Universal Works are a brand we have long admired. So long in fact that we were the very first store to put in an order with them when they started. It’s been a great relationship ever since. As they celebrate their ninth anniversary, we thought it high time to visit founder and head designer David Keyte and his ever expanding team at their new Nottingham HQ.
We’ve sat down with David before, discussing inspiration and the history of his label, but this time we thought we’d talk more about his design process. Being able to see how he and his team work, his studio and how all operations are kept under one roof was great. So carry on reading below as we speak to David and his partner Steph to understand more about the workings of one of our favourite brands…
Charlie: How many different items do you design for each season would you say?
David: We have a very, very large collection.
Steph: I’d say it is about 320 items this season.
Charlie: And they’re solely designed by yourself?
David: Well, I have an assistant, Sam, who works alongside me, but as a business what we do is hugely about teamwork. Even the design process to some extent is teamwork, working closely with the people who make the fabrics and who make the garments. Being in a factory or with a maker is where you see different methods and ways of constructing things. Maybe you see someone’s mistakes, or something that they have forgotten, or something they don’t do anymore. You see different methods that tend to push you in directions you may not have thought about. A lot of my design is talking to people, then creating a really, really bad sketch, then Sam puts all of that into something that is technically a lot more readable.
Menswear doesn’t change that dramatically each season, and silhouettes develop gradually, so we don’t have to reinvent the whole thing. We may have designed 320 items, but probably season on season, we create only a few new shapes. We may make a new shirt, or even two new shirts, we may make a new jacket, maybe we make it wider or shorter or longer, but we are not completely changing it. So in one season there might be 10/12 completely new things that started off with a sketch.
Charlie: So you’re not feverishly making one new design every single day in order to keep up production?
David: No, I mean, our best-selling pant started off in season three and we’re still making it in season 20. Some of the best things just last.
Steph: We’re always constantly looking for new fabrics, so we often have the same style but in new materials. Fabrics are really important for us to put a collection together; they dictate how it feels.
David: Last winter I created a new piece, the shape and fit was new, but I had done it in a sweatshirt fabric and I thought I’m not sure about this. I showed it to Steph and even showed it to the sales guy Martin Gill, and nobody got it. But I found a new fabric and put it into it and it’s now the best-selling style we’ve done for the forthcoming season. So sometimes it’s about the right fabric, right shape and timing.
Ian: One of the fortunate things about menswear is that it moves really slowly, and we don’t want to reinvent the wheel. It’s not like women’s fashion, it’s a lot slower. What you said about shapes changing incrementally, it’s the same with denim. At the moment slim jeans are reasonably fashionable, give it another few years and we will be back to wide again. But it takes time to happen in menswear. The same thing would take two seasons in womenswear.
David: That can be true about collar size and is true of so many different aspects of menswear. The moment something is classic, it’s gone, it’s outdated. It won’t be a classic in a few years because it gradually moves along. But that change is so slow that half competent people like myself can catch up with the change, or even anticipate it.
For me, the reason we started the label is because I wanted to produce a collection of clothing that I thought was relevant for menswear at the time. I created something I wanted to wear and I thought a lot of other people would also want to wear. And thankfully I’ve been proven right. Design can be anything from thinking about how much to nudge that shape or detail to deciding to make our own Ikat fabric rather than buying the same blue one we bought last time.
So design is not just shape and fit. A clothing company has to deliver product to people like Ian and design is just one aspect of this. You can have great ideas, but if you don’t deliver it on time at the right price with quality that doesn’t come back six months later, you haven’t made a product. So for me it’s a much more holistic approach, can we do all of those things and if we can then we have a business.
Ian: I suppose at the start you are going in quite blind as well, like a buyer. Take a particular fit, for example the Aston Pant, it’s such a phenomenally successful fit of pant, and we consistently sell it incredibly well season after season, but you wouldn’t know that initially when designing. How do you get to that point of understanding whether or not it’s a good product?
