Universal Works, and its don dada David Keyte, need no introduction. They’ve been a fixture since the early days of Oi Polloi, thanks to their unceasing commitment to well-made, highly-wearable clobber and unfussy approach to design. So when we jolted awake in the middle of the night and realised we’d be turning twenty in 2022, who else would we turn to make a celebratory collection of clothing? There was absolutely no contest.
With all this commemorative guff swirling around the ether, I virtually collared David for a nostalgic pow-wow about Uni Works and Oi Polloi’s intertwined histories, bold garments and the enduring influence of the 80s…
How’re you doing? You feeling better?
Before Paris Fashion Week, as it’s laughingly called, I had really bad hay fever and felt my head was stuffed with a pillow, and two weeks later I still feel the same. In that time, I’ve been to Paris, had Covid, gotten over it, and I’ve still got the same head filled with bloody cotton wool!
For two days I definitely had shit Covid, but apart from this slight deafness and bunged up nose, which is the hay fever, I feel fine.
Good to hear. Suppose we should talk about clothes for a bit – when were the seeds for this collaboration first planted?
Certainly over a year ago, in preparation for your twentieth anniversary. It had probably been on Steve and Nige’s minds for a while, because it’s such a significant point in the business’ life. You know, for a shop that was started in relatively humble settings – not that Steve and Nige are ever that humble – they’re a shining example of that trademark Manchester confidence.
Haha, what do you mean?
People from the North have this amazing working-class confidence, because coming from these post-industrial cities is something to be proud of. It’s the same in Liverpool. Not that it has to be about class, or being Northern, or whatever, but these types of people are always so confident. ‘I come from Manchester, best city in the world!’ and you think ‘Is it?’, but he’s saying it so confidently, so maybe it is!
There’s certainly a strong case to be made.
And Oi Polloi is part of that lineage I think. Steve and Nige always wanted to make this great shop, and they did, and sometimes you just need an excuse to celebrate. Twenty years is something special, isn’t it? And to still be relevant and a market-leader in many respects, those things matter. When I’m in Paris or wherever, brands are still hoping and praying and trying to be sold in Oi Polloi. It’s still a shop that people talk about, a shop people want to be a part of. Because it’s got attitude. It’s got a voice. And so many places don’t. They might have a lot of product, and they might have a lot of money behind them; they don’t always have a voice. I think the thing that attracted me to be a shopper at Oi Polloi was because they had attitude and they had a look that was theirs. Whatever they bought in, you felt like you were buying into part of Oi Polloi.
For me, one of the most striking things about Oi Polloi, and what set it apart from everyone else, was its colour palette.
So probably a year or so ago they would have been thinking about the anniversary. After surviving the two years of hell we’ve endured, I was on the phone to Steve about Oi Polloi approaching twenty years, and he said, ‘let’s celebrate’. I wouldn’t have thought twice about collaborating on this, and didn’t think twice. ‘Tell me what you want to do, I wanna be involved’. Oi Polloi has bought every single collection of ours since the first one, and they’re a fundamental reason why we exist.
How did you first stumble across Oi Polloi?
My partner is from Rochdale, a lovely part of Greater Manchester, and her parents still live there, so Manchester is a place I’ve always been very familiar with. I just knew Oi Polloi as the place that sold cool shit – I didn’t know Steve or Nigel until I started working with Albam in 2008. The first time I met the two I was struck by a) how knowledgeable they were and b) how long they could talk for. But I always felt like I was learning something. Even though this was in the early days of Oi Polloi, I thought ‘there’s is so much potential for this shop and the way they think’.
Did this inspire the latest collaboration?
Definitely. For me, one of the most striking things about Oi Polloi, and what set it apart from everyone else, was its colour palette. When we first started working on this, I wanted to do a garment that was dyed twenty shades, because colour is what Oi Polloi is to me. Between us we realised how dangerous that was; the amount I’d be taking on as a producer would be insane. So, we toned it down to just the colours of the Oi Polloi logo. With that as our base, Steve and Nige chose some of their favourite styles from us, and we offered them all the fabrics that they liked – corduroy is obviously very Oi Polloi, and seersucker is something they’ve recently embraced very enthusiastically. Whenever we do collaborations, I want them to be collaborative. So, it’s our styles, in the Oi Polloi colours, in fabrics we all love. And I think the results are very good indeed.
Most of us get up in the morning and put a pair of blue trousers on or a pair of jeans and a t-shirt because we’re all so busy, but that doesn’t mean you should only make blue trousers or jeans or t-shirts.
