Oi Polloi

Interview: David Keyte — Universal Works Main-Man

Published: Tue Aug 14 2018

This interview was originally published a year or so ago, but seeing as our first Autumn delivery of Universal Works has just landed, now seemed like a decent time to revisit it.

Whether it’s the latest and greatest trainers that you definitely need to have, or mystical fabrics that promise to improve your life beyond comprehension, the madcap world of clothing is rife with daft gimmicks trying to catch your attention and prise open your wallet.

But if you look past all the nonsense, there are a few people trying to do the right thing — quietly working away making decent, well-made clothes that won’t go out of favour in two weeks. One such fighter of the proverbial good fight is David Keyte — the man behind Nottingham’s Universal Works. 

Universal Works is something that’s been sold here at Oi Polloi for a fair while now, and whilst it’s definitely moved on a bit since the early days, the heart has remained firmly in the same place — it’s still sharp, good looking stuff that you could wear down your local pub without feeling like a plonker.

O.P. boss-men Steve and Nigel are big fans, and recently sat down with David to add a few of their own design details to some classic Universal Works garments — nothing mental, but the results are pretty good.

With all this currently boiling on the stove, now seemed like a good time to collar David for a bit of a chin-wag. I intercepted him and his right hand man, Sam, in a Manchester café one Wednesday morning as they were on their way to Bolton. Here’s a much edited version of a very long conversation about clothes, growing up and the joys of working down a mine…

How did this all start? When did you get ‘into clothes’, if you know what I mean?

I was about 11 or 12 and my mother bought me some shorts that I was meant to go to school in. But there wasn’t any other kid in shorts, so I wasn’t wearing them. And I decided then that I’d never let anyone buy me clothing. I persuaded my parents to give me the money they spent on clothes, and let me buy them.

I realised I was pretty obsessed at that age. I don’t think it was something I thought I could work in as a job, as those jobs didn’t exist where I grew up, but I knew I was obsessed.

Where abouts did you grow up?

I was born in a place called Tamworth — a little town just outside of Birmingham.

Is that where the Tamworth pig comes from?

Yeah it does have a pig. There’s a castle too. It was once the capital of Britain, in the 12th century. I think of myself of a Brummie, but I was never right in the city centre.

Was being into clothes in a small town a bit of a weird thing back then?

I came from a very ordinary, working class family, and people wore clothes to work that they took off as soon as they finished. They were builders and bricklayers, and my dad was a baker. We didn’t have a lot of money for clothes, but people still liked to dress up at the weekend. It was okay to be interested in looking good, because that’s why you earned money – to go out on the Saturday to drink and have a good time.

"We were obsessive about the height of our waistbands on our trousers or the widths of our pants, and other people did look at us like we were a bit weird."

It was okay to like a nice suit or a nice jacket. It was the end of the 70s and the early 80s and punk had happened and there were new romantics — blokes were wearing make-up. But even in the 50s people were dressing as rockers or teddy boys. They were really into their clothes, and they were just working class kids getting dressed up.

You see documentaries about punk and it looks like this massive thing, but was it like that everywhere, or was it just a few people in London? How much of this was happening on the outskirts of Birmingham?

As a teenager I was into Northern Soul. That was about music and about dancing, and hugely about the clothes you wore. And that was a very Northern thing. And I thought everyone was doing it, only because my mates were doing it. We were obsessive about the height of our waistbands on our trousers or the widths of our pants, and other people did look at us like we were a bit weird.

I remember buying a pair of quite skinny 501 jeans and thinking I was a punk when I was about 15 and people pointed at me in the street. I looked weird to them. At that time I was in a relatively small town in the Midlands, and people were doing the things that people were doing in London.

Where do you think these things come from? What do you think dictates what clothes people wear when listening to a certain type of music?

There’s someone who starts the trend. The guy putting the rave on, or the DJ. Movements start and you never really know how or why. Usually it’s a bunch of disaffected kids who want to do something different. It was the same with punk, and it was the same with rave. Why does every kid who is into hip hop wear the same thing? It’s because they want to be part of something. It gives you an identity. I think men are quite obsessive. Maybe we just like collecting things?

Where do you think that obsessive thing comes from?

When I wanted those 501s, it wasn’t a pair of jeans I wanted, it was 501s. It’s about fitting in, and wanting to be a part of something. Maybe we need something to be obsessed about? We’re part of the cog of the massive corporate world, so maybe we need something that’s more than the boring job you do?

