I met John Lennon in 1957, on my first day at Liverpool College of Art. He ran into me in the corridor, asking "Hey, are you that bird who painted Lonnie Donegan?" I was. We became firm friends. John had seen me in the newspapers with Britain’s “King of Skiffle”, who had commissioned a full portrait in oils during the summer of 1957, when I was just 16 years old. I thought I was the bee’s knees!
John and I struck up a friendship based on mutual admiration of each other's artistic talent and we also laughed a lot, both together and at each other. He nicknamed me Helloon because I laughed so uncontrollably at his antics.
I sketched him often (I sketched everyone) and bartered items (including a favourite yellow sweater) for some of his hilarious drawings, from art school doodles to a Quarry Bank exercise book crammed with caricatures from his schooldays. As every biography relates, John also went on to date and marry the lovely Cynthia Powell, who was my great friend from Junior Art School.
I moved to Rome as a post-graduate student, painting portraits of leaders and aristocrats, moonlighting at the celebrated house of Sorelle Fontana and landing work as an extra on films like Cleopatra and The Leopard. It was great fun.
It was Cynthia Lennon who tempted me back to Liverpool, where things were kicking off. "Why don't you come back to Liverpool and sell all those fabulous leather and suede clothes you design for yourself? John and I will help you!" she promised. I took the bait, opening a couture leather and suede boutique in 1963 on Bold Street, Liverpool. I had been making bits and bobs (including leather ties) for him since college but in 1964 I created a signature leather cap for John. It was the first of many.
It was black leather, with quite a high crown (at his request) and a visible stitching detail along the seams. This is the cap you see him wearing during the filming of HELP, in Henry Grossman’s wonderful location photos. John was forever losing his caps. Often they were stolen by hysterical Beatles fans. I introduced the double plait (or braid) across the top of the peak - fastened to a leather button either side - to create a signature piece for John. He was such distinctive and unique character that it would never have occurred to me to make him a plain, run-of-the-mill hat. I've always liked to challenge myself! That said, John did commission a few plain caps from me later on, presumably so that he had spares (or perhaps to give away, I can't remember).
I replicated the cap – coordinated with bespoke, individual coats - for John’s half-sisters Julia and Jackie and stepbrothers David and Michael. Julia dedicated a chapter of book Imagine This, to Fab Coats And Caps. She wrote that “they were the best coats in the world”, and that John had ordered the matching “Lennon Caps” for them as a special surprise.
Lonnie Donegan and I met up again in 2000, at Channel 4’s recording of Shine On Lennon: A Tribute. He brought along my original sketch, having told the producer “I can’t carry that massive painting on easyjet; the baggage allowance is rubbish. And anyway, I’ve had 12 heart attacks.”
The event was staged at Air Studios, hosted by the late, great producer George Martin. You can watch the whole show on YouTube: the duet between Noel Gallagher and The Stereophonics' Kelly Jones is terrific. Lonnie sang “Lost John” and was the only artist to nail his piece in a single take. I was introduced to various celebrities and Channel 4 bosses, some of whom said "oooh I would love to have one of those caps!". It was a long night, and I forgot all about it. For 17 years.
Then, in 2017, my cap shape (variously described as John Lennon, Breton, Greek Fisherman, Baker Boy or News Boy) suddenly made fashion headlines again. I gave a talk in Liverpool on John Lennon Day, where I was asked about That Cap. I was deluged with requests to re-issue the original.
So now you can be on-trend AND own a little piece of rock & roll history too!