What can be said about Albam that hasn't already been said before? For a company that only launched in 2006 they've already attracted more ink and screen space than any clothing company we can think of.
They’ve attracted workwear fanatics, club kids, fashionistas and regular blokes alike with their quality basics. In fact, it’s unfair to call them basics, so let’s call them cornerstones. To call them basic would be doing a disservice to clothes that form the cornerstone (see what we did there?) of every man’s wardrobe. You can have all the ’statement’ pieces you like, but you need the clothes that Albam make.
And it’s because people need and want Albam’s clothing (as opposed to just wanting) they’ve been able to expand in what’s been an incredibly difficult year for retail. They have a made to measure suit store planned, as well as second branch in Shoreditch in the works.
We caught up with James Shaw, co-founder of Albam, to find out more about the process behind Albam’s clothing, his background and plans for the future.
SL: Craft and local manufacture is obviously very important to you.
James: Yeah, it’s important to us, the whole made in England thing. It’s become a big thing. Or, at least, making in the country where the item was originally made. Like we went to Quoddy.
SL: Yes, and along those lines, I was interested in the milling of your denim, which is both French and Japanese.
James: We sell in England, so it is important for us to make in England. But we don’t weave denim in England, we don’t make fabrics here. Most of the fabric is imported. We started with French denim, because that is the original place for denim manufacture. Then the Japanese have a great conception of the history. We are going to start to work with Cone Mills, so we will have American made denim as well. We will make it here, but source the material there. What we’d really like to do, as we are starting to sell in Japan, is make our material for there for that specific market. Same for America. Then you don’t have the shipping cost as well. We feel if we’ve made some money in a place, we should put a little back into the area. It seems a sensible way of doing things. It’s also easier for us, especially with timing. Just makes sense.
SL: Are you thinking of working with more heritage brands, like Filson for example?
James: We’d love to, but we are quite small in the grand scheme. We don’t approach people, really, in case they say no. By luck really we will hopefully be working with John Smedley on some knitwear. We’d love to work with more people and doing it in the right way. For me it has got to be in the original factory that made it. You can have a brand, but if the original factory is shut it becomes really hollow. I don’t like that. I want to go to a factory and see the archive. I think it has more meaning. Anyone can make clothes, but in the true sense I think it important to support the original thing.
SL: Sure. For example much of the fashion line for Redwing is made abroad, outside of the US.
James: I understand why they do it. What we do, and the size we are at, it is better for us to make a somewhat nicer product, something a bit rough around the edges. Quoddy shoes are so much nicer than Sperry. They aren’t perfect - they look like someone’s made them.
SL: How did you connect with Quoddy?
James: I just rang them up. It took ages to get through to them, they never answer the phone. When they did, I asked if we could do some shoes and we did like 12 pairs. Just in the style that they carry anyway. Then we asked if we could do more with them. They are so small, it is an interesting way of working. They love what they do. They do what they do, but they are less about the business than making things.
SL: It is amazing how many small brands, that just do their thing are out there. The people that do appreciate it keep them alive.
James: I think manufacture will come back. What’s happening now is quite interesting. More people are wanting to make in England. People are beginning to realize you can make things here.
SL: Is it hard finding the right factories though?
James: It’s really hard. It’s a nightmare. The factories are quite close knit. They have a mobile number. Nobody answers. No sign on the outside. And they wonder why business is slow. They are hidden, if you lose the numbers you loose them. We had one factory when we intially started, and they told us about someone else, and then we kept learning about more. Everyone know each other. That’s how we’ve built up. We started with a white t-shirt.
SL: Sure, it is actually quite difficult to get right.
James: Yeah, and that’s why we started there. All I wear really are white t-shirts. So, we figured start there. We went to one guy, and then we imported the yarn ourselves. We did a lot of things you don’t really need to do, but by doing so got really involved in the whole process. We import the yarn, we have it spun, we have it knitted, finished, and then have it sewn.
SL: So you have your hand in it from beginning to end.
James: I think that is really important. You get the feeling then that the garment is not mass produced.
SL: Did you have a background in sourcing before?
James: No, I worked for board company and before that wanted to be a professional rock climber, but was probably never good enough. I spent a lot of time banging on rocks.
SL: Which would give you great reason to be interested in the quality of the garments.
James: I think the whole climbing thing is that I don’t want anything that is going to fail. Or that has unnecessary details. I want everything stripped down. I almost want things to be anonymous. All the best designers keep things very minimal.
SL: Absolutely, and your garments are very minimally branded.
James: That’s how clothes used to be. Jeans would just be stacked floor to ceiling at dry goods places and you’d buy them and just put them on. It’s kind of nice, that thing of making your own. Our jeans have a bit of a following, which is nice. There are certain things, like a Barbour you know is a Barbour, and we do certain things like add a white button that is kind of our thing. The button becomes us. We want things to be taken off if you don’t want. All our zips are certain zips, so if you know about what we do, then you know it’s us. I think that is quite nice. It’s more hidden stuff.
SL: I think that is quite an English thing to be into the details.
James: We tried to do a logo, but didn’t know what to do. It’s quite a difficult thing to do. Anything we wanted to do, we need it to have a reason for being. If it doesn’t have a purpose we take it off. You don’t need 12 zips on a jacket, so we just use one. It allows us to do quite a lot. We are working on a suite line, from Italian fabric, and a shoe line. We are also working on more technical climbing clobber, but made in England. Using Ventile. You could go on a mountain, but its really just clothing. By being just a clothing brand it allows us to do more things.
SL: We started corresponding with questions about the meaning of modern craft clothing.
James: Yeah, and that is important. All the clothes are handmade. Someone is there, there is a dialog with the people making the clothes. People often forget about the craft. At the end of the day, it also gives people jobs. It might not be the most important thing in the world being made, but the whole process is lovely. People have a skill which is really cool. It is amazing to see people who love what they do.
SL: Do you feel that the line helps people escape the rat race? People can come to the store and get a real feel for the making?
James: For us, everything is a bit different. We are not designers and we don’t claim to be designers. We have a bit of an untraditional method to building a collection. Say I want a sweatshirt, we will design a sweatshirt. A new pair of jeans. We kind of move along based on what we want. There will always be certain things all the time. We don’t have to produce a big collection, if you just drop something in people will think ’brilliant, I’ll pop in and have a look’. We just drop rather organically.
SL: It’s almost like building a collection of basics.
James: Yeah, we want a t-shirt, a pair of jeans, a cashmere crew neck. Something for the rain. A nice suit. All the things we wear everyday. We wear these clothes every day.
SL: I think its also important to note that your price points are fair.
James: We want people to come back. We feel there is more to life than buying clothes. There is no point buying an expensive pair of jeans just to sit at home in them. I want people to buy our clothes and go out and do things in them.
SL: The price point is also impressive given the process of your manufacture.
James: We don’t sell to other people, only in a small way, we do the majority of the retail. This helps. We can talk to our customers about the product. I went into a big jeans store yesterday and nobody knows why anything is good. We can control that. We don’t have to mark things up too much. If we did, it would be 2 or three times more. People know they can come back, and we are not going to rip you off. The way we do things is not the most modern. We are only doing things the way they used to be done. We work on a traditional set of principles.
By Jason Dike and Nick Schonberger
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Jack Moss is the Fashion Features Editor at Wallpaper*. Having previously held roles at 10, 10 Men and AnOther magazines, he joined the team in 2022. His work has a particular focus on the moments where fashion and style intersect with other creative disciplines – among them art and design – as well as championing a new generation of international talent and profiling the industry’s leading figures and brands.
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