ALASTAIR RAE – CO-FOUNDER OF ALBAM CLOTHING
Alastair Rae is co-founder of Albam, an independent clothing brand that works with skilled artisans from around the world to make expertly crafted, timeless, and versatile menswear. I speak to Alastair about the history of Albam, his passion for promoting craftsmanship, how the British landscape is an important influence for Albam, and the new Albam Alternate collection, which is inspired by the Dungeness garden of iconic film director and horticulturist Derek Jarman.
Albam clothing was born in the first year halls of Manchester Metropolitan University. It was here that Alastair and James Shaw first met and realised that they shared a mutual frustration at the lack of stylish well-made menswear available. There were plenty of high street stores and high-end fashion labels but nothing in between. When they were not holed up in the library or local pub they were laying the foundations for Albam, a brand that would focus on producing stylish, timeless clothes, made by skilled artisans in traditional factories. “We were looking at how old M&S used to be. It was a place you knew you could get a great piece of clothing; when you needed an Arran knit sweater you could go there and it felt for us, as consumers, there was nothing like that on the market. There were either high street or fashion brands. Those guys were doing a great job but we felt like there was nothing in the middle. That was the starting point for us,” Alastair explains.
After graduating from university, Alastair and James moved back home to Nottingham and launched Albam as an online only brand. It quickly became apparent that there was a healthy appetite, particularly amongst creative professionals, for their stylish timeless clothes that were well made but not necessarily fashion. Fast-forward a decade and there are four physical Albam stores throughout London as well as the online offering. “Our stores act almost as a clubhouse for people to go and consume the brand. When people interact with the clothes they learn more about them than any glossy advertising campaign,” Alastair asserts. As the brand has evolved and become better known, the customer base has grown beyond the creative sector and now boasts men from all manner of professions. “When we started we worked with the title of the creative professionals. It has gone much wider and now also appeals to someone who likes things that are well made, timeless and are going to last. That could be a 16 year old just starting to buy his own clothes or a 76 year old guy who has always bought British clothes. He could be wearing Nikes or he could be wearing Trickers, it doesn’t really matter,” Alastair says.
The Midlands is a hotbed for clothing factories so Alastair and James had no trouble finding the traditional British fabrics and artisans they needed to bring their first collection of utilitarian pieces to life. “We didn’t want our clothes made by a nameless person but by someone who is really skilled and had a connection to making it,” Alastair says. “If you can respect the people that are making the clothes and work with them then you end up with a new thing. That is applicable to life as it is to Albam. If you can work with local people and shop in local places you tend to have much more of an experience than if you are shopping in a more baseless environment,” he adds.
Alastair still works with a large proportion of the factories he first approached 10 years ago and has enjoyed getting to know the craftsmen over the years. “We still make a lot in factories in Nottingham and Leicester; you get a very specific aesthetic at those factories because of the type of machinery they have and the size of the operation. The people that work in those factories inform the end product quite closely, it is a very symbiotic relationship. It is also really nice to get to know these people well,” he says. As the initial Albam idea matured, Alastair started looking further afield for factories and mills that were not necessarily based in Britain but used fabrics that “felt British” and could facilitate the production of a slightly “different end garment.” “The factories we worked with to start with had very good technical ability with certain things but issues started to arise like they could not use nylon or they could not do a loopback fleece to the quality we wanted so we had to look elsewhere. It was more about wanting to add more things for our customers than changing the supply base for the sake of it,” Alastair explains. “We are just as happy to make in Portugal as Britain because you find different types of machine, which can facilitate a different finish. This idea of made in Britain is rose tinted in some regards. We are proud to make in the UK but also proud to make moccasins in the States or denim out of Japan and knitwear out of Italy,” he adds.
Albam go to great lengths to promote craftsmanship and regularly host workshops at their London stores. For instance last month they hosted a bespoke tote bag making workshop with Ray Pope. Ray has decades of experience in the garment making industry and runs Albam’s Nottingham studio. “We are really keen to bring more of the factory side of things to life and do more workshops. That connection with a maker is a key part of what we do and I think customers have lost that appreciation of how much effort goes into making clothes. They don’t understand that it is incredibly labour intensive and that the amount of people that would have touched the product to get it to the end point is phenomenal. Certainly we are passionate about celebrating the fact that you can still do this in the UK,” Alastair tells me.
