CATHAL MCATEER - FOUNDER OF FOLK CLOTHING
"We are having fun and hopefully that shines through in the product. Life is too short to be miserable, that is what I say. We only have one, so we might as well dust ourselves down and enjoy it."
Cathal Mcateer is a Scottish clothes and furniture designer based in London. After working as a buyer for a clothing store in Glasgow during his teens, Cathal moved to London with the dream of one day founding his own label. By 2001 he had saved enough money to turn his dream into a reality and founded Folk Clothing, a brand that makes well-made everyday casual wear and stands out from the crowd through its obsessive focus on subtle details and cut as well as its interesting use of unique fabrics and textures. As a young lad growing up in Scotland Cathal enjoyed buying and making furniture so it was only a matter of time before Folk branched out into this area. Folk is now very much a multi discipline design studio, which creates furniture, objects & artwork as well as clothing that reflect Cathal’s ethos of modern, tactile product design. I spoke to Cathal about the story behind Folk, the brand’s philosophy, his interest in furniture design, the challenges of setting up your own clothing label, and his design inspirations.
How has your upbringing in Scotland influenced your interest in design?
My mum had always wanted to be an artist and my godfather was a tailor, but no one from my family really influenced my interest in clothes. I was naturally interested in it from a young age and always enjoyed going out and buying my own gear. I left home when I was sixteen to go and work in a shop in Glasgow and the owners looked after me from the ages of sixteen to twenty. They were instrumental in getting me into clothes. I got to visit some really cool places buying collections for their shop. It was a really exciting and inspiring time in my life. Eventually I started making clothes for the shop under its own brand; that is when I got the bug for making my own stuff as opposed to buying. I started to learn all about the process of designing, sourcing and manufacturing.
What is the story behind Folk?
When I started working in the fashion industry I always had the idea of one day doing my own thing. I decided to move from Glasgow to London and did a lot of different jobs to raise money for my idea. We started with a bit of luck because I had met a guy from Japan who liked my designs and offered to help out by paying a deposit for the garments he wanted to buy. For a number of years, he exclusively received my clothes. He really helped nurture the brand at the beginning and allowed the process to start. My experience of working in Japan is that the people are very honourable and they pay when they say. I would say my designs are heavily influenced by Japan; we have a very Japanese way of finishing things so are focused on the fabrics we use and the fit of our clothes. We spend huge amounts of money on fitting, sourcing and resourcing. I think that sets us apart from other brands.
How would you sum up the Folk philosophy?
We are a design house that focuses on creating modern, tactile products and pays real attention to details. We are not just a British company; we are a design house that takes influence from everywhere. Someone once suggested that we should turn ourselves into a Scottish brand but we are from London, we are in this exceptional magic melting pot. As much as I love living in Britain and am proud to be a Scottish Brit, Folk is not just about British menswear.
How did you come up with the name Folk?
A friend suggested that I should call the company Folk; he thought that the word really resonated with me as a person. Folk is a Scottish term for people and I really like to be around people and to socialise. It just seemed to be the right fit. I was once introduced to a guy called Sir John Hegarty, one of the founders of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, because his daughter is a close friend. He thought the name Folk was genius.
Where does your interest in furniture making stem from?
My mum always thought that I would be a furniture designer. Long before I was buying clothes seriously I was buying old bits of furniture so it was only a matter of time before I could make it; I have been making furniture for much longer than I have been making clothes so it is not really a new thing. Rather than buying something from the vintage store to put in my shop I will design something and get it made. We have been offered opportunities to make things under trademark or licence now and we might be able to make that work. I am always looking to do more things in that area. We have recently collaborated with craftsmen to make some ceramics and games sets so the future is very exciting.
Do you have a favourite designer?
Dries Van Noten is my favourite designer, I have always loved his stuff. I have not bought a piece from Dries for a while because I tend not to buy clothes anymore but I bought a lot when I was younger. The way he can merge classic beauty with really ornate, heavily worked fabrics and still make it look masculine is amazing. When it comes to menswear there is no one who comes anywhere near to that kind of aesthetic. There are always people that make really flash, designer suits but Dries is a laid-back dude. He drives to Kent every year just to look at the gardens and has an amazing one of his own just outside Antwerp. He is also such a dude the way he dresses himself. There is one great quote from him on how he prefers to see his garments worn. He said something like I love it when I see someone with one of my really ornate waistcoats paired with a second-hand coat. He likes to see his clothes worn in a different way. I really like that. I might be at Glastonbury and see someone wearing a coat from ten years ago and that makes me really happy.
What do you enjoy wearing these days?
