Issue 2 Universal Works

Interview: Robbie Seneschall
Photography: Rashidi Noah
Video: Rob Akin
Model: Fabian Henry

In just a decade, David Keyte has propelled his brand Universal Works from kitchen table to Kyoto. Singularly focused on making the modern man dress better, it’s Universal Works’ humble and honest approach to clothing that has led to four standalone stores, a global stockist list and a place at the forefront of contemporary menswear.

Between flights, Robbie Seneschall (RB) caught up with David Keyte (DK) to gather his thoughts about the current menswear climate, the future of the brand and old men at bus stops.

RB: Congratulations on reaching ten years. What's it like to hit the milestone?

DK: It's very rewarding that we've managed to do what we've done in those ten years and get to the position we’re in. I certainly didn't plan it; the plan was not to have a plan. I'm very delighted to have been around for ten years as a business and to have got as far as we have. To celebrate, we've got some collaborations coming up with three of our original stockists. We originally had nine stockists for the first collection and three of those are still around and thriving, and we're making a special piece for each of those three.

RB: What do you think has changed most about the fashion industry since you started in the business?

DK: There's a lot more menswear available now than thirty years ago. When I started at Paul Smith it was less fashionable to be fashionable; people are now much more aware of what they're wearing.

Another thing that has changed is that I didn't stop being interested in clothes when I got older. I think that's changed. I used to look back at my dad then and he was much younger than I am now. He stopped being interested in anything other than working and providing for his family. Nowadays I don't see why you can't still be interested in fashion at seventy. 

RB: Contemporary menswear centres itself in London. Is being from Nottingham central to the brand’s identity? 

DK: I don't think it's central to the identity. It just happens to be where I live! 

I think it's really interesting for us not to be a part of a London-centric menswear scene. It can also be very limiting that you're not around your contemporaries. I'm here enough that I don't feel I miss out too much though, and I travel the world, so I'm looking at a lot of other cities and a lot of other clothing. 

RB: What was the last thing that got you really excited? 

DK: I genuinely get excited just setting foot on an airplane because it's taking me somewhere else on an adventure. Yesterday, I was in Turin with hundreds of shoe samples and bits of leather and sole units working out how to make a more sustainable foot bed for this product. We came up with our take on a classic shoe that we're going to produce in collaboration next year. I think it'll be a fantastic piece of footwear and I did that all yesterday morning! 

RB: There are a lot of cool older people Instagram accounts these days. Has that ruined your secret inspiration stash?

DK: No, because the blokes who wear too many layers waiting at the bus stops don't have Instagram. They don't know they’re cool. Those are the ones I like the most!

RB: Universal Works have and continue to work with some of the most reputable British textile mills. How important is it to the brand to support British manufacturing?

DK: I don't think it's our reason for being, although I do think it's important that you recognise where you're from and if there are ways to use things that are local then you should. There are so many things that we don't manufacture any more in this country. The world is becoming much more globalised and you have to do things that work for you and do it in the best way possible.

I like to find new ways to use traditional British fabrics. Harris tweed is still traditionally made on the Isle of Harris but I want to do something that wouldn’t have been done normally.  

RB: Is there ever a temptation to use modern technical fabrics or do they already feature?

DK: We use a technical insulation called Clo. They were new at the time and only selling to the outdoor market. They were quite excited about some funny little fashion company using it so they allowed us to buy smaller volumes! I’m a huge fan of tech fabrics and I'm also aware of the need to try and look for new and innovative ways of producing fabrics, garments and packaging. We only want to be a contemporary company so contemporary fabrics make up a big part of the brand.

RB: The last few years have seen an increased focus on sustainability. How does Universal Works cater to someone who wants to buy in a responsible way?

DK: I'm not convinced there’s anything in the world that you make new that is fully sustainable. I started off with a little strapline for my company saying, ‘Buy less shit, just buy my shit!’ 

We shouldn't buy things to throw away; we should buy things with a better lifespan. We should look at the way we package things and we should look at the way we use and misuse things. We strive to do that, and most of the time we fail miserably but we will continue to do so. We're hopeful that by next season we’ll move to plastic packaging made from corn rather than oil. It’s much better for the environment and biodegradable. That said, it’s still a bag you put clothes in and if you're not careful that can end up as a one-use thing. 

RB: Universal Works has an ever-present range in twill. What makes twill the perfect fabric to adapt to the rigours of summer and winter? 

DK: Originally, to get that particular fabric and to make sure it had the right kind of price point, I had to buy a lot of it. For almost three seasons I avoided buying any twill; I just went to factories and persuaded them to let me have their excess. When I actually came to buy it, I had to buy enough for literally four seasons. It was someone saying ‘you’ve got to buy thousands of metres otherwise we won’t produce it’. Luckily we get this amazing product and we can put it out at a very good price to our consumers. 

It’s a versatile, honest, workable, wearable and washable fabric. I think it suits lots of people for lots of reasons. We've sold twill suits to guys who get married in it but I wear it to do the gardening. It just does every job in an admirable way. 

RB: UW has produced uniforms for Logiquest, TokyoBike and Kushi-Ya. What is it that attracts you to kitting out businesses? 

DK: Because some of the things that we produce are inspired by blue-collar workwear, that we have items that can be genuine and real in those purposes, whilst hopefully being a much more stylish and interesting interpretation. It also means it gets well tested, which is really appealing to us. If someone's going to wear it and wash it every day in a restaurant, it has to work. 

RB: Universal Works’ collaboration with Birkenstock this summer was a smash hit. Are there any plans to renew the collaboration? 

DK: We're in conversation; we’d both like to do it. It was interesting that when I put forward the plan and said that we wanted to work on the Boston and Zurich, they told me that no one in the UK or most of Europe buys those two styles. I'd certainly like to do more of the same and perhaps add something so we’ll see! 

RB: The H.W. Dog & Co. collaboration reinforced UW’s commitment to championing small-scale production. What’s it like working with a much smaller company? 

DK: We collaborate with the people that we want to work with. Sometimes it's a very large multinational sportswear company; other times it’s a one-man band hat company in Japan. I think, as a company, we can sit with both and I hope people get something from that. 

With H.W. Dog & Co., I think he makes some of the best hats available, really cool shapes and his attention to detail is incredible. That always inspires me.

RB: When you showed at London Collections: Men the presentations were always really creative and interactive. Why did Universal Works stop showing?

DK: We felt it was a very large sum of money for a small company, just to have five minutes of fame in fashion week. We needed to grow an international business and ensure that stockists were seeing us on a global scale, not just in London. We didn't need to show at LC:M to be seen by the consumer because we could talk to the consumer directly. 

RB: It seems like what works for Universal Works is that customers respond to the genuine face-to-face interaction. 

DK: We created some really interesting things at LC:M and I'm really proud of what we did. A lot of it is just BS though, isn’t it? We try to just be honest and real.