The menswear designer talks Bauhaus, building boats and the future of fashion
Interview by Ryan Thompson
Being Oliver Spencer at precisely 10am on a nondescript Wednesday morning means working on a street where three different people shout out your name as you cross a 30ft wide strip of asphalt; where a joke shared with a furniture designer in one stride turns into footie relegation banter with a builder in the next; and where your local coffee house keeps a tab running for you. For this interview, we’re sitting in said coffee house opposite Spencer’s store at 62 Lamb’s Conduit Street. Outside, spring rain sporadically hits the pavement, while inside his store, a couple of staff members can be seen busying themselves, preparing for business.
The first thing to strike you about the 40-something menswear designer is that he doesn’t look like a 40-something menswear designer. With his insouciant short brown hair, rolled-up chinos and chukka boots, there’s something innately boyish about him. Behind his round tortoiseshell spectacles hides a pair of small but lively eyes, mischievous even. But when he speaks, he does so with authority, punctuating every so often with an affirmative ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’, like a set of knuckles rapped smartly on a door.
Since 2002, Spencer, a father of three young boys, has forged his own unique path through an ultra-competitive menswear landscape. In a decade during which so many independent brands have either died or sold-out, his eponymous label remains steadfastly intact, growing year on year and rightfully supergluing his flag on the global menswear map with an eclectic aesthetic that bridges the gap between classic tailoring and contemporary fashion. In a luxury industry dominated by huge conglomerates, that Spencer is doing his own thing, and doing it successfully, is testament not only to his skills as a self-taught designer but also to his entrepreneurial vim.
Our conversation begins with a thorough yet decidedly layman-like examination of the weather – we’re both British, after all…
CS: I do love the English summer for the 10 or 12 days it reveals itself, but nothing quite beats southern Italy for me. Where were you last on holiday, Oliver?
OS: My last holiday was in Bude, where it was really cold and treacherous, if I’m honest. I’m going to Copenhagen this weekend with my kids. My wife organised it and she said to me yesterday, ‘You do know we’re going to Copenhagen at the weekend?’ I just nodded. I had no idea. I try to avoid plane travel at all costs. I hate it. I spoke to a friend of mine this morning who’s a serial first-class traveller. I’m supposed to be playing table tennis with him tonight, but he’s lying in bed with a massive cold he says he caught on a plane. I said, ‘See! The air in first-class is exactly the same as the air in economy; it just gets pumped around the whole plane and now you’ve got an expensive disease you could have contracted on the cheap.’
CS: Do you always head to the coast?
OS: Well, my biggest passion, I suppose, is mountain life. I spend as much time in the mountains as possible, ski-touring mainly. I love to go out there and walk up hills and ski down deep powder slopes. However, sailing has always been a part of my life. I spent my summers in a place called St Mawes in Cornwall, and I’d spend all my time sailing lasers and windsurfing. My dream keelboat is a Sunbeam. In fact, I’m going sailing next week – oh no, have I put that in the diary? – I’m going to Itchenor with a friend who is a sailing instructor down there. I’m thinking about buying a boat at the moment. My wife has actually given me the green light, which is quite unusual. She normally thinks I’ll just forget about these plans because I flit in and out of things, but she knows that sailing has always been a big part of my life. My dream is to build something substantial like a gulet [a traditional Turkish wooden sailing boat]. Not with my own hands, but with my own pencil, probably down in Turkey, where I go once a year with mates.
CS: So why are you not an engineer or an architect?
OS: I’d like to have been. Weirdly, Oliver Spencer clothes are all worn by architects and engineers and creative people, but I’m dyslexic, so I would never have passed all the exams. Also, I think clothing is probably more suited to my personality in that it’s moving the whole time. You need to be a very busy person to be in this industry – a doer. Womenswear goes at quite a clip, but menswear is really catching up. I’m on four collections a year now and that’s just for the one line. Then I’ve got another line, which is two collections, plus there are sub-lines like the lounge one. I reckon I do eight collections a year, obviously all varying in size. But it’s great, you know, because I can build collections for seasons, and I love that.
CS: Has the increased frequency of collections changed the way you work, then?
OS: No, not really. Most of the time I’m inspired by an artist - either them or their work. Art is an absolutely massive part of my life. I’m talking to someone at the moment who is an up-and-coming sculptor/artist. I’ve spent a good deal of time with him in his studio, so we’re looking at how we can get involved. I start like that, with an artistic reference, then go on to textiles and finally the actual design, because I don’t think you can build a building without first knowing about your materials. It’s more important to understand what the materials are going to be and then move into the shape.
