Monday, 5 July 2010

Interview - The Casual Connoisseur

Another day and another interview.

This time the interview is with Tom from the Casual Connoisseur, a clothing label based in Greater Manchester. The label has already been enormously succesful, establishing itself as one of the leaders in the "casual" tee market as well as diversifying into other areas such as hats, scarves and even calendars!

I'd like to thank Tom for the interview and hope that you all enjoy reading it.

Where can I buy The Casual Connoisseur clothes?
First and foremost everything we do is available through our website. We also have a few selected stockists out there. We're proud to be in Ran in both Liverpool and Manchester. In Originals in Barnsley, Bloc3 Hull and were in our own town at Schindler (unfortunately recently ceased trading) as well as being far away as Russia. We've been in other places too and it may vary currently depending on who's ordering what. We could do with a couple more perhaps north of the border and south of the gap.

We deliberately choose to limit stockists and have never chased anyone to stock our product, people have asked us. Some may think it's ludicrous or silly but we've turned down several offers of stockists and not renewed with others in the past. We may one day live to regret that but it was our choice. This is totally our own preference mind. Whilst we love the interest and the fact people want our brand, we want to remain that bit more exclusive and elusive and not be over saturated and everywhere!

Do you have a background in the clothing or design industry?
Not officially in either. My brother and I are pretty obsessive and creative types. My father worked in advertising for many years and growing up we both had access to a mine of the best graphic materials from letraset, magic markers and layout pads (it was the 80's!). You would find us lying on the front room floor scribbling away as much as you would playing football in the street when we were kids and we were known for being keen artists as youngsters. We would have probably followed in the same footsteps but circumstances changed and we left college prematurely (which may be something we should have stuck with in hindsight, although the course was rubbish).

I've actually designed my town team's (Stockport County) home strip for the 2006-07 season and have since worked on a consultation basis for the ones which followed. I have a keen eye for details and what works, especially with graphics and logos.

We've created and edit our own websites and I think they look pretty smooth for a self taught background. My brother had put his mark on several things through his freelance design work, including maintaining one or two commercial sites, and the likes of commercially released book covers, event flyers, publishers and media, as well as working for the likes of Proper Magazine and even 80's Casuals too.

He (and me too, but more-so him) has amassed a rather unhealthy collection of outerwear and clothing, of course shoes too, havinghad a background in that field working for over five years in a shoe shop, (my longest career step was working as a manager for a high street video chain for around five or six years). He has a keen eye for construction and detail and his plans to help take us to the next level would probably need some professional help. Despite this, it's fair to say we have an idea of what we want and where we want to take this. Getting there is part of the fun and can be difficult but we've always maintained we'll be a self sufficient brand.

Have you ever designed for other clothing labels aside from The Casual Connoisseur?
As I said, our kid often gets asked to do one or two designs for the 80's Casuals brand including the likes of their "Bexie", "Osti" and the more recent "Pills and Thrills" tee which was apparently one of their bestsellers yet. He also came up with their logo.

I personally haven't done any clothing work but done logos, flyers, websites and other more boring corporate stuff for a range of people.

There's my brother and I involved in the design process although we will use outside contributions and collaborators when possible or when required. For example, we have used a Leeds based artist Retro-skull-duggery on a few tee designs and also have section76 on board with various collaborations.

How would you describe your label?
Alternative and original. We try to be as different as possible, we're obsessed with film, music, clothes as well as the football so try and get that across with what we're doing.

What prompted you to set up your own clothing label?
I started making random t-shirts for myself and then friends in my bedroom out of boredom whilst in a mundane job. I used to look at things and think, "that would look good on a tee - why has no one done it before?" and then do it myself as a one off.

I am a big fan of A Clockwork Orange and was fed up of the lack of good stuff available. It was always the same one or two images so I did a few of my own tees. It totally grew from that. If ever I had one on, I'd get asked where it was from and started to see a possible avenue to explore, especially when I was in town and shop managers were asking me about something I'd made myself; asking where it was from and what brand it was - that's when I saw the potential. In around 2006 I was chatting with a friend who was to become the business partner and we started to look at it a bit more seriously, discussing where we could take it and looking at ways of getting out there.

I'd just fucked off the dreadful mundane job so there was a new motivation involved in getting it off the ground and having a good old go.

