Adam and Charlotte Cameron
The pair behind The Workers Club talk coats, cash and how they complement one another perfectly
On the first floor of a partially converted barn in the chocolate-box village of Blewbury in Oxfordshire, Adam and Charlotte Cameron sit across the table from one another, surrounded by books, rails of garments and boxes spilling over with fabric swatches. Adam has a head of tightly curled dark hair that is not too dissimilar to the family dog, a large brown poodle cross. That’s not my observation, but that of a judging panel from the local dog show, who concluded he was the owner who most resembled his dog. (He had been unwittingly entered into the competition by Charlotte.) At any rate, Monty is a good-looking canine, so there’s always that. His manner is very easy, and although he proffers a serious expression most of the time, it’s cut with a desert-dry humour, made even more pronounced by a deadpan voice. His wife Charlotte has, by contrast, long blonde hair and a charmingly energetic way of speaking, and together they seem like a partnership in equilibrium.
In 2015, Adam and Charlotte decided - after a decade of incubation - to launch their own brand, The Workers Club. The concept was primarily focused on outerwear, Adam’s great passion, but has since grown organically to include wardrobe essentials such as jeans, shirts and knits. When I visited them, they were mood-boarding their next collection. The barn, the first floor of which acts as their studio, stands adjacent to the entrance of a garden centre, that institution of countryside society. The ground floor is uninhabited, save for a few more boxes and a kettle sitting patiently on a bench. Blewbury is bathed in sunlight on the morning I arrive, and, having had my doubts as to why a husband-and-wife team might want to set up their fashion label where the Berkshire Downs begin and the memory of anywhere urban has long since ended, I can see the upside. Empty roads and rolling green hills of the variety that make you drive too fast; pubs with weather-beaten wooden furniture and fecund hanging baskets showered with colour. It’s parochial England at its most charming, and a beautiful place for the Camerons’ two children to grow up; where innocence marks its own gentle time far beyond the baying capital. With all that said, it’s not the first place most first-time fashion start-ups would pick to launch their business, but, between them the Camerons have more than 30 years of experience working in the luxury, heritage and fast-fashion industries, so if anyone has earned the right to play by their own rules, it’s them.
CS: Tell me where the name The Workers Club comes from?
Adam: There was a Rodchenko exhibition on at Tate Modern - this is going back at least 10 years. It was all about constructivism. Rodchenko created a place called the Workers’ Club, in which he was trying to challenge the notion of the worker in communist Russia by creating a more fun working environment. He made hinged tables and revolving chess-board desks. I really loved the concept and the idea of a collective and collaborative work space. So we kind of sat on the idea for 10 years, and now here we are!
Charlotte: We’re living it, too - we have lunch outside like peasants!
CS: How would you define TWC?
A: Well, outerwear has always been my passion. Pretty much every design job I’ve had, it has been my category, so you could say we’re fundamentally an outerwear brand. What really excites me is fabric. I love working and developing relationships with mills to create something really special and unique. I sound like an old crony, but it’s not something they teach you at university. A lot of designers won’t know how a certain fabric will drape or cut - you learn it from hanging around mills. It took us six months to find the perfect fabric for our signature Works jacket.
C: Everything we create starts from an obsession over a certain fabric. The Works jacket, for example, is made from a fabric called H2O, which is 100 per cent cotton, proofed in the yarn. When it gets wet, the yarns expand and it makes a water-resistant barrier. Many technical fabrics have a membrane, which doesn’t feel great, but this is totally breathable. On the inside, our gilet - which is an exclusive check in Italian wool - can zip into the jacket.
A: We’ve just recently found an amazing fabric that’s 50 per cent nettles! The last garment we designed was the shirt in a Japanese chambray cloth, and nobody produces superior chambray to that of the Japanese. Fabric is what sets us apart. You could compare some of our products to other brands, but I believe that when you actually look at the detail and the finishing, you can really tell the difference.
