A man whose substantial experience speaks volumes, Ian Paley has seen a storied history working for the likes of prestigious brands such as Paul Smith, Burberry and Levi’s. In addition to lending his vision and insight to a range of influential labels, Paley is also the founder and creative driving force behind Couverture & Garbstore – two well-respected haberdasheries/womenswear outfitters and homeware purveyors. Paley recently opened up to Glenn Kitson and MANUFACTURE MAGAZINE for a three-part interview to discuss his early beginnings, the relationship between retail and fashion, manufacturing and quality production, and a few of the lessons learned along the way.
Tell us how you got started please?
Graphic design was a family trade; I had an uncle and aunty that did a lot of graphic work so it was always assumed that I would go into designing myself. I was always into clothes though. I worked in clothes shops and grew up in a northeast town where things pretty much revolved around football and the pub. With that background you tended to know about two things – wearing the right clothes to chase the girls and what happened at the match that day. So I ended up doing fashion, going to university and learning the basics of menswear. I was learning the properties of cloth, the textile game and then learning to cut patterns – which was the most important skill to learn. You look at 90% of the menswear designers today and hardly any of them can cut a pattern, they were not taught it. They just look at other people’s designs and try and change a pocket here or a seam there. They call it ‘product design’ but they’ve never learned to cut and see how things fit. Only when you’ve done that can you come up with something new.
What about working life, where did you begin?
After university the first job I got was at Paul Smith, which involved pretty much running his whole casual-wear thing. Then after a year I helped to set up some of the ‘shop in shops’ in Japan with a very good team of people. It was a marvelous company and I had quite a lot of freedom with no one to answer to. It was a fairly small group of us with a handful of people doing everything with a very little support team, so you got to put in a massive amount of work and see the development. Right the way through from doing the pattern, buying the fabric, going to factories, then I would go to the selling shows, and then merchandising it in the shops and seeing the whole process through from start to finish. I would also get involved in the ad campaigns and develop how the product was presented in the magazines etc. It was good work and I enjoyed it.
What early lessons did you learn?
I learned to make decisions based on costs and effectiveness and I learned to make them in a heartbeat. So when the time came to do my own stuff and it was my own money I was putting in it made you question these decisions even more. It was good; it meant you could cut through the crap very quickly and attempt to get it right from the offset.
Because I cut my teeth into the trade when it was ‘Brit-pop’ and everyone was looking at Britain in the 90’s, it was absolutely booming and it felt like you could do anything. Whether, you where good or bad it didn’t really matter as long as you were British you had a great chance of succeeding.
You eventually moved on though?
Yeah, eventually I got bored and did other things. I spent some time in San Francisco consulting for Levi’s and I also spent some time in Barcelona doing some stuff for Burberry. I spent a good few years on a plane and spent a lot of time doing some interesting projects and more importantly meeting some very talented and genuinely brilliant people. I saw how much bigger operations operate and what it takes to achieve stuff in a management structure, which is probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned– how to manage properly. You can have the best idea in the world and the perfect market but if you have the wrong management in place then things will stall and get misinterpreted.
Luckily many of the contacts I developed when working for Paul (Smith), especially in Japan have gone on to bigger and better things, many of them heading up their own brands or corporations. These were just drinking buddies of mine but developing those contacts and maintaining those friendships has really helped me and it’s nice to think that we have all contributed to the scene.
How did you get into retail then?
My wife and I had a shop in Kings Road for years where we sold kidswear, homeware and a lot of vintage products. We sold bed linen from India that was dyed on this rooftops in Deli, it was a very interesting store. It was all pre-9/11 so it was full of Americans. Post 9/11 you can see the results, that part of London is a very different kettle of fish. So I had a taste of retail although, not through menswear but some of the other things we were selling. So I learned about the staff needed, about retail systems and the general mechanics of how to work and run a shop properly.
You also set up One True Saxon.
Yes, I started One True Saxon with two business partners and we had a lot of laughs with the brand. It was great while it lasted. We sold it when it had run its course and the offers were good. It needed to be absorbed into a much bigger machine because there are certain plateau’s you reach in any business. You can go for years doing well but then find yourself flat lining and then you have to reinvest 20 or 30 times what ever you made out of it to get to the next plateau. At this point you need investors and you either do that by risking the house you have just bought or you just sell it.
So you decided to draw a line under it and move onto the next one?
Selling it was the right thing to do. They turned it into a machine and we were never that serious about it in the first place. So I walked away and did something else, and that’s where Garbstore came in.
It seems the perfect graduation from OTS?
The idea had been bubbling away in the back of my head for a good couple of years before we started it. What I wanted to do was represent the very best of menswear and focus on the product that wasn’t getting the limelight or the brands that weren’t spending a lot on advertising. I really wanted to focus on people who were excelling at making clothing and it didn’t matter if they were selling to a couple of stores or a thousand. It was a genuinely satisfying experience.
I was able to go to my friends in Japan and tell them I was opening a shop and that I would like to see their stuff.
I know you are a champion of functional clothing and the performance–led product within the menswear market. From a retailer’s perspective, could you give us an insight into the state of production currently in the market?
