Oi Polloi

Interview: Jan and Patrick from Howlin'

Published: Mon May 23 2016

Howlin' is the curious name of a curious company started by Jan and Patrick Olyslager, two brothers from Antwerp (that's Jan on the left with the guns, and Patrick on the right with the missing teeth). In the winter, they make jumpers, and in summer they make t-shirts out of towels. They've also got a penchant for giving their clothes daft names.

I sent them some questions to answer, and like true brothers, they replied back as one single entity.

Read on for chat about jumpers, towels and a genre of music known as 'new beat'.

Maybe a bit of a boring question, but it's one worth asking… what have you lot been up to today?

We are busy working on our next spring/summer collection. Today there are some prototypes in and they look very promising. For spring/summer all our stuff is made in Belgium in a couple of small factories and we've been experimenting a lot with the knitting machines. In the meantime we are preparing everything for winter. 

This coming winter we are also launching our very first junior collection which we are very excited about.

Your family has been making jumpers since the early 80s. How did this come about? Who started Morrison?

In '81 our parents started the label Morrison—a name they found after one of their Scotland trips. At that time Belgian names were not common, Italian and English names were dominating the market. It's only after the famous Antwerp Six this changed. 

During the 80s our parents produced a lot of knitwear like cable knits and fair isles, all made in Scotland, but in 2007 they stopped the label.

In 2008 we had the idea to launch a new label, going back to the roots. We only wanted to do something we were in to; quality knitwear, with a strong focus on local yarns.

We called our label Howlin', which is a Scottish slang for smelly, plus a musical tribute. We immediately started our shop in Antwerp under the name Morrison. In the beginning we started under 'Howlin' by Morrison' but after a couple of seasons we decided to drop the name Morrison and to go on as Howlin'.

Just checked the Oi Polloi site and there it's still Howlin' by Morrison…

Haha, cheers for flagging that up. We've changed that now. What was it like growing up in the knitwear industry? Were you allowed to wear sweatshirts and stuff, or was it strictly jumpers during your childhood?

Yes, we used to wear a lot of knitwear back in the day. Sometimes it was itchy but so far no traumas. Occasionally we were allowed to wear sweaters, for example Best Company was big for a while when we were very young. Ask Nigel…

How do you manage as brothers working together? Do you ever squabble or is it plain sailing?

It's very intense as we are a small team and we multi-task the whole time. There are four in the team and we are aware that it’s not always easy for the other two as we communicate a lot with a sort of sixth dimension brother thing.

Of course we sometimes argue about things, but in general we end up compromising. As far as design and the general direction we want to go with Howlin', I would say it is plain sailing.

How has the world of knitwear changed since the 80s? Has it changed?

It’s changed a lot. Back in those days you had a production unit in every small town in Scotland, but in the 80s a lot of labels moved their production to the east. Only some small companies managed to stay alive. It’s the same with yarn companies. It's a real pity because what's better than buying local?

You recently hit upon making t-shirts out of terry towelling. Who came up with this genius idea? And what else do you do for summer? I imagine it’s a tough time for knitwear. 

Summer is indeed a tougher time for knitwear but you can do some fantastic things with it. About 30% of our summer collection is knitwear. We use 100% premium cotton or linen and mix these into various combinations. There is also some finer merino wool which we use for finer gauge knits.  

In the beginning of Howlin' we only wanted to stay with knitwear but two years ago we found a couple of small factories in Belgium. Together we managed to make some fantastic things and what really makes it special is the fact that we don't buy rolls of jersey but that we can knit the fabric in-house. We found some inspiration in pictures of us wearing towel shorts when we were young and decided to reproduce this fabric and use it a lot in our collection.  

For our made in Belgium pieces we were also heavily inspired by new beat, hence the acid Belgian logo which is on all the care labels.

