John Hickling has an eye for a cool vintage buy, a knack that has seen him create and grow the fashion phenomenon that is Glass Onion. Founded in 2006, selling vintage from his grandma’s coal shed in Barnsley, John’s company is now recycling clothes in a large-scale and rather special way.
“Our sewing factory creates 12,000 remade garments per month, from garments that would traditionally be going into landfill or incinerated,” he says.
“We sort, grade and select them in Barnsley. If something is Grade A, really good quality, that will be sold directly. If things have damage, stains, holes, that is something we remake. So, if we had a men’s denim shirt that had rips or oil stains, we would repurpose and make a girls’ top out of it, or patches to make skirts.
“We design in-house and remake the garments in our sewing factory. They go through laundry and extra quality checks and then we do the ticketing and listing on the site and the dispatching to our customers.”
Glass Onion (named after a Beatles White Album track) operates from Dodworth in Barnsley, in a 35,000 square foot unit with offices, warehousing, an on-site laundry and the sewing factory. There are 56 employees, including those at the shop in Sheffield city centre.
Both the shop and the direct-to-customer website are recent developments. Until March last year, Glass Onion was primarily a wholesale business, selling to high street chains in the UK and US, including Lush Cosmetics and Urban Outfitters, where the remade clothes are sold through their renewal department. Glass Onion still supplies these companies and also sells to independent retailers across the UK, Europe and to Japan and South Korea.
But last year the pandemic closed the high street. “Our order book shrunk to nothing within two weeks,” John says. “We realised that was the biggest risk to our business, that we didn’t have direct access to our market and were heavily reliant on other people.”
John is Barnsley born and bred. He grew up with his father, Allen, a builder, and his mother Angela, who had a fashion shop for a while. He has two younger siblings, Anthony, now an electrician, and Sarah, a permanent cosmetics specialist.
John now lives in Sheffield with his partner, Claire, who works alongside him in the business. They are getting married this year and expecting their first child in January.
After Penistone Grammar, he studied Criminology and Psychology at Sheffield Hallam University. He says: “I’d go round the charity shops in Sheffield at lunchtime or in free periods and pick out pieces that I thought I could sell, and make little collections and list those on eBay, and they would sell out every week.
“I’d visit car boot sales and buy second-hand denim jackets from Barnsley Market. I wrote to Elvis Presley’s karate instructor and bulk bought some patches from him and sewed those onto denim jackets, and sold those on eBay for up to £120. It was small-scale but I thought, there’s something in this, so when I finished university, I carried on.”
Before long, he had a network of suppliers of second-hand clothes and recycling companies, and began also sourcing damaged items to cut up and remake.
“I’ve been really lucky to have a great team right from the start,” John says. “I’m really lucky as well that I have had great mentors. John Graham, the founder of Go Outdoors, has been unbelievably generous in the five years that I have known him. He gives me great advice and crucial feedback and keeps pushing me. That’s the people of Yorkshire – we like to help people in our community, and I have witnessed that first-hand.”
Simon Biltcliffe of Barnsley-based marketing Webmart is also a mentor. “He has taught me a lot about business and people and how building profitable businesses can still be beneficial to the community,” John says.
Recycling and upcycling are now on-trend, but Glass Onion’s experience puts it ahead of the pack. “People have started to see and realise just how much waste we are producing,” John says. “I see it first-hand with the recycling company, tonnes and tonnes is thrown away each day, and some things are not even worn.
“Wearing second-hand clothing has not got the stigma attached to it now, whereas it might have done when I was growing up.”
The move into retail is exciting, he says, with plans for more shops and pop-up events, including one on October 2 at Archive on Kirkstall Road in Leeds.
“A big part of the future is the sewing factory,” he says. “There are not many places in the world that do what we do. We need to set up youth training.”
John was delighted last month to hear that he is one of three finalists in the Environment section of the British Fashion Council Changemakers prize, a new UK competition that recognises pioneers of ground-breaking positive changes in the fashion industry.
“It has taken us a long time to get to where we are now but, it still feels like we are on the startline, because there are so many opportunities in front of us,” he says.
“It’s a good motivator and it’s given us a pat on the back. It’s put in my mind, let’s keep going, keep pushing it, keep employing people, making great products. Keep doing what we’re doing.”