Well, it’s not just a sewing machine. With anything performance related you have to have the fabric mills making the cloth and in Britain it is still that very traditional kind of cloth. It tends to be wax cotton or Ventile, which is an amazing cloth but it’s 80-year-old technology. It’s got a great story, wasn’t it the first guy who went to the Pole wearing Ventile? But technology has moved on since then.
For us it’s a case of finding where the machines are to make this stuff. There are outerwear factories in Eastern Europe, Bulgaria or Poland, which a lot of people use. Some very good brands make stuff out there but in Britain I am yet to find a high-spec, high-tech factory capable of producing these garments. By and large it’s sent abroad, it’s not done on our soil. This machinery is expensive.
Years ago I made some very good technical outerwear at a very good factory in Portugal that could do all the heat welding and seam sealing but it was the laser cutting and bonding that they couldn’t do. It does seem like a huge investment for a factory to buy all this machinery and the skill to use it as well because it’s not just a case of sewing a straight line. You need a very skilled worker to operate this level of machinery and advancements happen very quickly with technical outerwear. Then there are the fabrics, you are essentially melting and welding fabrics so each type will react differently.
So in your experience, where are the best places to get this stuff made?
You find the far-east factories are bigger because the demand is bigger. They have a huge domestic market, which is obviously the Chinese buying for China, and this encourages modern product. Then you have the western demand for Chinese made product. These days it’s less about inexpensive manufacture. It can be very expensive to make laser cut, bonded garments and also the fabrics are very expensive. So I think it is more about the accountability and the reliability of producing over there. When you fire off an email you know to expect one back with an answer. You know the product will turn up on time and the production quality will be as good as it can be. That’s why I think they have cornered the market.
From my own experience, the good factories invest to encourage business as opposed to react to business requests. It’s a very horizontal landscape over there, you have the guy making the buttons on the same road as the guys who make the zips, next to the guys providing the taping. There are similarities to the car industry or electronics industry where it’s about the availability of the components and how quickly they can be delivered.
If you read the documents about the viability of an American made iPod then it also translates into the sports performance market in the Far East in terms of vertical business in which you can get all the parts readily and not have to wait six weeks for them to turn up.
Are there many myths created by the west regarding Eastern manufacture?
Yes & no, it’s an easy negative strap line that fits allot of peoples attitudes, but as ever the real issues are incredibly complex and differ massively from place to place, it’s impossible to define a country with just one ‘catch phrase’ no matter how much it suits the current outlook. Look at the electronics market. We only have to go back to the 1970s when the strap line in the UK press was ‘Made in Japan’ was crap. It was supposed to be cheap rubbish and it’s since proved to be that it wasn’t cheap rubbish. Because it was such an advancement of new technology the myth soon went out the window when it became clear that the only good stuff you could find was made in Japan. Chinese-made sports performance is the same.
There’s a joke in one of the Back To The Future films when the doc says something won’t work because ‘it’s made in Japan’ and everybody laughed because by then everyone had realised this wasn’t the case.
Bringing things back around to retail, how do you see the sports performance market?
Well, we are now at the back end of the ‘heritage boom’ in menswear so the obvious knee jerk reaction will be for everything to go very technical and neon (laughs) because people crave the most different thing. The heritage scene is a very grown up and considered thing now, but when everyone is making good product things become boring. Anyone can spend a grand on a bench, some cotton and some thread and knock a few items of clothes out but the really interesting stuff is in the technical market, not many people can laser cut fabric! If you have an inroad with a good factory who can make this stuff then that’s what you should be doing but then it becomes an overhead issue. These factories are capable of turning out thousands of pieces of product hence why it’s limited to better known outerwear and performance brands because they have the facilities, they have invested in the technologies for their own gear. It’s very hard to find a good independent factory that will turn out small runs of product for you, so I think it will be a slow burner until we get there. The heritage trend was always going to be easy to blow up, it was all about cotton thread and hardly any technical aspect at all, but it’s very hard for a brand in the performance field to start up without huge investment.
However, I truly believe the performance market is about to happen; it’s almost there now, you only have to go to Japan (who are usually a few years ahead of us) to see how many outdoor focused stores there are now, how many specialist outdoors stores. We even found women only hiking stores over there, which were unbelievable with not just one or two products but hundreds of them! The market is already in place in Japan for it so it’s only a matter of time before that look sweeps over here but again. Japan has thousands of independent stores that are susceptible to this and in Britain you can count them on one hand who would be interested in this sort of thing. I think it has to move out of the very old fashioned climbing, hiking, walking stores that we still have.
I think with the decline in these traditional hiking stores and the decline in the heritage menswear market we will see something new and fresh and that will be the very high-spec performance stuff.
When people like Ian Paley talk you’d do well to listen and while the heritage boom was invariably sold as a timeless return to the roots of classic menswear, the fact remains there was an element of trend about its popularity. And as Ian rightly says, when any scene becomes stagnant, people crave something from the opposite end of the scale and that could be performance manufacture.
Photography: Mark Smith and Glenn Kitson