Following our coverage of the House of Billiam x Chimp Varsity Jackets in the later half of 2010, we had the opportunity to connect with HoB's founder and Creative Director, Thomas Bird. Thomas talks to us about the company's relationship with streetwear, their love of premium materials and what may be next for a brand that has continued to make a number of positive steps throughout it's infancy.
"We wanted to be as far away from throw-away high street fashion as possible."
Interview by Darian Hocking & Johnny Ridley
First, I'd like to ask how you came together to start House of Billiam?
At the time, the hoodie had a pretty bad reputation in the British press. Our thoughts were to use this and juxtapose its reputation as 'all that is wrong with society' with fabrics that are generally associated with the polar opposite of the typical hoodie wearer. Essentially it was an attempt to gentrify the hoodie through cut, fabric and method of sale.
After you began with the simple hooded sweatshirt, you allowed your clients to customise their garment. What made you decide to start with that item of clothing?
The item itself was initially made as a one-off piece, each customer selecting fabrics and being measured for a piece specifically for them. This approach was really adopted from the traditions of working with British suiting fabric. Our outlook was to revisit how people bought clothes using staples in modern streetwear and applying it to the tradition of Bespoke suit buying. Our ethos was very much about creating great staple pieces that you can throw different fabrics at and it still works, we want to create a distinct silhouette that the customer is able to place their personality and personal tastes upon. We wanted to be as far removed from throw-away high street fashion as possible.
We feel you're making some truly outstanding wares, in terms of both quality and design. The materials you use and attention to detail isn't usually associated with streetwear, why is this important to you?
Fabric is at the centre of what we do. Our approach to clothing has always been lead by fabric quality and cut. We have always aimed to create clothing that allows the quality of our fabric choice and our cut speak rather then our 'branding'. We want our clothes to be recognisable for how they look and desirable because of this rather then because our name or logo is emblazoned across the garment.
Our garments are stripped back to provide the best platform for every fabric we use to express their quality. Our attention to detail comes from wanting every bit of what we do to have a purpose, we want to create practical clothing that is as wearable day to day as possible. We also want to have an element of British heritage in our clothing. We are known, as a nation, for creating the finest quality clothing that is understated in terms of brand and we want to continue these ideals in everything we do.
Does the very nature of your service, allowing the client to choose the specifics of their garment, lower your own creativity in any way?
The idea of what we do and the creative thought that went into developing what we do and our identity as a label is creatively led. We work hard on getting the pieces right and the creativity for us comes from being meticulous in how we develop everything we do. We work hard on developing items that are able to allow the client to respond with their own personality. Creating clothing that allows someone to throw all sorts of fabric at is a massive creative challenge.
Our clothing is a collaboration, we enjoy nothing more than the customer feeling that they have ownership of the clothes we make for them. Because of what we do, our clients are strong personalities in themselves, they have a strong idea of who they are and are able to express this by working with us and we enjoy the idea of working with people like this. It drives what we do.
You seem to produce on an item-by-item basis as opposed to releasing a set collection per season. What advantages and disadvantages does this have? Furthermore, could you see the label evolving into a stage where you can produce multiple garments for seasonal release?
One of the reasons our company started in this way is because we did not start the company with a lot of money and working with individual clients allowed the business to develop without the need for outside financing. The advantage to working in this way is that we have a relationship with our customer, if you arrange an appointment to get measured and pick fabrics for a garment you speak to me, you see where the garment is made and you deal directly with the people who buy your fabric and fulfill your wishes. The processes of buying clothes in a shop are removed and stripped back, when you put on a piece of our clothing you know where it came from and who made it.
Working piece by piece is a lot more hand to mouth, if the orders do not come in, if the phone doesn't ring, then we don't get paid and when you are constantly trying to grow and develop what you do, this can be tough. Budgeting for a business that is so sporadic is hard.
We want to develop what we do more and run a capsule collection along side our staple pieces so that shops can develop a bespoke piece specifically for them alongside a seasonal collection of key pieces. We are currently working on creating more pieces that allow the customer to throw fabrics at it, broadening the range of pieces that customers can order and select different fabrics for working on the same principles of high quality fabric and stripped back quality detailing.
Thus far you've tackled various hoodies and the staple varsity jacket. What other items are in the pipeline?
We have just finished our take on the Perfecto. We picked this piece because it has an identity that is shared by the hoodie and the varsity. It was, and to an extent still is, a statement of youth rebellion from Marlon Brando and James Dean in the '50's to punks and rockers now. It is also a staple piece of US streetwear, like the varsity, that through cut and fabric choice we can Anglicise and we like the juxtaposition of using British wools on a piece of clothing that would never be associated with that fabric.
We are working on a few classic pieces from both US and British heritage that we can apply to our fabrics and bespoke service. We also want to offer more variety in the shapes we already have created. Keep your eyes peeled over the next few months.
Will HoB be branching out beyond streetwear at any point?
We like what we do now in streetwear and although eventually we want to broaden what we do outside of streetwear we are happy making what we make. We are always looking to the future but with the mountains of sewing we have to do it is more daydreaming at the moment and sketches on the back of bills.
Tell us about some of your biggest influences at the moment specifically when designing new wares or looking for new materials.
We are influenced so much by our environment, being surrounded by such nice fabric day in day out will always influence what we do and what we feel about clothing in general. We are also influenced by big British brands, the likes of Barbour, Burberry, Gloverall, Aquascutum, Dr Martens, Crockett and Jones etc. These brands have staple items that they have been making year on year for 50+ years and we want to have the same. We also love a lot of designers and what they do, Maison Martin Margiela, Raf Simons, A.P.C etc.
When it comes to designing new things we look at our own personal heritage, our families and what they did, our own wardrobes and the stuff we want to buy. At the same time we only want to do something that is the best of what it can be, if someone else is doing it we won't bother. Making a duffle coat in navy or a trench coat in beige seems a bit stupid as if you want these items other people do them better and have been doing them better for years. If we don't think we can bring a twist to the garment or cannot create something that outdoes what is going on then it seems pretty pointless to do. Why would you buy jeans from us when Levi Vintage is already doing it better?
As HoB has been involved with a number of collaborations so far, such as with Chimp, do you have any others in mind that you'd love to work with?
Danish brand called Soulland for A/W '11 which is worth checking out. We would love to work with a couple of massive brands, like Nike because the possibilities are incredible with a brand like that and we love trainers so that would be a good start. We have a pretty strong desire at the moment to do something with Marks and Spencers, they are the classic British high street retailer and we could do some great things with their menswear to re-identify with consumers they have lost.
Otherwise, we like anyone who comes to us with an idea of what they want their jacket to look like and our aim is always to make the jacket that the person who wears it thinks is the best one we have done, that they have chosen the best colours and details. As long as we continue to do that we will be quite happy.
What's the most important criteria you have when deciding who to work with, as opposed to working directly for a client?
A strong idea of the clients customer base is essential. By working with a shop, you are creating something that speaks of that shop and the customer that shops there. If we can create something that speaks with our voice and the shops voice to the customer then we will always be open to work with the retailer. Not everyone wants to pick every last detail of a jacket but they do appreciate the quality and through working with retailers who know their customer base we are still able to create great pieces of immaculate quality where everyone is happy.
We're still in the middle of a cold winter here in the UK, would you care to share your personal winter staples that you'll have throughout the season?
Winter staples... good shoes, good socks, lots of layers and a decent hat.