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Casual Connoisseur Interview

March 18, 2012
Today we present you with an interview of one of my current favourite brands, Casual Connoisseur! Based in the North West of England, these lads are becoming huge. The Connoisseur phenomenon is spreading, the inspiration in cultural and popular icons and an eye to the details are some of the core characteristics that make them special. Enough talking, let’s see what they have to tell us.
A special thanks to Tom for being available to answer my questions and for the detail in each of them!
So Tom, how did it all begin? Did you have any background in this industry?
Well, it began in 2006, I’d left a long job and the ones that followed were all worse to be honest. Definitely no job satisfaction involved, more just about bringing a wage home and living for the weekend and the football back then. The last job came to an end and I re-evaluated life somewhat and realised I wanted to do something challenging and interesting. I knew back then when I attempted to start working for myself it was going to be a gamble initially and maybe a struggle, but I was prepared to give it a go. It was tiny at first but with the site my brother had done, we had some ‘cool’ presence on the net already, one that had a bit of a cult worldwide following to boot. This was pretty much the first of it’s kind and ahead of the game before the blogging phenomenon and the like followed some years later.So we were able to start a new idea with style from there and a website was built by ourselves and we started to get ‘out there’ and then introduced tee designs, they were successful enough at first to know it was well worth a go, then they got bigger and there was already a good demand way back then.
We used the old full colour transfer style right at the beginning and had no money but plenty of ideas and people took to it. From the off we said it would be self funded, self sufficient and it still is today, we proud of that.
The releases and progress we’ve made has been absolutely phenomenal and has meant we’ve been able to advance very well, we know who and what we are and where we fit in, we don’t try and replicate the top end on a tiny budget. We are small but growing all the time.I had no background in clothing aside from working in a shoe shop for around six months and buying (and selling) lots and lots of garments for many years. I had a great passion/massive obsession for clothing as does my brother and also many creative ideas. I had spent over five years in a retail job, including the bulk of that as management so had enough idea, responsibility and sense of how to run a business correctly. Though this would be the first time that it was my own, with that comes even more added responsibility of course.
How’s the Connoisseurs team composed and what are your functions?
There are three of us involved in the team itself. Anthony, Dan and myself. Ant has his own full time career and Dan his own projects too. We all have a part to play. It is, however a full time job for me, it can be long hours, it’s Connoisseur from the minute I wake up to the moment I go to bed, my head is yapping a lot; sometimes I don’t turn it off! But it’s busy and that means we’re doing it right! I have full control over this and do everything that is involved in the business. From the smallest detail to the biggest. I may be sorting a new deal out as I come back from another trip to the post office, it’s completely hands on, a cottage industry as they say. Incredibly homegrown and organic.

Behind the scenes there are many ideas, many sketchbooks full of scribbles we hope to eventually realise. We hope to be in this for the long haul and expanding and growing as much as we can, I like to think we are doers and not sayers. It’s a learning curve and I guess always will be. We are at the bottom of the ladder and educating ourselves as we work our way up that ladder, menswear is where we want to be and there’s so many niches and intricate little details to take in. We only did the basic courses at college between us we have minor qualifications in certain fields from a graphic design background. We grew up with a father working in advertising so always paid far more attention to how to sell something than is the norm. But we didn’t go to fashion college, we didn’t intern, or cut patterns for work experience. But we know what we want, we think we know quite a lot but when you get into the intricities of making a shirt or jacket there’s correct terminology you would never have known existed, every zipper or stitched seam has it’s own term, it’s fascinating. Our ethos as a brand is pretty simple, a quality made product that’s both affordable and cool. Something we would always wear ourselves and to us, done the right way. As we expand and grow further – more people are involved in realising the product.

We have brought on board very talented illustrators each with their unique styles to keep the tees coming in at a highest quality possible; such as Peter O’Toole, Andy Watt, Matt Craven and Ben Lamb who’s work respectively has been seen in many famous publications from the likes of the NME, Oi Polloi and GQ to the Guardian and the New York Times. We also have regular collaborator Section 76, a graphic designer who we met via our own forum who always does what we ask for very well. We also work closely with our friends in Stockholm (Our Culture) who’ are kindred spirits and great clued up lads, also talented Photo shoppers and creative minds too, then there’s our Russian comrades who are of the same ilk. We’re lucky to have met some truly great people since setting this thing up. As I’ve got busier with the brand and responsibilities my brother has taken on more of the workload with the web design and photography. His title officially is the Secretary, but we prefer Creative Director – we try to ensure everything is done in-house where it can be.