‘You can make good clothing, but be out of sync and you’re like a one-night stand. I form marriages; I don’t do one-night stands’
CS: Do you ever go to the big textile fairs or factories?
OS: Yeah, yeah, yeah – I go all the time, it’s like a religious trip. I try to be very direct with my use of textiles and to make stuff in Britain, which is quite difficult. Right now, about 30 per cent is made in the UK, but mostly it’s all done in Portugal. It’s a very simple thing over there – they’ve got great factories with very up-to-date machinery and the people understand textiles. If you want to make factories work in the UK, you have to push, push, push; you have to work with them and put your own staff in place to show them exactly what you want, whereas, in Portugal, they’re very hands-on. They do very progressive manufacturing. It fits the model of our entire business, which is what I would describe as ‘new luxury’: a more contemporary style of tailoring that provides people with a certain level of garment at a certain price, but with all the detailing. And it’s a clean garment – now, I’m not going to come down on people who source less ethically or whatever, but you can tell a garment that has been lovingly made from one that hasn’t, which is why we are very, very particular about our process.
CS: How have you seen textiles change in the past 10 years?
OS: They’ve changed massively. Textile innovations even in the past couple of years have been unbelievable. It’s a part of the industry that is moving so fast. Pretty soon, you’ll have fabrics breathing on you.
CS: You’ll be able to buy a silhouette from a designer, take it home and print it on a 3D printer.
OS: And then we’re in big trouble! The thing that’s shaping our industry is the internet. I’m going there, but I’m a really big believer in shopkeeping. The touch, the feel – it’s so important. Clothing is a tactile experience. What’s great about menswear is that men still prefer to go into shops, or at least into stores they trust, so each individual shopkeeper and member of staff is very important in retaining that trust. The human side has to exist; the two can’t succeed without each other. Somebody told me Prada has opened 140 stores worldwide in the past two years. That’s a phenomenal amount if it’s correct, and it shows you that the internet is not the be-all and end-all. But when the internet is done well, it’s great – Mr Porter, for example. They’ve set the bar for online content; they’re the forerunners and everyone’s sat and watched, trying to learn. Now you’ve got Style.com jumping in. It will be great when Condé Nast joins the party.
CS: When I think of Oliver Spencer, I get an image in my head of texturally interesting tailoring but in a contemporary silhouette. I think it says a lot about you that you’ve remained true to that ethos during 13 years in business.
OS: That’s what we’re entirely about. There’s the actual collection itself and then there’s the narrative behind the collection – what goes on within the business. They go hand in hand, and if you don’t get that right, you have a problem. You can make good clothing, but be out of sync and you’re like a one-night stand. I form marriages; I don’t do one-night stands. We’re very much about building relationships right from the factory all the way to the customer, but it’s also like that in life. That’s the way I go out and do anything – sport, whatever. It’s also how I approach my shows. We set out to deliver a moment. I want people to go away absolutely buzzing with thought and energy, and we try to provoke that. There’s no point just sending a load of clothes down a runway. We cast all types of different people and bring in all sorts of music. Last year, it was The Specials drummer John Bradbury who dub-stepped the show, Idris Elba DJed it in 2013, which was interesting, because he only showed up about two hours before the show! He couldn’t make any of the other meetings, but he nailed it. I’ve had a samba band, a load of gypsies… Fashion shows should be enjoyable.
CS: What was it like, starting up your own label back in 2002?
OS: In the beginning, it was just me with an idea, not getting anywhere. I was lucky I had Favourbrook to help me through the dark times with my business, because starting a label is all about passion: passion for hard work, passion for learning and knowledge. Luck plays a big role, too. There were times when I was completely down in the dumps and not selling anything, but I still retained that passion and conviction for what I was doing. If you’re going to be starting a whole collection and not just a category, then you’ve got a huge mountain to climb.
CS: Were those early years scary?
OS: No, really enjoyable, but there were times when I was ready to call it a day.
CS: And what keeps you awake at night now?
OS: Really stupid things like the wrong colour in a jacket. Or staff issues. I like to run my business as a family, so there has always got to be a political balance. I also think it’s more difficult to run a business with 50 people in it than 200, because you’re so involved with everyone. You can’t be that personal with 200; it’s impossible or, at worst, disingenuous. With a smaller company, you’re going on the same journey with everyone. There aren’t so many layers.
CS: It’s interesting that a lot of young designers these days are moonlighting at much bigger brands while retaining their own labels. I can understand it because they’re going for the security of a salary, but it’s a move that doesn’t give their own labels the best chance of survival. Do you agree?
