Donuts: More than a shop

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Words: Alex Synamatix
Photography: Alex Synamatix

As far as UK streetwear stores go, Donuts is held up there near the top. Founded in 2007 by three friends and now run by two of them, it’s a huge part of the Bristol scene and a significant part of the UK scene as a whole. We sat down with Jamie and Tom to talk about how it all began, club nights, collaborations, and the future…

For those few of you who aren’t familiar with Donuts, it’s one of Bristol’s (and the UK’s) leading streetwear stores. Donuts has helped to break a long list of small brands into the UK market, building a name for itself as a top location for fresh young talent. Since it’s inception in 2007, the store has grown to stock some of the world’s finest streetwear brands including Norse Projects, Rockwell, Penfield and most recently Wood Wood. Their love for a good vintage snapback has had an unquestionable impact on the Bristol fashion scene, their collaborations with the likes of SWAMP81 and Trapstar have gone noticed around the globe, and their friendly approach to running a store has landed them a large friendship circle. It’s fair to say that for a small store, they are highly influential.

The name Donuts is almost as well known in Bristol as actual donuts themselves, partly due to the shop and partly due to the huge club nights they have a hand in throwing. We spoke to the two guys behind the store about how they did it, what it takes to run it, and where they are hoping to take it in the future.

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Donuts is a well known store on the UK Streetwear map, tell us how you guys started it…

T: Started about 4 years ago now. October 2007 I think it was when we launched. We all worked together on the same street, working for other people, other stores, and it got to the point where we felt kinda limited I guess, to what we could actually do for their stores. Felt we wanted to branch out, do it for ourselves. We went from there really.

J: Yeah, I never particularly wanted to work in retail forever, and I kinda felt like if I was gonna carry on doing it I had to do it for myself rather than keep working for someone else. Yeah … and maybe a bit of cockiness, thinking that we could do it better than the people that we were working for. So we went from sort of chatting about it to opening the store in about 3 months or something.

T: Yeah, from conception to creation was a really brief period of time. If anything, before we even had a chance to think about what we were doing it was like “Shit, we’ve got a shop”.

J: “We’ve signed the lease, so we’d better find some stock!”

Originally, there were three of you that started Donuts. What happened to Sofi in relation to the store?

T: She left about a year and a half into it, something like that. She had a couple of other things going on, which I think she just opted to pursue. No hard feelings or anything like that.

J: I guess it was pretty difficult at that point, the shop was kind of stressful for all of us and I think she just wanted to pursue the other stuff she was doing.

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Do you think it’s still important to have a physical store in today’s market?

J: Yeah I do definitely, especially being a small operation like we are. We have quite a personal relationship with a lot of our customers. I think it’s nice for people to be able to come in the store, or phone the store, place an order or whatever. It will always be me or Tom that they see, or who answers the phone. Because we are small compared to a lot of web based operations and stuff, it’s nice to have that personal connection. Play to our strengths I guess. And that is one of our strengths – we’re not faceless, it’s me and Tom.

T: Yeah that’s it. There’s a lot of other stores doing there own thing, and doing well, but like Jamie says, they do come across faceless. It’s good to have that immediate contact with customers and just get to know people, enough to give people a text when we’ve got new stock in, or give people a shout when you see them out and around and stuff. Bristol’s a nice city for that anyway.

Bristol seems to be a breeding ground for independent stores and brands. Why do you think that is?

T: Umm I should probably spiel something about there being two universities and lots of young creative types coming from here. I dunno really. I guess to an extent there is that – UWE’s got a great graphic design course on a really good campus over at Bower Ashton. A lot of people come from that.

J: There’s a couple of brands that we stock that were started by graduates from creative courses at UWE. For example African Apparel, which was started by a bunch of guys that did Fine Art.

T: A new brand Guts & Glory that has just come around; again new graduates from Graphic Design. Even other stores have been started up by graduates, like Seven.

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You guys are quite well known for backing smaller UK brands. Do you think it’s important to support smaller brands, and how do you pick which ones to support?

T: I definitely think it’s important. Particularly UK brands as well, in a scene that’s massively dominated by a lot of American, and recently Danish brands more strangely, but I think it’s really important to keep a founding in sort of UK stuff, UK goings on.

J: Yep, and especially when a lot of the people starting these brands are people that have been our customers as well over the last few years. It’s really nice when they start doing something and they come in and show it to us. You know, to actually be genuinely impressed and excited by what they’ve made.

