Steve Sanderson (he's the one on the left) and Nigel Lawson (the one on the right) started Oi Polloi back in 2002 with the idea of selling the sort of clothes that they couldn’t find anywhere else in Manchester — things like vintage trainers, dry denim jeans and Scandinavian outdoor jackets.
13 years later they’ve just thrown the doors open to a new shop in Soho. To celebrate this momentous occasion, I sat down with them to talk shops, the internet and the difference between London and Manchester.
To set the scene, Nigel is leafing through a stack of archive Levi’s cords whilst Steve is scouring the information superhighway for obscure brands no one else has heard of. Amidst all this they still manage to answer my questions with lightning fast precision.
I suppose I may as well get this question out of the way early — why have you opened a shop in London?
Nigel: Because we’ve got nothing else to do.
Steve: I think London is a global city. A lot of people we work with have opened shops down there but there’s no one doing a mix, like our take on men’s clothes.
Nigel: There was a realisation. Not long after we first opened in Manchester we’d get groups of guys who would get the train from London to come and have a look at the shop. It kept happening and we were like, “People are coming all the way to Manchester to shop?” The initial idea was that if people were coming up from London, two and a half hours on the train, then they maybe needed a shop down there.
Why did you choose Soho?
Nigel: It’s the old middle of London. We were trying to find a central location — going round and round in circles until the circle got smaller. You’ve got Covent Garden on one side, you’ve got Oxford Street across the top and Regent Street down the left hand side. It’s still a bit grimy but it’s super central.
Steve: The unit is perfect as well. It’s a very similar layout to the first shop we had. The shop we’ve got is a ground floor and a basement which is what we had in our first shop on Tib Street, but it’s about twice the size of our original store. We didn’t want to go and open up a massive shop, we just wanted to put a little footprint in London.
How do you think Soho compares to where the shop is in now Manchester? Is it a fairly similar place?
Steve: The thing with Soho is that it’s got so much history of culture and fashion. For music and going out it’s always had stuff going on. It’s got all that cultural kind of stuff that we’re into. And then there’s the seedy element with all the porn shops, just like where we came from on Tib Street. So opening up in Soho, even though it’s been gentrified and is all very nice now, has still got a little edge to it.
Inside the new shop - "a laid back, friendly environment for men who like to dress up."
Growing up around Manchester, when did you first start going to London? What was it like back then?
Nigel: I went when I was in college in Liverpool, this must have been in 88, and I remember buying a long sleeve, striped Ralph polo shirt. All the shops were full of European stuff — they had Henri Lloyd at the same time.
Steve: I used to go down there in the late 80s and there was just a lot more choice. There was a pretty big vintage thing going on. There was a lot of Americana kind of stuff. Those kinds of shops don’t really exist anymore. Kings Road was a big thing with shops like American Classics. You didn’t really have that kind of thing outside of London. There was a little bit of it that started opening up around Manchester in Affleck’s, but I think that came from what was going on in London.
How was it different to Manchester?
Nigel: It was choice — the reason to go to London was the choice. You’d read about something or hear about something — and maybe a shop in Manchester would have a little bit of something, but in London there’d be a whole shop full of it.
Is it still like this?
Nigel: All those memories of those shops selling jeans-wear, sports-wear or whatever it is — all those things I remembered, they sort of became a bit tarnished. There was no interesting boutiques, no cultural reference points… London in the late 90s seemed to fall behind the game after Duffer lost it. From late 80s to late 90s, Duffer ruled it all, it was a proper experience.
In Manchester this sort of thing had disappeared as well, and that was sort of the reason we started our first shop. So we could find those things we couldn’t find anymore.
Steve: In the 60s all the good shops were around Soho and Carnaby Street — they’d kind of nailed it. It’s the same with the Savile Row and all that, there were certain tailors who had it too. But I think that thing kind of died down. Now it’s just big flagship type stores like any other city you might go to.
This photo probably doesn't really need a caption - it's the front of the new shop. Nice flowers Steve.
How important are real shops when everyone is on the internet?
Steve: They’re super important. Clothing is about trying it on and seeing what it looks like, what it feels like and what it makes you feel like. That’s the stuff that’s kind of difficult to put across online. I know our product is really good, but when you see it in the flesh it has a different effect on you. What we try and do with an online and a physical store is do the best job that we can in each realm.
It’s kind of like the difference between analogue and digital. I find it quite amusing when people go on about ‘bricks and mortar stores’ — that’s just a real shop. The physical shop, the magazines, the vinyl, they’ve never gone away — they’re always good and they always will be.
Nigel: We have both aspects. If you’re sat in L.A. and you’ve heard of Oi Polloi you can see it and you can buy it, but the presence of an actual physical shop is a whole experience — there’s music, you can touch, you can feel — you can pick up a vibe off different things that you couldn’t on a screen. You can come in the shop and try on the whole outfit, you can get the shoes or the socks and you can soak up the culture of what we do. It’s harking back to that memory of piling through a stack of t-shirts and finding something — it’s a different experience.
Loads of trainers on a wall.
What shops do you like?
Nigel: When we first opened in Manchester we aspired to two shops we remembered in the UK — Aspecto around ’89 and Duffer in the same period.