CS: I notice you have quite a few pieces of militarywear in the studio - presumably that heritage provides a good deal of inspiration?
A: I’ve been collecting militarywear since I was a teenager…
C: …because you were a bit of a weirdo…
A: Well, yes… I remember going to the States because my mum’s American. I was 12 and I wanted to buy a Vietnam war helmet… It’s not like a weird thing, more of a design thing… I was always into Action Man and army stuff. I don’t go around shooting people, although I would drive a tank if I had one. But seriously, everything comes from military and workwear - they are the two pillars of menswear. Where I differ from Charlotte, perhaps, is that everything has to be functional. I hate anything that’s not functional. There has to be a justification for why every little detail is as it is.
CS: Although TWC is still in its infancy, I gather you have both known each other for quite some time…
A: We’ve known each other for 17 years. We were
both studying fashion at university, which is where we met. I was born in
London and then moved out to the suburbs, but I always had this feeling that
London was where I had to be, especially for fashion. I managed to get a place
at the London College of Fashion and it was a really big deal, but then I
quickly realised I hated it. It was really tough and I felt out of my depth. I
wanted to transfer to a four-year course, but at that time there really weren’t
that many in the country - maybe only two or three. There was a very well
regarded course in Derby, so I transferred there. I wanted to get away from
London, but at the same time that was as far away as I could feel comfortable!
Anyway, my mentality was, ‘Derby is in the north’. That’s where we met.
Charlotte had a boyfriend, I was sort of in the background.
C: It was so obvious you were from London - I mean, you dressed really weird.
A: I did dress ridiculously. It was kind of what you did as fashion students. I seemed to go through lots of different phases with my hair. There were a couple of Afro-Caribbean girls in my year and they treated me like a doll, so I had cane rows at one point, it must have been around the time that Beckham was doing it.
C: You weren’t helping yourself! One day you came in and it was completely shaved off. You used to wear suits because you were working with a tailor on Saturdays and you came in with this old three-piece suit on and a completely shaved head. You looked like an escapee!
A: I think I just wanted to shock people a bit - you can as a fashion student; that’s what you do. Were we together then?
C: Yes! But looking back now, everyone was doing it in their own way.
A: I used to wear salopettes at one point.
C: Let’s not dwell on that.
A: It was a small, intimate course and we got to know each other well. There was a core group of us who were really driven and into it, but most of the others were there for a bit of a doss, really. My friend and I did our collection together, working together throughout the entire final year. It’s funny because he’s working in San Francisco at Levi’s - he’s a director there - and we’re still really close. Another friend - who actually left the course - is now a cutter on Savile Row, and I work with him on a couple of my consultancy jobs. It was a good time to be at that course. The year in industry was probably pivotal for both of us. To be a graduate and to go out into the workplace with no experience is really tough, so that set us apart. I worked for one guy who had studied at Derby and had his own label. He was quite an unpleasant person to work for, but you learn from all these experiences, however bad they are. The next place I worked at was a place called Burro. They used to have a store in the 1990s on Floral Street in Covent Garden. For me, it was a pivotal period in menswear, because you had Jones, which was a new-concept high-end store that sold Maharishi and Stone Island, stuff like that, then there was Duffer - that was the place to go to, and Burro was there, too. It was a three-month placement but I ended up staying for a year. They let me work on everything, from design, pattern cutting, PR…
C: Also, they were a husband-and-wife team, so there was a real sense of family. Olaf and Su had this amazing DIY punk approach - there was a real buzz around it at that time and all the stylists and people like Paul Weller and Jarvis Cocker were coming in; it all felt very exciting.
A: I almost didn’t want to go back to university. At the tail end of that placement I went to work for a crazy, very religious tailor in Nottingham, working out of his garage, but he was a proper bespoke tailor, so he was teaching me really amazing skills and I learned more from him in terms of sewing than I did in my whole degree. He taught me how to cut a pattern, how to make a pair of trousers, a pocket, how to properly iron things - at the same time preaching the bible!