We’ll be creative and utilise friends and indeed fellow connoisseurs from our forum too to get involved. We’re sensible and maybe a little strict with the budget – it’s not necessary to bring in agents and fashion shoots costing hundreds of pounds when we and fellow friends can do as good a job ourselves. It’s authentic and more genuine. We’re grounded, we’re real in that sense and it’s part of the overall appeal, as I said above we are a completely self-sufficient brand, we’ve never asked nor borrowed a penny from anywhere and wouldn’t want to. We think with that considered it shows how hard we’ve worked and how far we have come and it is something to feel quite humbled about. On the flip side we are now in discussion with other designers and brands as we expand our product range and carry this thing forward, which is a learning curve for us but also essential in the growth of the brand. Both exciting and actually a little frustrating at times as it’s certainly a matter of who and what you know in this game and many perhaps rightfully won’t give anything away! It’s very rewarding to see a sketch scribbled on a piece of paper into a box of product arriving, this is the greatest feeling in the world and something which spurs us on. It can also be a difficult, long and drawn out process realising those ideas, those sketches.

Do you have any other job or are you 100% working exclusively in the brand?

As I said above for me it’s a bona-fide full time job, thankfully! It was a graduation into this, but working for yourself doing what you enjoy was always the ideal scenario and a dream at first.

