Oi Polloi

A 'Young' Mod's Forgotten Notebook

Published: Wed Jul 12 2017

Last week we got an e-mail out the blue from an old customer called Douglas. Whilst leafing through some old notebooks, he’d found an article he’d written about our shop back in 2003 that never saw the light of day.

The article talked about Nigel’s love of trainers, the clashes between mods and casuals in the mid-80s and how the two warring subcultures maybe weren’t so different after all.

Basically, it was a top read, so we’ve decided to share it. It may seem a little self-congratulatory for us to publish an article about ourselves, but the link between mods and casuals is rarely discussed... and the photos he sent through were amazing.

So here you go, Oi Polloi as seen from the pages of a mod’s forgotten notebook…

“I don’t care what any scouser says, the best trainers were always found in Manchester”

These were some of the first words that Nigel Lawson, proprietor of Oi Polloi, ever said to me—after I stumbled upon their Tib Street premises on a return trip back to the city.

This was late 2002 and the shop had been open for around four months. Nigel was referring to the fact that the adidas factory had always been in South Manchester, giving access to pairs of one offs and samples unavailable anywhere else. I had been au fait with the factory’s location having grown up relatively near, and I could it recall it being a source of Gazelles at the turn of the eighties and nineties. My mate had a pass to get in but I never bothered to tag along.

At the back of the store was a section of vintage sneakers for sale, including a very handsome French denim blue pair that were in a glass case that had probably prompted this enjoyable discussion in the first place.

I cannot remember if I had shared my true ‘mod kid’ colours that day, but Nigel also mentioned that his favourite era in men’s fashion was circa 1967—a time when pastel shades were sported alongside brighter, bolder colours, both worn in the same outfit without shame. It was a look pulled off beautifully.

Clothes spied on that first trip? A Fjallraven G1000 Greenland Jacket—the shape, the pockets, the history of the brand, it was the real deal.

This depth of knowledge and detail in my first conversation left me very, very intrigued and fascinated. It had been a much touted theory in the press in the early eighties that casuals were another branch of the same tree, but my own personal experience on this was far more cynical.

Going into town in 1984 and 1985 generally involved running a weekly gauntlet, getting chased down Market Street by crews of lads with dubious top perms, jumbo cords, and the regulation issue kagoul. To be fair, our little parka cladded mob was probably fair game for a chase.

This was the general route each week. Firstly, we’d rendezvous at Papa’s Cafe on Newton Street (which later became the Roadhouse), then head down to Affleck’s. Affleck’s was simply incredible at that time—a great source for suede cardigans and original suits—we’d pick up a few 7” records of quality music and have a razz on the pinball machines. Then it was over to the Underground Market for a squiz at more records. The Arndale Centre was off limits—a big no no because of casuals.

Along the way a few more like minded waifs and strays would be picked up and then it was time to head down to the mod-friendly, underage-friendly, alcohol-free Saturday afternoon sessions at Cloud Nine on Cross Street. It’s no wonder we got chased marching down the centre of Market Street like that.

My next visit to Manchester to pick up the Fjallraven jacket concluded with another fine discussion, this time on the merits of the polo shirt. We debated placket widths and collar lengths, two buttons or three. There was a shared admiration for Lacoste and the split hem that’s longer at the back of a Ralph Lauren.

Ralph Lauren could be where our own look started to crossover and entwine. I must stress how expensive a Ralph Lauren polo (or if you were feeling particularly flush, an RL shirt) cost in 1989, but we dug the stuff. I can remember a now famous UK illustrator being shocked—outraged even—to see football fans wear it too as we drove past Bolton FC football ground. For Lacoste, one could blame the Style Council and Mr Weller for giving that the green light.

Clothes spied on that second trip? Brown leather Jacoform 336 shoes. That was it right there—a summation of what this shop was trying to do. The quiet confidence and belief needed to utilise and put forward items designed for something else. Wallabees from Padmore and Barnes had pretty much dried up, with only a few pairs surfacing across town earlier in the year. So again I was sold, the shape was innocuous enough not to get a second glance from most on how different they were.

The cap was very much being doffed to these heavyweight magpie collectors, but at the same time I was left scratching my head, questioning my derogatory stereotype created back in 1985. These guys in this shop had deeper knowledge than any clothes obsessed mod head that I knew. Was there a direct linage from mod kid to casual? I went down the Hideaway Club at the Waldorf, off Piccadilly— the finest vintage R&B club in the isles—to speak to some of the old boys about it.

Mike, one of the deejays said, “It’s true, if you take the look that the kids were wearing when the Twisted Wheel closed in 1971, it was basically casual. It was V-neck knitwear, polo shirts, slacks or Sta-Prest.”

It’s also well documented folk lore that Phil Saxe was the innovator that sourced and sold semi-flared Wranglers from his stall in the Arndale market to meet the demands of a group of kids developing their own distinctive look. Phil was a bone-a-fide North Manchester Jewish mod kid and had well earned his stripes, including dropping 45’s at the tail end of the Twisted Wheel club.

Having a clear eye for such goings on, he felt an affinity to this new identity that was taking shape. Phil also took Happy Mondays under his wing as their first manager. So there’s a direct line there from mod kid to casual. Whether Phil offered any guidance on the look possibly remains unasked.

You must be starting to get the pattern now, I’d return to Manchester to pick up an item seen on the previous trip and before long I was dressed from head to toe in clothes bought solely from Oi Polloi. I was enjoying clobber again and each visit would conclude with a good in depth chin wag about a particular subject, be it Fair Isle sweaters, shirts, denim, golf jackets or cords. Before too long I could start to see that the shop was dressing the city. 

June 2017:

To put this into context, the above notes were found again recently in an old note book. It was an essay I was shaping up to give to modculture.com to help spread the word on 70 Tib Street. I think a draft was sent but was never received and because of a change of jobs, I’d handed back the laptop with the original typed up outline. So basically, the moment was lost for the essay and before long Oi Polloi was being discussed on the forum anyway, so my intended job had been done.

Reading these words in the notebook again has made me reflect about the pressure on mod kids to turn casual, especially in places closer to the city like Moston or Failsworth. It was real daily pressure, but there was none of that for our lot. I lived in the last suburb on the south side before the green fields took over, in a village that used to be called Bullock Smithy.

I can remember a crew of lads from Eccles who were really smart and really sussed. They were at least ten strong, including Dillon, the son of Piccadilly Radio DJ Mike Sweeney. Their numbers went down to two overnight. I remember bumping into Dillon in town, “Yep, everyone’s turned casual mate.”

To keep things simple on the subculture labels, one could easily say that from 1964 to 1984, it’s blended from mod kid to suedehead to soul boy to Perry boy to casual. The trouser lengths got longer as the sideburns got shorter and the beautiful thing is that it’s forever evolving. It never lasts long and it’s at its most creative when its underground and nameless. My own look has been glacial for years but it’s still a good thing to watch it change and I dig what’s going on just now.

But I’m digressing. Before too long I left the country for France. Upon hearing of the Oi Polloi adidas Ardwick, I was seriously proud, and wondered back to our first conversation, and if they would ever have dreamed they would one day bring out their own adidas trainer? It’s a well worthy reward for their non-compromising efforts.

As Nigel said at the beginning, the best trainers were always found in Manchester.

Happy 15th Birthday Oi Polloi.