British label Universal Works have been doing there thing for almost nine years now. We were on of the very first stores to stock their clothing and every year we are impressed with the incredible collections they produce. Blending classic items of workwear with distinctive military influences, their clothing manages to have a modern, contemporary feel that is highly wearable. We thought it high time to catch up with the man behind the label, David Keyte, to discuss his influences, the label’s early days and what the future has in store for Universal Works. Take a read below to see what he has to say for himself…
P&s: Universal Works has been going for a long time, how did you start the label and what was the original idea?
DK: I started the brand when my last employer had some money issues and stopped paying me. I thought if I’m doing this for free I’ll do it for me! The original idea was simple, make some great kit and find a few stores that might buy it from me. For me it was all about product, I wanted to make really great menswear. I knew I could make it, I just had to find out if the rest of the world out there would like it as much as I did.
You’re now approaching your 9th anniversary, how much has changed in the way you do business in the last decade?
Mostly the change is about scale, we are a bigger company now. Initially it was just me, then it was just me and my partner Stephanie and now it’s three shops, 200 stockists around the world and 20 staff. Everything is bigger, but equally I’m still trying to make the same great kit, well designed but not over designed, good fitting, good quality clothes.
You’re well known for your workwear aesthetic, but you also like to experiment a lot. How do you manage customer expectations with your own creativity, or do you even have to?
Wow, big question. I try to keep in my mind a friend of mine, he likes his clothes, stylish guy, but he is also a normal guy, a builder who likes a pint in the local pub. I try to keep in mind that I need to be able to appeal to that guy. But also yes, I want to experiment enough to move the collection along each season and explore the shapes and fits a little. But I’m not trying to be avant-garde. I want to make clothes that can be universal after all, hence the name, but never boring, never dull, so we need a little experimentation.
How did you first get involved in the industry and what did you learn working alongside designers such as Paul Smith?
I first got a job as a Saturday boy in a store in Derby in the Midlands, I only did it to get discount in the store really! But I did learn about retail and clothing and I eventually progressed to full time and then to manager.
What did I learn from Paul Smith? Well, everything really, mostly all good. Somethings I would never do the same for sure, but he was/is a great retailer and talented designer and runs a hugely successful business. I have utter respect for him, but I also learned a lot from the other places I worked and from the other designers I worked with. I loved being at Maharishi.
To be honest I’m still learning, if you’re not learning you’re dead in the water! I’ll never stop learning, it’s the fun bit.
Do you think you could start something like Universal Works in the current climate and what advice do you have for young designers?
I started Universal Works in the dying days of 2008, early 2009 amidst the world’s biggest recession since the 1930’s (maybe other than WW2). We still got ourselves established and grew bit by bit, with no finical backers, no bank loan, no Kickstarter, just lots of hard work and hopefully great product. I think there is always and never a good time to start a business, it’s really about passion and belief. You need endless amounts of both, maybe if you have experience it can help hugely too.
But for me the important part is the passion and the hard work to do YOUR thing and not what the money tells you to do. Never let the accountant run the business is my advice. It’s all about risk at the end of the day, just try to calculate the risk with some experience and then go for it.
What does the future hold for Universal Works?
I don’t know the answer to that one but we have a plan at Universal Works, and that’s NOT to have a plan. We are just going to carry on doing our thing, trying to make the world a better place. It sounds like pretentious shit but I mean it. I can only do that through making good, honest, well-made, long lasting clothing and being a decent company, doing the right things by our customers, staff, suppliers and being nice. Nice is underrated in this world.
Many thanks to David for taking the time to answer our questions. You can take a look at the latest Universal Works collection in full over on the website now…