A theme Breaks has explored a few times now over the years is the state of UK streetwear. Usually we discuss it from our own point of view, we’ve all had mates who’ve either wanted to or have started brands and we now live in an age where every city it seems has a small t-shirt brand with an Instagram account. They get so far, give up, and fade out. There are obviously notable exceptions, but for many they don’t get much further than selling to their friends in college.
In the midst of all this, there are the OGs, the guys that are in for the long haul, whether through owning their own brand or store or another cog in the Streetwear wheel. Andy is one of these guys.
There are two reasons I wanted to talk to Andy. Firstly, as a store owner with over a decade of experience, he has a unique perspective of the state of UK streetwear, being pitched to all the time by brands and seeing the landscape as a whole – including what sells and what doesn’t.
Secondly, as a brand owner, having started KNOWN with his business partner Des a few years ago, I was interested to see how that was going and where he felt the brand fit within the industry in the UK.
To conduct the interview I travelled out to Swindon where Andy’s store – the Forum – is based. It’s hard to describe the Forum, but think of it as an oasis in the sand. No street culture for miles around, but you arrive at it’s doors and it has a better brand selection that most of its peers. He showed me round and we got bedded into a very frank chat about all of the above.
What sorts of difficulties are there in running a store – The Forum – in today’s climate?
That’s a good question. There are lots of elements to it. Obviously online — online would be the major one. Competing with online, when online is competing with each other. You know — a customer nowadays is so savvy, he knows what’s coming out, he knows when it’s getting dropped, he knows what pack it is, he knows what’s available. So, it’s the same problem that we have — so even when they come in, it’s almost like I’m trying to sell them something that, they know what’s coming out, they know where to get it. So I would say the biggest one would be online.
So how important is it, in your point of view, having a store like that in Swindon, like, a store that serves the community?
Absolutely. Just to go back to where you said about, ” You haven’t got an online store, why haven’t you?”, so obviously, it’s coming. Bear in mind we’re in a world now where three years ago when social media and stores attached themselves to social media and it’s so important now to give them [customers] a feed. I get a couple of comments, like ,”I’m just struggling to find your online store…”, “[Well] we’re not online”, and it would be an acceptable excuse whereas now, people are like, “You’re not online – what are you doing?! Why not?” So we know what we’ve got to do and obviously we — the store’s going good, the store’s always evolving, we never sit back and we always go hard, and then obviously with the brand now that’s constantly evolving too, so we know what we’ve got to do, but we can’t — juggling three balls is a bit… isn’t… it’s not quite right.
How difficult is product and brand balances in the store and how do you tackle that process? Do you find that as a shop owner it is actually, the way you buy stuff, because when I was younger I would go to certain stores and they would shape my taste, do you feel like you have the same responsibility to do so for Swindon? So, people are drawn in with the lower tier stuff or something that’s a bit more generally available and they go, “you know what?’ and they wander in there and you show them something from Staple(?) or Alife and you educate them in that process, you know. Do you feel like you have the responsibility to do so?
Yeah absolutely, even more so with the local community because we’re online from the social media perspective, we’ve got people coming from as far as Birmingham to visit us, even coming from Wales. And I think even the more so that is, is that the buying plan is more niche and being a bit more independent. Yeah we get a massive scope of people. If you were comparing it to someone that is that brand savvy, then they wouldn’t want to go to Swindon to buy something anyway. You know, they want to buy it from the States. With the level we’re at and the product we’re selling, it’s universal right across the board. If you go to Stussy New York it will be exactly the same product that we are delivering from our store. If you go into London — you know, that’s the level that we should be at.
Do you have a lot of repeat customers? People who trust The Forum and your judgment, basically?
Absolutely, and when I say we’re ‘hands-on’, you know we are really — we’re like a family, 100%, on that shop floor 7 days a week, every hour and the team that I’ve got with me is — one of the lads working for us has been there 2 years and he’s still the ‘new kid’.
That’s good. Do you think owning a store and knowing how that side of things work gives you an advantage when it comes to KNOWN?
I think so. I think we can almost tap into a buyer’s mentality and when you’re approaching stores you can relate to them 10 times more, you know it’s not an alien world. We know how seasons work, we know when drops work, we know when doing a pre-summer drop and dropping it in November — a store’s going to be crying out for stock. You know stuff like that, so we can relate to that. I think as far as customers goes; it’s not as niche. It’s such a wide audience. More so from a wholesale and industry perspective, as opposed to the customer.
So let’s talk about KNOWN for a bit. Why did you start KNOWN?
