Common is one of the newer brands on the menswear scene, but it’s already caught a number of eyes, from stockists to writers. We managed to catch Common’s Saif Bakir and Emma Hedlund while they were in London. The two chat about their upcoming Newgen presentation, the reasoning behind the names of their clothes, working with Kanye West and more. Take the leap to read the Q&A.
Congrats on the Newgen, how’s all that been?
Emma: It’s been great. We had such nice feedback. We’re all new to twitter, because it’s not very big in Sweden.
Saif: No, Instagram is much bigger.
Emma: We had a lot of tweets yesterday about it. It’s quite nice. We’re very happy with it.
Saif: It’s great to be part of London Collections: Men, it’s even better to be part of newgen with its support, the experience and the help you get.
Emma: The knowledge that they’re all sitting on. That part is the biggest help. Then, obviously, the platform and the opportunity to present to press is great but just that knowledge the fashion council is giving you…
Saif: They’re providing a safety net. With the lawyers and business plan.
All that other stuff you don’t really think about.
Saif: Which actually is the hardest part. You need a business partner, it goes hand in hand. It’s one thing being creative and designing but you won’t make it unless you’ve got a really strong business side. And they provide that.
Do you know what you’re going to do yet or is it too soon to ask?
Emma: We kind of know what we’re gonna do.
Saif: We’ve got ideas, we just need to tie them together. But we know the inspiration and the focal point of the collection.
Emma: And the shapes. It’s all the beginning part of the collection, it’s not hanging there, at all. But I think we’re starting to see it. We can visualise it. The mood board are there, the fabrics are there.
Saif: We’re finalising the print and the ideas.
Emma: Every season we collaborate with an artist, we call it Common Grounds.
Tell us more about that.
Saif: It’s a platform. Where we meet, as the name suggests, on common grounds. We, as fashion designers, would contact a graphic designer, an artist or illustrator. We don’t really set the boundaries, it’s really an open brief. It’s just someone whose work we like and appreciate and want to do something together. The past three seasons it’s been print on clothes but it’s just the way it kind of happened. We’ve fallen in love with some of the artists we’ve seen and thought, “Oh my god, it’d be so cool to do this on this.” But the idea is to work across all disciplines. In the seasons to come it might be completely different, it might not even be clothing.
Like a book or something?
Saif: It could be a book, furniture, a stool. It’s just really open — whatever we like at the time. It depends on who we’re working with and what their discipline is.
Emma: And it’s really interesting to step out of your comfort zone and allow yourself to work on something that is not necessarily what you would do yourself. I think you need to take something that has been provided to you and come up with something creative. We give them a brief and they come back with something and then you need to do something with it. Often that becomes much more interesting than if you were to do it from scratch yourself. So far it’s been really expensive. And now we’re in the process of starting something for 2014. It’s very fresh at the moment.
You’ve spoken about the whole continuous collection thing. Do you feel that strict seasonal dressing is an outdated notion?
Saif: Seasons are melting into one another. Look at now, we’ve had a really warm autumn. Is there a point of having autumn/winter, spring/summer? They’re all kind of going together. Sometimes we’ll have a really cold summer or cold spring and nobody would sell anything. Any shorts would end up on sale. Retailers and businesses are seeing it through a sales point of view. For us, it’s more like dividing the year.
Emma: Our collections are continuous such as there’re carryover styles and also seasonals. There might be very light garments in the autumn/winter collection and slightly heavier ones for spring/summer.
Saif: And to add on to [what] Emma said, it’s a story under constant development. When we say our collections are continuous, it’s because you should be able to hang them all together and they would look like a big collection. Because at the end of the day, you’ll put them in your wardrobe and that’s how they’ll hang. You’re not going to divide your wardrobe– take pieces from all of our collections and hang them in your wardrobe and [you can] see there’s a red thread going through them. A common vibe. That’s what we meant with our collections being continuous.
Going on from that, how important are mainstays?
Saif: Carryovers happen because they become popular.
Emma: Also, from people asking about it and press reactions. Our outerwear for one, there’s a demand or they’re asking for outerwear to come back again. So the bomber jacket is becoming a carryover style, it’s been so popular.