C: [Laughing] I’d forgotten about all this!
A: In fact that table behind you is his old cutting table, which he made himself and passed on to us. It’s quite handy because it’s a very good height; it’s perfect for basting and stuff like that. I continued to work for him on Saturdays when I went back to university.
C: My experience took me down a different path to Adam’s because I started in print design. I had great placements at Fake, Ghost and Nicole Farhi, then my first job was as a print designer for a small supplier who made everything in the UK. We supplied the high-street stores, so that was my first dealing with Arcadia. Then I got a job at Dorothy Perkins, went to New York for a few years, then came back to work for Arcadia. I feel like my 15 years working in London was always centred around Oxford Circus and Arcadia - all very commercial. In my previous job, I set up an office on Eastcastle Street for a huge manufacturer based in Mauritius, so I ran everything from London. We did all the trend and design, got the samples back and then sold them to the buyers of Arcadia and Next, Urban Outfitters and Whistles. So my career has always been very design-led and retail driven - super-fast fashion if you like. Whereas Adam, whose last role was as head of design at Dunhill, has gone down the heritage British luxury path. We’d always discussed creating something together but we didn’t really know what that thing was until recently. It was finding the right time. We were recently looking through my old notebooks from 10 years ago and the ideas for The Workers Club are all there on the pages - it’s nuts that it’s now a real thing!
A: The ideas were always there, but we had also been surrounded by people who had started their own labels and, sadly, most of them didn’t get past a year. It’s a really tough industry - you even see established brands that don’t last the distance. But the longer you spend waiting to do something, the more scared you get of doing it, so we couldn’t wait any longer.
C: It’s a very critical industry, too. Everyone’s a critic - people don’t seem to be naturally positive about collections: they tend to be critical first and appreciative second. I don’t know if that’s just my experience coming from the high street, but a lot of being ready to start TWC was about me coming to terms with the idea that I wasn’t going to be in that world of fast fashion any more, with all the waste that’s involved. Adam has an amazing archive of fabrics and vintage pieces, and so I just indulged myself in that. I derived so much pleasure from learning about all these incredible fabrics and mills and trims, at price points I’d never even considered because I was used to selling jerseys for £4.50! I had to decide that that was it, I was leaving fast fashion behind. Adam’s taste is so high end, that he was never meeting me halfway. It was high end or the high road.
CS: It’s an interesting point you make about the degree of failure in fashion start-ups. Perhaps it’s just a familiarity bias on my part, but fashion does feel like the graveyard industry for start-ups. New brands have it tough, but established ones are struggling too right now. We’re in an environment where creative directors are like guns for hire, and if their first couple of collections aren’t a hit, they’re out and the next name is drafted in.
C: It’s a really interesting moment. Because of all the personnel changes it’s difficult to know what the identity of these brands is now.
A: We’re still in the early days, but when we were brainstorming and trying to decide what we were going to do, we didn’t want to be just another brand that created a commercial collection of more clothes every season. It’s still mind-boggling to me that you start in January and are expecting people to be looking at Bermuda shorts and printed shirts when it’s freezing cold. That whole cycle doesn’t make sense to us, so we felt like we wanted to produce a product that isn’t seasonal and is adaptable to your lifestyle.
C: That’s why we launched with just one coat.
A: People did think we were mad when we started. They couldn’t understand, but, actually, I think it stood us in good stead. We’ve put all our time and energy into one piece. It took six months to get right. I’ve never spent so long designing one garment. It really is the best of the best, it has to be the best because it’s our signature product; it’s what the brand is built upon.
C: It’s only been a year and we’re both so grey and exhausted! We calculated at the very beginning that we had enough money to make 96 coats - every single aspect of the coat was costed. Start small, be organic, sell some to friends, give a few away - there was no strategy per se, we weren’t too precious about the growth. We had no money for marketing and PR at any rate.
CS: But you’re stocked by Mr Porter, which is undoubtedly the biggest and most visible online men’s retailer in the world. How did that opportunity come about?