To be fair it’s more — there are three of us involved in it. I definitely wasn’t the brainchild from the start, it was more Des and Rich, the other partners in KNOWN. It was always Des’s dream to own a brand. I came along and all three of us worked at it hard together and it’s kind of evolved from there really. I think the seed was there to start with. I would probably say more from a quality perspective, as opposed from an art perspective — Actually I might take that back — Des is quality. Rich is art. I’m vision. The big picture and you know the three of us working together, obviously you know it’s only been two years, and you know we’re massively ahead of where we thought we were going to be.
So what sets KNOWN apart from other UK brands, what’s your USP? Say you had 10 seconds with somebody in a lift, trying to tell him or her about the brand – what would you say?
Quality, honest streetwear.
Culturally, where does KNOWN sit?
It’s very hard to kind of put it in — I’m from a skate background, I skated for ten years. I would put skateboards up around my house, if I drive down the road and see a set of steps I’ll always imagine to myself popping down it! From an art perspective, Rich is there and the three of us met and the rest is KNOWN. I wouldn’t want to — pigeon it as something. The beautiful thing about the brand and the way it’s going, is that — I don’t like putting any old dross on a t-shirt because I think it’s going to sell. It’s very crucial because some brands want it different, but I think to be able to put the name of a brand — to put your brand on a t-shirt and for it to sell. It’s massive. It’s not a girl with her tits out [laughs] on a t-shirt and it’s going to sell. We’re never going to do that kind of stuff, so we’re creating product that we want to create and it’s selling.
How did the D Double E collection come about and also — that was really good timing with him because of one of the biggest summers of big Grime tunes in the last five years with Meeridian Dan and Skepta and everyone else. Was that planned or was he always somebody you wanted to work with and it fit with the brand, then it was just the right time to do it and it was coincidence?
It wasn’t a fluke, it was planned and it was people that we’ve met, we’ve always tried to do certain things on a UK level, so when we were very, very first born we did a shoot with some High Focus DJ’s — High Focus artists — Jam Baxter and Ed Scissortongue. That was when we were born. That then turned the head of Rich London, and we talked and then as that relationship has grown, Rich have kind of really, not honed, in but we kind of talked about keeping it in the UK and it’s the perfect bridge. He was — obviously off the back of working with Plan B — so we worked with lots of artists in the UK music industry and I think from a Hip Hop — because we’ve done the Hip Hop thing, the grime aspect it’s something that we never honed in on and it was something I was massively interested in. Obviously had the connects, they introduced it, he loved the brand, he loved what we did and the rest is KNOWN.
Do you do Cut & Sew, rugby tops and stuff?
Yes. It’s something that is hard work and we’ve tried to dabble with it before, we’ve done some Oxfords. I think when we were in season 2 we were trying to keep trying to accelerate to a certain level, that was way out of our comfort zone and we thought is going to go flat out. Unfortunately, it didn’t bite. So that didn’t get followed up, which kind of left us a little bit wounded, so drop 3…no, drop 4 – we’ve introduced Oxfords back in and rugby tops. I think from a brand perspective — I think it takes a couple of years for a brand to develop and become established, so to say, and then you can introduce those kind of new bits.
I had a conversation with an unnamed brand recently that said they didn’t really care about the fit of t-shirts – they’re more bothered about the graphic, which I think is quite interesting. Where you stand how important is it for all those things to work together and how much effort do you guys put into the fit?
I can’t stress enough that from day one it was all about fit and the production level and the quality. That was easily 50/50. Hence, it started — I’m meticulous, my business partner is meticulous times ten, but that attention to detail which has been given to the brand which is made KNOWN that go-to t-shirt in your wardrobe and I don’t mean to sound too cheesy, but I mean that you, you know, people that have those t-shirts that you can chuck them in the wash and do whatever — and I know that’s really old of me to say, but I think that from a repeat customer, from the comments that we have back from the stores that I speak to now that I’m heading up sales, I’ve spoke to 15 stores only last week and the feedback they were giving about the quality was — I’ve never had it before, like, people come in asking, “when’s it coming?” You know people are waiting for the next drop so they can get their new t-shirt that they can just rock and rock and rock and rock…
Just want to talk about UK streetwear for a bit. Because what I’m interested about you is, you have this really unique perspective where you have a store and you sell some brands, right? You also have a brand yourself that is UK based – I’m also really interested in how — streetwear media in the UK and stores handle like new British brands and who gets supported and who doesn’t. Like, indcsn is a great example, right? UK based, a lot of stores stock them and they seem to have gained a lot of attraction in that, where other brands haven’t. From your point of view, what’s right and wrong with UK streetwear at the moment? Do you get approached a lot by UK brands?
I get approached on a weekly basis.
What are they doing wrong? Why are they not being stocked at The Forum?
