Interview with Will Brown, Co-Founder of Old Town Clothing
31st of May, 2012
We visit the work of Old Town Clothing and one of it’s founders Will Brown in a warm and entertaining conversation on how the brand came to be. Will is certainly one hell of a character and his quirky responses to our questions were brutally honest in places, I certainty laughed out loud a few times during the editing process.
The brand itself is built on a foundation of authenticity and integrity that’s often hard to find in the modern world of clothing design. I have to agree with Will when he talks about how brands/stores look to highlight that they have substance when in fact this is just a marketing facade, his approach with Old Town in contrast is a refreshing change from the norm.
The Old Town approach of making to order is a throwback to the day where quality and craftsmanship really did prevail. I hope you all enjoy learning more about Will Brown and his Old Town brand because unfortunately entities like these are now few and far between.
1) What’s the story behind Old Town Clothing and who are the fine fellows responsible for the brand?
I wish there was a lively story to tell about how the idea for Old Town came about, how we saw a gap in the market for barely designed, austere clothing in harsh fabrics, but no. Old Town started twenty years ago when Miss Willey and I (Will Brown) moved to Norwich from London to open a sort of homewares or, I suppose, lifestyle shop. It sold various bits of old (vintage hadn’t been invented then, that’s how long ago it was) kitchen wares, enamel items, brooms and string of course. It soon became clear that Norwich might not be the best place for selling ironic string so as I had a background in making clothes we decided to make some duvet covers and work shirts. The bread bins and plate racks gradually being replaced by clothing.
2) Have you ever considered documenting items being made in the studio, I’m sure people would love to see a short film or photo series of behind the scenes?
I could say that we haven’t because it would be letting light in on the magic but in actual fact it’s because it’s what I do all day and much of it is dull and repetitive in squalid conditions. Would people want to see that?
3) What would be the typical process for a Borough Blazer for example, how many stages would making this entail and how many hands would each garment pass through before getting to the customer?
With the Borough jacket, the first stage is laundering and pressing the fabric length. This would be done by Roberta. Jane, possibly, would cut out the pieces which then come to me for putting in the interfacings. The bundle would be given to one of our sewing ladies, probably Ann in this case who takes it away to be sewn. On its return a week later I put the buttonholes in place and mark up the button positions for Audrey to take home to sew them on. When the item returns Miss Willey or Roberta will press, pack and dispatch it.
4) What are the outside influences that inform the Old Town brand?
Social history, popular culture, that sort of stuff. I like the out of time, the overlooked, the spartan and economic. Limping decrepitude. Character. As for actual, nameable influences I would have to credit boutiques from my youth such as Biba and the Westwood/McLaren shops. They created their own marvelous worlds. You don’t get that by just stacking up old sewing machines in the window.
5) Britain has a great tradition for manufacturing and it would be such a shame to lose this, so how do you think we can get the younger generations to buy into the idea that British made is as good as it ever was?
Many areas of manufacturing have been overlooked for too long in this country. It is a noble activity and it’s a shame that there is also a long tradition of looking for the fast pound rather than long term investment and nurturing. Attitudes could change, it could start to be valued, even seen as something glamourous and exciting to be involved in, but at the moment most people don’t seem to know or care where things come from. Sadly, a union jack label on a product makes it instantly look opportunist and down market, what’s needed is a quiet, confident revolution.
6) The Piccadilly pleasures lookbook was a great success, with the photography by Matthew Hind superb, so what can we expect from future lookbooks and can you give anything away right now?
Since then we have a gallery called ‘Small Trades’ which is a sort of homage to the photographer Irving Penn. We’re thinking of a series of tin type photographs. This was an early process popular for cartes de visites in the 1860s.
7) Are there any other particular brands that you admire, and would you ever consider collaborating with other designers through Old Town?