C: Adam consults for Mr Porter on their Kingsman brand, which is in its fifth season now. We really wanted to show them the jacket to get some feedback but were quite scared. But Adam showed them and they basically loved it and asked, ‘How many have you got?’ 96. ‘Great. We’ll buy the lot and have it as an exclusive.’ That wasn’t our intention at all, but it was such an amazing start. It was also scary because now we didn’t have any of our own stock. We were flapping about trying to get new zips made and trying to work out where the hell we were going to find more money. But then Mr Porter’s very next question was, ‘What else do you have?’ So that’s when things got really serious. Luckily, Adam had been developing jeans.
A: My favourite things are technical outerwear and denim - that’s what I love. I’d been developing a pair of jeans - the perfect pair - for a whole year before we launched the brand, so I told Mr Porter and they said, ‘Great, we’ll buy this, this, this, and we need it by then.’ Suddenly, the pressure was on, but in a good way.
C: It was an amazing opportunity for us. Our customer is the guy who expects the best, who wants a garment that is going to perform. They can identify why it’s priced the way it is because of the trim and fabrics and components. He’s a niche customer and he’s a Mr Porter customer.
What really excites me is fabric. I love working and developing relationships with mills to create something really special and unique.
CS: Just how difficult is the sales aspect of starting up a new brand? You struck gold with Mr Porter, but what is the process for being stocked in other stores?
A: It’s extremely difficult, because you have a meeting with a sales agent and they tell you everything you want to hear. The agent we’re with now is a friend of a friend - he came highly recommended and was very respectful of us.
C: He helped us to identify those stores that we could build a long relationship with. That’s critical.
He knew who were the non-payers and the people who will really screw you. It’s knowing who we don’t want. When we did the MAN trade show in Paris, it felt like we were giving away our kids. When people come along and critique it, you feel like bursting into tears. So the thought of going into, say, Selfridges and having that great exposure for five minutes and then being dropped is not our aim. Every store we’re in, we know the owner, it becomes a friendship and you respect them.
A: A London store would be the ideal, but it’s really tough in terms of sales in the UK right now. The buyers that come to see us from independent outlets are struggling to shift stock and we found that to be true last winter, too. They’re heavily stocked so it’s a tough time to be launching. It’s hard to be a retailer right now.
C: At MAN in Paris last January, the vibes from the fashion industry just weren’t very good but, saying that, we also showed in Copenhagen at a trade show called Ciff [Copenhagen International Fashion Fair], and it was a much more positive vibe. We have sales agents in Scandinavia now - we feel like it’s a really relevant market for us. There are lots of small independent brands over there who all stay really true to their identity. It feels fresh over there.
CS: What’s been the most difficult aspect to starting up?
A: Finance. Without a doubt. It’s not easy to get finance in the UK when you’re a small start-up.
C: The banks make you jump through hoops. We started this on such a minimal amount, but if you worry about that all the time, you’ll never get off the ground. Another difficult aspect is that it’s just the two of us. In a bigger team, there’s always someone other than you to sort out a problem!
CS: Well, that leads me on nicely to the question of working as a husband-and-wife team. Is knowing one another so well for so long an advantage or disadvantage when you’re trying to achieve the same goal?
A: We’re actually better working together. It was worse when we were living our own separate work lives - it sounds cheesy, but we do really complement each other. If we were both like me it would be really miserable… we’re different but perfectly complement each other. We end up creating something we wouldn’t have created by ourselves.
C: We do challenge each other, too. We just want it to be perfect all the time. It’s not easy but - and this sounds bitchy - I’ve worked with so many women and, in comparison, working with Adam is a breeze. There’s no competition and it’s a laugh most of the time. We’ve also discovered the areas of the business that we didn’t think we could do. I’ve been doing all the finance stuff and Adam’s been looking after the press and marketing.
A: Not out of choice…
C: But you’re good at it! We’ve had to because it’s just the two of us. Things work out - you just have to give it time.