When we first heard of Spoke they were being made very much a stone’s throw away from our Editor’s flat in Hoxton. With our interest peaked by a local business making one our favourite items, well made chinos with that all important fit, we sought out Ben Farren, Spoke’s founder. We found a dynamic start-up using e-commerce for a unique offering while at the same time grounded with a respect for great craftsmanship. We sat down with Ben to find out more:
How did Spoke start?
You can trace it to a single moment of frustration: That Hobson’s choice we’ve all made between a pair of trousers that’s feels uncomfortably tight, and the size up that flaps around like a potato sack. It seems it was decided long ago that churning through styles and trends was more important than offering a real choice of sizes, or a decent shot at a perfect fit.
But that’s all that matters isn’t it? If it doesn’t fit, it won’t look good and it won’t feel good. Fast fashion has conditioned us to beleive that we should fit the clothes and not the other way around. I thought that was a problem worth trying to fix.
We ran a short pilot in the summer of 2013 and ripped through 100 pairs in a few weeks with no marketing budget at all. 40 of those customers came back for 2nd or 3rd pairs. I thought we were probably on to something.
Whats your background, what inspired you to make trousers?
I was a dolphin trainer* through my 20’s
But I’ve always yearned to make something. Something I could hold in my hands. Something more substantial than a powerpoint. I loved the idea of immersing myself in the detail of a craft, and mastering how something as essential as a pair of trousers is designed and put together.
*a management consultant – but who wants to get caught saying that?
Fit is an important element of your offering, tell us about the process of putting together your sizing.
Step 1 – find a gifted pattern cuttter. Sam was our fourth attempt. He started cutting clothes in Chelsea in the 70’s and he’s worked in every corner of garment manufacture since. He has a gift for turning 3D trousers problems into 2D solutions. His patterns are the backbone of everything we do.
Step 2 – get some data – we measured and photographed men and their trousers, by the hundreds, creating an enormous database of measurements that allowed us to position 3 archetypes or ‘Builds’
Step 3: bring them together: The data set out some guidelines and laid down guard rails – within those, Sam has drawn 3 ‘blocks’ for our three builds. Each build is graded in every waist size (odd numbers included) from 30 to 38.
What else influences your design?
I guess I’d emphasise two things:
Function – colour and pattern aside, everything we add to a garment needs a reason. Being new to garment production means I’m good at asking the design team ‘why?’, and ‘why not?’ (like a 3-year old). We love details – but only if they serve a purpose.
Feedback – we’re always iterating, searching relenetlessly for the perfect garment – and for that we need customer feedback, which we chase through every channel open to us.
Like an increasing number of small companies operating online has allowed you to provide a unique offering, tell us about the thinking and philosophy of being an online company and its opportunities and challenges.
E-Commerce is more than a new channel, it’s an opportunity to make a better product. In menswear that means some specific things:
better fit – we hold a centralised inventory, and we finish to order, so we can offer more sizes.
better made – our clothes aren’t burdened with retail overheads, and there are no middlemen – so we can offer more quality at a sane price.
better range – we don’t have enormous retail spaces to decorate – so we can offer a tightly edited, navigable range, that is constantly responding the choices our customers make.
Your products are made in London, why is this important to you?
I’m supposed to talk about tradition and craft at this point. But the truth is, we love having our factory down the road because we can experemient and make changes fast. We live in the age of the lean startup. Being able to make short, quick runs, and put things on sale quickly, to find out if we’ve made something our customer wants to buy is more important than anything else.
Tell us about your production values, and about the material you use.
Well, we cut no corners. Our fabric is milled in Italy, our trim is from Switzerland. We make in England and Portugal. But I think it’s important to ask why. Luxury for its own sake, just for the bling of it, is a pretty empty thing. Why are we making this investment, when your trousers could be made in cheaper cotton and sewn in a far flung sweatshop for a fraction of the the price? For us, the answer lies in how they wear. We mean to build clothes that wear in, not out. Things that last long enough to become wardrobe standbys: those favourites that have softened and stretched in all the right places, adapting to the things you do and they way you move, until they are uniquely, distinctively yours. That’s what we’re really buying when we pay more for Italian milled cotton or precision cut Swiss zip teeth.
What is the future for spoke?
Trousers and shorts will remain at our core for the foreseeable – but you can certainly expect us to start experimenting with some of the same ideas in new categories over the coming months. An extraordinary number of our customers have bought several pairs of trousers from us, and we’re thrilled with that endorsement – but ultimately you only need so many pairs of chinos. We don’t want to squander the relationships we’ve built – so you can expect us exploring new categories soon.
Interview by MHG