These are now the most important areas of the business. He was also quick to see the value of the internet and launched a website in 1999.

The clothing has transformed the language at Middle England school gates, where mothers talk of “hotchpotch dresses” and “ditsy print” tops. The appeal goes beyond the snob factor to the convenience of well-made clothes that don’t disintegrate in the washing machine and don’t require time-poor consumers to deal with teenage sales staff in town-centre boutiques. Americans – well used to mail-order selling using clean-cut family imagery – also fell for the idyllic images of the old country.

Boden hasn’t found it easy winning over the fashion crowd, which sees his collections as a uniform for people who don’t really like dressing up. “He’s selling don’t-frighten-the-horses clothes that show you as a nice person with a house in the country,” was one verdict. “You are fitting in but not making any statement.”

But Johnnie sneers at the “bullshit” world of high fashion and the “deeply unhappy people with insecure personal lives” who work in it. Such are not the inhabitants of Bodenland, where the founder’s own beautiful homes have appeared in the catalogue’s portrayal of domestic bliss along with his three daughters – modelling children’s clothes – and family pets. His wife Sophie, a former advertising executive, works part time for the company.

Boden is self-effacing in interviews. As a broker, “every share I recommended went down”, he recalls. He was such a disaster “my toes curl at how bad I was at it”. As a teenager he knew that “girls weren’t going to fall at my feet”.

He carries this stance forward to protect the brand from accusations of elitism. The women who model Boden are not the “sultry” stunners who sell designer labels but girls “who you could sit next to at dinner and have a good time with, even if you had a huge spot on your nose”.

In fact, it’s not true that he is peddling the dream of living like a toff – and it annoys him that people think that he and his Old Etonian chums “have some really secretive marketing agenda”, he told the Evening Standard. “I was a classic Sloane Ranger, but how many Sloane Rangers are there? About 10,000, and we have a million customers. It is just a bit of a red herring; there are certainly no Sloane Rangers in Germany or America either and America has been a huge success.”

Herein lies Boden’s future. While some UK customers are starting to look for cheaper alternatives rather than risk clashing Boden outfits at children’s parties, so the company is galloping into new markets: overseas sales are now worth more than those in the UK. Bodger is still in the saddle.

A Life In Brief

Born: John Peter Boden, 1 June 1961.

Family: Son of an army lieutenant colonel and farmer. He is married to former advertising executive Sophie; they have three daughters.

Education: Eton College, then Oriel College, Oxford, to read philosophy, politics and economics.

Career: He struggled as a stockbroker,  and worked on Wall Street but despised it. Dabbled as a prep school teacher in London before launching his first Boden catalogue in 1991 with a £100,000 bequest from an uncle. Launched his women’s clothing line three years later and then a children’s collection, Mini Boden.

He says: “Businesses are like flowers: they either grow or die.”

They say: “He has become the Martha Stewart of the Fulham mothers set.” Nicholas Coleridge

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?