Walking from a meeting in the newly coined 'Strange Quarter' or 'Fabric District' which sits between Strangeways, Cheetham Hill and the M.E.N I saw a huge queue, a huge swarm of people around an old red brick building and I was confused as there really isn't that much round there. Boohoo were hosting an open casting call for their latest collection at their Headquarters, a place that I now know they have used as their home since the 70's where the founder started the business as a rag trade.
Now, it is a big deal to be within that family but come on, we can do better can't we? Or is that what Manchester is now firmly based on? There have been a litany of great new shops open within the city recently, The Wonderful Flight, Village Books and Gone Fishing Vintage and other digital retailers like Good Measure, Nemcee and IRL Sports who consistently make great stuff. However the presumed 'accessibility' of the cities powerhouses still gatekeep.
Since working on the Future Fashion Fair we meet up weekly and discuss thing like new brands or creators we have found in the city, who is doing great sustainable things and
then this question 'where can you buy a Made In England graphic t-shirt?' I did think for a while but couldn't give an answer, until now.
Figurments are a brand with a distinct difference. Their roots go back to mid noughties punk scenes in the North where skating and unruly behaviour were commonplace but through tattoo culture, Japanese artistic interest and a real passion for British fabrics, techniques and processes brought about a brand of high calibre.
The brand was founded by Rob Williamson (the business) and Graeme Hale (the arty stuff). Rob has a history within retail but predominantly in education, which he did for many years and Gre is none other than Gre Hale, infamous tattooer at Manchester's greatest tattoo collective Rain City.
Combining Rob's interests in fabrics, silhouettes and fashion and Gre's ever evolving artistic style and capability the brand was born. Beginning with a simple idea of creating an alternative to merchandise for Gre by 'printing onto t-shirts' evolved into this very aware, sustainable and expressive brand that creates basics for every wardrobe and graphics that could be sold in the biggest fashion houses. Utilising fabrics from Supima cotton from family farms in California, fabric knitted in Leicester, garments sewn in Manchester this all feels like a real family affair with the founders being friends since they were in school.
We had a chat with Rob in the Figurments HQ in Salford just as the latest collection had arrived. We had a chat all about the history of the brand, the friendship and most importantly this fantastic new collection which focused on 'Rebirth', something I'm sure we can all empathise with in these still strange times as 2021 draws to a close.
What is Figurments?
Figurments is a brand set up by myself (Rob) and my good friend Gre Hale and it was started in 2018. We started off, like everyone does, by buying some t-shirts, putting a print on them and then selling them but it became quickly apparent that we wanted to do something different to what everyone else was doing. We decided to make everything in England from that point so we instead decided to make the highest quality products that we can, all made in England, ethically, sustainably, where we have a mixture of the garment design and print design while only producing only what we need to produce, around 25 units per piece. We want to make something unique that you can’t rock up to Topshop and buy.
Can you tell us more about the backstory of yourself and Gre and how you got to this point?
Me and are have grown up together in Formby since we were like 12 years old. He went to uni in Manchester and I went to Wales so I always came back here for the summer or go to gigs, we then moved in together in Ancoats for a few years, then split away for a few years and then once again moved in with each other years later in the Northern quarter. So of course he was tattooing at that time whilst I was working in schools as my job and that's our backstory, we’ve known each other for years.
Gre started making these designs that I was really in to and they were separate from his normal style of tattooing so we decided to start Figurments and that’s where we are upto!
The first collection, was that officially Figurments or was that just Gre making more stuff?
I think Gre really wanted something that was separate to his tattoo work so these designs he was coming up with weren’t right for tattooing but were what he was coming up with at the time creatively. So the female forms we what we started with, he also had a distinct interest in typography so that is where our ‘alphabet’ came from, here we make the alphabet out of images, that really inspired our first long sleeve t-shirt.
Gre then started stepping away from that work and concentrated solely on his Japanese work for his tattooing. That kind of crossed over into what we are doing as I love Japan and Japanese tattooing myself, after being over there twice it is a place that I really love. So we wanted to create something that had roots within Japanese culture but wasn’t an obvious rip off of traditional tattooing because there are a lot of obvious motifs that we all know like koi fish and dragons, I mean we could do that but we wanted to do something different with a specific story behind it.
You started with that mindset of creating something different and then moulded into a locally sourced, sustainable brand, with that in mind what is the ethos of Figurments?
