In its short lifespan, London’s Blood Brother has made an almost unprecedented impression on the emerging fashion landscape. Bonding through a shared love of football while studying at the London College of Fashion, founders Nicholas Beila and James Waller made bold plans for a label which could eventually become the next big thing. After college, stints at several notable fashion labels followed, but the guys returned to their original blueprint, founding Blood Brother in 2011.
Speaking with Nick and James last week, it’s clear that the ambition with which they plotted and formed the brand is still present. From Blood Brother’s humble beginnings as a six t-shirt collection, to the increasingly conceptual design route they’ve explored in the seasons since, Blood Brother is an evolving projection of its founders’ in-the-moment mindset. We caught up with the designers to chat about Blood Brother’s roots, production, inspiration and the forthcoming FW14 and SS15 collections.
SlamXHype: Can you introduce yourselves and Blood Brother?
Nick Biela: James and I met at college and had ambitions to do a clothing label but it took a few years of grinding it out in the fashion industry to really know what we were doing. At different times, I was pushing him and vice versa because we had different attributes that we felt we were taking to the marketplace. When it did finally come into fruition we made a range of six t-shirts which went into Selfridges, Harrods, etc. — and which sold out. So then we were really able to go for it, I guess, and went into a full range.
James Waller: Our story is organic in terms of how a business is set up – we planted the seed and it grew – it wasn’t like we were handed a silver platter with loads of money. We studied it, met each other at the London College of Fashion (through football, actually). My background was business obviously in fashion and product. Nick’s a designer who likes business, so we complimented each other. So we started with six t-shirts — kind of like every ‘How To Make It In America’ sort of dream; a success story.
Nick: The nice thing about the UK is that it’s quite a small industry and James has harnessed important relationships. They feel part of what we are, and how we’ve got to where we are. They’re part of the growth and the excitement.
James: The buyers have taken our success and helped us along the way, which is cool.
Nick: We’ve evolved from where we were.
SXH: Post-college and pre-Blood Brother, what were you both doing?
Nick: I worked for a high end designer, then I worked at Central Saint Martins, then on the high street for River Island. At each different role I was able to sharpen my teeth, as such.
James: I was at J.Lindeberg for two years doing the UK wholesale, then I worked at Diesel — like everyone else in the industry … So that was great schooling, but we always had the idea through college that we wanted to do the same thing.
When you started the brand, making t-shirts, did you have a plan in mind as to how you wanted to grow?
James: A rough blueprint discussed over many beers on a Friday night, but nothing cemented. You know, “make God laugh by telling him your plans.”
I mean, everyone at the moment – buyers, stylists or whatever – go to these catwalk shows and are very uninspired, because what they see on the catwalk they can get from brands like us.
Nick: The thing that really drew us together is that we love clothes — we wasted far too much money on other people’s, so why not make our own? We met playing football, so we’d give each other shit every day about teams – but the other thing was that we loved clothes, so it was really natural. The Frankenstein that Blood Brother is, is a collection of our thoughts. Direction is there, but actual blueprint? No.
How do you define the brand?
Nick: Well, some of our retailers have helped guide us. For example, we wanted to do things but the buyers are only going to buy what they need to fill a certain space in their shop. You know, like, why would someone buy a jacket from us instead of a more established brand? But then someone like Selfridges would go, “We want a varsity jacket in this, this, and this color”, and basically help us to own a look. It works for them and it works for us – we help each other.
Do you think that speaks to the fashion/retail landscape as a whole?
Nick: I think so. I mean, look at any catwalk show out there at the moment — there’s a load of pussies out there. If I was being paid by Givenchy, I wouldn’t make wearable clothes. I’d hype it up a little bit. I mean, everyone at the moment – buyers, stylists or whatever – go to these catwalk shows and are very uninspired, because what they see on the catwalk they can get from brands like us. Which is why you’ve got the contemporary floors in Selfridges, Harvey Nicols … whatever. And we’re sitting alongside KENZO, we’re sitting alongside Phillip Lim and we’re just three years old. I’m not taking away from us, but the downturn in the economy is what has actually led to that. People want wearable clothes. There isn’t that grandeur in fashion at the moment. Alongside the streetwear/hip hop kind of thing that’s happening, it all feels very natural. We’re benefitting from it.
So, Blood Brother is a right-place, right-time sort of brand because of the way that street wear and high fashion have come together aesthetically and conceptually, and you guys are in the middle of that?
James: Definitely … aesthetically and with positioning.
And price point as well?
James: Exactly. And we feel like we’ve hit a niche without being a niche brand. Filling the gap between couture and streetwear makes complete sense — we feel in tune with that mechanism of the business, really.
Why do you think the likes of Harvey Nichols and Selfridges are buying into that?
James: They championed us because we’re British. At the time we were thinking: Who’s the new Paul Smith? Who’s the new young designer that wants to be a big, big brand? We want to be a big, big brand. Like who’s that next household name? That next-gen of British designers?
Someone like Maharishi is perhaps another example…
James: Yeah. We sat on the Eurostar to Paris with the guy from Maharishi and he was giving us his advice and stories…
Well, I think there are parallels to be drawn between the really functional, technical influences and making these really out-there, slightly conceptual pieces, for both brands.
Nick: Exactly. On the earlier point of being in the moment, I think we’ve guided ourselves to be in that moment … we’ve found ourselves there in some way.