T: Again, it’s the benefit to having a physical store. People coming in and showing you what they’ve got.

J: We do get contacted by a lot of brands, and I guess it’s mostly the ones where we actually know the people a lot of the time that we stock. Not always though.

T: Not always. We get a lot of stuff sent through and it’s always wicked to see. It’s always great to see new stuff that’s going on, but unfortunately we can’t take on everything, which is sometimes frustrating, but obviously we have various limitations.

J: Yeah we have to strike a balance with the product mix. We can’t be all established stuff or all up and coming stuff. But it’s nice when a new brand has a bit more to offer than just some screened tees.

T: Anyone can design a t-shirt, go to a screen printers, get them done. It’s little additional things like presentation – the little touches. Ben from Bake is incredible with his attention to detail, the baggy he delivers them in, stickers, branding and just presentation. Equally with Too Much Posse.

J: Yeah, that’s a brand I really rate. They don’t seem to try and chase hype or try and follow anything in particular, they’re just good designs based on stuff that they’re interested in and the stuff they’re inspired by. They just produce a solid product that speaks for itself.

T: There’s a lot of brands that we get sent through, and there’s definitely potential with a lot of them, but sometimes maybe they just need to give it a little time and find their feet.

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You recently did a colab with Trapstar. Tell us how that came about and how it went for you guys?

T: We’ve known Trapstar for years, for pretty much as long as we’ve been open actually. We linked up through friends in london; Barkley, Steve Oneman, Tom Asbo, just that kind of West End YoYo scene. Yeah, We’ve always supported them, they’ve always supported us, it’s been a very mutual thing. We’ve always loved having in-stores, having them down from London doing parties in the evening, which was kind of at the start of when we were doing parties in Bristol.

The colab just came out recently – it was long overdue. They’ve done a few with other stores and we’d always meant to get something on the go, and we finally got round to it and it came out well.

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Donuts has a huge presence in the Bristol music scene. What made you decide to get the store involved in music and when did it all begin?

J: The first kind of Donuts party was the after party for the shop opening I guess, and that was our first bit of club promotion. I’ve always spent too much time in night clubs anyway, so I’ve always had an interest in that [laughs].

T: Yeah at the time we were all working second jobs. As I’m sure a lot of people that work in the industry know, it’s not a very lucrative business [laughs]. So yeah, we were working bars and stuff and Jamie and Sofi were working down at The Tube, which is a little club in Bristol, and we did an after party for the launch there and then some of the Trapstar parties we did.

J: Yeah we just kind of wanted to throw a party for the same kind of people that were our customers basically. We all love music, we’ve all grown up loving music and I guess after the opening party went really well it just made sense to carry on doing it, and we just got more and more involved in it since.

T: To an extent, I guess it’s kind of become it’s own entity. We try and tie them intrinsically together and run them side by side, but it’s good to see that the club night has kind of launched as well as the shop.

J: The Tube, where we ran our monthly Donuts party, that closed at the end of 2009 and Andy, who started Crazylegs, came to us and said “What are your plans now?”. He had this idea of getting together all of the promoters in Bristol that were on the same page and essentially fighting for similar bookings and the same crowd, and working together as a sort of co-op rather than stepping on each others toes all the time.

T: He got to us at the right time basically. We’d been running Donuts at The Tube for about two years, then Tube closed and it was a bit like “Ah shit, what do we do now”. But yeah, he got us at the right time, we had no where to go, we had no base and it just seemed like a great logical progression.

J: Yeah I couldn’t be happier with how it’s gone to be honest. Everyone kind of brings something different and it works really well.

You’re latest colab is with none other than SWAMP81. How did that come about?

J: We’ve known Loefah for a while actually, since before the shop started. He actually played at our first or second night at The Tube. I’ve still got the poster for that on my wall man. It’s like Loefah, S Cruz, which is Stevie J who’s now Funkineven, and a bunch of other people for like £4 man. I guess we’ve know Loefah for quite a long time. Every time he comes to Bristol he comes to the store and we go down and see him play.

T: It came about after Boiler Room actually. I don’t think it really crossed our mind to be like “Right, let’s do this colab”. Ashes57 who designed this t-shirt, she’d done a couple of prints after the SWAMP81 releases. She did a “Work Them” t-shirt and this amazing 808 t-shirt and we were like “That’s sick! Let’s do something”.