For us making things in Britain is not about being patriotic or nationalistic, its that we have high quality producers, factories and fabric manufacturers and it started because it was theoretically easier to do it at home, there are always boundaries when working further afield, such as batch minimums being 1000. Making products in England means we can make things easier and closer to home using the little network of suppliers who supply us with quality fabrics and always are happy to talk through their provenance unlike some other brands.
For us it’s about making things in small sustainable batches, creating something special. Working small, local and sustainably has also allowed us to grow naturally with who and what we actually are, the materials we use, the people we work with and what the company represents.
Focusing on the newest collection can you talk us through your journey from drawings to the fabric choices, silhouettes and final outcomes?
What we did was to start a conversation with English Fine Cottons who are based in Greater Manchester, I went there for a tour a few years ago and was blown away that all this high tech machinery was in this old mill, it didn’t even look like anyone was working there! It was such a great experience to watch the raw cotton bales be turned into yarn by these crazy hyper modern pieces of machinery. I’m the sort of person who is always interested in the process and that sparked the idea that I really wanted to work with them and I then found out they made their own products, t-shirts, sweats, hoodies made from lovely heavy weight cotton made from Supima cotton which is from California. So we started that journey with them on what sort of pieces we would like in what sorts of colours.
The main two stories of this seasonal collection are the Phoenix and Ikebana, which is essentially Japanese flower arranging. So the Phoenix represents to us the idea of rebirth and we really liked the idea that we were helping with the rebirth of the cotton industry in Manchester, obviously a sketchy story in the past anyway. Most of the flats in Ancoats these days used to be cotton mills, Manchester was the centre of the universe in cotton production and we like the idea that we are linking that heritage by making our products here. With the Ikebana we found a really amazing reference book that had mad rituals and the typical regimented way of Japan's culture, you can’t put that flower there, it has to be in that particular alcove and the scroll has to be to the left and not the right. So we took those ground rules and distilled it into our own way. Gre took all these visual and theoretical ideas away and reworked all that to make it suitable for the garments that we’ve produced.
That’s the story of this season.
The aesthetics of the brand have really changed in the last two collections, what’s already happened in the life span of the brand?
Like I said, Gre has all the artistic license behind Figurments and so I allow him to drive the artistic side whereas I drive the production side of things, the organisational stuff really. So I let him crack on with whatever he fancies doing really, he comes to me with ideas and I tell him it costs too much and we meet at a compromise! So Gre drives it but I have also always had a big interest in Japanese culture and we knew we didn’t just want to reference Japanese culture that has already been worn, you can go to Uniqlo and get a shirt with a Hokusai print on it, so what can we do different?
We can show our appreciation of the Japanese cultures and tattooing and all the historical context but we know it so well that we can tell a story in a different way, it’s not just a print on a t-shirt. The collection before this one was called the Tanrokubon Collection which referenced a book we found in New York that was filled of 17th century woodblock prints, which is about 200 years before Hokusai was even born, these prints were made in black with the books being painted in by hand with green, yellow and an orange/red colour. So we wanted to reference these prints, everyone knows about Japanese woodblock prints but these were happening well before the well known artists were doing it. In Europe we had loads of art by the 16th and 17th century but in Japan there was nothing of that ilk, so that’s the stuff we really wanted to reference.
What other influences drive the brand, whether it be culture, fashion brands or others?
When we were growing up together we always liked punk rock music, going to gigs and I was massively into skateboarding and those things have a lot in common includes bold graphics. Of course you’d be wearing band t-shirts in the early 00’s that had massive prints all of it the item or skateboards full of prints whereas its got a little more subtle these days, so those things have been a big influence, we want a visual that quite arresting. Seeing a cool graphic one someone is always really cool.
Tattoo culture, of course I’m not a tattooer but I’d be remiss to say that it hasn’t played some sort of part in our influence including all those classic motifs. Brand wise I really don’t know, I like quite an eclectic range of brands but the thing that gets me is a really good story, if I’m buying something I have to buy into the story too. You could buy a piece of John Smedley knitwear and of course they’ve been going since the early 19th century, so you know they have the heritage and the mastery there but it will last you forever, there is a story and a craftsmanship there. However, some brands don’t really have the heritage to lean on and are more modern thinking but there are some brands that I do question, ‘how can they charge that?’. Some brands out there can charge £400 for a t-shirt and really a t-shirt can only cost so much to make, people are bored into buying the hype rather than buying a good product from good people, I buy pieces from brands that I can learn things about.
