Once upon a time, one young Welshman had a crazy dream: to
exclusively sell young British menswear brands, and make enough
money to eat in the process. Five years later, his dream has come
true. Maybe Daniel Jenkins can teach a few people how to celebrate
British menswear by actually selling it…
Nine or so years ago, Daniel Jenkins was at Liverpool University, not far from his parents' home in the Swansea-Neath Valley, studying history. The course was going well, but he wanted to get a job. "Because a lot of work was self-study, you had a lot of time to yourself, but even just for hanging out, buying records, you need a bit of coin. I knew I wanted to work in something to do with clothes, so I decided I would go round all the clothes stores in Liverpool with a CV."
The first store he arrived at was Cricket, the boutique which was famed in the tabloids as a haunt for footballers' wives et al, but had actually begun life as a men's store (the women's offering began after female staff kept getting asked about their outfits). It turned out to be the only one he visited. "I've no idea what I said but I must have talked for about 20 minutes, and the person I was talking to talked to someone else there. And that was it."
After university, he got a job at the Flannels' Liverpool store. He was good at selling clothes. "It's just about being able to talk to people, being able to talk to a lad who's out of prison, a judge… and then it's about candid advice. People might come in and pick up a T-shirt, but knowing how to advise on size and better styles, will make them want it to enjoy it and come back. People underestimate how important this is - Cricket were fantastic at it. The people there are nice, they give good service, they know what you like. They'd get invited to people's weddings, christenings. That doesn't happen unless they think of you as friends."
Jenkins missed that kind of intimacy at the bigger Flannels group and, at the end of 2006, told himself "I could do better than them and become a millionaire by the middle of next week." The following September, he set up a boutique in Monmouth, 40 miles from his childhood home, called Daniel Jenkins Ltd. "And I suddenly realised it was going to be a lot of work."
In the first season he sold debut collections from the likes of Acne, YMC and much-missed British brand And I. Then he got into "smaller, interesting British brands" such as Carolyn Massey. "We did a web store a few months after we had a website. None of our local customers in Monmouth knew who any of the labels were, but then the web store launched and did well. So a couple of months on, we said: "Let's only do British things."
"People talk about these brands to me, I thought, but nobody sells them. And I thought about how, if someone at Cricket hadn't taken a chance on me a couple of years earlier, I wouldn't have my own business now. That's what it's about: taking a risk on things."
It was an informed risk, because these seemingly obscure young Brit brands were selling better than the established ones. Jenkins had stumbled upon the first rule of the internet age: if someone else is already selling the same stuff you plan to, you're stuffed. "If you're looking for a Folk jumper and 10 stores are selling it," he says, "you'll just go for customer service and fastest delivery and stay loyal to whoever has done that before. So there was no point us competing with that. If you open a small independent record shop and you've got Amazon next door, who you going to go to? Most people know and trust Amazon so they'll go there. A few people will always go to the small independent shop, just because that's how they are. But if you offer something that Amazon doesn't sell, then you might be onto something bigger."
Before Jenkins started selling these new British brands, it was often hard to locate anybody else at all who was. He bumped into people, met friends of friends, made trips to Paris and forged a network of connections with these designers and their staff. Where department stores and chains often demanded minimum orders, payment terms and set schedules that were way beyond the resources of fashion start-ups, Jenkins' young, small retail company could offer small young, menswear labels deals more suited to their means - especially once he decided to go internet-only, thus freeing himself from the much greater overheads involved in running a physical shop.
People started to pick up on what he was doing. Jenkins got a call from someone at Paul Smith, the label from which Jenkins had bought his first ever designer T-shirt, "and I can't remember exactly how it came about, but basically it ended up with me getting to sit down in Paul Smith's office and having a conversation with him for a couple of hours. Him giving me a bit of advice really: know your customers, be prepared to put the hours in, be prepared to be willing to help people and be enthusiastic, really. He also said it was important to have something pure at the heart of what you were doing, something that you could nurture and believe in. It was funny: when I left, I rang my dad and told him about it and he said: "Haven't I been saying that to you all along?" And it was true.