I tend to wear Folk gear because I am testing it; I want to rough it up and stretch it to see if it wears okay. My best friend took the mick out of me recently because I was testing out a hooded black wadded jacket; he laughed his head off because I never wear black and it was a bit young for me. I have some nice pieces from Dries and am off to a fancy dinner soon so have bought an amazing double breasted Our Legacy jacket and some Thomas Cleverly mohair shoes for that.
Do you find inspiration for your designs from popular culture?
Music and art are massive influences. I went to an exhibition by this South African artist called William Kentridge at the Whitechapel Gallery the other day and it was amazing. The film installation at the Hayward Gallery is also incredible and I really like the Josh Lilley Gallery. I love seeing art. I also enjoy pottering around with a notebook and my own thoughts.
Do you find inspiration from being out in nature?
Yes, I always get inspiration from spending time in nature and often go walking and hiking with my girlfriend. As much as I need to go Glastonbury I also need to go to the countryside. I go to the Chilterns a lot which is close to where I live and before I had children we used to rent a cottage there with mates every year; we would walk endlessly and drink beer. While I don’t go extreme climbing I definitely want to be up at 2500m a couple of times a year, it is such a visual colonic.
Did it take a long time to find the factories you use today?
If someone young wanted to try and find out what I know it would take them years because it took me years. But when you are seventeen and doing it by the seat of your pants you just use google if you want to find out who will be able to make the shirt or jeans you want. You will probably find ten different makers; some might be rubbish for what you want but might be ideal for another guy’s design. I went to visit a factory in the North West once and they make clothes for Nigel Cabourn but they were hopeless for what I wanted. The glove has got to fit. There are loads of manufacturers everywhere and their job is to make things; there is no big secret, if you are tenacious enough you will find someone to do it.
Lamb's Conduit street is one of my favourite streets in London, how did you end up there?
We have ended up on Lamb's Conduit street because not only is it a beautiful street it is also a gateway to the east. I like to get a dance on and the east is the place to go for that sort of thing. I got off a bus in Kilburn 23 years ago when it was cheap to live there and I have pretty much stayed ever since. We would go for a pint around Lamb's Conduit Street before going out. When the store came up we went for it and fortunately lots of people have followed us. However, it is changing now as landlords are hiking up the rents and making it really expensive. Our friends at Darkroom who really brought a ray of sunshine to the street have had to close down as a result. I suppose it is the natural cycle of commerce but it is disappointing.
Is it fair to say that you have stayed true to the aesthetic seen in your first collections?
The aesthetic has stayed similar but evolves as I evolve as a person. People have come and gone in my life which have really influenced me. The colour palette has changed more than anything recently because there are certain trends that came around which made us think let’s run away from that. We try and stay away from obvious trends.
What are the main challenges when setting up your own independent clothing label?
Getting the garments made to the right standard and managing your emotional attachment to the business are the hardest challenges. If you do your own thing it is all consuming; you don’t really have a normal working week. Financially I was okay when I was setting up because I was running another business which allowed me to finance the project and gave me the leeway to not have to pay myself for the first five years. That allowed Folk to grow without the pressure of being financially stable and also gave me the time to get the product to the right standard. No matter what you do, when you launch the first collection it is generally not quite the standard you want unless you have all singing all dancing funds behind you. It is important to work with the right retailers from the beginning, nurturing types that can help launch the brand for you. That is why I launched in Japan.
How has Brexit impacted your business?
At the moment, the euro has gone crazy so our prices in the UK could go up by 20%. The only person that suffers is the consumer; I really do not want people to pay more for a shirt but because of Brexit and the impact on the pound that is the reality. We source everything to try and squeeze out x margins so it does not impact the consumer and we also eat some of it up. That is the nature of being a flexible, intricate sourcing machine, we have the ability to do that sometimes.
If you were going to start Folk now do you think you would still be able to do it?
The best time to start something is when everything is really difficult because if you are going to be good it has to be really good. It is difficult now but you have got to give it a go. The nice thing about fashion is that it is not about who you are or what school you went to; sure, it is helpful to have contacts but if you do something good it should get recognised.
When you look back are you surprised by how successful Folk has been?
When you run your own thing, it is all consuming so you tend to not take a step back and look from the outside. We are so immersed in the business that years merge; you think something happened three years ago when it was actually seven years. I would change a lot of it but at the same time I wouldn’t change anything; we have made so many good decisions as well as mistakes. I feel very lucky to be doing what I do.
What does the future hold for Folk?
We are going to expand a bit; we want some more retail space and to start marketing ourselves more. We have products that we are really proud of and a new designer is joining the team which is exciting. We are having fun and hopefully that shines through in the product. Life is too short to be miserable, that is what I say. We only have one, so we might as well dust ourselves down and enjoy it.