As I have got older I have looked closer at where things are made and buying things specifically made in the UK, or maybe Portugal and Italy rather than in China or India, don’t get me wrong there are some fantastic artisans in India, which has got a massive history of cotton production but it feels like local brands have more of a story.
So the main influences are Japanese culture, skate and punk culture but not everything has to be clear in what we do, instead they can continue on it the background of us as people.
With Manchester working at the centre of fast fashion internationally, what do you think of fast fashion as a brand and as an individual?
It’s a hard debate to have really because on the face of it brands like Boohoo and Pretty Little Thing -regarding business nous- they are incredible, to build up from a rag trade in the 70’s to now takes some doing but it’s quite obvious that we are a different brand to Boohoo, we are the antithesis to what they are about, what they do, who the sell to and what they sell. The other thing that makes me angry about those brands is that they have sullied the Made in UK idea because they also make things in the UK, in Leicester in fact but they use a network of factories that drive down cost to the smallest amount, to an amount where they couldn’t possibly be making any money. I have heard stories of factories owners essentially auctioning each other down to make a t-shirt for £2, I know for a fact a t-shirt takes 10 minutes to make, that’s 6 an hour, cost of fabric and cost of transport, someone along the line will be getting exploited but brands like Boohoo don’t really care. I know they did the Leveson report a few years ago but that was just to keep face, there really is a dark side the fashion industry in the UK.
With these sorts of brands they also talk about sustainability but they are the causes of these problems because they create fast fashion and it is crazy that they say they are using recycled polyester but there is an argument around being able to recycle that again? The only thing I have respect for is their roots as the Boohoo founder was as I said a fabric merchant in the 70’s but they are the antithesis of what we are about, I’ve even convinced my wife to not buy anything from there, even if a sweatshirt is only a fiver! The culture is really a juggernaut because there are so many economic pressures on people in the modern day, a sweatshirt for a fiver becomes the only viable option a person can take, the phrase ‘money talk’ is apt.
There does seem to be a bit of a juxtaposition in younger communities today because they are really pushing sustainability, environmentalism and climate change but they still support these fast fashion brands because they don’t necessarily have any other choice. It’s really about educating your customer and teaching them why a t-shirt costs £50 and why your money is better spent in that way rather than in others.
So yeah, they are my feelings on fast fashion.
What else can we expect from Figurments in the future?
We definitely do have different design ideas that we are excited to work on, we are working on some jogging bottoms but we also want to expand the stuff that we do here. We are currently talking to someone about making some incredible backpacks but we are also looking towards outerwear and for a brand like us we have to answer the question of what can we bring that doesn’t already exist? I can reel off 5 or 6 brands that I would buy from right now, so we have to make something that isn’t already out there.
We also have a few pop up shops coming to Manchester very soon! We are doing our first standalone at the Future Fashion Fair on the 27th and we also have just shared a pop-up in Altrincham, followed by some others that will be coming up. With our clothes we make super small runs of everything so we do find ourselves selling stuff generally though our website whereas we are excited to have a space for us. I think it’s super important to be able to touch, feel and try on clothes, it’s especially important to be able to talk to us and hear our story and our knowledge. The reality is that I truly care and I guess we want to create a brand that is an extension of ourselves and our own beliefs about the clothing we buy, if someone out there isn’t making what you want then make it yourself, I can’t go out and buy a good made in England t-shirt with a graphic on it, that’s what we want to do.
We can stand by saying what we make is Made In England, we can tell you where the raw material was imported from, the yarn was spun, where the items were made and who printed onto them. You’ve got fantastic suppliers like we have already spoke about, Hally Stevenson based up in Dundee make waxed cottons, as do British Millerain in Rochdale and then Discovery Knitting based down in Leicester who make amazing fabrics also. Before the current collection we actually worked with an artisan based in Islington Mill called Jessie Stringer Fewtrill who put our clothes together, literally making the t-shirts.
There aren't a lot of brands that can say 'your t-shirt will look and feel the same as it did when you bought it 5 years ago' and we can. We also want to make items that are timeless, things that look good now and will going forward. Everything we make is also to our own pattern, our t-shirt is actually based off one that I own, it's got a higher neck, side split hems just because that is what I like. With the sweatshirts and hoodies we have made them a shorter boxier fit, that was more of a request from Gre but we did take influence from the Acne Studios designs as a lot of their cuts are short.
I personally want a total understanding of what I buy, where it was made, by who and how most importantly. That is integral to Figurments as we come