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In the studio with the founder of Basic Rights

In the studio with the founder of Basic Rights

Freddie Cowan has always loved clothes. He loves lots of things – guitars and travel and literature and art and all kinds of things. But he could never quite shake clothes. Which was frustrating, because he had quite a busy day job, as the guitarist in multimillion-selling band the Vaccines. He was supposed to be focusing on writing songs, on touring, on recording albums, but he kept being distracted by clothes. By the search for the perfect t-shirt. The perfect pair of trousers. The perfect leather jacket. They all kept getting in the way.

So, a few years ago, he decided to fix his addiction by designing those perfect items. Then, he thought, he’d never have to worry about it again. He launched the brand, called it Basic Rights, and proceeded to fall even further down the rabbithole.

Each year, the collection grows, as Cowan condenses all the influences he comes across on the road into clothes inspired by his life and his experiences. The brand embraces classic men’s style, of clothes designed to perform a job and look beautiful doing it, often made from deadstock or recycled fabrics that keep its carbon footprint down and quality level up. To mark Basic Rights’s arrival on Thread, we caught up with Cowan in the brand's east London studio to talk influences, David Bowie, and life on the road.

How did the brand start?

I was living in New York making Vaccines’ third record. I’m very interested in clothes, but I found it a very distracting interest. So I thought, imagine what I could achieve if I had a kind of uniform to wear. It didn’t, that’s a complete mirage. But that was the genesis of it. I actually started designing clothes for the band. At that time I was starting to develop a relationship with this tailor called David Chambers, an amazing character – he made for David Hockney, Bryan Ferry, Paul MCcartney, Jimmy Page, the Bowie stuff for Let’s Dance. He did Harvey Keitel’s stuff. I had a suit made by him and the trousers were the inspiration for our first iconic piece for our brand, which was the high-waisted trouser.

I think something common among men is that there’s an innate sense that there’s something more important for you to be doing than be really sweating over your wardrobe choices. But it is something that we all have to deal with. Even something as ubiquitous as music, you can choose not to be a music fan. Not many people do, but you can choose not to wear headphones on the Tube. But you have to wear clothes. It’s a statement you’re forced into making. And I think that kind of brings it to where we’re at at the moment, which is trying to do something positive. Because it’s a recent realisation, honestly, but what’s the point of doing anything unless you try and do something positive? So we’re slowly starting to enter into a more responsible decision-making process.

What does that look like?

I'd be lying if I said we set out and that was the initial, pioneering idea. It just happened. If you’re a band and you’re talking about [the environment], you probably also have one of the highest carbon footprints of anyone because you’re travelling with vast numbers of people, most of your time. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, I’m just saying it’s a situation and there’s no conclusion on how you can do no harm. I love leather jackets, for example, but it’s not sitting with me right anymore. We’re actually making this suede jacket, which is awesome, but I think that’ll actually probably be one of the last animal products we’ll make.

What kind of clothes did you gravitate towards when you were ‘obsessing’?

Really expensive plain clothes. Japanese reproduction brands. That was actually kind of the focus. The real hit point was I wanted a perfect white tee. Then, I thought, I could get on with my work. And I found some that were $100 and I thought, this is not worth it. So that was the first time I thought that this as an idea was of interest to me. But things I liked haven’t really changed to be honest. I saw a picture of me when I was about six, and I was wearing the same outfit [I do now]. I like durable, very stylish workwear.

What are some of the specific influences on how you approach designing for Basic Rights? It feels like it’s got these 50s and 70s vibes underpinning it. Where did you look for the first ideas?

It’s all travel really. The Milan collection, which is our current collection, we were in a motorcycle cafe having dinner, and it was really cool and they had a clothes shop in there, they had these bikes in there, and I really liked the idea but it didn’t seem very Italian to me. It was kind of quite workwear and quite American – not how I see Italy.

But I was wandering around earlier that day and went to a fantastic old – it’s not a youth centre, but a kind of community centre, a public space. It was fantastic. If they weren’t outside smoking fags, they were inside vaping. Everything was aged red leather and it was beautiful. Italy could compete to be, if not the most stylish, right at the top. And I guess it’s just my taste, it’s classic.

