I first stumbled onto S.E.H. Kelly through StyleForum last winter. Someone linked a picture of an amazing wool tweed peacoat, and I was immediately taken in by the spot on details and the careful design. I was lucky enough to be able to talk with Paul and Sara, the designers behind the label, a few weeks ago. Check out their StyleForum thread here.
Ben: What's your background? How did you get started?
S.E.H. Kelly: We began in 2009, with a minuscule set of garments intended to kit out the average man for a single day. The collection, such as it was back then, comprised a shirt with a semi-cutaway collar, trousers, and an overshirt.
Prior to that, Sara -- one-half of S.E.H Kelly and the one with her name above the door -- worked on Savile Row, for a tailoring and couture house. The conversation came about between the two of us one day: why not make relaxed, everyday garments, using the materials mostly used only for formal-wear on the Row?
It seemed a sensible idea, so we set about making that first collection. I remember we had some brushed wool-cotton shirting, and some extremely fine corduroy, and we used the same horn buttons we still use today. Being a small and unknown operation -- which, to most prosperous mills and factories is a pesky sort of operation -- it helped that Sara had previously made the acquaintance of the makers with whom we needed, back then, to help put that small collection together.
B: How would you describe the S.E.H. Kelly aesthetic?
SK: What we make at S.E.H Kelly is what the two of us like, and what we enjoy wearing. That's as deep-lying as our approach to design gets. We're not the most self- analytical or reflective sorts, Sara and I, and we avoid superlatives to describe our work since there's never much meaning in them. Even when describing our garments in a term as unprepossessing as, say, "simple" -- well, simple compared to what? It is quite subjective. We can boast of the cloth we use and the quality of the make, since these are things that, as observers of it, we feel qualified and entitled to champion. But our designs: we leave descriptions of that to other people. Our aesthetic seems to us the most normal and natural thing in the world -- it is just what we like the look of and find pleasure in. We enjoy putting thought and work into aspects that are concealed, known only to the wearer, so that might be why, on the outside, our garments seem (relatively) simple.
Materials also have a lot of bearing on our aesthetic. The materials we use are dictated entirely by the available wares of British mills -- some of which is limited, such as cotton, and some of which is huge and varied, such as wool and tweed. On the whole -- and with several notable exceptions -- compared to that of their counterparts abroad, British cloth tends to be thick and heavy. Thus our garments are robust. Because of this, to assemble our garments from such cloth, we work with factories adept at strength and robustness. This is why our shirts are mostly made from thick cotton and have French seams; no point trying to achieve a soft, lightweight, continental-style shirt, when that isn't what our makers do best.
We don't have an archive or collection of old garments from which to work, and we don't have a room full of patterns to base anything on. When we develop a garment, we develop it from scratch, and to some extent from first principles. We're respectful of tradition, but aren't restricted by it. A recent example of what I mean is our new trench coat. It is a classic trench in many ways: its length, collar, draped one-piece sleeves. But the parts of many trenches that you see today seem to us vestigial; only present now for sake of appearance. Strip them back and you end up with a trench definitely still what it says on the tin, but in some ways cleaner -- and, if not better suited to modern life, then at least no less well-suited to it.
B: Clearly high quality production - and particularly traditional English production - is important to the brand. How have you found manufacturers, and what's the process of working with them?
SK: Back to the first question, we set out armed with the contacts Sara had made during her time on Savile Row. There were a few woollen mills, a button-maker, a shirting
￼mill, and one or two sample-rooms in London. Since then, we've found other makers largely by word-of-mouth. When you travel to say, West Yorkshire, to a woollen mill, it's not uncommon for someone you meet along the way -- often someone who works at the mill -- to recommend another maker nearby. Happens a lot: we happened upon maker we work with in Ireland via a mill on the same street, for instance.
Whoever we work with, what we like best is to get to the root of what they do, and work closely with them. For example, we've been with the outerwear factory we work with in North London almost since day one. We -- well, Sara, most of the time -- is there every other day, for most of the day, and they're now like family to us. We eat together, chat, joke, argue; have sampled coats and jackets with them on Boxing Days and New Year's Eve and Days. We hope to some extent that their success is our success, and vice-versa. We work together to achieve a very particular type and style and quality of garment. There are umpteen facets to the manufacturing of any garment, from the amount of fusing in a placket, to the millimetre alignment of buttons relative to button-holes, to a great many other things. We're exacting in how we want our garments to look and to feel, and without knowing every facet, and how each one affects the finished garment, well -- you cannot be satisfied.
A recent examples of this is the horn button-maker we work with. Only after spending a good amount of time with them, and observing the different stages of horn button- making, did we manage to work out a way to achieve the exact right type of polishing on our buttons. It may sound trifling, but small things like this -- a horn button neither too matte nor too shiny, and polished in a way specific to S.E.H Kelly -- is what we enjoy trying to achieve.
Same goes for a weaver we work with -- Daniel Harris -- over on the other side of Hackney. We've been fortunate to make some terrific cloth with him, and again only made for us, over the past year. We're similar sized and aged and situated businesses, and we both share a similar outlook; our cogs turn at much the same speed. He has ideas, and so do we, and being able to inform fabric development from the very outset is wonderful. Earlier this year, for instance, he developed some rope-dyed indigo cotton for an SB1 jacket we were then designing. The finished cloth looked like raw denim, handled like soft cotton, and draped like dress cloth. Subverting what you'd expect from both garment and cloth is something we enjoy doing very much with Daniel.
