This is now the second time I’ve had the pleasure of writing for The Workers Club – just in case you missed it, my first entry was an in-depth dive into the origins of the Shell jacket and more – and this piece explores what it means to be an independent brand.
Now a hot topic of debate in menswear given today’s world (you know, the world in which Coronavirus is wreaking havoc and f*cking everything up beyond comprehension, to put it lightly,) being independent has never been more challenging. One could easily say that independent brands are the underdogs in the fight against Coronavirus. However, doesn’t everyone love an underdog? Whether it’s Buster Douglas* or Leicester Football Club, both were never given much of a chance yet were triumphant and deservedly won the world's respect. (*Douglas was eight months later obliterated within three rounds in his first world title defence against Evander Holyfield but you hopefully get the point.)
On a micro-level, the same can be said with independent menswear brands currently. They might not have the luxuries of boardrooms furnished with polished mahogany and filled with navy and grey suited men with more disposable cash than a Byzantian God, but they’re in the ring, biting down hard on their gum shield and soldiering on through with passion-enriched adrenaline and a heart filled with unconditional love.
Adam and Charlotte founded TWC five years ago and consider it as being their third child and it’s that kind of unconditional love that’s integral to a fruitful life. So, without further ado, here’s what they both had to say on the topic of being independent in this day and age. Disclaimer: it’s a refreshingly honest set of answers.
Prior to founding TWC, you both worked for a long list of other brands of varying sizes, some of which were part of corporations. What was it about the idea of independence that drew you most to it?
Having our own brand and our own space (both physically and mentally) has always been the end goal for us as designers dating back to when we were at college together. We started a family a lot younger than our peers and that certainly changes your perspective on everything. Suddenly, you start thinking about ‘what example am I setting?’ and ‘what am I leaving as a legacy for the future?’.
Asides from that, after being in the industry for many years – about 30 combined years between us! – it becomes something you can no longer ignore. You see other people do it, you see how you would run things differently and really most crucially you want to do something pure in your own voice without dilution. That was the drive for us.
What was the hardest part about that first year as an independent brand and why?
The hardest part was justifying our decision to start our own business to family and peers. It’s not that people are meaning to be negative, but we were aware that people were watching us closely and there is always that expectation of failing in the first few years. We really didn’t want to be yet another brand that tried but failed.
Looking back, we are thankful for that because without learning certain things as we go we’d not have developed in the way we have. Once it was confirmed that Mr Porter would exclusively launch the brand, it made the pressure to succeed that much more palpable.
What are some of the benefits that you’ve discovered over the years from being independent not being held back by faceless figures sitting around a boardroom table?
Well, this is easy: our boardroom is our breakfast table, the work coffee table, a dog walk or simply wherever. We communicate all the time and always make decisions based on gut feelings and every decision is shared by the two of us. We laugh a lot, listen to very loud music, we don’t lead with figures, we lead with honesty. That in itself is pretty unique. We don’t make compromises on the quality of what we deliver and sometimes that isn’t a financially beneficial route to take and that would be the first thing that would change if we were led by boardroom decision making.
How would you then define being independent?
Being accountable only to ourselves and being able to listen to our instincts or follow a hunch. You feel agile and can push yourself to new limits, but it can consume you. That's not always healthy but it becomes so very important. For us, this brand is like a third child. We know that may sound ridiculous but we feel so responsible for it and want it to be the best it can be so it has taken over our lives. We realise that doesn’t sound very freeing but it feels amazing to know we’ve created something of value and it’s 100% ours.
Do you think it’s tougher to be an independent British brand compared to those from another European nation, for example? Given the competitiveness of the market, some would think it is. What’s your opinion?
Honestly speaking, it’s tough wherever you are from. There just isn’t the support out there for small independent brands (even if just to get solid advice). You have to battle against an industry advising you of what not to do. All brands face the same struggles wherever you are located. Going forward, this will get harder with Brexit and now Coronavirus. Every brand now needs to question what they bring to the table and what’s their USP and just be really clear about that vision.
What would you say is the biggest threat to independent brands with the Coronavirus situation?
The obvious threat right now is yet another dent in consumer and wholesale confidence. Wholesale for independent brands is particularly tough given that orders are placed so far in advance. To take a positive view, we think the way the fashion industry functions needed to be re-addressed and if the market does not take this as an opportunity to diversify the way the buying calendar works, then we could all get swallowed up by this.
Whilst we’ve been talking about TWC as an independent brand, what about the brilliant independent factories and suppliers you use, support and promote? How are they coping with the situation?
We are in constant contact with our supply network and we are all in this together. Right now, it’s very hard for most of these guys to be able to do anything much at all apart from protecting their employees. Some of our makers have diversified into making garments and masks for the NHS which is a great thing to do.
Once we weather through this storm, do you predict a change in attitudes towards independence and manufacturing origins? Will more make in the UK or will independent brands go overseas?
We can only speak for us obviously but we unconsciously started to make more in the UK of late and it does come with its own pitfalls. The biggest comfort is that if there is an issue we can pick up the phone or jump in the car to sort it. We would love to think that more brands will want to keep things local as we are very lucky to work with a great bunch of makers in the UK who are agile like we are. What we have noticed which was really amazing is how many customers have come to us and told us that they want to make these purchases to support locals which was unsolicited but equally inspiring to hear!
On a brighter note, tell me about your SS20 collection. What’s the overall mood?
We’d like to think of each collection as a progression from the last and if we look back even to SS19, we think we’ve moved on a great deal. Since we launched in 2015, what has been key for us is the notion of ‘season' being subjective. Perhaps even irrelevant. We want our customers to mix things up and each season we have a core range of products that we always offer and do not change. That was really important to us from the offset. In terms of mood, we wanted the collection to feel super relaxed and adaptable for every guy’s taste, it had to work however they wanted to style it. But, our overriding mood this season was to champion the truly crafted element of our clothing.
What’s different about this season from previous Spring/Summer collections and what are you most proud of?
This season we are really excited to be working with an amazing manufacturer in Madras, India. They print the fabric by hand, so each one is unique. They’ve also made a pretty special ikat weave for us as well. This is what we are most proud of for SS20, and we’re offering it as a camp collar shirt and matching shorts. We feel we're offering something a little more fun and brave. With each collection we aim to offer a few new options to wear with our core pieces.
We are also continuing to source new and technically advanced fabrics and have continued to work with a mill in Italy who have produced a really interesting organic cotton check for us that we are offering in a travel blazer and puffer vest.
We are 'perfection hunters' at TWC but to us perfection is when our customer knows that what they’re wearing has been made by an exceptionally skilled maker with a human touch and they know it’s the best it can be.
If you were to pick one piece that underlined your independence, what would it be?
It would be our Slim Fit Japanese denim jeans. We worked on the fit for over a year so they’ve been a real labour of love. These are easily our biggest personal achievement for our brand and one that has enabled us to develop a real friendship as well as utmost respect for the maker - he is a visionary and master in his field. He can create what's in our head and his skills are unrivalled in our opinion.
I’ve [Adam] always wanted to create a jean that works for me for years and years and to have created that without any compromise means that every day I can wear my very own jeans. The fade is my story, we’re ageing together, we’re true companions! That sounds like I'm losing my mind (maybe I am?), but they’re a daily reminder that independence is what drives us. We couldn’t have created this brand for anyone else, this really does represent us, our tastes, our drive to work with true creatives and our passion for a craft.