Oi Polloi

Interview: Alastair Rae from Albam

Published: Fri Dec 08 2017

Time certainly moves quickly. It may seem like only a few weeks ago people were fretting over the millennium bug, but as we wind up 2017, we’re already two years past the shonky hover-future of Back to the Future 2, and only two years away from the neon nightmare of Blade Runner.

But perhaps the most shocking realisation about the year of 2017 is that it marks the tenth birthday of Albam. Yep, the masters of super-classy, understated design have finally hit double figures.

With the smoky scent of blown out candles still lingering in the air, I talked with co-founder Alastair Rae about the last decade and the quest for classic, well-made clothing.

It’s been ten years since Albam started now hasn’t it? I thought you started in 2006, but on your website it says you’re celebrating it this year.

We started Albam in 2006, but we spent the first year finding our feet. We had this long conversation a couple of years ago about when our ten year anniversary would be, and we decided that really, the start of Albam was when we opened our first shop at Beak Street in Soho.

Before then, we were just a tiny little entity that no one really knew about, but when we opened that shop, things literally changed overnight.

I suppose opening a shop is quite a defined thing - it makes something seem a lot more official. How did Albam come about?

James, who I set Albam up with, and myself were both living in Manchester and had both just graduated from our degrees. He was working for Umbro, and I was working for a leisure company, and to be honest, we were just like everyone else, having that pub conversation about how we could do things better.

And it got to the point where we thought we should try and do something; otherwise we’d be those guys who always talk about doing something and never do. So it was kind of ringing in our ears – this idea of making a product better than other people. And that could have been applied to anything — it wasn’t just clothes, we were thinking about making everything.

We quit our jobs and went back to Nottingham to save any money that we had. We moved back in with our families, and spent 12 months hunkering down, trying to make the product.

What was the initial idea? How was Albam going to be different?

The initial idea was to create a capsule wardrobe that every guy should have — a great white t-shirt, a great piece of knitwear or a great raincoat. We couldn’t find clothes that we liked at that time. We were after things that were simple, and unbranded. It wasn’t about logos or fashion, it was about clothes.

It sounds really naïve saying that, but even now, we don’t see Albam as fashion – it’s just clothes for men.

At that time it was pretty much impossible to find a simple grey sweatshirt or a pair of jeans that didn’t have weird stuff going on.

Yeah, you just couldn’t get that stuff. It got to the point where there was all these people who wanted this stuff, but unless you were buying A.P.C. or Levi’s, there wasn’t much else out there.

Were you into clothes and stuff when you were growing up?

Growing up in Nottingham, there was always that weird thing of being in the middle. I didn’t necessarily have brands I could associate myself with. I think that’s from being in the Midlands – it didn’t have the swagger of certain places.

Liverpool or Manchester or London have always had definite styles people associate with them. Would you say there was ever a ‘Midlands look’?

I don’t think there was really. I can see a uniform that people wear there now, but there’s such a mix now with people going to university bringing in different people and the internet that there’s not really a specific look.

What were you lot looking at for inspiration when you started out?

I guess our references have always been classic menswear – and then trying to make things more contemporary. We might take colours from a classic piece of outdoor clothing, but then put them onto a more contemporary silhouette.

For us it’s never been about dressing up – it’s always been about making things that you can buy and still be happy to wear in five years’ time.

One of the starting points was to develop clothes that were right for the season we were selling them in, and then stuff that should still be relevant a few years down the line. If you buy a pea coat, you should still want to wear that again the following winter.

Some of this stuff might not be in fashion, but guys will always want to wear a checked shirt or a white t-shirt.

Yeah, not many people sit around looking at ‘lookbooks’ all day, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want decent clothes.

I remember when we met one of the guys who made our first t-shirts, a factory manager who was in his mid-60s, he said to us, “The primary thing you need to remember is that clothes need to make the wearer feel better.”

And that’s something we’ve always tried to hang onto — it’s important that these clothes are real and authentic.

This is maybe a bit of a vague question, but how would you define something as ‘real’?  

I think it comes to working with the best materials you can, and working with the right factory who can make that great material into something better. There’s always a right way of doing things. I guess it’s also about being authentic to what we’re trying to do.

There must be things that come along that might work for other people, but might not be right for what you do.

For us, it’s about remembering the framework we’re in – which is classic menswear. It’s not fashion or sportswear. We can be inspired by fashion or sportswear, but it’s still got to come through that filter of classic menswear. And as long as we go back to that, it grounds everything.

I suppose another way you side-step the fashion industry is by selling clothes at the right time for when you need them. On your website you always make sure there are shorts in summer and warm jumpers in winter, as opposed to that thing where shops start filling with shorts in January.

