This week we talk to Universal Works Co-founder, David Keyte. Without doubt one of our favourite menswear labels, Universal Works delivers good quality clobber with a commitment to top-notch production. Never too busy to stop for a chat, David has to be one of the nicest guys in the industry, so when we got the chance for a proper chinwag, we jumped at the opportunity. Discussing the values and ethos surrounding Universal Works, David tells us how it all began. We also talk ethics and sustainability within the fashion industry and the brands that are hot on his radar right now.
When did you start Universal Works, and what were your hopes and dreams for the brand?
2008 but the last few weeks of - the first collection that was in stores was Autumn Winter 09.
As for hopes and dreams - we were selling to independent retailers and we had no backers no money men/women behind us - we started with £5000 - my hope was that some retailers would take a risk on our collection. - My dream was if I could get 10 orders I could make it slowly into a viable business- we got 9!! I felt that was close enough, so I followed that dream.
Who or what originally inspired you to design and create your own garments?
Someone stopped paying me to work for them so I needed a job! And a lot of friends in the industry told me I should do it, my partner Stephanie joined them in their support and so we started it together -but the inspiration came from many years working alongside and for some very talented people. Being lucky enough to see their passion and vision, that all made me feel my equal passion could work if I took that step.
Have you always been a creative person?
Maybe that's for others to say but I remember my mum not being too concerned when I failed most of my exams at school consistently by saying, "well at least you can draw, you're good at art, so you'll be fine!"
UW has always championed skilled, small-scale production – what does sustainability mean for you and the business?
I think [the word] "sustainability" is so overused - the massive use and waste of fossil fuels and the throwaway society we have created globally is simply not sustainable. It needs governments to take serious action - and there are still too many deniers in powerful positions. But of course, as individuals, we can try to do simple things to lessen the damage and slow the process. For me that's about not wasting resources, making the best use of materials and not overproducing. We, (Universal Works) try all we can to act RESPONSIBLY, and while we do make new things we make with small-scale honest businesses who are also trying to do the right thing and act responsibly. Capitalism is the only game in town right now, but we can try hard to run our business as thoughtfully and honestly as we can. We pay enough people to pay a fair price for things and use them well and that applies to food, electrical goods, homeware, services, EVERYTHING not just clothing.
How has running a clothing company changed since you started Universal Works?
Well we pay ourselves now that took a few years, haha. I guess we are a little less hand-to-mouth on cash flow than we once were. We have to consider how the decisions we make now impact on 30/40 other employees and not just the two of us that started it, but in the grand scheme of things, we try to not change too much at all. Still be humble, honest, fair, decent, and nice to our suppliers and makers and customers. Many of those words are simple but I think too underused today - I never want us to forget we need everyone around us- we are serious about our business but we can still be nice and try to have fun.
You have a number of your own stores spanning London, Nottingham and Berlin. What's the appeal of maintaining a UW presence in multi-brand independents?
We try to make our stores complement our stockists - we can carry more of our collection of course as a mono-brand, but we do want to be a retail-based company, we love working with great stores in cities and towns across the world. I guess Stephanie and I, we both like, enjoy, and respect, smaller independent stores so we have opened a few of our own, not as competition but where we had less representation and a bigger local demand. A great retailer did well before web stores, and I believe they still can. They serve a local need and can reach more customers themselves, with their own web stores and I'm a huge fan of good multi-brand retailers - we all want great service and great products and a feeling of being part of something, a community, and great retailers do that. We try to do it, but never instead of independents, but alongside them.
We've been working together for five years now, what do you like about Maze?
People!! It's always about people - the team that runs Maze is always a joy to meet and work with. But really importantly, Maze are very much part of their local environment, they feel like a neighbourhood store, and the retail team are welcoming and knowledgeable.
We love your collaborations and the stories behind them. What has been your favourite project so far?
- The Adidas project, as it was personally very special. They're a huge global corporate brand but they treated us, (a tiny brand in comparison) with massive respect and integrity and as equals in the process - and I've got great respect for them for that.
- Birkenstock was great for the amazing opportunity for us to work on some of our favourite shoes and also to make an amazing dance video!! Great fun.
- But I love the small projects too- we are inspired by workwear but don't want to be a uniform or workwear maker, - but a project we do in Japan with a courier company is special. And I have a soft spot for the fact we make some 'Bakers Jackets' for a bakery in Austin Texas - it's our best-selling jacket, named after my Dad.
Any upcoming collabs that you can tell us about?
Yes to the first part of that question, but no to the second part (sorry!).
Can you talk us through your creative process?
Wow, big question- how long have we got? I travel, I read, I collect old pieces and textiles, I try to interpret classics for today, I panic, I scream, I watch movies.
Mostly it's in my head and I do a bad sketch (- my mum was wrong by the way) and then work with makers who have known me for years and help make those bad sketches into cool garments (I hope).
People that you couldn't function without, internally?
Well Stephanie of course - my partner in life and in the business, we are a team. But the team is bigger these days and everyone is important - everyone. We can't do everything (we have tried!) you always need great people around you.
I'm assuming you don't want me to say UW here!
Well, different brands for different reasons - it's hard to single out just one brand. I like companies with an ethos, with a genuine voice, great design - great product yes, but a reason to exist beyond just making money.
One day I'd say Comme Des Garson and another, I'd say IKEA. I like Satta the skate brand - it's real and done with passion as well as a big corporate brand like Patagonia - trying to lessen their impact. Basically, I like brands when they do it with integrity and honesty and real passion. I have lots of friends in the clothing industry too with small cool brands and I have great love and respect for many of them so it would be a big list!
What are you currently reading/watching/listening to at the moment?
Well, I've got an eclectic taste but this week it would be...
Reading - a biography of John Cooper Clark a friend gave me, The Guardian and the weekend FT.
Watching - Match of the Day and reruns of Shitz Creek (and still crying with laughter). Listening to - recent Little Simz album, any Sons of Kemmet, NTS radio.
How would your friends describe you in 3 words?
Better ask them, but hopefully - A good mate.
What or who makes you laugh?
"Schitt's Creek" and I guess, other people laughing… my friends.
Best bit about running your own business?
Nobody fires you.
Do you believe in life balance? If so, how do you try to achieve it?
Yes - and no, I don't achieve it.
I'm lucky I love my job and it's really my life, which is great. But of course, the buck stops with you, so it can be very stressful to do so. You need to switch off and I'm not doing that enough right now.
But we are working on it - holidays are good I've discovered.
Biscuits, cake or savoury?
Savoury, and then more savoury every time.
Tea or coffee?
Morning or afternoon? Ok if being transparent, I'm a Coffee addict but love an afternoon cuppa.
5 year plan or get through the day?
Umm planning… I'm definitely gonna start that soon.
Is there anything else you would like to share with the Maze journal and its readers?
Well some thoughts to take with you:
- Support your local stores
- Be nice to strangers
Buy less stuff, but buy my stuff (please) ;)
Thank you so much David for not only taking the time to talk to us, but for our 5 year partnership and supplying us with the best menswear in the business. Here's to many more years!
Get your hands on some of David's designs by using the link below to shop the autumn/winter collection.