In terms of how you see the brand evolving, is there a certain direction you think you’ll take or is it again, a case of seeing what’s next?
James: We definitely want to do footwear. We’ve been asked to do ladies. Nick loves really good fragrance. Those will all have to be taken under more consideration. And although it’ll take a good couple of years, it’ll really be a whole lifestyle concept eventually.
Nick: When we talk about control, we want to keep our distribution competitive. And in keeping with the look of the clothing, we want to stay competitive but keep growing, and keep the people into it that are buying the clothes now.
James: To be able to maintain a brand when the look moves is one of the main things as well. When the look moves, there’s still going to be a loyal Blood Brother customer. And we’re quite confident we can pull that off. By updating our design we can stay relevant. On the distribution front, there’s the States, then Japan — and everytime Nick’s searching for stores, I’m searching for factories, tanneries or a new mill that’s doing different things. We feel like control’s a key word … with massive carnage in the background.
It’s unique how, as a brand, you’ve managed to hit so many high-end department stores in such a short space of time … as opposed to going into independent, smaller boutiques. How has that happened?
James: Well, my background and previous jobs have been about growing networks and partnerships between department stores and brands, so I had a lot of the contacts for those stores. And I knew how they worked — early deliveries, pre-collections, doing SMU’s. We used our brand intelligence — and obviously I can send a pretty good email — so we got them through the door to see the range. What we were doing was slightly ahead of that movement, the streetwear trend thing, and we got there first and we stayed there. And it sells. We’re the second best selling brand in menswear, after KENZO, at Selfridges and Harrods.
Would you say that the reception so far has been most positive in the UK?
James: We’re still pretty new in the other places, but the first season in LA was really positive. Our whole backstory was a good thing to sell.
Nick: I have to say, it’s the era of small businesses. We’re going to go into a time now with various different friends and business people … I mean, look at how New York is. You walk down the road and it’s full of small stores. London is starting to be like that, a little bit. People like that. We’re a small, family run business — that’s something people respond to. So when James is trying to take buyers’ money, it’s like, ‘hey, look out for the little guy’, because … we are. We’re a small, independent brand and people want to be a part of it.
There’s almost an element of hyper-localism at play.
James: There is! Good word.
That’s marketing talk. We’re hyper-local!
James: Yeah, and it should be! In this area there’s a little rat pack of people who look out for each other. Particularly around here in the fashion industry, it’s really nice. There are a lot of huge companies out there and you can feel swamped by it. You have to take the rough with the smooth, with us. We’re not perfect but we’ve worked hard to be here.
To segue back into production, where are you producing?
Nick: Mainly in Portugal. We’ve found a couple of nice places where we can vary in production quantity.
It seems like a lot of people are moving their production to Portugal.
James: KENZO, Margiela and Givenchy all use similar factories. It’s close by; the factories are good; ethically it’s better.
And it strikes the right balance between cost, production minimums and quality…
Nick: I’ve been seeing a few UK factories, and I hate to say it, but the quality’s not as good as it is in Portugal. The turnaround time over there is much quicker.
Can you talk me through the inspirations behind the Fall/Winter 2014 collection?
James: Did you ever collect football stickers?
We collected basketball cards.
Nick: Yeah, same thing – the collection of stickers – the idea of collecting, essentially. But like — these Panini football stickers — everything’s based around this ’94 sticker album. The line is based around collectibles and everything that went with that, so it’s based on what collecting is: persistence to attain something. You see embossment, slogans, ‘No guts, no glory’, repeated eyes to represent trophy wives … things like that.
James: The Kevlar stuff’s really good.
Nick: FW14 for us was kind of about fabrics — moving to product areas we hadn’t necessarily explored. I mean, we made Kevlar jackets. Everything fabric-wise kind of slotted in perfectly — Kevlar jackets, Japanese denim, really good prints. All the jackets are heat-sealed so they’ve got no stitching. It’s crazy how cost-effective they are. We felt like we had a really good season and set the benchmark.
Going back to the fabrics, how do you make a Kevlar jacket?
Nick: We met with the right fabric distributor — the people that Stone Island would use. We had a meeting with them. They were pretty coy about who they work with, so naturally I picked the fabrics that no one else was using and Kevlar was one of them. It’s stab resistant; the grade up is ten times the price and totally shotgun resistant. We want to make bold steps to do something different, but at the same time people need to get what we’re trying to do.
Based on the lookbook, it seems like there is a balance — between those super-technical jackets and the statement pieces, like the alpaca you’re using — and the denim and t-shirt look…
Nick: I mean, it’s all about balance. It’s any man’s wardrobe; it’s about what you want to wear. Life is about balance. And it’s so important to get that right — make the bread and butter garments, but then also the really aspirational ones that people want to talk about.
James: We sell a lot of white t-shirts and Japanese jeans, but no one’s got a whole wardrobe of Kevlar jackets. So yeah, it’s about balance.
You must be just about to sell through your SS15 collection. Can you share any insight into what that’s all about?
Nick: The collection is based on the concept of ‘virus’, in all of its connotations. Computer virus, geological virus — rock formations, etc. — so the idea from the outset is that you can cut away and reveal hidden details: hidden beauty, lots of texture. We’re proud of it.
Find more Blood Brother here.
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