Making clothes that are right for the season has always been one of our central ideas. We don’t need shorts in December when it’s two degrees outside. For the vast majority of the year, everyone wears the same thing. People will wear jeans and a sweatshirt for ten months of the year, so why not have that product in all year round? That’s always been a central ideal, but it’s in no way a revolutionary idea.

Do you think the constant craving for new things is difficult to appease? When you’re making fairly classic, subtle stuff, is it hard to keep people interested when they’re distracted by daft silver trousers and loud slogans?

I think it all balances out. There’ll be that moment in the sun that we miss because we don’t do the silver jeans with the logo on, but for us… it’s built on consistency. We make new items, but I’d like to think they were more considered and thought out, as opposed to us just chasing the new thing.

Going back to the ten year anniversary – how have things changed for what Albam does?

I think around the time we first started, there were other people who developed along the same lines. There’s a lot more menswear now than there was. It’s so much easier to find what you want now – and the internet has probably played a part in that.

The same frustrations we had about not being able to find clothes must have stimulated other people to do their own thing and make really well made menswear. So many UK brands are making really great products.

People are much more informed now too. Guys have knowledge of this stuff now. They want selvedge jeans or loopback sweatshirts.

Why do you think you’re still sat here now talking about Albam, while so many of those late night pub conversation ideas fall away or fail quite early on? What would you put the success down to?

A lot of it is determination. So many things have gone wrong along the way, that it would have been so much easier just to have just stopped pursuing it – but because there’s such a belief from not just me, but the whole team, that the product has a place, we carry on.

It might sound cliché to say this, but you can have the shittest day, but when someone comes into one of our shops, and they leave with a t-shirt they wanted — that interaction makes it all worthwhile.

I think we were lucky that when we started we were of an age where we could take a risk – we didn’t have families. If we’d taken two years out and it hadn’t worked, we would have just gone back to our normal lives. There was also that complete naïveté of being in our early 20s – just thinking, “Why can’t we do it?”

But any time I’ve thought we were on the right track, it was normally the precursor to something going awfully wrong the following day. So, I don’t know – I try not to reflect on it. There’s so much to do, and things to improve on. I don’t really know how you rate success — is it how many t-shirts you sell? The key thing is that we’re still here.

Going back to what you said before, and about how you try to stay within the bracket of 'classic menswear'. Why do you think these ‘classic items’ are classic items?

Why is a well made white t-shirt still as in demand as always? Well, as a group, us men aren’t the most imaginative bunch. You’ve got a checked shirt on and I’m wearing a navy sweater. People will always want a white t-shirt, because it makes them look good. It’s a blank canvas.

There’s certain building blocks with men’s clothing that just don’t change. It could be a great pair of shoes, or some Red Wings, or a pair of Converse.

What do you think the classic items from 2017 will be, when people look back in fifty years?

Aren’t the ones from now just from the 1990s?

I suppose no one’s walking around with five armed shirts.

I guess it could be new fabrication. I was reading a thing about how fabric mills are being challenged to reduce plastic levels, and to find a new man-made fabric. But even then, a t-shirt will be a t-shirt. You’re not going to wear a nylon t-shirt under your shirt, are you?

Or perhaps a Gore-Tex t-shirt for those hot, rainy days?

Exactly. But when you think about it, a lot of the things we’re talking about came about for a reason. Large raincoats were large because you had loads of layers underneath, and jackets were bright colours so that you could be found if you fell into water.

The fashion industry will talk about things like ‘oversized fit’, as if it’s revolutionary, whereas it’s not really revolutionary, it’s just taking things from another time. When people say they’re referencing the 80s, really they’re also referencing what went before then, because the designers in the 80s were looking at things from 20 years before.

Do you think it’s good not to take stuff too seriously with things like this? You lot seem to do a good job of doing your own thing and avoiding the nonsense.

You’ve got to remember that it’s only clothes. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter. We’re talking about how great a white t-shirt is, or how important a pair of jeans is, but they’re not important really — it’s not like they’re nurses.

Haha, it’s like when people describe a trainer as ‘important’.

There’s something about trainers that turns some people into the Hulk. It’s the same with jazz and jazz aficionados. Why do some people click into that, whilst the vast majority of people don’t?

Yeah, I always wonder what it is about certain people that makes them obsessed with these very specific things, and why some people just have no interests at all.

And then there’s the people who only buy the same thing. Like Steve Jobs only ever wearing a roll neck.

When it came to summer did he wear a short sleeve roll neck? Definately something to think about. Alright, to wrap this up, have you got any wise words? What would you say to someone who is at the same stage you lot were ten years ago?

Wise words? What have you got to lose?

See the Albam stuff here.