Yeah, definitely. Think we went off on a bit of a tangent then. How did your clothes obsession become a job?

I did a lot of jobs. I left school at 16 with no qualifications, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And I did a lot of things for the next two or three years, trying to find something vaguely interesting.

Didn’t you used to be a miner?

I was, for almost a year I was underground. It was horrible. My job was to drive a conveyor belt which carried the coal from the coal face. There was about an hour’s worth of shovelling coal every day, and five hours of not doing very much, in somewhere that could collapse at any minute. I saw several people carried out with life threatening injuries.

It was a fairly unpleasant place to be. You’re a long way underground, in total darkness, shovelling coal. But it gave a lot of people like me who didn’t have a qualification a way to make half decent money, and spend it on clothes. In fact, having that job enabled me to get a job in clothing.

How come?

Because every weekend I would drive to Manchester or Nottingham or Birmingham or Leeds, and I would buy clothes. Because I was going to these shops and spending enough money that they noticed me as a customer, they eventually asked me if I wanted a job. It was because I had money to spend that I found my way into that business.

Do you think having a job like that makes you appreciate things a bit more?

As far as I know, I’m the luckiest man in the world. I do what I want to do, and no one tells me to do something else. I appreciate every single hour of that. Having spent time working for a lot of other people, doing jobs like shovelling coal back onto a conveyor belt… this is a doddle. I get very stressed, but I still appreciate every single day of it, because I could be down a mineshaft.

"There was about an hour’s worth of shovelling coal every day, and five hours of not doing very much, in somewhere that could collapse at any minute. I saw several people carried out with life threatening injuries."

So what shop were you working in?

I worked in a shop in Derby called Knockabout. Pretty shit name isn’t it? There was a shop called Limey’s in Derby which sold Paul Smith and Stone Island, and this was the poor man’s version. I then got a job working for Paul Smith, running his original shop in Nottingham.

When was this?

Maybe 84? I’m very bad with years. It’s because I can’t count very well. I’m not very good at looking backwards, because I’m not interested. The past is done, I can’t change it.

Haha, well you’ve done a good job of telling us your life story so far. How does the past come into what you do with Universal Works?

It’s hugely about appreciating the past, but we’re not trying to repeat it. Our bestselling jacket is based on something my dad wore at work. I called it the Bakers Jacket, because he was a baker. It’s not actually what he wore; it’s just something with a bunch of pockets that has a nice fit. It’s appreciating what it was, but trying to do something today.

Yeah, it’s not dress up. What do you think about people dressing like they’re 1940s explorers?

I went to a swanky bar in London on the weekend that had been there since the 30s, and there were a bunch of people there who were dressed like they were from the 30s or 40s, and do you know what? They looked absolutely amazing. If anyone dresses up and makes an effort, then good luck to them — I love it.

But I don’t want to dress like that, and I don’t want to make clothes like that. Not because I think they’re wrong, it just doesn’t interest me. If you want to dress like you’re a Himalayan mountain climber from 1952, then what’s the point, because you’re not. Things have moved on. We’ve changed and developed new things. You can’t uninvent them. I do need a pocket to fit my fat iPhone because phones have got bigger. I want to acknowledge that and move with it, because I think it’s a more interesting way to design, and a more interesting way to live.

"Someone shouted at me on the way home last week because I was wearing a hat."

Maybe skipping forward a bit now, but you started Universal Works in 2008 didn’t you? I remember back then it was really hard just to get simple, no nonsense stuff like plain sweatshirts or button down shirts.

Yeah, when I was at Paul Smith we did a collection in the early 90s that was based on blue collar workwear, and nobody bought it. But by 2008 or 2009, very simple shirts, work jackets and regular pants were what people wanted. For me, it was the same thing I’d done 15 years before, but in a different silhouette. The things that guys wanted to buy had come back to what I wanted to give them. Really, I was designing my own wardrobe.

What were the first things you made?

Well, I’m still wearing the first jacket we did. I did a meeting last week, and the thing that struck me most was that if I put the first collection into the room amongst the new collection, it would all fit in. We’ve made tweaks and the fit is better, but it would all fit.

So the same core stuff has stayed the same?