How do you get all the inspiration for the product design?
People say they don’t take inspiration or influence but that is complete bullshit, we are inspired by everything on a daily basis, from the lyrics of a song to film and what’s on the telly, we are apologetically film geeks and some of our biggest heroes are the cool (and the unlikely) style icons from Hollywood films.
There’s no surprise we have infused the likes of Nicholson, Murray, and Pacino onto graphic t-shirts and other garments. That includes cool and iconic people from literature too, Hunter Thompson, Hemingway, Kerouac etc, why not? it’s from within and a genuine interest for this little brand. I think one lad on our forum read On The Road and it made him get up and do Route 66! That’s what it’s all about, inspiration to the fullest, talent borrows.
Films made years before we were born and books written a generation ago give us plenty of food for thought, there’s nothing wrong with that. I guess musically we were lucky to have grown up with such a massive cultural backdrop of sounds never really repeated since with the whole Manchester music scene of the 1980’s and the ensuing Madchester and acid house explosion.
There’s some very important bands from this neck of the woods and with it some unsung heroes too, we can’t not tap into this from time to time. I take loads of style ideas from film characters too. Where possible we like to give our product a little back story and each item a name, just something we have always done – hence a nice woolen hat hand made, inspired by and named after Randle Patrick McMurphy. The same can be said for other cult heroes in history. Like the Weir hat which took it’s name from a little known (South of Hadrian’s Wall anyway) television broadcaster and climber Tom Weir.
We’ve also incorporated Arne Næss into it, a Norwegian philosopher who you can bet nobody we sell to in the UK had ever heard of, they have now.
There’s a nice little education there too, we know full well have put folk on a different path and inspired many others, it’s clear to see a lot of the time.Then there’s Don Whillans with his famous flat cap and then a whole other world away with a Godfather II inspired bit of head wear with the recent Andolini. This is what we’re all about, we genuinely love all that stuff. We’re big outdoor fans as you’ve probably guessed and we feel we are on the right kind of political path without being really right-on, with regards to ideas inspired by the Russian Revolution, Paris 1968 and things like the Spanish civil war, it’s all about people power without shouting about it too much. Sticking one up for the little man.If things we love can be transferred into our garments and t-shirts and other people actually get it then that’s a fantastic feeling and what makes it all the more worthwhile.
What special care do you have when selecting the fabrics for your clothes?
We believe our t-shirts and sweats are the finest you can get for what we do and the price. Over the years we have tested and trialled many different ones for fit and how they stand up with washing and longevity and the quality of ours – a highly regarded US brand is second to none. You don’t want someone buying one and thinking it wasn’t a flattering fit or poor quality, the whole point is they love it enough to come back for more.
These are all hand screen printed locally in Manchester by one of the best places in the North West, they have a massive set up and work with several famous labels in house. There’s many machines performing many functions but the classic screen printing is still a pretty hands on and time consuming task. It’s great to see actually, I intend to do some sort of shoot there one day to show the process, everything is finished here now which saves us a lot of time! I used to hand and machine sew the arm and neck labels myself, one thing I got pretty good at was the sewing machine! But it’s just not possible now. The volume of sales and the work load means someone else has to do it!
Hats: it’s quite fitting hailing from a town who were right up there with hat manufacturing during the industrial boom that we do good numbers of hats. Sadly hat production in this town has long since moved on, but we do have a museum! We are ‘famous’ for our winter hats, one a premium wool (McMurphy) which I’ve not had off my head throughout winter, these were all handwoven to our spec and the artisan quality of them is evident in look and handle. It’s a luxury we’ve been lucky enough to expand into and will do more again later this year.
The signature Weir is obviously a more sportswear inspired style so works best in the acrylic mix as it’d be a tricky one to pull off in wool. We deal with another long established UK company for this, actually only a stone’s throw from the other place. The key is getting the fit right, 98% of the time it works straight away. The five panel caps were another great addition to our range, these are great quality in different fabrics made in one of the most respected places in New York. The flat caps we have done were very well received too.
Our summer hats starting with the Naess bucket hat were made via our friends in Stockholm, these I’m really happy with. The bucket hat is a difficult one to get right, many labels get them wrong in my opinion, I’ve had loads that just do not work when worn. It took us over a year to get the style correct and they’re bang on, the shape and fit is perfect.
Polos: Quality, good fit, keeps it’s shape. For a brand like ourselves we’re having to try and stand up against the famous polo shirt brands, this is a huge task and one we know we cannot compete with. So we try and bridge that gap with an affordable alternative, but not scrimping on quality, as we know a small slice of the market who buy the likes of Lacoste and RL could buy ours too. The polo is a classic design which we know will stand the test of time. Personally, I prefer long sleeves all year round, but this year we’ll offer both. You cannot really play much on the polo shirt and nor should you for fear of it becoming contrived and gimmicky. We incorporated our own detailing i.e. the contrast top button to give it it’s own touch, so it’s familiar with our own label. Whilst we don’t own the right to this, it was certainly unique to us at the time of doing it. As we did it first we’ll stick with it.