It’s not that they’re doing anything wrong, I will acknowledge them, I will — God forbid — and I don’t want to be the sucker for it, but follow them on social media. Because the way you follow someone on social media, you can follow their timeline, follow their journey. But basically for me, from that angle, I will monitor it – if it’s a brand I’ve never heard of before – if it’s a brand that I have heard of then obviously you’re on chapter 4 before you’ve, you know, before you’ve even opened the book – but you kind of, you will follow their journey and I will always say to people, “I’ll just watch”. For me to buy a brand in to a store, I need to respect the brand. It’s not a one season, in and out, you know. We’ve got such a big client base, or a loyal client base, that they will trust what I’m telling them. So that will come down to the fact that I need to trust the brand that I sell. I fit’s a new brand telling me that they’re delivering this package of [gesticulates] then I will have to, I will look at that and then make up my mind before we buy it, I won’t listen to anybody else.
With that in mind, what’s right and wrong with UK streetwear? What have you seen that’s going well, that brands that are doing well, what have you seen that people are doing wrong or — do you know what I mean?
I think, to be honest, for the brands that I, kind of, know — I don’t think that many people are going that hard and really — I think the thing is with me, if I do something, I’m not scared of putting it out there, but a lot of people do [are] in this day and age. They’re scared of getting knocked back, they’re scared of getting someone’s opinion that’s going to really hurt them. So, what they don’t do, they don’t lay it out, they don’t say, “fuckin’ let’s have it!” And I think where some people, you know, they kind of just, you know, maybe if they’re a little bit too cool – it doesn’t end up underneath my nose. It will stay in whatever kind of niche that they’re at, but people that are doing it — you’ve got people like Grind and you’ve got people like indcsn who you know they’ve created their own identity for themselves. Like, I love what they do.
Do you think some brands lack having a coherent identity?
Well it’s very hard isn’t it, because again, going back to social media — prime example: a young lad, 15-years-old will come into the shop and I’ll be like, “check out Staple Pigeon” and he’ll be like, “what’s that?”, “Oh Staple Pigeon, it’s a brand from New York, you know…” and he’ll be like, “alright, thanks” then he’ll fuck off.
Then he’ll come back 24 hours later and decide himself whether he’s going to buy it or not. Because he has gone home and he has Googled it. That’s the day and age that we’re in now. What I’m saying is they will listen to what I’m saying, that’s fair enough, but I think brands nowadays they have to have roots, they have to have a vibe, they have to have an attachment.
Are there any trends or some aspects of UK streetwear that annoy you?
[Laughs] I hate the word trend, I hate the word fashion, I hate… I’m not a hater. It’d not in my job description to hate, I love everything and I’m a positive talker, but we’re not a catwalk show. We go to a brand, we buy what we like —
No I mean like, looking outward, you follow these people on social media, you know what’s happening in our culture at any one time — from your point of view are there any parts out there that really piss you off or you wish would go away?
I offended someone yesterday, I was chatting to someone and he said something about long tees and he said, “KNOWN tees come up a little bit longer than normal, it’s more like a HUF tee, a nice bit of length”, he’s like, “yeah, but I was going to go down and buy a skater tee from Topman…” I was like ” how the fuck have they invented that world?”
Topman do a skater tee?
A long tee with a zip down the side, it’s called ‘skater fit’
For fucksake. I didn’t realise that.
I’ve got no idea how that has come about o how that world has been invaded. I’m from an era where if you were into something, you were into it and in your own little world, whereas nowadays there is no — it’s just one big mashup. So everybody is into everything which is kind off — it’s got a real good plus side, but the negative side is that people that are passionate about the little worlds that they’re in, go, “why the fuck?”. You know, if you said to me that someone’s carrying around a skateboard as a fashion accessory fifteen years ago, I’d be like, “you’re fuckin’ crazy, skateboarding isn’t even that cool!” Now skateboarding’s cool, people are just carrying around boards, penny boards that they can’t even fuckin’ get on, they go too quick.
What is next for you guys? What have you got up your sleeves?
We just dropped pre-spring and we’ve got some really interesting cut and sew pieces coming out for next year and a couple of collabs up my sleeve, again related to the sneaker side of things. I think the key thing with collabs, it’s a really good way of carving identity for yourself without putting it into a collection and, fingers crossed, people think they like it.
Collaboration is like I say a way of carving out your identity, so you go “I’m into this”, so I’m going to do a collaborations with him, I’m into this — you know like this guys work so in homage we’re going to do a collaboration you know and that can be down to anything. It can be down to — I was chatting with a couple of Scandinavian brands — I don’t know the first thing about the fit of a beautiful shirt. I mean, I do, but I don’t have the connection, they love what we do I like what they do, what perfect merge. So yeah, I think, for me we’re going to stick down the clean road that we’re going down, which is good, but from a collaboration perspective I’m going to really turn it up notch this year.
Words & Photos: Tom Kirkby
Transcription & Copy Edit: Katie Thirks