For those who are not familiar, new beat is an electronic music genre that flourished in Western Europe during the late eighties that started in Belgium. There are many different, ‘mythical’ stories on how this new beat got born, but we like the story of a local (Antwerp) DJ called Fat Ronny who was simply too wasted and played 45 rpm records at 33 rpm and pitched them +8 on his turntable. While disco was the big thing, he played slow or slowed down tracks by artists like The Human League, Fad Gadget, Severed Heads and Gary Numan, and also Max Berlin's track 'Elle et Moi' and created a real cult vibe.

For those who want to know more about New Beat, we highly recommend to see The Sound of Belgium movie, experience this fantastic mix by 2manydj's and read this article on the family behind Antwerp's legendary record store USA import

Over on your website you lot have a long running music section, where you upload all sorts of gems. Can you recommend any albums to us? What bands are you into at the moment?

On our speakers right now is the new Christophe Lemaire compilation, Can't You Hear Me, which is great. Besides of that there are a lot of reissues recently because of the ongoing vinyl hype. I'm a big fan of Nino Nardini and his Stringtronics - Mindbender appearance.

Going back to the knitwear, you lot are from Antwerp, but a lot of your stuff is made in Scotland. How does Scotland compare to Antwerp? Do you go to Scotland much?

Yes, we travel a lot to Scotland to follow up on all sort of things. We rent a car to drive through almost the whole country.

Our factories are mainly in the countryside which is beautiful. People are very warm and friendly. The food however is let’s say… different. 

The swing tag things on your jumpers used to have a Twin Peaks quote on them ("The owls are not what they seem,"). Who’s your favourite Twin Peaks character? What do you think is going to happen in the new series?

Yes in the beginning we had this quote on all our swing cards, it's still a favourite scene!

One of my favourite characters is Bob: great smile, a jeans jacket and above all, a great haircut! I've absolutely no idea what's going to happen in the new series – I hope they can meet up to the expectations.

Your jumpers are also named after all sorts of things… from Miles Davis records to Willo the Wisp. Is there any rhyme or reason to any of this, or do you just name your jumpers after things you like?

Instead of giving boring style numbers to our collection we like to give fun references to them, and a lot of them are musical. We are both record collectors and it’s just a fun way to combine these 2 worlds. Occasionally we get positive remarks on the names, which is nice.

As for this season I must say that the names are quite explicit, normally we make them more hidden—nerdy style. As for your selection, Psycho Killer is named after the Talking Heads track which they open their great Stop Making Sense concert with, and Mr. Fantasy comes from this Traffic song.

Explaining Fons in English would take too much time...

You lot also run a shop selling things like orSlow and Paraboot. What other clothing brands are you into?

As we are doing a lot of tradeshow we discover some nice brands and also the people behind the brand. We like Jungmaven and the 'everybody in a hemp t-shirt by 2020' vision, and Kat & Roger, a couple who runs a small ceramic label on the west coast of the USA.

Okay, final question, I’ve never been to Antwerp. Imagine, if you will, I was staying there for a few days, what would you recommend I do?

It's best to come by train as you arrive in our wonderful train station, a must see. This station in located in the heart of Antwerp so it’s easy to start your trip by foot.

Visit the bakery Goossens—a tiny fourth generation bakery, the chocolate bread is the best.

Enjoy shopping at Dries Van Noten's flagship, not far from our Morrison shop and then go on to Stephan Schneider's small shop. The best vinyl shops are Wally's Groove World and Fat Kat.

Close to the Cathedral there's a small street called De Vlaaikensgang which we recommend to walk through. Have lunch at Native, dinner at Veranda, Le John or a classic falafel at Beni Falafel in the Jewish quarter.

If you want to explore various Belgian beers you can go to De Kulminator. We like to go to De Kat, one of the last great Antwerp bars. 

For good live music you can go to Trix and Het Bos, and at night there is Bagger, a great hangout with good music.

We also recommend a walk through De Voetgangerstunnel to the other side of the river to enjoy the fantastic view of Antwerp, and if you want to discover some stunning Art Deco houses you can go to Cogels-Osylei, a great neighbourhood outside the touristic city centre. 

See the Howlin' stuff here.

Portrait from the Olyslager Archive. Clothes photos by Adam Hindmarch.