Jenkins followed the advice of those father figures and now, four-and-a-half years on, danieljenkinsltd.co.uk sells around 30 "up-and-coming British designers" to aficionados everywhere. "There's certainly more of an appreciation of young British labels now, definitely. When we were a year or two old people would say 'Why are you doing it? You're nuts, you're absolutely nuts'. Now some of them say to me: 'Do you know what? You were right?'"
Jenkins says that the "made in Britain" boom of the past two or three years has helped people understand his ethos better.
Moreover, the all-conquering "heritage" phase of British menswear - tied up as it is with our recovered sense of the value of craft and our increased understanding of the environmental and ethical carnage caused by cheap imported clothes -
finally helped wash away the bad old small-minded, xenophobic associations of "buying British".
Then again, "heritage", with its painstaking replicas and relentless solemnity, isn't really what Jenkins is about. Now, as when he set out, his interest is in the idea of new designers doing things that are, in some sense, trying to be new and different from what has gone before. In that sense, like an increasing number of people on the frontline
of British menswear retail, Jenkins feels that, talent-wise, this is a golden age for design. Led by the likes of Carolyn Massey and J.W. Anderson, a generation is making historically aware but fashion-forward gear that has enough British eccentricity and creativity to keep things novel and playful, but is also eminently wearable and covetable by "normal" blokes. There is a widespread feeling that at every level - from design and production to sourcing and pricing - these great young British designers are doing everything that could be asked of them, and well. Now, it's about what our country can do for them.
In January, the British Fashion Council announced it was to address that very question when it announced that this month's men's day, on the last day of Fashion Week, will be the last. Instead of having one day tagged on the end of London Fashion Weeks in February and September, menswear will now have its own mini three-day "weeks" in June and January, just before all the big-brand men's shows in Milan and Paris. The fashion calendar has long complicated life for British designers, because buyers have often spent all their money on the continent before they see menswear at London Fashion Week - if they see it at all.
There are other issues still, though. As Jenkins points out, small brands have an especially hard time making clothes in Britain when there's a small market for it, "so that's a catch-22 for a lot of people". The theatricality of a catwalk show still seems as likely to alienate the potential "ordinary bloke" purchaser as appeal to him. "If they looked at the clothes," Jenkins says, "most men would be like, 'That's a nice jacket, those are nice clothes', but because of the styling and the music on the catwalk, they think, 'That wasn't for me'. And sometimes British menswear misses out through that. They don't have the budgets to advertise, so it's hard to get their stuff seen
British men's fashion that punches its weight in every department? According to Daniel Jenkins, they have built it. We just need to get them to come.
"I've got this black Lou Dalton jacket," he says. "It's nice, the fabric's nice, and when I walk down the street in it, people will say, 'Ooh your jacket's nice. Where's it from?' and I'll say, 'Oh, Lou Dalton', and they'll say, 'Who?' It's getting them to make that leap. If you put it in front of somebody, if they feel it, and weigh it in their hands - even smell it - then they will understand."
Smell? I'm intrigued, and when I ask about it, Jenkins finally gets round to defining what British menswear means to him, in a rhapsody that's part-Ted Hughes, part-primally sexy master perfumier Serge Lutens.
"A lot of lambswool smells a certain way, smells of earth, Neanderthal times. I've got this hat that is made from a very thick wool with lanolin, and when it rains it smells like sheep, which is what I think lanolin should smell like. The number of times I've gone to people, 'Smell my hat' and they've gone, 'Why would I want to?' But if they do it, they get it: 'Oh, it smells like growing up in the countryside', and that sort of thing. That's what menswear does well and womenswear doesn't do particularly, and that's something that you get in this country - whereas the big branded successful stuff can feel sterile and about the packaging. Here you feel that there is somebody who really gives a shit about it, beat themselves up over what they're making, probably very sensitive about how it's received and they're putting themselves out there with what they make."
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"Martine is a new name for many people, but at the same time she's a wise head: she's worked for other people, she's got a following in Japan, she knows how it all works already. In terms of her style and sensibility, what's great is that her stuff is just so her, it's such an unmistakable north London look that she plays on. It's what I like to imagine the Arsenal fans, the ones who aren't from Islington, wearing: partly sporty in the fabrics and cuts, but actually rooted in music and youth culture too. I have a spotty silk shirt by Martine Rose that I wear with tracksuit bottoms. It all feels nicely made and a bit subversive, and getting even better - what she's done for the coming autumn/winter season is really, really cool. Meanwhile the "sticka print" jacket from this season is about the only thing with any form of branding I'd wear - imagine Moschino kids skating around Hackney in the 1990s."
