Oliver Spencer: The tale of a self-taught tailor

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Words: Alex Synamatix & James Clothier
Photography: James Clothier

Oliver Spencer is one of the finest brands coming out of the UK, and one of the more intriguing and down-to-earth personalities in the fashion industry, as we discovered when we sat down with him for a few words before his first ever London Fashion Week show this week.

For those that aren’t familiar with Oliver Spencer and his self-titled brand, his background in fashion and the story behind his brand are near fairytale in the classic sense of someone with close to no fashion experience becoming a highly respected UK fashion designer and tailor. It’s the story of the self-taught tailor, a fashion spin on the classic rags-to-riches if you will. Beginning back in 2002, Oli decided he wanted to create his own brand, inspired by the eclectic mix of clothes that were in his wardrobe. Heavily inspired by outerwear, streetwear and menswear, he set out to find a middle ground, drawing inspiration from wherever he pleased (and it worked!). Eight years on and Oliver Spencer can be found in the likes of Liberty of London, with three flagship stores around the world, guest tailoring for some of the largest suiting companies in the UK and a very highly respected name, Oli has more than established himself. We sat down to have a cup of tea and get to know the man behind the brand on a more personal level…

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Let’s start from the top, you built your brand around the style in your wardrobe – what kind of brands were in your wardrobe at the time?

Yeah pretty much. Comme de Garcons, Patagonia, what else was I wearing then? Oh I had some Tommy Nutter suites. A lot of outdoor brands though, I even had Rab at that stage, I’ve been into Rab for years. Mostly outdoor [laughs]. Not really mainstream fashion.

Does outdoor wear still inspire your collections today? If so, how has it changed since 2002?

Outdoor wear has always inspired me, completely and utterly. One of my dreams back then when I started it was to see that kid with really baggy jeans and a pair of Nike trainers on, wearing one of my tweed military jackets, skating down the street in it. That was it. He probably nicked it though ‘cos it would be like £320 [laughs]. It was brilliant. But what I feel about the clothing is that it can cross a lot of genders; it’s not for rich men or poor men, you buy it for the ability to be able to wear something and it’s strength and what it stands for.

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You’re a self-taught tailor, have you got any fashion teaching or has it all been a learn-as-you-go approach?

No, it’s mostly been learning on the job. I started off when I left art colledge. I went to art college and did fine art for a moment and then I owned a second hand clothing store on Portabello Road, did that on Fridays and Saturdays and sort of started like that basically. It wasn’t called anything, it was just like “Oli’s stand” [laughs].

Did you found it a problem in the earlier days being self-taught?

Sure, back in the day we just made a lot of mistakes. What you gotta hook yourself up with is people that specialise in certain things and then you feed off them, and then you put it together as you go along. I think it can work, especially when it comes to cutting and things like that.

If you hadn’t done fashion, or if Oliver Spencer hadn’t taken off, where do you think you would be now?

Probably something like architecture. Yeah, I’m very much into architecture.

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Spring/Summer is hitting the stores as we speak, what have been your main inspirations for this collection?

Colour, colour blocking and colour. I think it’s time for a lot of colour in clothing. This collection’s quite influenced by an ‘80s band called The Style Council, who I’m big into, and it’s got a little bit of a Northern Soul vibe to it as well.

Do you actively look for inspiration from collection to collection or does it come to you naturally?

Well Summer time comes quite naturally, or is coming more naturally, and Winter’s always been something that is a continuation of a story from the Winter before, so I’m kind of building on that and building on that and then I actively bring in new pieces and we just sort of bring it along. It’s much easier to do Winter than it is to do Spring/Summer, blokes clothing is just perfect where as Spring/Summer is a tougher season to work on, without a doubt. I’m just beginning to find my stride with Spring/Summer … after eight years [laughs].

So how far in advance do you start designing your collections?

Spring/Summer I’m designing now, for next year, 2012. I tell you what, this years gone quite quickly!

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Wednesday is your London Fashion Week show for AW11, what have you got planned and how much work/time goes into a LFW show?

