Oi Polloi

An Interview with Fraser from Y.M.C.

Published: Fri Feb 09 2018

Founded by Fraser Moss and Jimmy Collins back in 1995, You Must Create (or Y.M.C. to give it its snappier title), has been a firm Oi Polloi favourite for donkey’s years.

It was one of the first things we sold in our old Tib Street shop back in 2002, and although a fair bit has changed in the world since then, their trademark blend of stripped-back design, high-end fabrics and left-field cultural references is still as flavoursome as ever. 

Fraser is the man who designs the stuff. Curious to hear the yarn behind the garms, I made the perilous voyage down to Brighton to hassle him with some questions…

Starting from the beginning, where did you grow up? 

Newport in South Wales. I grew up in that period when youth culture was really important, and it was all led by music. I was too young for punk, but I was old enough to recognise it. At that time it was more that post-punk thing — we could see what was happening up in Manchester.

There were only two magazines you could buy which involved style – i-D and The Face. And you couldn’t even get those in Wales. I had to subscribe to them like some saddo, getting them delivered to my mum’s house. You were limited on the knowledge you could gain.

Was there a regional style there?

Yeah, particularly when the casuals came along. Every football club had its own look. Some might have been more influential than others, so the other teams would copy them.

Newport might have nicked this from the north, but we really went for that gentleman farmer look — a deerstalker hat, a wax jacket, some plus four cords and a pair of Forest Hills. Seeing those guys on the terraces was bonkers.

Do you think that regional thing still exists now?

There’s less tribalism. You can be anything you want today, but that doesn’t mean to say you’re part of something. But these guys lived for the clobber and the weekend — it was different. When you’re in that tribal gang, that’s all you know. You’re kind of blinkered.

I imagine you’d have to be pretty bold to dress like that back then.

Can you imagine? Newport is a working class town. You’ve got the steelworks, the mines and the docks. I used to dress up like an absolute clown back in the 80s. I’d wear these opulent Nehru suits, I had my hair long, I had a walking stick and a fur coat. I’d be pissed out of my head, rolling into curry houses at three in the morning and going to sit with a load of rugby boys. You can imagine the abuse I got.

Do you think that adds to the appeal? You were putting yourself on the line.

Definitely. It’s edgier. Today, I can walk around how I want and no one is going to bat an eyelid, but walk around Newport in the 80s like that and you’re putting your life at risk.

I suppose it’s like tattoos. In the 60s having a tattoo would be a pretty raw thing, but now, it seems like everyone has one. 

There’s no edge to most things now. Everything is accepted. From antiques to records, everyone knows what’s what. Everyone’s an expert and nothing shocks anyone. You can stream ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ on the internet and then say you’re a Joy Division fan, but it’s only on a basic level, the passion has gone.

I’m an obsessive vinyl guy, but I always have been. When I was young it was only vinyl, and when CDs came along, I didn’t reject them, I just couldn’t afford a CD player. You play a record, you don’t put it on your wall. It’s not a trophy.

I collect records because I want the music. I go to record fairs, and there’s always dirty old fat blokes in overcoats looking for a Japanese import Madonna picture disk — it’s Madonna, what does it matter?

Yeah, it's mad. Changing subject a bit, how did you end up working with clothes? Was it something you were always into?

I was working in a sports warehouse. I was working there and thinking, “I’ve got to get out of here.” So I’d get the coach up to London, and in those days it was all about the Kings Road. I used to go up and down there trying to get a job.

I ended up getting a job at Vivienne Westwood, at World’s End. It was just after all the Seditionaries stuff, so it was like a dream getting to work for her. But then I got sacked because I got pissed up and fell asleep on the counter — someone came in and robbed half the shop.

So then I started up Professor Head, which was dealing in old school trainers.

Were many people into old trainers then? That must have been a relatively new thing at that time.

It was just us and the Japanese. We’d go to the library and get the Yellow Pages for a district of America, then sit there all afternoon ringing them up to see if they had anything. Then we’d get on a plane, get to America, hire a van and then go around Boston or somewhere.

The shit we found was unbelievable. You'd go into the basement and they’d have full stacks of Jordan 1s and the Wally Waffles. And they’d be selling them for two or three dollars a pair.

We had this little office in Soho and a stall in Camden Market, and we’d just sell to the Japanese. It was good while it lasted. I wish I’d taken photos, but no one had cameras — no one cared.

How long did you do this for?

Until our addictions collapsed the business. By 94 it was going tits up. In 95 we started Y.M.C.

What was the thing that set Y.M.C. off?

I was really sick of the fact that the only fashion that was available at the time was big Italian labels, hip-hop or skate. I’m not against any of that, but it was either American or European stuff, and I just felt there was a need for understated, minimal clothing that people could create their own style with.

At that time, people didn’t have quality simple clothing — it wasn’t available.

Where does the name come from? It’s a quote or something isn’t it?

Yeah, that’s Raymond Loewy, who did the Shell logo and the Coca-Cola logo. He was one of the first graphic guys who felt he could put his hand to everything. He’d design a logo, he would do architecture and then he’d do a can of soup. He was multi-tasking.

He did this lecture, and he said, “The thing is, you must create.” And we just nabbed that. At that time it was all very well me being anti-this and anti-that, but I had to do something.

