TONY GREENWAY meets York-based Gary Newbold, a former pro-GB cyclist who became head of design at Barbour before starting his own artisanal, high-end heritage clothing brand

WHEN he was a teenager, Gary Newbold remembers discussing career options with his father.

It didn’t go well. First of all, it wasn’t much of a discussion — and, second, it quickly became apparent that his choices were extremely limited. "He sat me down," says Newbold. "And he said to me: 'Right, son. Your options are you can either join the police force or join the army'."

Strangely, neither of those professions appealed ("If you knew me better you’d say: 'You!? A police officer!?'); so, after his 16th birthday, Newbold packed a bag, climbed out of his bedroom window... and ran away. He hasn’t been back since.

These days, Newbold – who has designed for some of the most famous country clothing brands in the UK including Barbour, John Partridge and Farlows of Pall Mall – runs his own high-end, bespoke heritage label, English Utopia, from a shabby-chic workshop in York.

On his racks are tweed travel jackets, waxed outerwear, the finest shirts made from West Indian Sea Island Cotton, quilted jackets and alpaca wool waistcoats. Fabrics, colours and cuts are all impeccable, and everything screams custom-made luxury.

York Press: A striking design from Gary's collectionA striking design from Gary's collection

Why the name English Utopia? "Well, 'English' because I want to create a luxury clothing brand that reclaims waxed jackets, quilts and tweeds from the English country clothing set and make them more accessible to everyone," he explains. "And 'Utopia' because the designs I create in my head are what my customers end up wearing. That’s not usually the case in the fashion industry where designs are focus-grouped to death and there are marketing meetings and board meetings – and even the bloody accountant will tell you that they don’t like the shade of navy you’ve used. Here, every design comes from me and while we listen to feedback and good ideas, the style hasn’t been diluted or changed by a committee. It’s my own English ideal."

To get to this point in his fashion career, Newbold has – and this is putting it mildly – followed an unconventional path. He certainly wasn’t destined to become a designer, and never paid the slightest attention to clothes when he was growing up in working-class Leicester. Fashion college was out of the question, even if he had been interested in going. "It was implied that people from my background didn’t go to university," he says. "You’d leave school as soon as possible, get a job and earn some money. At the age of seven I knew I wanted to get out." He laughs. "I was like a snobby toddler."

Cycling gave him an off ramp. "The only thing I could do reasonably well at school was sport," he says. "I joined a cycling club in 1976 when I was 15. By 1980, I was picked for Team GB and had ridden my first competition wearing a Great Britain jersey. I turned pro briefly in the mid-1980s but just wasn’t good enough." When he was selected to ride for a French team he ended up moving to France for eight years.

Finally, the time came when Newbold had to stop pedalling and consider what he was going to do with the rest of his life. It was here that his fashion career started by accident rather than – no pun intended – design.

York Press: Gary's studio where his collections are put togetherGary's studio where his collections are put together

His former coach had a knitwear business in Leicester, and he took a job selling clothes for him. "I was fluent in French by this time so he sent me off to Paris with a suitcase full of pullovers," he says.

"After a year I realised that I didn’t like selling, but I loved the idea of luxury fabrics, designs, cuts and colours. I was influenced by the Parisian stores and I had an idea of what quality looked and felt like."

In the early-1990s, Newbold moved to York full time ("I remember walking around the city hearing different languages being spoken, and it felt sort of 'connected' to the world") and began a history degree at the University of York. In 1996, he started to learn about pattern cutting and launched his first fashion business. It was a hard and steep learning curve.

Then in 2000, everything changed when, out of the blue, he got a call from the CEO of classic clothing brand, Barbour. "He said: 'You don’t know us.' I said: 'I do! You’re Barbour!'," laughs Newbold. "It turned out that the company’s chairwoman, Dame Margaret Barbour, had seen one of the jackets I’d made and liked it." He was offered a job then and there as head of design.

It was a big surprise to get a senior role with such a prestigious company, but it was a fabulous learning experience – if a bit surreal. "It was nuts," he agrees. "People would ask me: 'What fashion college did you go to?' I told them the truth: I was self-taught."

After six years, he resigned from Barbour as the pressure of the corporate world took its toll and became head of design for Kneissl, the world’s oldest ski brand. "I really enjoyed that," he says. "The challenge was to make ski clothing more like streetwear. But when they offered me the job, I’d never even been skiing!"

Now Newbold loves charting his own course at English Utopia, which is currently breaking into the Japanese market with collections that are stocked in 15 stores across the country. He also recently launched a range of luxury travel clothes officially endorsed by the estate of one of America’s most famous writers and thrill-seekers: Ernest Hemingway. How did that happen?

It turns out that, like every other big moment in his career, Newbold didn’t approach them. They approached Newbold. "I got a call from a guy with an American accent who said he represented the Ernest Hemingway estate," he says. "I have a few mates in the US, so I nearly said: 'Brian – stop messing about!' But then I realised that this person was on the level. He explained that the estate had put the Ernest Hemingway name on various products in the past, but had never found the right formula for a clothing brand. They’d read about me and wondered if I would design a range for them.

York Press: Luxury fabrics go into Gary's creationsLuxury fabrics go into Gary's creations

"Out of respect and courtesy I show them what I’m doing – but they haven’t said 'no' to anything or tried to tell me what I can and can’t do with the designs."

Fashion can be a fast-paced world, but Newbold is laid-back and amiable. "I suppose I’m an example of how not to start a fashion brand," he smiles. "Even though it’s been an enormous and painful struggle to get here, I love it. I forget which famous literary figure said that their endeavour was to make work and play the same thing.

"One way or another, that’s what I’ve spent my life trying to do. It hasn’t made me rich – but it has made me happy and passionate about what I do for a living."

This article first appeared in Yorkshire Life magazine. The latest edition of Yorkshire Life is out now, available from newsagents and supermarkets across Yorkshire and Subscribe at