Oi Polloi

An Interview with Saeed from Story mfg.

Published: Tue Mar 03 2020

Started in 2013 by the husband-and-wife duo of Saeed and Katy Al-Rubeyi, Story mfg. is a clothing company that does things it’s own way.

Whilst you could maybe draw similarities with Tender’s traditional dying techniques, or perhaps Satta’s earthy tones, Story MFG most definitely treads its own path—making laid-back, modern garb from natural materials.

Combining a love of vintage outdoor gear with a penchant for psychedelic imagery and a hefty helping of natural dyes (like bark and jackfruit, to name just a few), this lot somehow manage to make clothing that looks both familiar and futuristic at the same time.

Keen to find out more, I talked to co-founder Saeed over the phone as he made his way home from London one cold February evening…

Where are you heading now then? Do you say you lived in Brighton?

Yeah, I live in Brighton. The business is there as well. Well, that makes it sound grand, it’s basically just the living room of our house. It’s not like we’ve got big offices or anything.

I suppose it’s a good contrast to London.

Oh… I hate it in London. I didn’t realise how much I hated it until I left. I used to always say how much I loved London… but I hate it. It’s so busy—it feels like walking through honey. I think it’s just age really. The city used to have a lot more to offer when I was young. Now I just want to go for a coffee in peace, and not have to wait for a table.

You’ve got to put up with a lot to live in a place like that. Going back a bit, how did Story MFG start?

We never started out to do the kind of stuff we’re doing now. We didn’t think we’d do collections, or sell to stores or anything like that, we just wanted to make some jeans that were made with natural materials, and were naturally dyed. It seemed like a cool project. In the end we crowd-sourced the first run. I think we had to see 16 pairs of jeans to make it work—to get the first 100 made. And then we started doing other items… we made a jacket, a shirt and a hat.

What year was this?

We started the company in 2013—that’s when we ‘founded’ it with the government, but nothing was made until 2014. And then it was in 2015 that we first started selling to a store.

What was the reason for wanting to use natural dyes and natural materials? Even from the start it seems you lot wanted to do stuff differently.

There were quite a few reasons, but I don’t think we necessarily recognised them at the time. We wanted to do something that was connected to craft—keeping craft practices alive. And we wanted to do something that was natural—something leaning towards a more eco-conscious, sustainable future—something that could be a point of activism for me and Katy to get involved in.

All of those causes are all well and good, but they’re social causes, so I feel like having a company with those values that people can buy into is a really powerful form of activism. It feels much more powerful than when I was holding a placard up in an anti-war march… which did nothing.

It’s doing something rather than just talking about it.

Yeah, we just wanted to do something, and be a part of it.

It sounds like a definite reaction against how a lot of clothing companies work. Was there anything specific that spurred you on to go the opposite way?

Yeah, well, perhaps not the opposite, but it felt like there was a lot of ‘almost’ stuff. There would be a company that would do natural dye stuff, but it looked really ‘hippy’… or just bad. There was a constellation of companies that were making all the right sounds, but there wasn’t one voice that me or Katy connected with… so we decided to make it ourselves. Back then I couldn’t find the jeans I wanted to wear… or find a jacket that I was interested in—so we had to make them.

How did you go from having these ideas to then making the clothes?

From the beginning until now, we’ve been working with the same dye-house. But everything else around it has shifted and changed. The first time we made something, we made it in a factory here in the UK, and then we moved to a small-scale tailor, and then we moved to this guy in Thailand who makes work-wear, and then for the last few seasons we’ve been doing 99% of stuff in India.

There’s a plot of land with a couple of buildings on it. The dying happens there, the sewing happens there, the embroidery happens there, and the knitting and crocheting happens next door. There are a few things like block-printing and some weaving, which happen elsewhere in India (or in one case, Thailand), but the majority of it comes out of this tiny atelier in a forest in South-East India.

Having everything in one place sounds like a good way of doing things. Can you talk us through how one of your pieces is made? Take one of those Polite Pullovers—what’s the process of making one of those?

Which colour?

Let’s go with the bark one.

