In conversation with the founder of Percival
We’re talking to independent brands about how they’re adapting during this time
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When you’re a brand with a history as rich as M.C. Overalls’, endurability is stitched into your DNA. The London-based brand has withstood wars, market crashes, and business changes, and has always managed to come back stronger. So when COVID-19 turned the world upside down, M.C. Overalls had history on its side. That history began in 1908, when self-taught manufacturer Morris Cooper started his namesake workwear brand on Middlesex Street in east London.
In the century since, the brand would adopt a new moniker, Lee Cooper Jeans, in the 40s and experience a change in ownership in the late 80s, before coming full circle in 2017. That’s when Cooper’s great-grandson, Tim Roter, officially relaunched M.C. Overalls after realising, just a few years earlier, that the original trademark was never protected. We spoke to the managing director over Zoom on the importance of sticking to the brand's roots and how the team is faring during this time.
Everything we do, we try to keep to a few key pillars: we’re authentic, we’re London-based, we are gender and generation neutral, and quality is a key USP for us. On being London-based, I’m not going to put a Union Jack up in my store. I’m not going to put a British phone box or a Mini Cooper in my store, so what we do is work with other like-minded London companies to really tell that story. For example, we’re about to launch this collaboration with a company called Longmans Florist. They’ve been around 100 years – they’ve done the Queen Mother’s funeral, and they did Diana’s wedding. They’re a tiny florist and greengrocer, but they’ve got a heritage.
We do try to keep as close to our roots, so our overalls use the original 1908 cuts. It’s all linked to workwear in a British way. Even though there is crossover with other workwear heritages in the States and France, we try to keep it as British as we can.
The conventional way of working is completely different to even when I was starting my career. Employers now want to maximise productivity through making the employee or the team as comfortable as they can be. They’re not going to say you can’t wear what makes you comfortable because they want to get the most out of you as possible, and as a result, you have a much more creative license to wear what you’re comfortable in. What people don’t want to wear is throwaway fashion because it doesn’t last long, and sustainability is very important in today’s workforce and in consumer trends.
The overalls are a very durable product. Our polycotton snap shirts, which you can easily wear in the office with a t-shirt and still look formal but not too formal, will last a long time. And the same with the work pants that we do, the coach jackets, and our overshirts. There’s a durability to them. And when you’re working day in and day out – whether you’re in an office or at home or in between – you need durability. That’s a very utilitarian requirement for today’s modern work world.
As a brand, we closed the store before the lockdown in the interest of our customers and the team. I’ve basically been at home since 16 March, and it feels like quite a long time. I’ve put everything on hold. My store is closed, all my wholesale orders are up in the air, and I have big US orders that want to wait till June. I was also meant to launch a bunch of stuff in the store in May, and I’m obviously holding off on until the lockdown is finished.
There’s absolutely no way to predict what buyers are going to do. The only thing you can predict for certain is that it’s going to be very cautious, and there’s not going to be a lot of big buys. I can’t for the foreseeable future rely on wholesale in the way that I could in the past. Where we have seen growth since the lockdown is online sales. That’s not going to cover what I’d do in the store or business-to-business, but it’s definitely a growth area, and working with someone like Thread, I’m only going to see that grow further.
It’s a big change for the team. The store in Soho, which was a key part of the brand, was the hub for us. I would always have meetings at the store. And now that hub has just disappeared overnight. So I communicate with the team basically through Zoom, Whatsapp, phone calls, whatever means necessary. Email really is just a follow up. Communication is so important right now to the well being of the team and to make sure everyone’s on the same page. So if we’re just sending emails to everyone, it’s not very personal. It’s very hard to stay motivated when you’re stuck inside on email.
The team is much more remote now. Some of my team aren’t from the UK, so they’ve gone back to their countries for obvious reasons. Some of the team, even the store staff, while we can’t give them full pay, we’ve given them some kind of payroll because we’re trying to be fair to everyone who works for the brand. Just because we don’t have the income from the store or the income from wholesale, that’s not their fault. That means they’re still going to bat for the brand, even though there’s not a whole lot that they can do right now.
We’re not the size of LVMH. We can’t go and use our production lines to make hand sanitizer or masks. And even if we could, we couldn’t do it at the volumes that the world needs. We’re not F1, we can’t start making ventilators and all of that, although we’d love to. We recognise that we can’t really help a lot of people, but we can make their lives a little bit easier. So we’ve taken all of our home products – our bonded jersey, our dungarees, anything that’s comfortable for at home – and we’ve put them all on sale just to make it that little bit easier. Because it is important that people look good at home, whether you’re working or Zooming or homeschooling. You need to feel good about yourself, and clothing is a part of that. We’re doing what we can by making stuff more affordable for people during this time.
My wife has her own business as well, and we have two kids, so the key for us is routine for the kids. Although we’re pretty useless at that to be fair. Right now we’re on school holidays, but before that, we were doing two hour stints each. But this situation has really enabled creativity because you’re stuck inside, so you have to be creative, whether it’s marketing ideas, reading, or researching what other people are doing. You have time, which you never had before, which is a blessing and you forget how much you can do with time, but at the same time, I’ve quit smoking, so I’m climbing the walls.
I suppose one of the ways I keep my mind creative is exercise. It allows me to think without the kids or without the emails or the phone going off, so that time when I’m running every day allows me to think about how I can address things, how we can help as a brand, how can we make sure we come out stronger from this, but there are no easy answers.
We have this bonded range. We’ve done bonded hoodies, bonded sweats, which is great for homewear. I’ve got loads myself. But we’ve also done bonded shorts, and as the weather gets warmer, instead of having long tracksuit bottoms, shorts are really comfy at home. I wear them all day, every day. We’ve also got the waffle fabric. We’ve got double waffle for when it’s a bit cold out, we’ve got single waffles, long sleeves, and we have waffle shorts, so I would suggest them for anyone who wants to chill out at home, stay comfortable, and still look good. Equally, the dungarees – you can’t go wrong with a pair of dungarees at home.
I think it is very safe to say that it’s going to be very cautious across industries, not just apparel. So how do you plan for that? As a brand, we’ve got to look at what we’ve got in terms of what fabrics we own already and how we can build on that, but I don’t think we’ll be seeing brands that have huge collections for the next couple of seasons. You’re going to have very tight capsules. Maybe more collaborations, which we’ve already got planned in the pipeline. But we’re certainly not going to have a 30-piece collection coming out because the demand won’t be there. It’s not really the way we operate as a brand. We offer a daily staple, so the question is how can we enhance that daily staple. We will bring out signature pieces that we know our customers are going to want to see in new colours or with new collaborations.
All we can do is support whatever governments around the world are trying to achieve to minimise the impact of this illness. In terms of who we are and what we represent, we want to maintain that we’re gender and generational neutral. We want to maintain our London heritage, and we want to do everything we can to enrich people’s lives, whether it be in the workplace or at home, and right now, that is definitely at home. But hopefully, it can be back in the workplace as soon as possible.
Words: Allison Pavlick
Photography: Courtesy of M.C. Overalls
We’re talking to independent brands about how they’re adapting during this time
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