The cagoule is actually a lot more effective than the original, we’ve taken an iconic piece with blessing and reworked it. It really works a treat in the rain and you don’t get a sweat on, we want to produce things like this, things which actually perform as they say they do. Cult brands out there are releasing raincoats and parkas which are the last thing you’d choose to wear in the rain or up a mountain, lots are more about the style than the function, usually with a hefty price tag too. The Beat a Storms are a simple, easy and affordable cagoule. Above all else they just look cool. They are something we will continue to release – maybe even in new styles too.
Onto this year we’re working on two new more advanced jackets. It’s the first time we’ve done this so it’s both a slow and learning process. One thing we have in abundance is jacket knowledge! Between us over the years we’ve amassed a huge personal archive from the current brands t o lost classics and have seen them all. The good, bad and ugly to the sublime. New, technical, simple and vintage. As I write this a sample of our parka is imminent, so fingers crossed! The next one we’re still working on is a classic smock. This one has actually proved more difficult to source rightly. We had a place in Italy but in the end the cost price and the minimums would have meant retailing it at about £300!
Well made regardless of it’s country of origin, we have had product made locally, made abroad made at the other side of the Atlantic and the Pacific and to us the most important factor is the quality of the product and how good it looks and not the Country it is made in. People still shirk at the Far East, but a fair chunk of our favourite brands we all wear are made over there. I’ve paid through the nose for UK made brands where the quality, overall look and feel can occasionally be a little shabby compared to overseas places. Often these always seem to take a dig for no reason other than people having a very old fashioned and patronising outlook. There’s snobbery involved and in recent years throwing out the old ‘Made In England’ has become a big thing what with all the heritage thing exploding like it did. At the end of the day – with our simple cagoules for example, this country doesn’t have the facilities required to do what we wanted as lots of old factories and production was moved in the 1980’s. Where as a specialist in China did, the production from our sketches on paper to boxes arriving months later, was faultless.
As long as something is produced properly, with quality control and ethically sound it is the most important factor, where it is made should not be. It also depends on what product too of course. Some of our hats are made in America, others are made right here in the UK, again whoever is best at producing stuff at realistic prices is key, certainly for us, as I keep saying it’s all part of the learning curve for us.We always want limited production runs where possible, for various reasons, it goes back to that whole ideal of wearing something you won’t see many others in. Owning something a little different and sought after, this is what always motivated us. We sell very well that way, most releases now seem to be met with people seemingly expecting things to sell out immediately, which is crazy, it’s not a lottery – we do get plenty of stuff in good numbers. It just does really well, which is truly fantastic, occasionally you spend days getting a new release ready and it’s gone in ten minutes, it’s mad! Amazing and brilliant but sometimes a tiny bit overwhelming as you’ve then got an immediate void! Don’t get me wrong it’s seriously brilliant and we can’t ask for a better response most times. We’ve seen one jibe suggesting that we get small quantities intentionally to sell out quickly, solely in the name of hype it’s absolute nonsense. Anyone involved in this game will know that’s not even possible when having garments custom manufactured. You always have an MOQ (minimum order quantity) to adhere to, even with our t-shirts it’s a minimum run as it’s not in any way cost effective for us to just make a dozen or so. I guess we shouldn’t even entertain stuff like that.
What’s the best seller item until now and what’s your favourite product that you have designed?
Obviously there’s one stand out item, the Weir hat, we don’t like to shout about it, but perhaps sometimes we should! This has been a massive success, what you have to remember when we first did this hat some years back there were not many similar hats available, perhaps one or two more specialist labels i.e. outdoor brands and streetwear were doing something similar, but other brands have come along and done them since and the popularity has grown over the last couple of years.
The Weirs consistently fetch three to four times their original price on eBay, it’s crazy to see and a little disappointing knowing some only bought them solely to cash in on, but it is certainly a small phenomenon in it’s own right. I’d imagine massive brands with lots of financial and marketing clout could only dream of one product which sells so well. So far I’m probably happiest with the shirts as they were all done ourselves, it’s a dream to say that, we got them spot on.
Lately you’re making many collabs, like Ben Lamb, Peter O’Toole etc… how does it work? How is your “business model” in these collabs?
We have a very loose business model, we don’t work to a strict seasonal collection as most brands do. We keep a schedule in place but deliberately keep it open as new ideas and projects appear. Sporadic is the word, new opportunities present themselves from time to time. We think it’s better to not be stuck to a set collection, it’s the done thing and how everyone does it, but it’s easier for us to maintain control of what we do in the way in which we do it.Business model; it’s a good question, I guess any collab should be about a group of like minds combining forces, say ourselves with a great idea using someone who we know can take it from the page to a physical product, i.e. with an experienced designer or label.
