An Interview with O.BALLOU Designer, Simon Cato
Launched earlier this year in London, menswear label O. BALLOU presents a classic vision of sophisticated, yet casual fashion for today’s discerning and worldly young man. A personal interest in production values of the highest order meant that founder and designer, Simon Cato, spent three years researching craft and production in Italy and Sicily, sourcing materials and the craftsmen to shape them, before bringing mention of the brand to the public sphere – a move that is evident in the refined, elegant construction of O. BALLOU’s Fall/Winter 2013 collection. With leather sourced and produced in the small town of Santa Croce sull’Arno, Tuscany, and cashmere yarn from mills in Scotland and Italy, Simon is taking a curatorial approach to O. BALLOU’s collections, working closely with traditional craftsmen at local Italian mills and tanneries, with various products from different locations making up a final collection.
Although still in its early days, O. BALLOU appears to be standing in good stead as a young brand with a bright future ahead. I recently had the chance to speak to Simon about the brand, points of inspiration and the vision he has for O. BALLOU in the future.
Jack Smylie: Simon, can you talk about your design background prior to O.Ballou?
Simon Cato: Initially I went to university to study photography. After my first year I had become interested in some of the photographers that were working exclusively in fashion and decided to change my major. I had always been into clothes but had no idea about the industry or what people were doing at the design end of it all.
I’ve worked for a number of manufacturers / menswear companies since graduating. My professional background to date is really on the product development and production side. I see it as a pretty important foundation for the type of product we are making at O. BALLOU. Obviously there will be a strong design angle but our focus is just as much on the make and material.
JS: As an expat based in London using various foreign materials and craftsmen, how do you define the brand? Is it English? Or is location an incidental detail?
SC: I’m from New Zealand and have been living in London for almost four years now. All of our products are made in Italy though. It’s been pretty amazing to discover the connection between New Zealand and Italy on the material side of things. We source some of our merino wool from a yarn supplier named Carriagi, all of which comes from NZ. Also, the really premium lamb nappa and deerskin we have been using comes from NZ, before it is processed in Italy of course. I didn’t know about any of this beforehand.
The brand’s not really geographically defined in such a way. There are a number of different places that have inspired us and helped shape the brand. I think it’s also important for people to understand that the very ‘Italian’ feel and aesthetic is just a concept we’re having fun with.
JS: Tell us about your initial offering.
SC: It’s been a really long process getting everything to where we are at now. We have spent the past three years just finding the right people to work with it Italy. This hasn’t been easy but it’s the most important thing.
Our expertise is in leather and knitwear. At a product level we are only interested in making the most premium things and to really utilize the skills of the remaining craftsmen scattered around Italy. The idea is to ‘curate’ a specific number of items to form the whole collection. They could be anything and don’t really need to be restricted by season. The current collection is small but it should give you a pretty good idea of what we are about and where we are trying to push it.
JS: Where did you look to for inspiration for the collection?
SC: Time spent in Sicily and Naples has and will continue to be a massive inspiration. There is a strong, gritty street vibe but at the same time such a high level of sophistication. It’s this balance that we are really interested in. The sun, swimming and all the other good things that go with it will also continue to be a core inspiration. This is what we do and you’ll feel that in every product we make.
JS: How will you expand the brand? You’ve already begun making some of these pieces in women’s sizes – is that due to demand?
SC: There is so much scope to move into different product categories with this concept. We kind of have our work cut out for us with the things we are producing now. We just want to focus on making these perfect before we look at doing anything else. We decided to do some of the cashmere pieces in women’s sizes due to demand. Once you start wearing cashmere its not easy to go back to anything else. Women tend to figure this out pretty quickly!
JS: Is women’s wear something you think you’ll delve into further down the line?
SC: I don’t really know about that. I like the idea of it just being a really solid menswear project, with the exception of the cashmere. I think the same concept could work for women’s wear but it’s not really something we are thinking about – or ruling out. But yeah that could be cool, maybe at some stage.