We talk to British Fashion Award nominee Agi & Sam along with the director of their recent documentary to find out what it really means to make it in British fashion
British fashion design duo Agi & Sam have been nominated for the category of ‘Emerging Talent: Menswear’ at tonight’s British Fashion Awards. Known for their self-designed bold prints and wearable men’s clothing line, Agi and Sam met in 2008 while working as interns at Alexander McQueen. They launched the Agi & Sam brand in 2011, and since then have become one of the most exciting names in British menswear. But what does getting somewhere in the world of British fashion really mean? This year, first time documentary maker and friend of the boys Tom Forde released a film about Agi & Sam’s preparations for the British Fashion Council Autumn/Winter 2012 MAN Showcase, also following them to London Show Rooms in Paris. We caught up with Tom Forde and Agi to talk about the film and to delve deeper into the realities of running a British fashion label.
Tom, how do you know Agi and Sam?
Tom: At secondary school in Yorkshire, Agi was two years below me and his form room was opposite mine. When he moved to London after university he stayed on my couch for six months while he was working for free.
What was it like living with Agi and Sam when they were running their fashion label from home?
Tom: At first it was fun having people around, it was quite exciting. But after a while it became a bit wearing not having anywhere to sit in my own house. There were pieces of cloth literally everywhere. At one point there were two industrial sewing machines and an over-locker instead of a sofa. I don’t know what production processes they were using, but they managed to melt my chopping boards, burn my pans, and get paint in my kettle.
What made you want to make the film, and what, if anything, did you want it to achieve?
Tom: I wasn’t really interested in telling the back-story about Agi & Sam, I think people can read that with a quick Google. I was more interested in looking at their relationship and the realities of being a struggling designer in London. I think people who don’t know the industry probably have quite a distorted view of what it’s actually like. I also think Agi and Sam’s down to earth nature and humour is quite refreshing for the fashion world, so I really wanted to capture that.
Agi, How would you best introduce the Agi & Sam brand?
Agi: Light hearted, print based, colourful, inclusive (all guys, women, kids, old guys like it!) quite British.
What do you think is the biggest advantage of working as fashion designers in Britain?
Agi: Britain is producing some of the best emerging designers and labels the world over. This is due to the enormous amount of support that is available for young companies, through organisations like Fashion East, the British Fashion Council (BFC) and the Centre for Fashion Enterprise (CFE).
Who makes your designs, and where do you source your raw materials?
Agi: Everything is produced in London, which is really handy. Our main factory is literally across the road from our studio, and we have built up quite a good relationship with the people there. This is good because I can spend up to six hours [a day] sitting in there for the two weeks leading up to a show. We have spent the past three years or so building up our database of suppliers. There has been a lot of trial and error involved in finding the right supplier, especially when factors such as cost, quality and lead times come into play. A lot of our cottons and wools come from fabric mills based in the north of England, in places such as Bradford and Huddersfield. Jersey and outerwear fabrics are often from Leicester. Linings and pocketings are bought from suppliers in London.
You talk in Tom’s film about the high cost of manufacturing clothes in Britain, and the corresponding issue of not being big enough to outsource production abroad. Could you talk some more about this? And do you have any suggestions on how this could be improved?
Agi: One of our shirts will retail for £250 because of our high production and fabric costs. We obviously have to make a profit on that but after a store puts their mark up (sometimes of up to three hundred per cent), it can become unaffordable for a large proportion of our target costumers. Cheaper foreign manufacturers require high minimum orders that always exceed our demand, so we find ourselves in a somewhat vicious cycle. Unfortunately there isn’t really an easy solution to this. Hopefully as our brand grows we will be able to place bigger orders to bring the unit price down, but British manufacturing is always going to cost a premium price compared to places like Portugal and Turkey. Due to a lack of investment over the years, British manufacturers simply don’t have the machinery to make production quicker and cheaper. Items like cuffs and collars can be attached by machines abroad, while in the UK it is often the case that these things have to be done manually.
Tom: The guys had to pay factories up front way before they could see any profit from selling the garments, and without any financial backing this is nigh on impossible.
If you had the choice, would you prefer to manufacture in Britain?
Agi: Yes, we’d much rather support UK manufacturing and jobs. In terms of communication and ensuring we get the results we require, British manufacturing is also far easier.
The film documents your preparation for the AW12 MAN showcase, and follows you to LONDON show ROOMS in Paris. How has being involved in these programs impacted on your business?