But to answer the main point, the lack of stuff we wanted to see really. Initially on a tee but it's true now as we do more, we still maintain we want to do our own thing and offer something alternative and hopefully fresh.

Where does the inspiration for prospective designs come from?
Everywhere! If I could I'd release a tee design every week, such is the wealth of ideas we have through all sorts of inspirations in the world.

Was there a financial risk in setting up the Casual Connoisseur? If so, what precautions did you have to take?
No, because we didn't have much money between us it was a case of being self-sufficient right from the off. It was a case of what we put in initially we get back and from then on we grow by what we're doing and run it soundly, without ever getting into debt or trouble. It would take time from the beginning but we're doing it properly and using hard graft. We've never thrown money at it, mainly because we've not had the money to throw at it. We've come from a working class background. We reap what we sow. If we're busy and successful as we have been thus far then we can continue to grow and progress further offering new products and ideas as we go.

Where are Casual Connoisseur products manufactured?
We have our tees produced locally in Greater Manchester. They supply us with our t-shirts and do the screen printing there aswell. They are a long established company who produce stuff for many different types and certain brands aswell - I believe they also produce stuff for a certain emo/trendy brand who've recently turned over millions.

The Weir hat was produced by a company in Nottingham, and all our labels are woven by a company in Lancashire and another company in Sussex. Our polo shirts are also produced in England. Everything we do is produced in the UK, unless that's not possible.

Is it important to maintain a close relationship with the factories that manufacture your products?
We need to have a good working relationship for sure. Some are easier than others - we put something in and it comes back totally spot on first time, which is a joy. Others we are back and forth with and have the odd discrepancy with, but it all usually works out. Sometimes it's a gamble; we will always require a sample up front and do our own 'quality control' tests with any new stuff, i.e. worn and washed, ironed and dried. You occasionally need to meet deadlines and are kept waiting but I've realised this is something we have to put up with when someone is making something for us - it's usually in their hands. There's a great feeling when you open a big box for the first time and it's all gone exactly to plan.

How have you promoted the Casual Connoisseur?
We do our own promotion through the web, the blog, the site which gets a terrific amount of weekly and monthly hits. I also tend to slightly hint at new releases with a taster to gauge interest first, which helps when we are sometimes kept waiting (as I mentioned above) but also gets people asking questions too.

We use all our own graphics and take our own photography, which we are a little fussy with. We only recently set up a Facebook account which has had a great response thus far. We're on our way to nine hundred followers in the space of a couple of months.

We did the Project Sticker, which was pretty innovative. It is essentially a plug for the site, using three designs on coloured, vinyl stickers which carry the web address. We send a few out with each item sold and we encourage people to stick them in interesting places, in turn making a great webpage for people to look at. There's a CC presence all over the world - from small islands to New York City and Moscow's famous subway. We actually get a lot of people asking us to send them stickers out too but they only really come with our products.

Could you describe a typical customer or are your designs popular with a great range of people?
We have a wide range of customers who are both young and old. We do well with the football style crowd but also equally well with people into their films and music who are pretty alternative to your average young casual. It's a real diverse mix, which I think is about right for the product we produce and what we are all about. Our casual themed tees always do well, but our Northern Music tee is easily one of the best sellers. We have a lot of scope, we are certainly not solely aimed at one market in particular.

We sell our product absolutely everywhere, every week I will post out the UK and there's always ones going to Europe and South America too, we have a great loyal bunch of followers who buy most new releases too. Our recent canvas shopper bag has been popular with both males and females too.

What are some labels that you admire or have influenced your designs?
From the off, I always quite liked the skate/street brands which did graphic t-shirts. In my younger days I was a big fan of Stussy and Supreme and the like, and a brand called Serial Killer (which had cult film scenes and cult heroes on them). Oh, and Felix Blow was a good brand too but they have sold their soul to the funboy crowd now.

My personal favourite labels would have to be the likes of 6876 - Kenneth Mackenzie has been doing his own thing for years now and does really nice clothing – subtle, smart and very well crafted. I've got a lot of his stuff and have been buying it since it first really emerged, which coincidentally was when I was first earning a wage. There's a great mix of smart shirts and harrington jackets and macs in my wardrobe, and of course the Capandula jacket which I must like as I've got half a dozen! it was never really a 'casual' brand, but while it has a decent following from that crowd, many others buy it too.