I was going to ask, who’s idea was the full seersucker suit? It’s pretty bold.
Nigel. He’s very good at thinking outside of the box when it comes to fabrics. In fact, he’s pushed me over the years to styles in different fabrics where I might not have thought about it. There are several styles in our collection that have come about because of conversations I’ve had with Nigel. I always try and follow his knowledge.
And then there’s necessity. You’ll have X amount of one fabric you need to use up, and we’re not Saville Row, we’re not bespoke, we don’t make single garments, so we make sure we get the most out of what we get in. That’s not to say we want to make thousands of something. You want it to be achievable, but you want it to be real. From a Universal Works point of view, that’s what we’re about. Genuine, honest and real.
I’m glad we’ve done it though. The all-over ‘suit’ of one fabric is very much a thing right now and in those crazy colours, it looks brilliant.
It definitely pushes the boat out.
Most of us get up in the morning and put a pair of blue trousers on or a pair of jeans and a t-shirt because we’re all so busy, but that doesn’t mean you should only make blue trousers or jeans or t-shirts. From a business point of view, playing it safe, especially when you’ve got so much shit going on in the world, is entirely the wrong thing to do. I think what Oi Polloi is doing is the right thing. You should be showing off crazy colours in your photoshoots. I think you take your customer with you when you show a bit of bravery.
You’re saying you should never stop trying to push things forward, no matter how bonkers?
Exactly. I mean, let’s not even get started on the deerstalker. Trying to get someone to make a deerstalker – who even makes deerstalkers anymore? – is mad enough, but then making them in seven outrageous colours? It’s a feat of… persistence, if nothing else.
You’re thinking ‘who’s going to buy a fucking pink deerstalker?’, but actually, when you see it, you’re like ‘I want a pink deerstalker’.
Considering Universal Works and Oi Polloi have been so tightly intertwined for so long, when you work together, is there a risk of it becoming second nature? Or do you always approach it with fresh eyes?
You should approach everything in life with fresh eyes really. But it is hard – we all know each other very well. But I think the mutual respect between Universal Works and Oi Polloi helps things along. Steve and Nige are genuine people. So, whenever they approach me to do something, I always feel excited, because I think they’re going to ask me to do something pretty insane or pretty commercial that I hadn’t thought about. Which is why Oi Polloi works as a shop. And on our end, we want to stay true and loyal to what we stand for and what we want to put out. I can’t think of anyone else we work with who challenges us as much, every time we work together. Like for example, the deerstalker. We talked for hours and hours on whether or not it should have earflaps. And we still don’t know! But that kind of challenge, you’re always going to get from Steve and Nige. And I find that exciting, every time. Of course, there’s only so many hours in the days, so there’s only so long you can talk about earflaps, however, you always know there’s going to be something a bit left-of-field. And that’s what makes the whole place feel interesting. I always get that feeling when we work together.
Speaking of the deerstalkers, there’s a definite 80s flavour about this stuff. Was this intentional?
Haha, I suppose its hard for the three of us not to reference the 80s. I do my absolute best to only ever look forward. Because if you get too wrapped up in retro ideas, you can become retro. And I want to be contemporary. But those points of reference are never going to go away, because we’re all products of the 80s. And we wanted to recreate the radical feeling of the 80s. The kids coming out of Moss Side wearing a deerstalker with a tracksuit – I mean, he probably had it under his coat until he got past the hard kids round the corner – created an incredible fashion moment. Those kids have always been the ones who dress up, the ones who spend money on Stone Island jackets and whatnot, because it was what we could control. I don’t know. Maybe it just said something. Maybe we wanted to make a statement about intent, or success. That’s the main reason why that era is inspiring. The attitude.
That being said, you couldn’t put this stuff in the 80s. It’s just the essence of that idea. Shapes have changed, silhouettes have changed, ideas have changed, and the circumstances have changed. But the spirit behind it hasn’t; we’ve just tweaked it for the modern age. I don’t know if Steve and Nige will see it that way. If we were all together, they might disagree with me. But I still see what they do as very contemporary. Take the seersucker Road Shirt. Sure, it’s 80s inspired, but did I ever see anything like that in the 80s? Certainly not.
Winding things down, is there any particular bit from the collection you want to highlight?
I always have a hard time answering this type of question, because I do all of it, so I love all of it. And the entire collection sits so well together. It’s fun too, which is a real breath of fresh air, considering there’s so much… not fun in the world right now. But on a personal level, the pink fatigue jacket is very much my thing. And… I mean, maybe not on me, but… a pink deerstalker is pretty special, isn’t it?
See the entire collection below.