Agi: Participation in MAN was completely instrumental in building the press and exposure we have received and still do to this day. Without a presence such as this, it would be much more difficult to build buyers’ awareness of the brand. This goes hand in hand with London Show Rooms in Paris, as this is completely orientated around business, in particular the actual selling of the collection. The level of scrutiny the garments on the rail receive at the Paris Show Rooms led us to think about them in a slightly different way. Before we had been more concerned with how the clothes looked on the catwalk, but we then realised we had to consider fabrications, trimmings, finishings, hanger appeal and merchandising to a greater extent.
You mention having part time jobs (and struggling to afford food in Paris). This may surprise people. How difficult is it financially to set up and run a British fashion label, and how much support have you received from the British Fashion Council initiatives that you have been involved in?
Agi: When starting a new label, finance is probably the most difficult hurdle to overcome. Financial support from organisations like Fashion East, the BFC and the CFE has been pretty instrumental in the early stages of the brand. The BFC and CFE don’t just offer financial support – they also offer lots of advice on things like the structure of your company, accounting, manufacture and production. Essentially they teach you all the things about being a young designer that you don’t learn at university. We are lucky enough now to be in a position where we are self sufficient as a company, but there are still times in the year when timings of payments cause cash-flow problems. To improve this we have been looking at ways to change our business model by introducing methods of more regular cash injection into the company, for example working on direct to retail opportunities such as focusing on our online store, sample sales and personal orders. We are also looking to introduce pre-collection in the not-too-distant future, as this is also a reliable way of creating staggered income. Collaboration like the one we did last year with TOPMAN is another great way of adding income into the business.
Congratulations on being nominated for the BFC ‘Emerging Talent: Menswear’ Award. How does it feel, and how, if at all, do you think this could change your business?
Agi: It is obviously a great honour to be nominated. It’s nice to know all our hard work is being noticed, not only by our immediate followers but also by people in the wider industry. It’s quite a confidence boost actually.
At the beginning of the film, Tom poses a question: ‘what does getting somewhere in the world of fashion mean?’ In your opinions, what does it mean to ‘make it’ in the British fashion industry?
Agi: In the immediate sense to me making it is to do something I love and for the business to be self sufficient and stable. I guess the overall ambition and dream is to do that on a much bigger scale. I admire brands like Paul Smith in the way that they push men’s fashion forward and make men think about clothing differently while at the same time remaining desirable and wearable. We’d hope to one day emulate that kind of business model.
Tom: I think before I started making the film my concept of making it in fashion was probably like most people’s – being featured in magazines, and fashionistas recognizing you. However, following the guys around it seemed like making it to them was making a living from doing what they are passionate about. It’s kind of amazing when you think about all they have managed to do, but the realities of that are more mundane than you would imagine.
London plays quite a prominent role as a location for the film. Do you think it is important to be based in London, and if so, why?
Agi: Apart from the fact that the support for a young business in London is unparalleled to anywhere else in the world, we also feel like London is probably one of the most inspiring places to live and work. From the music to the art galleries to the multiculturalism and food, for the time being we couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.
Tom: I think London is quite integral to Agi & Sam’s story. I’m quite interested in the realities of being young and living in London. On the one hand, it’s inspiring to be surrounded by all the culture and ambitious creative people, but on the other hand it’s really quite hard. We all spend a lot of time paying rent and waiting at cold bus stops on grey streets, and I wanted to try and show this contrast to some degree.
Tom, what is your view on British textile manufacturing, and has your view changed through making the film?
Tom: I would dearly love British textile manufacturing to thrive in Britain. I’m sure there are valid reasons why, but I don’t really understand why greater investment couldn’t bring back skilled jobs to de-industrialised parts of the country. I saw the program where Mary Portas had her work cut out with the lace mills [Mary’s Bottom Line, channel 4, 2012] and it all seemed pretty tricky.
Agi, what do you think of Tom’s film?
Agi: I think it’s great – an honest representation of everything that was happening during that time. It helps that Tom is a close friend, enabling him to get a more personal insight. It’s funny to watch the film almost two years on and to look at how much has changed and how much we have progressed. In another way, it doesn’t actually feel like anything his changed, like when you meet up with an old school friend. It was such a nerve-racking time that watching it back actually brought back that same anxiety.
Is there anything that wasn’t included in the film that you would have liked to be?
Agi: Although the difficulties we were having were touched on in the film, I remember it being a lot harder than it seemed. It would have been perhaps nice to see a bit more of that.
Tom: They were both so stressed at times I decided not to film them. I regret not filming more of the pressure and the problems they were having, but being my first film I am realistic about my limitations. Hopefully in my next project I will be able to resist my instincts to run out of awkward situations.
What would be in the sequel?
Agi: Tom is staying on my couch right now, oh how the tables have turned. Paul Smith has been a bit of a mentor to us lately, so that would also be interesting to show.
Trailer for Tom Forde’s Film, ‘Agi & Sam’.
The full documentary can be viewed online here.