I'm a fan of some of the more recent British labels too, like Garbstore, Universal Works and Dominic Stansfield's stuff, I like Engineered Garments aswell, and functional outdoor brands too. I don't really buy much from the likes of Stone Island and C.P. Company as I used to years ago, and One True Saxon is a total shadow of it's former self. I'll bore anyone who'll listen about how I was wearing that stuff when it was well under the radar. There's quite a few labels I can say me and our kid had a hand in bringing to the fore, which I would not say if it wasn't the truth. The problem with this is you then have to move on to something else as everyone else gets on to it. I've not bought any Adidas trainers for a good couple of years either. I guess that's growing up and moving on. I like New Balance and the ideas they come up with, and always wore them at the football to try and be a little alternative. I'll still buy a good bit from the classics like Ralph Lauren, Paul Smith and Lacoste too.

Do you have a favourite tee which you have designed?
Tough question really. Ask any designer or label what their favourite piece is and they usually tell you the one they liked the best was the one they sold the least. Whilst that is not the case with us, there's been one or two I've been over the moon with which haven't sold as well as one's I wasn't totally enamored with, such is life though. My favourite designs would be the likes of the Ultraviolence one because for years you could only ever buy a tee of the famous silhouette of the droogs, from the high end to low end fodder that's all they ever used while we did our own unique take on it. I'd release loads more if I could. I like the series tees we do like Wise Guys, Anti Heroes - there's no end to what we can do with them and they always get comments. Also the one's which were designed by others for us like Action Man, the Subbuteo ones and the Nymph tee (it's a great design that, which not too many will get. I like it, it's proper out there.)

The Northern Music Factory is so simple and it works so well. Sometimes the more obvious and generic stuff are the one's which shift quickest, but that's what people want.

I have noticed that other Casual Connoisseur products like pin badges and bobble hats have been produced and that plans are afoot to begin producing polo shirts. Do you ever foresee producing your own range of outerwear or are you keen to keep the Casual Connoisseur as a tee-centred business?
Our brand is just that, a brand - a clothing label, not centred exclusively around around tees, although they take up a huge amount of what we do currently. That's where we started and it does very well, but there is a lot more to The Casual Connoisseur. We want and will be doing so much more. It's all building up, slowly but surely. We have a line of polos being produced for us right now - they are taking longer than we had anticipated, but as they are made totally to our own spec it's something we must put up with.

Our aims and intentions are to provide good quality produced clothing which is somewhere between the high end and the affordable, and usually deliberately limited in release to maintain exclusivity. We don't want to just churn out easy 'off the peg' stuff, but we want to market our clothing to the right people and not price them out with over inflated and over hyped prices. There is a middle market there which we can fit into, if things cost a lot to produce they will cost more to sell but we still want to maintain the quality aspect and, where possible, have things produced right here in the UK. On occasions though the best and only places can for production are overseas. People may look at Europe and further East as a bit of a cop out but we've found these to actually be places where they can actually only be possible for a smaller label like ourselves. We are currently sampling one item of outerwear at present and this is certainly a step in the direction we want to be taking. There are plans and ideas for all sorts but it's one step at a time. Progress is good, but it might be slower than we'd like, which does frustrate me at times.

However, there's no point in just jumping in and investing everything in one run of an expensively crafted jacket. I want to make sure anything we put our name to looks great and handles even better, but other long standing brands are established in that field and better than we are too. They also have the means to do what they want, so why even try and compete with that?

There's always a worry that quick released stuff will just end up looking like something from Primark with a badge stuck on. So it's better to take time, sourcing things properly and finding the right man for the right job. We have been self sufficient from the off and most of what we make goes straight back in. Contacts are the key - finding the right places is a lot harder than you may think, even if you have the funds waiting and available it's not easy. You will find one place who can do exactly what you want, but in what is ridiculous quantities for a label like ours. This is all part of the challenge and it's all a learning curve for us.

What are your future plans for the Casual Connoisseur?
Plenty - progress is the key. The tees will always be produced as there's always new ideas and hopefully always a market. There's a lot more we want to release and work on. I cannot say a great deal on that front yet, as I've tended to say too much in the past, but we should have polo shirts and sweatshirts in the coming months. This is in addition to the return of the Weir hat, which sold out in less than a month last year. Behind the scenes we are working on another couple of items too. I'd like for us to collaborate with more people in the future too.

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