Yeah, exactly. I still think, “Would I wear it.” If I wouldn’t wear it, I don’t want it in the line. I can’t possibly wear everything we make, but it’s still about whether it’s relevant to my life. I have a picture in my head of a friend of mine who I go for a beer with, and would he wear it? He was always the best dressed guy in the gang, but he’s a builder — he doesn’t fuck about — he doesn’t drink cappuccinos. He’s an ordinary bloke who likes a beer and going out, and he likes to dress nicely. I want to look him in the eye.

You want to get on a bus and not feel like a wacko.

Yeah, but you know what? Something you might wear in a nightclub in Spain might not be the same thing you wear on the bus to Oldham. We’re complex characters. I really hope I can make something you might want to wear for your holiday in Spain, and something for your bus ride home, and make you feel comfortable in both. But they are quite different situations. I think that’s perfectly okay.

I wear a hat most days and people think I’m weird for that. Someone shouted at me on the way home last week because I was wearing a hat.

Haha. I think that’s good in a way. It keeps people in check. I don’t think that sort of thing happens as much as it used to. Do you think people are a bit softer now?

I grew up in a time when you definitely didn’t want to be like your parents, and now people grow up and their parents are their mates. That’s become normal. I wanted to be a rebel. I wanted to spray-paint walls and kick things. How do you rebel if you're mates with your parents?

I can’t help but feeling that there’s less radical thought. We’ve all accepted that there’s only one game in town — get a job and buy stuff. We’re not very socially minded anymore. We don’t want to help anyone else, it’s just all about yourself, and it’s all about stuff.

"I wanted to be a rebel. I wanted to spraypaint walls and kick things. How do you rebel if you're mates with your parents?"

We have created a world of very cheap clothing. As a proportion of our wealth, we spend less on clothing than our grandparents did. We expect clothing to be cheap, and almost throwaway.

Hopefully the people who are into Universal Works want their clothes to last a little bit longer. And I’m glad that things from my first collection would fit into my 17th collection, and I can still wear the same sweater I made 8 years ago. It’s a bit bobbly, but it hasn’t got a hole in.

Where’s your stuff made? I get the impression you put a bit of thought into stuff like that.

We make some of it here in England, we make a lot in Portugal and we do some stuff with a factory in India. We don’t make anything where I haven’t personally been and sat in with the people making it. Well, there is one exception — I haven’t been to where the make the shoes we do with Novesta yet.

That’s in Slovakia isn’t it?

Yeah, I’m going to go. I feel bad that I’m making something from somewhere I haven’t been. They’re very open to me going, so assume they’re going to be okay. I want to know that I’m not abusing someone. I don’t want someone to have a shit job, a shit life and shit wages to make me a shirt. It’s wrong. Equally, people need jobs — who am I to say they shouldn’t sew stuff for Topshop or whatever? I just want the people who make stuff with our name on to have decent opportunities and decent working conditions.

I don’t want to make anything from anywhere with bad conditions. I believe it makes bad clothing.

I know you were saying before that one of your jackets was based roughly on something that your dad used to wear. Where else do you get ideas from?

Currently they’re entirely from watching Wes Anderson films. I guess most of it is already in your head, to a large extent. I think again, it’s that idea of understanding and appreciating the past, and trying to make it relevant. Of course I see a lot of films and I see people on the street. I might think, “Wow, black pants look great with a white t-shirt, I should do more of that.” 

It sounds naff because everyone says it, but inspiration is around you. It’s picking up on these little things.

I read somewhere where you’d said you were influenced by old men waiting at bus stops.

Yeah, old men are brilliant, because they wear too many layers. They’ve always got at least five layers on. A really battered shirt, an old adidas track top, their wife’s coat and a hat and a scarf because they’re cold even though it’s June.

That must be a hard thing to replicate.

It’s not that I then want to try and design something that looks like that, but sometimes it’s about the things going together in a way I hadn’t thought about, or maybe it’s to do with the silhouette of something. Maybe they’ve got a funny old jacket on that’s a bit too short, and I might think, “That looks great, we should do something with those proportions.”

It’s often these strange people that are wearing these things.

Yeah, definitely. They know not what they do. Okay, we’ve talked for two hours now and only ordered a few cups of tea. Probably need to wrap this up. You got any wise words you’d care to share?

Be nice to people. And don’t believe everything you read.

See the Universal Works stuff here.