But to be honest, apart from the ideas, our first collection was shit — the fabric would be the wrong way around, or one sleeve would be longer than the other. We were learning as we were going.

How basic was it back then? How many people were involved?

It was just me and Jimmy.

How did you meet him?

I met him because he had the same German agent as our trainer shop, Professor Head. We were both disillusioned with what we were doing, so we set up Y.M.C.

When we first started it, I was homeless. I’d been dumped by my girlfriend, and I was living on my friend’s floor. And then we got this little office, so I just lived there. It didn’t even have a shower; there was just a tap and a sink. Slowly we built it up so I could live like a normal person, but I remember for a month I was living on Oxo cubes. It was good though, I was a 28 inch waist.

You’ve mentioned a few times about having an edge. How important is that?

It’s everything to me. I have this argument with people all the time. I’ll say, “Taylor Swift is shit,” and they’ll say, “Yeah, but she’s successful.” But she’s still shit. People in the modern world can’t differentiate success with talent. And that’s why it’s important to have an edge.

What about for Y.M.C. — is it tough to strike a balance between what you want to do and what you know will sell?

Yeah, when we first started it was all about creativity, and ultimately it got to the stage where it was too out there. We were doing turquoise leather tracksuits in the late 90s. We weren’t doing four armed jumpers and hooded underpants, but it was still pretty out there. You’ve got to be creative, but it’s a business, it’s not a folly.

Is it hard not to be swept away with trends and stuff though?

It is, and I don’t want to be disrespectful to anyone who lives in a small town, but if you’re living in a small town, and you’re craving the latest thing, then you’ve only got the internet to tell you what’s happening. But when I was young, we had nothing, so we had to create it ourselves. 

When I design things, I tend not to look at other people’s stuff. I’m not on Instagram and I don’t have a Facebook account – I’m not totally unaware to what’s going on, but things are as pure as I can make them.

Obviously you’re mad on records and bands and all that. How does that feed into Y.M.C.? People talk about influences, but I always want to know how they actually affect things. 

When we first started, I was listening to Stereolab and a lot of library and soundtrack music. It was that retro-futurism thing — that idea of looking to the past and twisting it to create something for the future has always been relevant. You can’t create a 100% new thing.

And it’s the same with clothes — everything we do has a twist on something that has come before — but we’ll never take anything literally.

What do you mean by that?

Well, we wouldn’t just say, “We’re making a hippy collection.” You can use elements from the past, but you’ve got to make it relevant and modern — clothes still have to be wearable.

What are your thoughts on that remake angle — people who make a pair of jeans exactly how they were in the 1960s or whatever?

I understand why that’s done, but it’s just not for me. I want to watch Peaky Blinders, but I don’t want to dress like them.

A lot of the stuff you reference is military or workwear. Why do you think men always come back to these functional things?

Men like there being a reason for something. We just love all that. It’s that idea of the working man. It’s all fantasy I mean look at me I look like some Vietnam veteran.

Haha, like Lieutenant Dan?

Yeah, I just need the wheelchair. We all play these roles  you can’t take it too seriously.

I suppose you lot aren’t making clothes for the military, but that functional thing is still important.

Yeah, it doesn’t have to be ballistic, and it doesn’t have to be fireproof. I just think of my mates when they go to watch the football I’ve got to make sure that if they wear one of our coats, it’ll either keep them warm, or protect them from the rain.

Is it hard to find things to reference? There are only so many jacket shapes out there.

If you’ve spent the last 20 years immersing yourself in it, there aren’t really any surprises anymore. So when you do find something new, it’s a good feeling. A new shape or a shoe no one has seen before.

It’s interesting how something can seem outrageous to someone, and then within a couple of years, it’s something they can’t live without. Believe it or not, when we first made a V-neck cardigan maybe 20 years ago, people were like, “What the fuck is that?” But eventually, it registered.

It’s like the cropped trouser. We’ve always done a short-legged trouser. I don’t know why, it’s just something we’ve always done. In Wales we say you need to put jam on your shoes and invite your trousers down for tea. But now you look around and everyone is wearing ankle flapping trousers. It becomes the norm.

I remember when I first moved down here twelve years, I had a quiff. And I used to get people shouting, “Elvis!” out of their car windows. 12 year ago, a quiff was seen as outrageous.

Yeah, things move pretty fast. How have things changed for Y.M.C. since it first started?

Computers, the internet, social media it’s changed everything. It doesn’t matter how much I moan about it, but this stuff isn’t going away. When we started out, people were still photocopying and using fax machines.

On a deeper level, how have things changed? Are you still trying to do the same thing with Y.M.C. as you were back in 1995?

Yeah, we’ve kind of always kept true to our beliefs. Basically, we’ve got the same ethics now as we did when we started twenty odd years ago.

What would you say those ethics are?

Well, it all goes back to the name… You Must Create. All we want to do is create nice pieces of clothing that they customer will want to buy and wear how they want. It’s all about the product. It’s important that it’s not fickle or trend led. I’d like to think someone could have bought a pair of trousers off us ten years ago and still wear them today.

We’ve rattled on for quite a while now. Before we wrap this up, are there any words of wisdom you’d like to add?

Nah, after rabbiting on for this long, I haven’t got anything left to say. I’ve probably contradicted myself a hundred times.

See the new Y.M.C. stuff here