Steve: And Hideout.
Nigel: And John Simons, who’s still going in London. And now there’s Beams in Tokyo. We went to Tokyo expecting to be gobsmacked, and yeah, we sure enough were, but not to the extent we expected to be. The only one that really made you go, “this is amazing,” was Beams in Harijuku.
There was a vintage watch shop next to the lift, a Dallas style luxury womenswear department, a cool t-shirt shop round the back, Beams Plus was like an old military supply place out the front, there was a regular Beams shop and then next to that there was Beams Boy, which was like Oi Polloi type clothes for girls. This was actually the best shop out of all of them. Those are the stores we aspire to.
This is maybe a bit of a weird question, but what do you think it is that makes a good shop?
Steve: the best ones are where what they do hangs together really well – it makes sense. Some stores these days try to be all things to all people, but I think that if you do a specific thing well then you get a look of your own. It’s like someone who knows how to dress — you can give people a big list of stuff, but some people don’t know what they’re doing with it.
Clothes are alright things, but they only look good when someone wears them — they were meant to be worn, they’ve got to look good. A lot of places miss the point of that. They just buy product because it’s a good jacket or whatever, but that’s only part of the story, there’s a bigger part. Films or music or cultural movements — all that kind of stuff goes into it. If it’s just clothes then it’s just clothes, it’s a bit boring really.
It’s the mixture of stuff that makes it interesting. Whether its outdoor hunting gear, mixed with really classic, simple 60s bomber jackets mixed with whatever… sandals and socks? It doesn’t matter. It’s using all these various things in a way that doesn’t look too contrived. It should just look dead natural and dead easy. It’s laid back, not that fancy dress stuff — things that are super extreme. The extremes are kind of hidden, the extremes are in other parts of your interests and other parts of your character.
What do you mean with that Steve? What extreme things have you got going on?
Steve: People are obsessed with things aren’t they? But obsession can manifest itself in loads of different ways and I think you can be obsessed with clothes but you don’t want to look like you’re obsessed with clothes.
Nigel: It’s got to be nonchalant, like you don’t care. They always said about The Rolling Stones that they had really, really, really expensive clothes, but they were all really shabby. I thought that sounds pretty fucking good. Even mods who had some crazy, crazy gear on, they looked like they weren’t bothered.
Do you think there’s a lot of that now though? People in costumes straight out the box?
Steve: It’s not even that, they just look extreme. I don’t want to point fingers at things, but it’s these extreme beards and 50s haircuts… it’s just really extreme. I haven’t got a problem with beards, I just have a problem with this thing in menswear where you look like you live in the woods.
But people are constantly pointing that at you aren’t they?
Steve: It’s annoying. I’ve had a beard for God knows how long now, but there’s that thing where you think, “Everyone’s got a beard now, should I get rid of it?”
Nigel: You don’t want to go too much with the stream.
Steve: I’ve got that contrary way where you just want to go the other way. It’s an aversion.
Nigel: If you put that guy in that outfit; the beard, the checked shirt, the jeans and you might go, “That’s that look.” But if you look what we’re doing now, it’s got nothing to do with it. We still sell checked shirts and some people here have got beards, but it’s not the same. We don’t try to go against it, you just think, “I’ve seen that so many times.” You still want to buy in that shirt or the nice jeans, but it’s how it’s put together.
A small denim cap resting casually on a table.
So how would you describe Oi Polloi to people who hadn’t heard of it then? People maybe think it is about that item of clothing, or that look or whatever, but what is it to you?
Nigel: It’s a look that’s maybe built up over a few different periods. We went to Japan and found some amazing clothes. We look back into the 50s and 60s in America and there’s bits that we like there. We look at what the suede-heads were wearing in 68-70 and there’s bits we like there. And then you’ve got Birkenstocks and Mephisto…
Steve: If someone didn’t know what Oi Polloi was, I’d say it was a men’s clothes shop that sells classic stuff and sports casual and work-wear from all over the world. These were things that weren’t open to us a few years ago.
Nigel: When we were growing up you wouldn’t have found Lacoste, Levi’s, adidas, Nike and Barbour in the same shop. You just wouldn’t. It’s stuff we’ve always worn together, but back then you were either a lad’s casual shop or a sport’s shop or a hunting shop. We sort of moulded them together into a shop that we would shop in.
Steve: You’ll look at images of maybe movie stars and things like that you’ll notice them wearing a particular jacket, and what you’ll notice is that loads of them are wearing the same jacket. And it’s maybe a jacket that no one really sells. So then you start wondering, what’s this jacket? And then you find out what it is and you do a bit of research and you find it. You’re like, “Whoa, that’s amazing.” For us, Japanese labels have become very much that thing, things like OrSlow or Sassafras — Japanese gardening wear. There’s so much of it out there. These are labels that a lot of people haven’t heard of, but if you look at it the clothes fit within that military/sport functional thing… they tick all them boxes. That’s exactly where our shit is.
Right, we’ve talked for ages now. Last question — is there anywhere else you’d like to open a shop?
Steve: We don’t want to get too cocky. Let’s just focus on this London shop first...