David: You don’t know. In many ways the Aston Pant is a typical example of the design process. I would naturally design something slightly wider and looser than the Aston, but I knew that I had to come up with something that was acceptable to the guy who wanted what I would term as a skinny pant. But I wanted him to have something less skinny. So I had to give him something he thought he wanted, but I had to create something that I felt was true to us. It’s our slimmest pant, but for most of our customers it’s their widest. And it has been a huge success. We just got the fit right and people love it and people come back to it. Is that amazing design or a fluke? It’s probably somewhere in the middle.
Ian: It’s a great example of how an item can change through the fabric, it’s just a completely different animal when its twill or wool.
David: We have made the Aston in really simple cotton twill which we offer every season and we have made it in pure wool Merino suiting and everything in between and it works. It will be the first or second thing on the line sheet. A huge part of design is understanding what will be successful.
Charlie: Does opening up in other markets like Japan, where trends and fashions are different to say Europe, alter your design process?
David: It makes me want to go and live in Japan! No, I think having a diverse market gives me more opportunity to create different things and I’m nothing if not eclectic. I want a beautiful suit and I also want a hoodie and a pair of sneakers and a baseball cap. I like those aspects of menswear from streetwear to military to formal tailoring and I want have a version of all those things at Universal Works.
So having a diverse market allows us to be varied with our design and also our product. We can know that our slightly wider pant will be popular in Japan, but we also know that the super expensive Italian fabrics that we put into our classic pieces will sell very well in America and Italy because they love the fabric’s feel.
We also know that the UK market is dominated a little bit more about price and perhaps because of the rise of online retailing the feel of something is less important. Or maybe us Brits don’t understand fabrics in the same way the Italian market does.
Our customer base in Korea is probably 25 but our customer base in UK is probably 40. Again, this gives us the opportunity to feed both those markets with slightly different products. So, I think it allows me a bit more freedom than our sales team would typically allow me.
Charlie: Obviously Universal Works is a very personal brand to you, how much of your everyday needs and requirements is reflected in the clothing?
David: It’s entirely a wardrobe for me!
Charlie: You get a bigger iPhone, you think I’m going to need a bigger pocket and then we all have to have a bigger pocket?
David: The reality is that it is a huge wardrobe for me. There is nothing that I wouldn’t wear. I don’t, and couldn’t wear it all, and I would choose to wear the Pleat Pant over the Aston currently, but all of these things I would love to have. I can’t have 320 things each season, but I could try! It’s a reflection of all the different aspects of my clothing loves, desires and obsessions.
Charlie: That speaks about the enthusiast in you…
David: Yes, absolutely, I am that. But maybe sometimes I should give things a little bit longer to breathe and have a chance to be successful. The garments that you know have been successful for a long time, it’s hard to not show them again but I genuinely look at those things and think whether or not they have had their day. Do I still want to put it on, do I still want to wear it tonight? And if I do, it stays. You can only use your own sense of style and timing and all those things to say yes or no, then it’s up to the public to buy it.
Charlie: It seems to have worked so far…
David: Well, yes, but you could also argue that we have a big collection. If you throw enough mud and all that… Normally we have a meeting and we have a discussion. It’s not just me making those decisions anymore. We have a bunch of people who have to sell the product.
Charlie: Does their feedback impact what you produce or design? Do you take into consideration the commercial aspect?
David: Yes and no. Mostly if you ask a retailer what they want to buy, they want to buy their best sellers from last season again. Because that sold well so they want more. But they also understand that they need something new to excite their customers. So it is our job to find that new thing. But you don’t want it to be too new that it pushes the customer away. It has to be just new enough.
Ian: It’s exactly that. You can get too far ahead of the curve.
David: To some extent you have to listen to what retailers say. But you do have to have a little bit of single mindedness. You need to say that I really believe in this. Our aim is to give them the thing they haven’t seen yet and to do that you do have to have a bit of ego and self-belief.