OS: Here’s the thing: I don’t know that fashion design particularly teaches you the business of clothing. They should add another year on to those courses because, even if they’re the talented, at the end of the day, only a few will have the talent to be able to run their own business and do the design. I’m interested in owning my own company and having control of my label. Which brings me to my business partner Marina [Wallrock]; we’re like yin and yang, which is really important. We had shareholders, but bought them out two years ago – it’s us running our own business, with our own cash flow.
CS: There’s a sense that a lot of these designers are becoming guns for hire. Take Public School NYC, for example. I’m a huge fan of theirs, but they only set up in 2008 and now they’re heading up DKNY.
OS: Those kids kind of arrived from nowhere. I’d been watching them without really noticing them, if you know what I mean, but I’m not sure joining DKNY was such a good idea. I don’t blame people for going to the high street to produce something cheaper with your own label in it because that doesn’t affect your main line, but if you’re going to go head-to-head with your own business, I think that’s a big issue. You’ll end up designing the same stuff and you’ve got to be very careful about that. But brands like Public School have to survive, so they do their thing.
CS: There are certainly a lot of hurdles for young designers to get over, not least the initial levels of investment required to get a brand off the ground.
OS: The worst thing about this business – and I’ve seen this happen to a number of my mates – is they go out there and start raising this money and that money and I sit there and try and be enthusiastic for them. But ‘raising money’ is just another term for borrowing. It’s debt! Unless I’m mistaken, debt has to be paid back and then some. It’s something I’m acutely aware of, especially when members of my team come up with really far-flung, expensive ideas. I’m like, ‘How?’ Someone who I admire tremendously is Paul Smith. His business acumen is incredible. Young designers could learn so much from him. And he’s been generous with his time towards me; he’s a great guy.
CS: There are actually quite a lot of similarities between you and Paul Smith.
OS: Yeah, there are. We’ve got similar histories in the business, but stylistically, I think he’s probably a little bit more playful than we are; we’re a bit more sober in our aesthetic. His style is built on the basis of having fun and being very playful with fabrics. We’re a bit more utilitarian with our use of clean lines. I’m a massive Bauhaus fan; that’s my thing. I also like lots of younger designers. Christopher Raeburn is very good; he’s got a very particular thing going on, which I like.
CS: Where does the Bauhaus obsession come from?
OS: It’s just a pure love of architecture, a whole way of being for me. My house is loaded with Bauhaus furniture. It’s clean, functional and textural at the same time and I love it. We’re going to be refitting our shop in August. In fact, the guy we bumped into earlier is going to be doing a lot of the work for us: he’s got a furniture company called Another Country, doing wonderful stuff in Norwich. Our Calvert Avenue shop has had that refit already, so I know what it looks like and it’s great. All the stores are moving towards that right now. It feels like it’s time for movement. Right now, I’m enjoying tackling the new and putting it together with the old. That’s what keeps me coming to work.
CS: Do you mean ‘movement’ in terms of design?
OS: It’s more about dealing with how the business is changing rather than any design challenge. One thing I’m very interested in is the whole transactional process: what goes through the mind of the customer, what the psyche is, why they’re spending their money… I think about that sort of stuff the whole time. Obviously I haven’t cracked it yet, otherwise I’d be a lot bigger than I am. Actually, bigger is the wrong word, because I’m not somebody obsessed with turnover – I’m somebody obsessed with doing good things and making sure they work. I’ve got seven stores at the moment; they all work as individual businesses and I think that’s key. Opening a store just as a marketing exercise for a label our size is a very difficult thing to do. That’s a vanity project and I would totally advise anyone against it. There’s so much more to a menswear business than the clothes. It has to be a retail experience for the right reasons. You’ve got to forge your own path: I say this all the time. You need to be able to stand the passage of time as a brand, which is difficult to do. I’m really lucky I work with [stylist] William Gilchrist, who is just phenomenal. I can’t praise him enough – he’s my editor, my bullshit detector. The guy has amazing taste and is so articulate. I love the fact there are people in my life like him, who will look at me straight and say, ‘Oli, fuck off. That’s rubbish. Who are you trying to kid?’ We must have that as a business, doubly so in fashion. After all, I want to create a legacy, I’m not interested in selling it. I want to grow Oliver Spencer slowly and for it to be small and beautiful. There are things that catch fire and explode, but that doesn’t interest me.
CS: It’s your business, your life, it’s got to have longevity… otherwise you’re never going to build that boat.
OS: I’m going to build the bloody boat.