There is definitely a growing interest amongst consumers in where things come from. “Whether it be the clothing industry or the food industry, people are increasingly interested in the origins of the product,” Alastair says. Walk down Lambs Conduit street in Bloomsbury and you will come across British heritage brands like Oliver Spencer, Folk, and Private White VC that, like Albam, pride themselves on making well-made, timeless, stylish clothes. I wonder whether Alastair recognises these brands as Albam’s peer group. “Our customer could shop throughout all those stores. For us they are our peers in terms of we work at the same factories and there is a crossover in fabrics but each of those brands will have a distinctly different view and design principle that will then dictate how the end garment comes through. It is great that our sector is in a rosy period at the moment; people are really passionate about supporting these sort of stores and ourselves,” Alastair says.
Albam’s passion for craftsmanship has led them to regularly collaborate with like-minded brands from around the world. For instance this season they have worked with a moccasin producer in the United States. “It is a niche but really skilled thing that you cannot find here. We are not just about developing our own products all the time; we enjoy working with people with great skills and archives that could bring new things to the market. It is trying to find little niches that give you something unique at the end of the day,” Alastair says. They have also collaborated with Brother Bicycles to make a beautiful yet functional city cycle bike and Run Like the Wind, a running magazine. “A lot of the guys in the studio are runners; when Run Like the Wind launched their second magazine we hosted a breakfast at our store and went on a run; it was a nice way of launching something. It ties the whole thing together rather than talking about clothes all the time,” Alastair explains.
It has been an exciting year for Albam so far; they have just launched their first collection with Mr Porter, the highly successful men’s style retailer. “Mr Porter are so good at what they do it felt like a no brainer to work with them,” Alastair says. The inspiration for the collection, which has been called Albam Alternate, was the Dungeness garden of iconic British artist and horticulturalist, Derek Jarman. It has been designed with wear-ability and functionality in mind with each garment full of practical details for the contemporary gardener. “We were working on some ideas that had not made it into the main range and one of those was the foul weathered gardener. We started looking specifically at British landscapes and then focused on Derek Jarman and his Dungeness garden. This then informed colour, fabric choice and functionality because a lot of it was about clothes that would stand up to the outdoors but are also functional. So the collection includes a lot of greens, olives and yellows and uses a lot of Scottish wax cottons and English twill,” Alastair explains. “Our customers are such a varied mix of people that we are not just targeting active gardeners but active gardeners are more than welcome to wear it. It is a cross over really as it always has been with us,” he adds. The British landscape and outdoor activities have always been an important influence for Albam. “It is about the freedom that comes with being outdoors; it inspires a certain way of thinking and looking at things. That has always been a reference for us. Being a British brand, a positive place to start looking is the British landscape; we are spoilt, we have such great things on our door step,” Alastair says.
I plan to go walking in the Lake District with my Dad and brothers this summer so wonder if Alastair can recommend some garments from the new Albam Alternate collection that will withstand the potentially wild northern weather. “We have a number of styles in that are perfect for layering and we have some pieces that just by the mix of fabrics make them water and wind resistant. The key is that it should not look like you are walking up a hill, it should be as applicable if you are going to wear it for going for a coffee or to the office. It is that crossover and it is that niche that was not getting filled before,” Alastair replies. I am interested to know if there is one item of clothing from all the Albam collections to date that Alastair is particularly fond of. He thinks the selvage jeans are the “embodiment” of what Albam is about. “Every pair that leaves the shop will after a month be reflective of that person’s lifestyle. The cycle of how they have been worn really sums up what we are trying to do at Albam. That idea of things getting better but they still fit your life further down the line,” Alastair says.
The future looks rosy for Albam; they have just opened a new store in Covent Garden, launched the Albam Alternate collection on Mr Porter, and have plans to open more stores in the future to cater for their ever growing customer base. “We are not resting on our laurels; we are proud of what we have done but we are nowhere near finished. We are going to open another couple of stores but only so more people can find us rather than a taking over the world type scenario. It is not the aim of what we are trying to do,” Alastair explains. Albam has come a long way since it burst onto the menswear scene a decade ago as a small online retailer from Nottingham. James has now left to pursue other business interests, leaving Alastair to run the show with his close knit team; it is the strength of the Albam team and the factories and artisans that they work with that ultimately brings the brand to life and delivers unique, stylish, timeless clothes year after year.