NEW YORK – John Lawton, president of Wearfirst Sportswear and one of the true veterans of the young men’s market, will retire at the end of the year at the age of 67. At Wearfirst, he will be succeeded by Harry Thompson, currently executive vice president of the company.
Since signing on with owner Jonathon Lee, owner of Wearfirst, as president of the firm eight years ago, Lawton has guided the company from relative obscurity to more than $100 million in sales.
His career parallels the growth of the young men’s business. He signed on as Chess King’s first buyer 30 years ago and stayed for eight years, by which time it had 200 stores and millions of dollars in sales. In 1974, he moved to Faded Glory, where he not only continued his dedication to product innovation but also became an early practitioner of Asian outsourcing, generating much of his production out of China.
Even some of Lawton’s less successful ventures have spoken volumes about the state of youth fashion. From 1978 to 1980, he was president of Studio 54 Jeans, which operated on the basis of a license from the famous disco’s owner, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. However, when federal investigators raided the club, the music stopped and the jeans license closed. All things considered, Lawton did better than his licensors, who both wound up serving prison sentences for tax evasion.
Lawton then spent six years as executive vice president of Brittania Sportswear, which was later sold to Levi Strauss & Co. He landed at Bugle Boy Industries as vice president in 1986 and moved to southern California as executive vice president and later president of OP/Ocean Pacific. After a six-year tenure at OP, he returned to New York to take the reins at Wearfirst in 1998.
At Wearfirst, as with other brands with which he’s been associated, Lawton has expanded the breadth of the line, its customer base and its distribution. Wearfirst now has substantial European distribution as well as a boys’ collection.
“I’ve never worried about the competition,” he said recently. “I am, however, always acutely aware of other firms out there, their product and their price points, but I spend my time concentrating on my customer. If I’m doing my job by providing the right product at the right price, that customer will come to us.”
For instance, he feels that his early success at Chess King was a simple matter of “creating a young man’s fit for the young men’s body.”
Retirement should allow Lawton to enjoy life with his wife Carol, three children and his year-old granddaughter. During his career, Lawton, a native of England, has worked at numerous times with his wife, an accomplished graphic artist who has been responsible for much of Wearfirst’s branding, advertising and imagery.
–Arnold J. Karr