In conversation with Billy Reid
The Alabama-based designer makes pieces that endure. Just ask James Bond.
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Brands are no strangers to adapting. They do it each season, as new trends sweep away old ones and new modes of technology change the game. But not even the savviest brand could have foreseen the recent challenges Covid-19 has thrown at us, and all of the improvising it would require. To get a sense of how they're finding their footing during these strange times, we've checked in on some of our favourite independent brands – starting with Percival.
The east London-based brand started as a brick-and-mortar shop in Soho before re-establishing itself as an online retailer three years ago. This clever pivot in strategy is thanks to Chris Gove, who co-founded the brand after ten years of marketing and creative experience working for the likes of Mario Testino and “GQ Style”. We chatted with him over Zoom about Percival's backstory, keeping his workers connected while staying apart, and how irreverent content can serve as a welcome distraction during this time.
I figured there must be a way of working in fashion that wasn’t such a pretentious environment. When I naively started my own brand, I didn’t really know what the goals were, especially from a business point of view, because I didn’t really have any business experience. The first thing we did is open a shop in Soho, which was a bit of a weird idea, but we figured we needed to launch with a bang and have a billboard to the brand so that a lot of people could discover it quickly. And it initially worked for that, but the rents and rates just kept going up and we weren’t really releasing that many collections because it cost so much to do.
The three guys I started with wanted to leave, so we closed the shop, and I started again online three years ago with a new business model, which was direct-to-consumer and dropping collections if and when I wanted. Since then, it’s just grown and grown and grown. I think it’s the flexibility of being online. It took a while for it to naturally find its feet, but certainly my marketing and design experience – and dipping my toes in the fashion world – landed me in that middle position of being contemporary but not taking myself too seriously. I think that’s where that personality came from for the brand.
We found a lot of contemporary menswear a bit boring, so we tried to inject our own personality, which shows in a lot of the colour we use, like rust and mustard. And when we went online, we were trying to undermine and subvert what existed already – only subtly because you still want people to buy it and put it in their wardrobe. You still want the navy wardrobe guy to buy a mustard cord overshirt, so how do you get them to do that and make it feel like it’s not a massive challenge visually? So subverting the classics is both subverting classic British style and the way it’s perceived.
I think the biggest effect for us is the supply chain side of things. We just had our new summer knitwear shipment, which has gone down really well. But beyond that, there probably won’t be anything new for two or three months. Because the way we operate, we have something new every month and a half, so it’s a long-term problem as opposed to a short-term one. Because we’re so small we can be flexible, so right now I don’t know where the new clothes and designs are going to come from.
I’m actually at the Percival studio right now because I live about 10 minutes away, so I just cycle in and cycle out again. I can work from home, but there’s so much stuff on the ground that needs sorting out now and then. When you’re such a small brand, you do a bit of everything. Everyone is a multi-tasker. We’re a skeleton staff, and things still need to be packed, so that goes on. So I come in and out as I need to.
There are five of us, and everybody’s working from home at the moment. The communication on the ground is completely different because as a small team, we’re so used to just shouting at each other from across the room, you know, various things that need to be sorted out. But now we have calls, and if people can’t be on the call, I call each of them back and say the same thing three or four times. Weirdly it’s made it more intense for people because I feel like I’m calling them at all times of day and night. I suppose for a good working environment, you really need to split work time and your relaxation time. Otherwise you just get cabin fever.
Straight away, a lot of brands came out with how they’ve adapted to Covid-19 and what they were doing, and I think that’s good. I just felt there was sort of an emphasis on the depressing side of it. We decided that our tone of voice would be used as an escapism, so the fact that we’re making stuff and trying to release stuff still it, it was just to distract people and to entertain. We’re trying to run weird pun competitions, like we did today. We just got a Giphy account, so when you go to our Instagram account, you’ll see our embroideries animated. We’re trying to do things on the humour and distraction side of things.
It’s the exact same. The thing we say about the motivation side of it is dress like if you were going into work. If I’m sitting here or sitting at my kitchen table, I carry on as I usually would. I’m not a very good loungy person anyways, so that might be personal to me. But I think it’s the same for the others who work here as well. On the Zoom calls, they’ve still been getting their wardrobes together as they usually would.
Definitely our new summer knits because they’re quite lightweight and soft. And now that it’s getting warmer, they’re the perfect vibe because they’re kind of loungy anyways. They have the retro-contemporary feel that we try and get. If you’re going to be a bit of a sloppy Joe, probably the Cuban collar shirts. You can wear them closed for the smart Zoom call or open with a tee or vest underneath for eating. They’re both quite summer-centric but still balance a retro-chic feel. Also our classic workwear are perfect for working from home because they’re super versatile. I always lose stuff, and they’ve got loads of little pockets that are quite hidden and utilitarian. It’s a great work-from-home utility garment.
I feel as if some people feel like they have an onus to shop to support small independent brands, and I think those people will keep having that. I think some people though are the opposite. They’re like, ‘well I’m not going to order because I feel like my order will take up space for something that is essential for people who are vulnerable’. And then there are some customers who have commented that the items look great, but there’s no holiday for them this year, so why would they bother? So at the moment, I don’t think anyone knows what will happen. There’s this big thing in the “Business of Fashion” about how there’s no data to be drawn. People are still deciding how they feel about it.
We’re trying to make the most of a bad situation. We’re getting people to shoot lookbooks from their houses, so it’s a lot of user-generated content. It’s weirdly people who wouldn’t usually reply to my emails, but because they have nothing on, they’re like, ‘okay I can do it’. There’s this community spirit about the whole thing. We’re finding that we can weirdly access people and talent and influencers and models that we wouldn’t usually, so I guess when we come out the other side, we’ll have made some connections. I guess we’re trying to find a silver lining.
Words: Allison Pavlick
Photography: Courtesy of Percival
The Alabama-based designer makes pieces that endure. Just ask James Bond.
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