It’s taken up a lot of time! I’ve surrounded myself with people who are very good at it. My friend William has just done the McQueen show and he’s very used to this type of thing. It’s taken quite a bit more work, but probably not as much as I’d of thought. You need to take a serious two weeks out of your life to get it prepared, that’s providing you’re there with the clothing. I’m quite organised with clothing, so I was always gonna be there with clothing and ready to roll, so to speak. And yeah, on the catwalk expect eclectism, that’s my main thing, from clothing to models to everything.

The music is gonna be kind of everything; I’m using an old Talking Heads track to open with, then playing some Beirut, Carousel, The Fall – it’s not your typical kind of thumping show music that a lot of people use. I wanna be able to see my clothing and feel my clothing through the music, and it should be eclectic as well, the music, so I think that’s really important. It’s been done by a mate of mine who does shows, Myles, but I’ve chosen it and he’s putting it together for me. It’s very much off my iPod [laughs]. Some of it’s quite commercial, but I wonder how many people in the room have heard “Burning Down The House”, we’ll see.

This is your first show, so how come you haven’t done one before and why this season?

Haven’t felt I was ready for it. Didn’t feel I was really ready for this until January and then we kind of made a bit of a snap decision. I’m lucky ‘cos I’m quite good friends with Gordon Richardson who’s the head of Topman and I phoned up Gordon and asked him “What do you think?” and Gordon was like “Well I think you better show! And I’ll organise it for you.”, so he did, and that was that.

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Your flagship store is located on Lambs Conduit Street; when and why did you pick that location?

Two years ago, and I picked the location because again it’s an eclectic environment – you know you’ve got an undertaker on the street, you’ve got an off licence, you’ve got everything you need on the street. It’s a brilliant street, good restaurants, Folk! My friend Cashal at Folk was like “Come and open a store Oli, we’d really like you to do it.” and we’re really community, the whole street’s really community. Cashal and I are great mates, I’m trying to convince him to do a show next season, they should definitely. Yeah, we’re all kind of pulling together and doing our thing, it’s a great street.

New York was actually your first location. Any particular reason?

Just my partners over there. I’m partners with these guys that have got a store in New York and we’re together in the business and la la la. The store in Toronto is a franchise, so it’s somebody who’s financing our whole business. They are also the Fred Perry franchising for Canada and they’re great people to work with – they’re a stable business and they’re very nice. We opened the door for the store and we started taking money imediately, which I’ve never done before, and then two weeks into that we got all the windows smashed in and somebody broke in and took everything, so we had to start all over again with it. The store does take money, and that’s really really key to the whole thing.

Do you think that the large blogging scene over in Canada and the US had any influence to it being such a success?

Oh massively. Absolutely without a doubt, yeah huge. The word just spreads. Canada is a bloody big place, there’s only one newspaper that works and that’s the Globe and Mail or whatever it’s called, so after that it’s all online. It’s the same as America, there’s so much online in America. I reckon 60% of the press that we do in the States is online.

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Oliver Spencer made for Monocle – can you tell us more and what can we expect?

Well we’ve got scarves coming out for the Summer, scarves and more shirts. I just keep it very close to hand. Financially it works really well for them, it’s good for their image and they sell out in it every season, for me it’s pretty much exactly the same as it is for them. It’s a really good thing, but it’s something I’m conscious not to get too carried away in – I don’t want to become Oliver Spencer / Monocle Man [laughs]. That’s something that kind of scares me a bit.

It came about because Tyler came into the store and he was in love with the store and in love with what we were doing. Then he started promoting the street and he did lots of things for the street, and he’s just been really good for our business and most people’s businesses on the street.

You’ve mentioned quite a bit that it’s quite a massive learning curve that you’re still on, where do you see yourself going?

More retail stores, definitely more retail stores and we’ll start doing more womenswear. It’s all a big learning curve right now, the whole damn thing and I’m enjoying it. What has changed is our cash flow has become positive, and if you like, it makes going to work slightly easier, having a positive cash flow [laughs]. Yeah, that’s really something I’d reiterate and that’s taking a long time, that’s 7 years in work to get a positive cash flow, and taking a lot of bumps and a lot of hits along the way from stores going out of business and various things happening. So, not easy, but if you’re into it it’s definitely worth it, but you’ve got to be massively committed to do it.

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Special thanks to both Oliver Spencer and Cody Eastmond for their time, especially during such a busy period as London Fashion Week.