I’m sure there must be lots of very good inspirational clothing out there but I do make a conscious effort not to look in shops or magazines. Quite simply I’m scared that I will be influenced or unwittingly copy and I wouldn’t like to think that I had arrived at an idea other than by my own processes. I see what people wear on the bus to work, Super Dry, it says so on their shoulder. People do sometimes mention names to me, thinking that I might have an opinion but I don’t have any idea what they do, I don’t feel as if we’re in the trade in any way and I’m sure the average hairdresser knows more about fashion than I do. Collaborating sounds like something from ‘Allo ‘Allo.
8) How did your connection with Labour and Wait come about, and do you think the both of you are operating from similar viewpoints?
I can’t remember how it came about but I instantly spotted that they were aware of the comedic properties of, say, a sack barrow or a tan drill warehouse coat. They fully embrace the notion of plain and proper.
9) Your ordering system seems to take a lot more of a slower yet personal approach, has this always been the objective and what are the benefits of working so closely to your customers?
The menu system of ordering and the four to six week delivery developed quite early on when it became apparent that the computations across the styles, fabrics, colours and sizes was becoming vast. It does mean however that we are able to offer any item from the several hundred possibilities without having to carry huge amounts of stock.
10) Norfolk doesn’t seem to have lost its community spirit, or so it seems on your webpage, so why do you think this is and how do you think Old Town incorporates this into the face of the brand?
I’m sorry if I gave that impression. My enthusiasm for all things small must have carried me away, I wouldn’t hold up Norfolk as a beacon of community spirit however pleasant it might be at times. I’m sure it’s like anywhere but with more Farrow and Ball paint.
11) You’ve developed quite a catalogue of staple clothes, do you plan to expand on this with new styles or is it a case of keeping things the same and creating what you know well?
We describe the range as ‘evolving’. What this means in practice is we may introduce one or two items per year and if they are popular enough they tend to stay, if not they are quietly dropped. For the last couple of years it’s been a case of one in, one out.
12) Why do you think it is that older styles have become more popular in recent times, the emergence of “heritage” brands has risen somewhat recently after all?
The reason for the rise of the “heritage” idea is simple. The world now offers the most complicated products, well made and affordable to huge amounts of people, where does the commercial edge come from? Until recently it was the term “designer” but that can now be applied to a pair of sunglasses bought from a petrol station so the new thing is provenance. If there’s a back story to the product, however spurious, people love it. We used to run a section on our website called ‘The Lost Trousers of London’ where we claimed far fetched credentials for the origins of our products such as trousers found behind a radiator in the London Transport lost property office. Sometimes it does feel that designing an item in itself is just not quite enough, the added dimension of ‘authenticity’ is desired. There is for people the comforting reassurance factor of heritage and vintage.
13) We’ve noticed you give your customer quite a range of fabric to choose from in each style, so what determines a good fabric to you and why is it so important to offer such a range?
Yes, the floor of the workshop is starting to bow from the weight of fabric. Quality and its historical connection makes for a good fabric. By offering the diversity of fabric one style can be many things.
14) Why do you believe individuals shop with Old Town? ie What does the brand offer that can’t be found elsewhere?
Mostly, I think Old Town’s customers can relate to the cultural reference points of the designs and fabrics. Other than that it’s a small business, we are personally involved with making the product in our workshop. It’s not squarely in the world of fashion, we don’t feel the need to vastly change the styles every six months, they have a quiet longevity which is also useful if the customer was happy with the garment and wants the same again.
Customers like the shop service and the menu system offered and it’s exceedingly rare for Miss Willey not to remember a face or a name, she’s genuinely interested.
15) How ambitious are you with the brand, would you ever consider relocating to London for example? Any new projects or garments that you can tell us about?
I had a shop in Shoreditch over thirty years ago and the prospect of a return to London is always a tease, it’s the only place I really feel at home and where most of our customers live so it would make sense. I don’t think I’d want a traditional shop. I think there could be a lot of scope for ‘the non shop front’ shop e.g. it could be an upper floor of a commercial building with the internet being the shop window and using the space for the theatre of the product.
Does anyone do that? Does anyone want to have a go at doing that?