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

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