Originally we thought about people like Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, but it’s so ubiquitous. They’re the kind of apostles of men’s fashion. So it became less and less attractive. It’s something I’m really interested in, but I thought, who are these guys, beautiful, irresponsible, reckless, good-looking, young Italian guys? I see that with the French too. We’re much more responsible, at least on the surface. But the Spanish, Italians, French – more of a laissez-faire vibe.

It’s important to have those other elements coming in.

What people forget is Steve McQueen was really good-looking. He was in excellent shape. Yes, you can wear a white t-shirt and jeans and it can be awesome, but Steve McQueen travelled with a gym. So it is in context. Marlon Brando looks good in a white t-shirt. Or just topless.

Can you talk me through the Bowie leather jacket, which you released last year?

The idea was there for the Berlin collection, and we wanted to do a leather jacket and we had some designs based on the one that David Bowie wore on the cover of Heroes. I’d bought some souvenir jackets off a company up in Scotland called Aero Leathers and I approached them, and the guy there said, “My dad made that jacket. My dad made that for David.” The one that is that jacket, he handmade it, he wore it on the cover, and he still has the pattern. So they just dug it out and they lengthened the body a little bit, made it a tad more contemporary because it was very 60s. But it was perfect. Of all the places in the world.

When stars align like that, you think it must be right.

It’s just acknowledging, there’s no grand master plan, because you just can’t see 10 steps ahead. But you can maybe see the correct next step.

You mentioned that you were designing stuff for the other guys in the band. Is that still the case?

Well, the guys wear a lot of clothes and a lot of the ideas come from the guys. We were in Mexico the other day and the guys disappeared to a rodeo shop and they bought these Wranglers that were kind of bootcut. And I hadn’t seen anyone wear bootcut trousers since I was 15. I hadn’t seen this in ages and then it became more and more normal. And then I started wearing them. And then I put on straight-leg trousers and I thought, these look weird. But I think the guys in the band are very, just quite naturally stylish.

You have that advantage that you’re just constantly travelling, seeing people do things you haven’t seen somewhere else. I was living in Mexico City for a couple of months this year, and I met a designer at a party and he was wearing these great cowboy boots – white, leather boots – which he got in downtown Mexico City at a street that specialises in mariachi. Where they sell the boots and the belts and the suits. It’s fantastic. So that was really inspiring. So that’s just a real, gift I guess. That you get to just go and it’s difficult not to encounter a lot of good stuff.

Is that important for your creativity?

I think it’s a gift for an artist that you get to do that. Because if I’m somewhere else like Mexico, or I’m out of London, my creativity level’s up. If I’m in London and I’m busy, and I’m just thinking about surviving, creativity levels are way down. So I think – I dunno. Maybe that’s part of the gift, that you get to put back in the system, because you’ve been allowed – for whatever reason – the freedom to actually exercise that part of yourself. For most people, there’s no fucking time, to really go to that place. Thinking about trousers in a conceptual way, that’s not on most people’s minds at all.

For most people, these would be two quite all-consuming jobs. Is it hard to find the space between them?

I’m first and foremost a musician. That’s what I love. Everything I do in the band feeds the kind of creative map that the company follows. Labour-wise, it’s not very intensive for me. The band is very intensive. Also, just physically, not even cerebrally, touring will take everything you’ve got. So I just try and keep it in enjoyable. In Mexico I’ll go shop the mariachi stuff and buy belts for revolvers because that’s what I’m really interested in. Because I love it. And then that will feed back into Basic Rights.

But the band stuff is – we’ll often do two or three shows on a weekend somewhere, finish a show at 11pm and then we’ll be up at 3am. Recently we were up at 1.30 in the morning, after going to bed at midnight, so you just didn’t sleep. We just went to the bar in the hotel, watched some Russian karaoke, then flew throughout the night to Kiev. But that’s awesome as well. It’s an adventure.

Words: Tom Banham
Photography: Angus Williams