WILLIAM RICHARD GREEN
"For his 2012 autumn/winter collection, William Richard Green has worked with the idea of men going to the football. It's not that he's doing 'football hooligans', it's more about that terrace style. That culture where lads like a nice coat, one not so weird or extravagant that they get laughed at, but it's slightly more fashion than people realise. His work always has this idea of being in a gang, a very British idea of a youth culture code rather than a trend. The idea came to him because he lived by the New Den, Millwall's ground in south-east London, and he would watch what the fans wore on a Saturday - it's about how blokes express an attitude with how they dress. He made all these William Richard Green football scarves that he handed out to buyers in Paris, as a sort of joke on this 'British fashion' thing. I like that, because for me a lot of menswear has become too serious now: 'Yeah, well, my boots took eight hours to stitch, some sort of Japanese goddess made them, and they were washed with virgins' tears…'. A bit of humour and fun is a welcome balance."
"Matthew Miller has no interest in simply raiding the past to create his collections - he is really dedicated to the idea of trying to do something new, even when his references seem quite classic at first glance. Last season, he had carabiners (the metal loops climbers use to secure their ropes) on his coats. For this spring/summer, it's all about the nautical stuff, but again not in a literal way - although the full collection did include a coat made from a sail. On a smaller scale, he works with
materials such as car seatbelt fabric for his bags. He's also started using special, innovative-looking hardware on his items. You could argue his clothes pose questions about the future of men's clothing. He also takes the traditional idea of masculine print and subverts it. He has patterns that look like tradition camouflage from afar but, on close inspection, prove to be made up of everyday industrial items, which have then been manipulated to create something different."
BAARTMANS & SIEGEL
"Amber Siegel and Wouter Baartmans are a couple, which is really cute for a start, but mainly they do this very grown-up tailoring, not remotely wacky or at all fussy, but still with an edge. Their whole thing is about the quality of the materials they use: whether it's the quality of the cotton, or the zips from the same factory as the highest-end French labels, the fabrications are through the roof. They're relatively simple designs executed really well, and people get that - they sell in Harrods already, for example, and the customers there get what they're doing. There are shirts without collars, zips that run at angles, but it's never 'statement' for the sake of it; the real difference comes when you get close up: when you actually put their stuff on, you feel different, special. I just find their clothes sexy. I was thinking about this last night: if I was in a band, I'd probably wear them when I was when on stage. It gives one a certain swagger."
"I really like what William Kroll is doing with Tender, the whole idea of it. Sure, a pair of jeans is a pair of jeans, but I like the fact that his are hand-dyed, they've got brass buttons… He's so obsessed - in a good way. The hand-dyeing means that each pair is slightly different from all the others even though they're raw denim. I know denim is very American and then the Japanese have done something incredible with it since, but to me he is a very English obsessive. His T-shirts have screen prints that could only really come from this country. He's using woad as his blue dye, which is what Boudicca would have used, way before denim existed. Plus, the guy makes soap. Only here would you get someone making soap out of woad dye that he dyes the denim with. The oil comes out of the woad as a side product and they turn that into soap scented with pure vetiver in it. He's doing quite well in Japan because they recognise it as something quite different and distinct from what they do."
Raimund Berthold has been around for a few years now - he graduated from [Central] St Martins in 2005 - but he doesn't get the attention he deserves. When I first came across him, it was only because a friend of mine, who worked for b store, had some piece or other on that I was struck by and asked him about. Berthold always does interesting work and does interesting things with materials - he's just done these great jumpers for autumn/winter that have neoprene, which wetsuits are made from, on half of the sleeves and on the collars. It's not a gimmick, because it gives this really great look and also creates a sort of structure for the garment. Raimund is originally from Austria but, to me, his approach and his materials feel very British, not in a heritage way, but in the punky, futuristic fashion sense. Fashion's meant to be a bit different, isn't it?