Ian: Weirdly though, success can be a difficult business, because as a retailer or a designer, once you taste a certain amount of success with a certain product, it’s really difficult to not keep going back to it. To bring something new in is kind of difficult. When you have had no success, you can do what you want.
Charlie: You’ve done a number of collaborations, the ones with Novesta stick out, as does the one with Millican, which I think we stocked.
David: I loved doing that one with Millican, shall we do another one with them?
Charlie: How do you approach working closely and creatively with another company?
David: I think we have fairly simple criteria about collaborations, which is will we enjoy it, do we personally want it and are they a nice bunch of people to work with? If they fit all those conditions then we will have a go. I really want it to be collaborative. I really want to say to someone can we do this, is this possible? And then for them to have an input into it as well. Not just us painting their shoe a different colour.
We tend to stick to things that we don’t feel we’re particularly expert in. That’s why we have done a lot of shoes, bags, that sort of thing. This is not our field of design or product development or production. So, like, those guys are experts in shoes, can we make some shoes with you as you know what you’re doing? And we like your shoes, we would like to make a version, have you tried this, have you tried that? That’s the easiest, simplest collaboration for us because it gives us something we want to make ourselves but don’t understand enough.
Charlie: Have you ever gone down the creative path with another brand and just though that this is not how I planned it, or how I wanted it?
Charlie: What do you do then, persevere?
David: No, we stop.
Ian: What about the Universal Works bumless chaps?
David: You’ve got to try these things Ian. Obviously I’ve still got a pair!
Charlie: Ian tells me that Peggs & son were the first store to put down an order with you when you first started. Can you tell me more about this period when you were starting out but were still waiting for orders? It must have been an exciting, nervous, worrying period, where you know you have a great product but you have to convince everybody else.
David: I had an idea to create this collection and I met a guy on a train that I knew [Martin Gill], but not that well, but I knew he had a showroom in London. He said to me, 10 minutes into the conversation, “if you’re going do this, I’ll sell it”. What you mean put it in your showroom with Margaret Howell and Oliver Spencer and Il Bussetto and the other nice brands he had? And I thought, you know what, you’re the last piece of the jigsaw. I can’t do all of this and do the sales, so it was perfect.
We then made 45 samples in an unbelievably short space of time and I said to him, go and get me 10 clients and if I get 10 clients then I’ll have a business. He got nine and I said, well, what’s nine or 10 between friends? We’ve got a business. When we were delivering that first season, we got a phone call off a guy in Primrose Hill who said “where’s my order mate?” It turns out Martin had lost the order, so we actually did get 10 orders. So he lost 10% of my customer base in my first season, the bastard!
Steph: At that time we didn’t have any connection with our customer, really. It was very separate, Martin was the agent, he sold it, we were very much in the background, just packing the orders.
Charlie: Did Martin give you any feedback? Suggesting you should change things?
Steph: Everyone said that if we had made it in navy they would have bought more.
David: We made the first collection in black and olive and they all said “does it come in navy?”.
Steph: So yeah, we learnt a lesson there.
David: We didn’t do black for another five years. It was a strange time I guess, I didn’t know that it would work and I was quite prepared for it not to. I’m more nervous now because then it was just me, if it didn’t work, so what? Steph had a job so we could pay the gas bill. I didn’t have employees. Now if I get it wrong I’m bloody scared. All these people need paying and they’ve got lives to lead and we have a responsibility to them.
It feels much more nervous every season when I stand in Pitti or Paris, that first sale, and I think, I need 200 people to like this. That gets way scarier. I have very, very sleepless nights before those days. I’m not a nice person to be around! At the beginning it was a lot easier, I wasn’t nervous because Martin was confident he would sell it. He knew what was selling in his showroom, he knew the people who were coming in and buying and he was confident and told me the price is great, the product is good, I’m going to sell it. So, I felt comfortable. He says the same these days, bless him, and he’s normally right…
A huge, huge thanks to David, Steph and the whole team at Universal Works for taking the time to show us around their new Nottingham home. Make sure you take a look at the latest Universal Works collection here.
Photos: James Hole.