It’s a really long process. We take organic cotton, in that case it’s this fat corduroy, and that goes through this ten day treatment process, with boiling water and salt to get it ready to be dyed. Separately we boil this bark which comes from this tree called babul to extract the dye. The fabric is then dyed—this takes several days of dying and then drying—and then it is put together about seven footsteps away by a team of tailors.

Meanwhile, next door, yarns which are dyed different colours—I think in that case it’s jack-fruit, madder and indigo—are given to these ladies who crochet the details across the chest. And then it all comes together at the atelier and is finished with the embroidery by hand.

We didn’t think we’d do collections, or sell to stores or anything like that, we just wanted to make some jeans that were made with natural materials, and were naturally dyed. It seemed like a cool project. 

So it’s a full on craft project isn’t it?

Yeah, it really is. I think if you were take a stopwatch to that item, it’d probably take between 20 and 30 days to make from start to finish. There’s a lot of waiting around. It’s like making beer. A lot of the process happens in that in-between time.

I suppose with something like that there must be only so many you can make. It must be fairly limited.

Yeah, for sure. It’s a craft—your granny can only make you one jumper a year. And it’s the same with us. If we want to grow, we have to keep hiring people, and that’s one of the joys of running the brand, but we’re also really slow to do that, as we don’t want to bring loads of people in and then let them down. For wholesale we have to enforce maximums. Most brands have minimums a shop will have to buy, but we’ve got maximums.

How do these naturally dyed items then work once someone’s wearing them?

It’s a natural product, so it’s going to age. Like a pair of jeans, it’s soften, it’ll change colour, it’s going to grow and morph, and that’s the nice thing about it. It’s designed to age, it’s designed to look a let better a few years from now, then it does when it’s new.

Where do you get your ideas for the shapes from? It looks like there’s a lot of vintage outdoor stuff in there.

A lot old work-wear, and a lot of old outdoor gear. I say old, a lot of it isn’t that old—for outdoors stuff it’s the 80s and 90s, whilst the work-wear is 40s or 50s. Anything that has a connection with movement and the outdoors is really interesting to us. A lot of outdoor gear has really interesting approaches to shape.

There’s quite a strong affinity between outdoor gear and ‘the outdoors’… and our clothes are made from the outdoors—they’re made from plants—so they seem like quite good bedfellows.

Were you always into outdoor gear? What did you like when you were growing up?

During my teenage years, from when I was 11 until I was 15, I lived in the Middle East. And everyone there was really into ACG, but it was all fake. So the kind of stuff I’m into is like bootlegs of outdoor gear… basically. And then Katy is into all the stuff that she experienced when she was growing up in and around Newcastle. And it all kind of comes together with Story.

It seems like that early, formative stuff is hard to shake off. Do you think that stuff always sticks with you?

Yeah, I think it does for all creatives. And that’s when there’s some soul to a brand, when someone does something that is meaningful to them—it carries those stories. That’s why something like ASOS or Topshop has no soul, because they’re just making a thing to sell. The designer at Topshop isn’t thinking, “I’m making this spaghetti top because when I was 15 I wanted it and I couldn’t afford it, and it was a turning point for me…” There’s none of that—but there’s a lot of it in other places.

What about your clothes? Are there any interesting stories behind them?

More than I can say. Everything we make has some kind of connection. We’ve got this print which we do call ’Trip Print’, which we do a different version of every season, and that’s based on these t-shirts that me and Katy collect. People weren’t that into it when we first started doing it, but it’s now one of our best selling things. I don’t think people were really into the iconography we were using at first. People were like, “Why have you put mushrooms on stuff?” And now every brand and its dog is doing tie-dye and mushrooms.

Is that irritating? Seeing a thing that means something to you being rinsed?

I don’t know. I don’t want to gate-keep mushrooms.

I suppose you didn’t invent them.

Yeah. Everything has been done in some way.

You lot do some pretty out there stuff, but can something ever be too wild when it comes to design?

