If you are currently working in a creative studio of some kind, take a minute to look at your male colleagues and what they are wearing. Chances are, somewhere in your co-workers’ wardrobes will be one or more items by Folk, the British brand that has become almost part of the uniform of the UK creative industry.
Folk is a brand for those in the know. Its clothes (including those in its womenswear range launched in 2012) are understated. The devilment is very much in the details – a clever piece of stitching or particular choice of button, a woven detail on a trouser pocket in a contrasting colour.
These quirks, says founder and creative director Cathal McAteer are what keeps its customers coming back. “We like to make unrestrictive clothes people can easily wear but that have a lot of details that are hidden and that please people afterwards – that’s when we get people hooked and they become loyal customers,” he explains.
“We don’t chase that trend-based thing where everyone gets ‘the jacket’ for the season: we tend not to make those pieces,” McAteer says. In fact, in an interview with the Mr Porter website he claimed that “If there’s a trend going on, we’ll go the other way on purpose…. We’ve got enough customers now, so we focus on taking care of them and then they take care of us.”
Innovation comes incrementally, through obsessing over every detail and trying to get as much quality into each piece while staying within strict cost parameters. “We like to pore over that one thing – taking a quarter of a centimetre off a collar this season because we want it a bit shorter or finding that perfect button,” McAteer says.
After a career in the fashion industry that began with a teenage Saturday job at the legendary Glasgow shop Ichi ni San and has included experience in manufacture and distribution for major brands, McAteer set Folk up in 2001. The core team now consists of McAteer as creative director, managing director Fraser Shan and head of design Elbe Lealman.
Its first shop opened in 2007 in London’s Lamb’s Conduit Street. Since then, the street has become something of a centre for independent fashion brands with the likes of Oliver Spencer, Grenson shoes and Simon Carter following Folk to this slightly out of the way area of Bloomsbury.
Fleur Paterson and Matt Cottis of IYA Studio, the designers who have worked with the brand for the last six years are based, literally, in the back of this shop. Authenticity, craft – such values have become synonymous with a certain look in British menswear but, says Paterson, with Folk these qualities happen organically rather than being part of some contrived strategy.
“You hear a lot of brands talk about ‘heritage’, or ‘storytelling’ – those words never get used when we work with Folk, it’s just quite real and honest,” she says. “A lot of people want to have ‘authenticity’. With Folk it’s just how it is.”
McAteer’s commitment to the clothes first and foremost -“we’ve concentrated on our product instead of the flowery bits,” he says – means that its branding has been quite basic and understated. 2 3 When IYA first started working with them, the Folk logo was straight-off-the-shelf Arial: just the name, in red, on a white background. But as the brand has matured, its visual expression is becoming more refined, particularly in response to the demands of the womenswear market.
This month, it will unveil a new mark, set in Brown, a typeface designed by Aurèle Sack in 2007 for Swiss foundry LineTo. A deep blue replaces red as Folk’s signature colour. The new look will be applied first to a redesigned website and soon to swing tags, bags and signage.
When we talk, Cottis is about to go to a meeting to discuss the exact dimensions of those swing tags as Folk’s obsession with detail demands but, he stresses, Folk are always mindful of the impact of the cost of such things on the price of their garments. If it comes to a choice between a more expensive paper stock or putting that money into the clothes, you suspect Folk would rather the money go on the latter.
“We often get sent things from other people who are about to launch a brand and they have everything done to a T – the website, the messaging – we want to do all these things but our priority is the garment,” McAteer insists. “If the fit or the size is wrong, the rest doesn’t mean anything, it’s all talk. Design can be meaningless if it’s not executed properly.”
Bar the odd independent magazine, Folk never advertises. “Again it’s something that hasn’t come naturally to us,” McAteer says. “We’re self-financed so we generally use our money to improve our team or the quality of our products or stores. The best advertising we can have is someone wearing a garment they are really happy with but we’d never count it out. Maybe if we start to build a bigger business in the US and Japan we’d have to engage with that.” What does he think of fashion advertising in general? “It’s all fakey isn’t it? I tend not to flip through magazines, I can’t imagine the last time I liked someone’s ad campaign, but obviously it’s very necessary for the likes of Louis Vuitton or Marc Jacobs.”
Where the brand does spend money is on the design of its shops (four in London plus ‘shop-in-shops’ at Liberty and in Amsterdam), which IYA also work on. “Folk is a tactile brand,” says Paterson. “It’s important for people to be able to come into the stores, talk to the lovely people who run them, get their knowledge and touch the brand.”
“If I was 23 or 24 I’d probably be all online,” McAteer admits, “but the value of doing old-fashioned retailing is that you learn an incredible amount about the garments. You need to see them being tried on by people you don’t know, and that all gets fed back to the design team very quickly – that was invaluable when we started.”
The shops house a quirky range of artworks, objects and artefacts, some from designers who have collaborated on fabric prints, others from people whose work McAteer admires, such as sculptor Paul Van Stone.
McAteer himself has designed shelving (out of surveyors’ poles and boards used in pottery-making), a limited range of which was made available for sale, plus tables and display cabinets to be used in the shops. When we meet he shows me pictures of a range of lighting he’s working on, while there’s also a ceramic range in the works.
“It’s a natural thing,” McAteer says of this eclecticism. “A lot of it is born from the needs of the business. It’s not trying to jump into other people’s fields. We do it because we are into designing, but just for fun, it’s a bolt on to the core brand.”
That core brand will continue to expand with another London shop due to open soon. McAteer also suggests that Folk eyewear or running shoes may be on the way but there’s no rush. There is no private equity partner pushing Folk to grow. “Who knows what will happen in five years?” McAteer says. “We’re fortunate to be able to move into these areas because we have a strong team and our core business is growing. Things come to you if you keep your head down and work.”