One more example is the brass foundry from whom we source our buckles. A few weeks ago I hopped on the train to the Midlands and paid them a visit and, a few hours later, was two paces from the furnace from which the molten brass is collected and poured into buckle moulds. You can't help but get some instinct and feel for what the place is about by doing this. You can also follow the buckles as they leave the moulds, a few days later, and move along the line: buffing and polishing and so on. Perhaps you see an avenue along the way worth exploring; perhaps you can try to achieve a new type of finish, like we're trying right now with our horn buttons.
In each of these cases, we try to observe without pretence or ego. We understand very well that, with things like brass polishing, we know next to nothing. We ask questions symptomatic of that, and before we know it, we're armed with sufficient knowledge -- whether it be of process or material -- to improve some aspect of the finished garment.
B: How do you see the brand evolving?
SK: We began four years ago with a wardrobe fit for one man for one day, and one year in, our collection was such that it was fit for one man for one week. Now, we think, we have more than enough garments to satisfy one man for one month. And, for us, that's as big as a wardrobe needs to be. We'll keep working on new developments, sure -- but I think the pace of them will slow for the time being.
What we're doing right now is honing everything, much as described in the second half of the last answer. We want to learn and master the ins and outs of make, no matter how infinitesimal, and to perfect every one of our garments such that, one day, there will be no room for improvement. I think there's a well-known saying that indicates that that is impossible -- but right now, that's what we're trying to do. It's a satisfying endeavour.
On the other side of things, we want to keep our customers -- both those who buy from our website / workshop in London, and those we have in Japan -- satisfied with and interested in our work. If we make sure we do the best work we can, on time, and keep people happy, then the evolution of brand, such as it is, will hopefully look after itself.
B: What do you see as your place in the fashion industry?
SK: We're hermits, really, Sara and I, so we don't keep much of an eye on the rest of the industry. The only place our garments are sold, besides direct to customers from London, is in Japan. So it was only when we saw our garments on rails on shops in Japan, earlier this year, that we gained some insight into where we fit into the bigger scheme of things.
In some of the shops in Japan, like Archstyle in Sapporo, we seem to be alongside heritage or quality-led British brands, old ones and new. In others stores, like Beams International Gallery, we're next to very high-end fashion brands. And then, in others again, like 1LDK or Heather Grey Wall in Tokyo, S.E.H Kelly is alongside more casual contemporary brands; the clever, inventive ones, who seem to work on a scale similar to ours.
To answer your question, then, I'd have to say that we slot into various places in the industry. We fill a gap. A small but to us significant gap. We're not sure what that gap is exactly -- but occupy it we do.
B: What's been the biggest surprise so far? Biggest success?
SK: The biggest surprise: probably the peculiarity of being better-known in Japan than in London. The majority of our garments end up in Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka, Sapporo, and so on -- and then a few wind up back here. That would have to count as our biggest success, too: the stores that've taken us on board over there really are the best of the best.
B: What brands do you guys wear? Who do you look up to?
SK: I wear S.E.H Kelly, and then on my feet either Clarks or Tricker's. Sara wears custom- made garments (made at the factories we work with, usually with the same cloth we've used for S.E.H Kelly) as well as the occasional S.E.H Kelly scarf and cardigan and socks, Church's shoes, and things picked up or sent from Japan -- brands like Blue & Black, Colenimo, and Yarmo.
We don't know enough about anyone else in the industry to look up to them. There are some brands who seem to be doing well, and who make very nice things, but we're really not sure where to look to be able to look up, if you can make any sense of that.
B: It seems that, seasonally, you don't produce a large number of each design. Is that intentional?
SK: We are a small company and we must always tread carefully. Especially with new developments -- e.g. with the trench coat this year, and the peacoat last year -- we made fewer than ten. In this regard, we're fortunate to have such good relationships with our makers; most factories wouldn't be terribly happy to accommodate such small production runs.
Often the cloth we use is limited, and, generally speaking, we'd rather make many small runs of individually interesting garments, each with their own stories or reason for being, rather than larger runs of less personal garments. I understand that, for people who miss out, this approach can be frustrating, but it is a consequence of being a two-person team, and enjoying most of all working with similarly sized makers.
B: Have you thought about opening a full-fledged physical brick and mortar location?
SK: That isn't something we're interested in right now. Having the workshop is great for meeting those people who have maybe seen our garments online, or read about them in a magazine, and want to see or try them in person.
The workshop is chiefly a place for Sara and I to work, to store tools and cloth and buttons and so on. It's always terrific to meet customers in person -- but to have a proper shop, and to run it to the standards we'd want, we'd need staff, and well, lots of other commitments and responsibilities that are some departure from, and might interfere with, the making of garments.
B: What message would you like to give to our readers?
SK: I know enough about Styleforum to know that there's no pulling wool over the eyes of its members; that if they like something, they will get to the roots of it and work out for themselves if it is up to muster.
We've been lucky to meet a few Styleforum members here at the workshop, or occasionally over email or Twitter, and they are knowledgeable and courteous sorts. The only message I can offer to them and to other Styleforumers is that, if you're ever in our neck of the woods, to drop by the workshop and say hello; the internet and email is all well and good, but we posit that it's only in handling the material, inspecting the garments up close, and speaking to the people responsible for them, that -- as with lots of things -- you get a proper understanding, for better or worse, of what it is really all about.