Oh yeah, all the time. There’s a camo from last season, and every time I show it to someone they’re like, “Ooh, that’s a bit loud.” What usually happens—what always happens—is that we’ll make something that people won’t connect with, and then three years later, that’s the thing that everybody’s into. There was a jacket with palm trees on that we made a couple of years ago that was very poorly ordered, and then this last season every store wanted it in.

Everything we make has some kind of connection.

You do a lot of work with artists. How does that come about?

There’s a few artists who are into the same thing as me—that 60s and 70s psychedelic stuff—so we started working with them. The t-shirts we make with them we just sell through our website as we not only don’t make money on them… but we often lose money on them. But that’s just another thing we do because we want to do something craft based, and because we like it.

What about those embroidered jackets you make? They look like they take a lot of work.

There are a couple of instances where we do machine embroidery, like on very small logos, but otherwise, it’s done by hand. So for that one, we worked with an artist called Will Gaynor who did some paintings for us, and then Katy hand embroidered the paintings onto the garment. And then in two or three weeks we’ll take it to India, and the ladies who do our embroidery will learn how to do it on the production pieces.

I imagine there must some much easier ways to do all this.

Yeah, there are way easier ways, but it’d cut out all the other stuff. You could go to Sainsbury’s and get a tin of Stella, and every can is going to taste the same. Or you could go to a place that stocks craft beer, and the beer will be more expensive, and sometimes it’ll taste worse, but sometimes it’ll be absolutely delicious. It’s just a different experience of the same trip. We’re just more into the craft-based happenstance of things—if we wanted to be like Stella, we would have started a brand where everything was much more standard.

Even things that might not appear to not have any overt craft in them, like t-shirts… we make them from scratch. We buy cotton, we get it knitted to our spec, and then we get it hand screen-printed. And the screen-prints are all done by artists. So there’s a lot of craft there, even in places where it might not seem like there’s room for it.

How much of this mentality fades into the rest of your life?

I mean, we try, but we’re not perfect. If we ate as good as we made clothes, we’d be so healthy.

With the way you make your clothing, does that put you under scrutiny a bit? It seems that if someone tries to do something in an ethical manner, it instantly puts them under fire.

Absolutely. Sustainability as a culture can be toxic—people are constantly trying to test each other’s purity, but nobody is perfect. You do open yourself up to criticism when you say you’re doing something that’s good. There are a lot of small companies doing sustainable practices, constantly criticising each other, whilst Coca-Cola just goes on doing the same shit it has always been doing. It’s not helpful—there must just be some kind of primal, human need to do it.

It’s a very strange thing. Which brands around now do a good job?

That’s a really good question - I don’t know. There are brands that I like the look of, but then I don’t think they behave particularly well, and then there’s ones that do really cool things, but I don’t like the actual stuff they make.

I suppose if you were fully into other brands, you probably wouldn’t have started your own.

Everything we wear is ours, but not just because we like it, but because we’re skint. The clothes I wear are generally fucked up samples that we couldn’t do anything with.

What are those suede slip-on shoes you always wear? I’ve never seen those before.

They’re made by Merrell. They don’t have any cool factor, but I love those shoes. They’ve got so many models that are like old ACG. They’re ugly, but everyone gets past the ugliness.

Changing subject slightly, who does what at Story MFG? How do you split it between you and Katy?

She’ll do technical drawings and CADs, and communicate with the atelier, whilst I’ll do more of the customer facing side of it—speaking to customers and the artists, arranging shoots and things like that. We’re pretty evenly split, but there are things that I can’t do, and things that she can’t do.

You said before a lot of it is run out of your housedo you get much of a break from work?

Yeah, we do stop. Up until a year ago, we were working up until bedtime, but I had a problem with it, so now we try to stop at 6. We do have set boundaries, but it’s also really nice. I think a lot of people imagine working with their partner to be a really stressful thing, and it is stressful sometimes, but it’s okay, we like it. We started the brand right at the beginning of our relationship, so it became part of our dynamic.

I suppose I’ve pecked your head for a while now. To round this off, have you got any words of wisdom you’d like to share?

I’m afraid not—I think any words of wisdom would just haunt me. I’d say just to be nice to people, it doesn’t cost anything to be nice.

Have a look at the clothes in action here.