J: We just pitched it to him like “Let’s do them as a colab tee, co-branded”. Yeah, just do a real limited edition tee, just do 100 of them, don’t re-print it, keep it really limited. And yeah, he was on it. It took us a while to get that one sorted, but he’s a busy man. I couldn’t be prouder of that colab.

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Talk to us about your relationship with Trap magazine…

J: When I first moved to Bristol I worked in a clothing store on Park Street, and Jon, who’s now the editor of Trap, worked there as well. So I’ve known him for probably 5 or 6 years, something like that. It’s pretty hard to do something in Bristol and not know everyone that’s doing something similar. Bristol’s quite a small city like that.

T: I kinda knew Jon from back when he used to run Ethics magazine. I think that was just prior to when Donuts opened. And he’s got Kasha working with him from Dutty Girl. It’s just Bristol, it’s just that tiny Bristol scene. It’s great that they’re getting more nationwide coverage now. They’ve found a niche and they just do it really well. What they do, they do it well. There’s so many magazines out there, including in Bristol, naming no names, that are terrible. I don’t know how they class themselves as magazines. But people like Crack and Trap are just great.

J: What’s available magazine-wise is so out of touch with what’s actually going on these days. They really hit on something. They’ve found a real gap in the market I guess.

T: Unless you listen to Rinse every day like we do a lot in the shop, or are read up on XLR8R or FACT or some online presence, there’s no paper form of something that covers these areas well. Trap cover it well in terms of art and design and music.

J: When so many magazines are going away from physical hard copies, I think it’s important that someone is doing that, rather than just everything being online.

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What’s the plan for Donuts in the future?

J: The idea is for the SWAMP thing to be an ongoing series, hence on the back of the first tees, the two logos and the 001. So yeah, fingers crossed there will be more SWAMP tees in the pipeline.

T: In theory, hopefully, inline with releases. There should be some coordination with the releases that Loefah is putting out. That was the plan anyway. But yeah, in terms of the grander scheme of things, I guess we just continue what we’re doing. The shop’s up for rent soon … so renew our lease, maybe move to a bigger shop. I dunno, we’ll see.

J: We’d really like to be taking on some established footwear brands. That’s something we’re working towards. That would be the kind of next step for us. We’ve come from a point where we were predominantly selling t-shirts and hats, now thanks to brands like Norse who have an actual collection, we’ve managed to sort of expand our range of stock. We just want to offer more than we have and I feel like we’ve really gone in the right direction a lot over the last year, and we’ve come a long way, but we’ve got to take that next step.

T: Yeah I think our brands list has kind of reflected that. We’ve been in and out of quite a few different brands and dropped a few recently that we thought maybe weren’t working for us as well as others, and a few brands that were covered by a lot of other stores and didn’t seem that unique to us any more.

J: Oh also, we’re working on a colab with the guys at Idle Hands for the near future as well.

Have you got any advice to youngsters looking to get into the shop game?

T: If anyone wants an internship for free, give me a call, come and work Saturday mornings for me … Basically, any time there’s a Crazylegs party, come and work the day after, we’ll give you some work experience [laughs].

J: I’d say don’t be afraid to just do it, but maybe plan it a little better than we did. But then also at the same time, don’t think it’s really easy. A lot of the time people will come in the shop and be like “Your jobs alright innit. You just sit here and all you have to do is choose what music to listen to”, but what they don’t realise is that we’ve both worked a second job ever since we started the shop, just to make sure we can pay our own rent. There’s been times where we can’t really afford to pay ourselves shit.

T: Can’t afford to eat, can’t afford to drink … [laughs].

J: There was one time I found Tom eating a pair of Cheap Monday jeans he was so hungry [laughs].

T: Yeah, it’s not easy, but it’s achievable though.

J: It’s great. I’m really proud of what we do and I don’t regret having done it for a minute, but I’ve worked 60 hours a week pretty much for the last 4 years.

T: But … do it though. If you want to do it, do it. It’s good to be passionate about something, and doing something for yourself rather than someone else. I can’t imagine going back and working for somebody else now, it seems like it would just be a step backwards.

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A huge thanks to both Jamie and Tom for taking the time out to sit with us to put together this interesting and informative interview.

If you’re a Bristolian and you’ve yet to check out Donuts, sort your life out. For the rest of us, make sure you check out their online store and blog to be kept up to date with what they’re up to and what they’re stocking.

8 Perry Road