That’s what it should be about, association with a great name is just a bonus really but obviously something for someone like ourselves will be a big deal. There are too many collaborations for collaborations sake these days, brands inexplicably working together for sales hype, which you see a lot more of in more streetwear labels and garish trainer releases, there’s others which I don’t really understand the combination of too. We tend to have used established brands like Highland 2000 for winter hats, they’re an esteemed brand who are probably more well known in Japan, who made hats for us. With other headwear we use a great long established company in New York and the Weir hats are made in the UK too.
The Our Culture thing is more about a friendship I guess as we do things like t-shirts and hats together and whatever we hink of next. The ‘Beat a Storm’ cagoule we did wasn’t a collaboration, but was born out of hoping to recrete the original cagoule with Peter Storm, this wasn’t possible as the company had changed hands but we got in touch with, discussed and were then given the blessing by a Mr Bibby – a relative of the originator, the inventor of the cagoule himself…and thus the best place possible to get them made, which was superb. The Ben Lamb thing has been a little slow, but every now and then he’ll send us a sneak peak of the design and it’s superb, I love his style of artwork first and foremost, that’s why we approached him to do a design. He’s actually into very similar things to us and is as much a film buff as we are so totally got the idea we had proposed to him, obviously he’s busy and in demand. The Oi Polloi/Pica Post connection with him is just a coincidental bonus really.
We are currently working alongside an up and coming label (Trickett) who’s a knowledgable chap with a good eye for similar things and one who prides himself on locally sourced and UK or US manufactured goods, we have a few things up our sleeves. There’s also one or two we have enquired with and who have actually approached us in the past which then all of a sudden seemed to go quiet, this is extremely frustrating on our part but I guess nobody owes us anything and in this case it’s more about us than them, but it’s not hard to return calls and emails!
We have found ourselves in a position where we can approach people now and fund these projects ourselves, we want and intend to collaborate with other brands essentially to offer a great product. Obviously as I say, the association with more established brands is a great coup, but to us it’s more about showing just how serious we are about offering a truly great finished product.
For instance we know where we are and what we are capable of doing, getting someone on board with a track record of both design and manufacturing is a pleasure to see and work with and hopefully something you may see a fair bit more of over the coming months. There’s not a lot we can say here right now, there’s a couple of things we are working on, we can only say watch this space…
What are your ideas for the future? Can you reveal to us any main goal for the next years?
Progression, steadily improving all the while. This next month we have some nice little accessories incoming, new pin badges, small things but awesome all the same, a Zippo lighter and a Swiss Army knife both with the respective brands who make them best, Zippo and Victorinox. Nice little things, lifetime guarentee and stuff suckers like us go for! We’ve got a shoulder bag in the hands of an agent so that’s one idea too. We’re working on shorts right now, if they happen they’ll be superb but it’s a little bit of a push right now unfortunately, this time next year if so! We have one upcoming shirt collab lined up for sure, and hopefully another one which we’ve got people looking into right now, it was always our intention to release three more shirts the same as last year, they were superb, the best thing we’ve done so far, amazing for a first attempt if we don’t say so ourselves and we’ve been asked constantly to bring back the Union, no surprise really as it stands up alongside many of the great labels out there and I mean that sincerely.
Perhaps we were a little naive in just assuming we could do them again, same block – different fabrics and patterns was the idea. But the manufacturers now want us to make three times as many, it’s a kick in the bollocks, but one we have to take, once again it goes back to that learning curve, finding our feet ourselves. As I’ve said we intend to do this the right way – we’ve had other options available but knew they just wouldn’t be as good quality or as well made so no point going there, it’s about making progress, the next step, improving them this time.Then there’s the second more substantial jacket release, again when manufacturing something pretty big like this we cannot put a specific date on it. Ideally we’d be selling these now, but it’s still at the sample stage and hopefully going to happen sooner or later. This will be our twist on the mountain parka, a classic to us and one which will be a more contemporary fit and style, a different play on the two tone in tightly woven Oxford nylon with a contrasting coloured inner. With extra pockets for all the modern gimmicks and all the right authentic details such as YKK zips, branded studs and hints of the little charms which made the original brands from the original outdoor revolution stand the test of time.
Again though, maybe I’ve said too much, it’s all dependent on the sample, we have no idea on cost yet!We don’t intend to open a store – which we are often asked about, sounds corny but online makes perfect sense, open 24/7 and anyone can shop there from anywhere in the world! We have a little more concentration aimed for who we wholesale to next, we are about to be distributed through Italy and have a couple of new European stores to add too, plus one or two more local ones and someone in Japan. We always maintained we don’t want to over-saturate the brand and end up everywhere, great for making a quick buck but we want to stick around.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 19, 2012 6:02 am

    Top read.
    Keep the good work.

  2. Gee permalink
    July 27, 2012 6:32 am

    Let me get this straight – They claim to have started the bobble hat trend? I would bet my life that the majority of brands who are shifting 1000’s of bobble hats every winter have never heard of Casual Co. That’s the most hilarious comment I’ve ever read. What next – They invented the red box logo?

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