Sunspel and Ian Fleming: The finer things

For the launch of our new Sea Island cotton capsule collection, released in collaboration with the Ian Fleming EstateTM, journalist Rob Ryan explores the luxury products favoured by James Bond and his equally discerning creator

It is probably fair to say that writer Ian Fleming didn't like to travel too far for his inspirations. His own life and career, from expelled schoolboy to skiing with pre-war spies in Austria, from masterminding covert operations in the Second World War to globe-trotting foreign correspondent and, eventually, wildly successful author, provided all the background he needed for his novels. So, he liked to stay close to home. Legend has it that Fleming, a keen ornithologist, plucked the name of his famous spy from Birds of the West Indies by James Bond, which was sitting within arm's reach in his study. Once he had the name, when it came to fleshing out the world of Bond, Fleming very much drew upon his own tastes, for he was a man who, like his creation, very much enjoyed the finer things in life.

So, for instance, when Bond appreciates the toiletries Dr No has left him in his room/cell, the cosmetics were taken from Fleming's own bathroom cabinet: "There was everything… Floris Lime bath essence for men and Guerlain bathcubes for women. He crushed a cube into the water and at once the room smelled like an orchid house. The soap was Guerlain’s Sapoceti, Fleurs des Alpes."

And, when it comes to his wardrobe, Bond very much likes silky-smooth Sea Island cotton next to his skin. And who could blame him? We'll come back to that. But where did this peppering of brands in the books come from? It wasn't what we now called "product placement", as deployed in the movies, as no money changed hands for Bond to declare a preference for a soap, a gin, a cigarette, a car or even his underwear: “By the time he had taken a hot shower followed by an ice-cold one and pulled on a fresh pair of Sea Island cotton underpants the bourbon had arrived.”

Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels writing in his garden

Fleming did sometimes address this use of what he called "props". He explained in a letter to the Manchester Guardian that he wanted Bond, like his name, to be anonymous and unflashy, as befitting a civil servant who just happened to have a lethal skillset.

"I wished him to be unobtrusive. Exotic things would happen to and around him but he would be a neutral figure—an anonymous blunt instrument wielded by a Government Department… To create an illusion of depth I had to fit Bond out with some theatrical props and, while I kept his wardrobe as discreet as his personality, I did equip him with a distinctive gun and… with distinctive cigarettes." He admitted that the use of these props quickly became a trademark of the Bond books, something of a monster he had to feed, although, compared to the rather crude promotion of brands in many Hollywood blockbusters, Fleming sprinkled his product names rather deftly.

He was well aware that this casual deployment of familiar if sometimes unobtainable brands was also catnip to the drab, rationed, bombed-out Britain that Casino Royale launched into in 1953. Bond gave readers adventure and thrills and the aspirational pleasures of exotic locations and good living. As Fleming put it in a letter "A rather precious though basically simple meal ordered by Bond proved so popular with my readers, still suffering from war-time restrictions, that expensive, though I think not ostentatious, meals have been eaten in subsequent books." These days we would probably call it gastroporn, but that rather cheapens the understandable allure that the fantasy of unrationed food offered a deprived, under-fed, sugar-free population (rationing of certain food items, including meat, did not end until 1954).

The Sea Island Cotton Riviera Polo Shirt in Navy
The Sea Island Cotton Smart Shirt in Navy

In that letter to The Guardian, Fleming mentioned a "discreet" wardrobe and it is true that fashion labels or fabrics aren't quite given the same prominence as alcohol, guns or fast cars, but Sea Island cotton was the exception. In Moonraker: “[He was wearing a] black and white dogtooth suit, dark blue Sea Island cotton shirt and black silk knitted tie.” In Diamonds Are Forever he packs: ".. some white silk and dark blue Sea Island cotton shirts with collars attached and short sleeves.” And From Russia With Love: "At last, after shaving and putting on a dark blue Sea Island cotton shirt and navy blue tropical worsted trousers…."

What's going on here? Well, we have already established that Fleming never looked too far from home for his "props" and that Bond was in many ways what we would now call an avatar of the author. The 007 books were written at Goldeneye, his home on the north coast of Jamaica, where he plucked the name James Bond off the bookshelf. Bond and Fleming both liked copious quantities of Jamaica's Blue Mountain coffee and it is likely that he specified Gordon's in a Vesper martini because it was the gin most widely available in his adopted home and therefore one he, himself, enjoyed. It can't be a coincidence that Jamaica is also one of the principal sources of the rare Sea Island cotton, which accounts for just 0.0004% of the world's cotton production. It is famed for its long fibres which create an unbeatable, super-soft, sensuous feel which explains the attraction to both the author and his creation.

The Sea Island Cotton Roll Neck in Black
The Sea Island Cotton Sweatshirt in Navy

If you visit Goldeneye, which is now a resort, the reception area is studded with pictures of the always elegantly turned-out Fleming: at his writing desk; hanging out on set with Sean Connery and Ursula Andress; relaxing with his neighbours Noël Coward and Blanche Blackwell or his wife Ann or on the Octopussy beach. In many of them, when not in a tuxedo, he has on the kind of shirts, doubtless made from Sea Island cotton, that he describes Bond slipping into in several of his novels.

To celebrate this connection, Sunspel has teamed up with the Ian Fleming EstateTM to create a capsule collection of Sea Island cotton garments inspired by the author's obvious affection for the material, both in the books and in his personal life. Sunspel, which has been working with Sea Island cotton since the 19th century, has form with Bond, having created a personally tailored polo shirt for Daniel Craig in Casino Royale. But this is a unique collaboration between the Fleming Estate and a historic clothing manufacturer taking its cues directly from the novels.

The Sea Island Cotton Knitted Polo Shirt in Airforce and Forest
The Sea Island Cotton Smart Shirt in White

The Ian Fleming Collection also acknowledges that the UK does not quite enjoy the climate of the Goldeneye estate. So in addition to the iconic Riviera polo shirt in Sea Island cotton, as worn by Craig, the knitted variant comes in both a short- and long-sleeved version. There is also a very Fleming roll neck for layering and a sweatshirt for chillier days and nights, as well as a subtly updated classic pyjama set and a "smart" shirt.

Sea Island cotton is, thanks to its rarity, a premium product, but as Fleming put it in Live and Let Die in 1955: "There are moments of great luxury in the life of a secret agent". Now, with Sunspel's Ian Fleming collection, you can share a little part of Bond's interludes in the high life. And with the added benefit of little chance that a villain or henchman or deadly femme fatale might come along and spoil your day.

To view the full Sunspel and Ian Fleming collection, click here.

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