Saif: It’s become our signature piece. It’s always there and people expect it. This guy emailed me, he promised never to buy a bomber jacket ever again because he’s got 8 or 9 and then he walked outside of Other Shop on Kingly Street and had to get it. And he emailed us just to tell us that. He broke the only vow he had to himself not to buy one more bomber. Which is great, and for us it’s better than sales. He’s expressing his love for a piece that you’ve actually created and done. Its the ultimate satisfaction really.
What’s behind the names of the pieces?
Saif: At the beginning, we were inspired by a particular thing like Russian art or something. At one point, we were inspired by the ’40s and that kind of army-military.
Emma: We used the names. It was German names then it was Russian names. Last year we had a lot of inspiration from American sports so the names came from the likes of Cole and Neil and American baseball players.
Saif: First season we had a trench coat made out of silk. It felt so French, it looked so French and then it was called Yves. It’s like giving personality to the garments.
How was making things in Sweden?
Emma: That was something we initially had as a starting point.
Saif: At the time everyone was complaining that everything’s made in the Far East. People were talking about the environment and the impact that has on it. It was really in fashion to talk about that. Like in New York, there was a lot of brands all made in Brooklyn. People were making their own soap and jams and god knows what else. There was so much homemade, locally produced things. At least in food there was a lot of that.
Emma: It felt natural to take that on in fashion, but in very high-end fashion.
Saif: The Swedish manufacturing industry was huge back in ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s then it started dying. There was a few factories that we thought it’d be cool to go back [to] and see what’s going on.
Emma: Our first collection was all manufactured in Sweden. And it was a really nice idea but it was really difficult to make it happen. And we felt that, first of all, we didn’t get the kind of support that we hoped to get from the manufacturers themselves. Because there’s not many and there’s not many people that are interested in working in the factories, so there’s no knowledge. Everyone had to leave and work somewhere else.
Saif: It was a dying trade really, it’s a dead trade.
Emma: Today, if you study or aim to go into the textile business you wouldn’t really educate yourself as a technician. You would go into possibly pattern cutting but you would probably go into the design part of it.
Saif: Nobody wants to be a seamstress.
So this situation is similar to how it is in England?
Saif: It is. The industry vanished ages ago.
You don’t aspire to speak Latin anymore.
Saif: No, exactly. You nailed it there. It is a shame. At the end of the day, who’s going find it interesting? The local people, because if it’s made locally then it should be attractive to the local people. But then the local people weren’t interested. Swedish people were like, “I’m not paying that much for that.” So it’s fine when you complain about the factories falling apart and people are dying in Bangladesh but you’re not willing to pay the extra money to get it done locally with fair wages. It’s hypocrisy, so we thought. And the international stores wouldn’t care about if it’s made in Sweden.
Emma: We haven’t completely left the idea, if you can make something locally that would be great. If you do a specific product and the manufacturing possibilities are there, that’s great.
Saif: Having said that, we produce a lot in the UK. We sample everything in the UK. All our collections are done here. And we produce in Europe so it’s not sweatshops in Bangladesh. I don’t think for brands at our level and our market, it’s not interesting to be in the Far East. If you’re going to go to China you need thousands and thousands and thousands of quantities.
Emma: And you definitely lose the quality of the garment. You can immediately see it. Even for the bigger labels that have originally produced in Italy or in Europe, then they go to the far east and you see they lose the possibility of controlling the quality of the garments. Obviously if you manage to have someone there to oversee it it’s good, but it’s just easier to do it here.
How long were you at COS?
Saif: A year and a half.
Emma: When Saif was at COS I started working with Kanye West and then moved on and worked with Wooyoungmi. That’s when Kanye started the discussion of setting up a studio in Paris and making his brand. Pastelle, it was called initially, to Kanye West. That’s when both me and Saif were appointed head of design.
How was Wooyoungmi?
Emma: That was my first complete menswear debut. I did four, five seasons with Wooyoungmi. It was quite different because it was all quirky details but I learnt a lot. I was in charge of creating the catwalk collections.
How was Pastelle?
Emma: When I started there, it was very new so it was only me, Kanye and another guy Virgil who’s doing Pyrex, working very tightly with Kanye on everything. Initially it was a lot more street and what Kanye was all about at the time. He was always a lot more interested in doing womenswear and more high-end clothing. He was looking at Paris rather than the streetwear that you associated him with.
Saif: We have to thank him for the hours we spent working. It wasn’t a 9 to 5 job.
Emma: We never left the studio before 2am. And then we were there again at 8am.
Saif: We are kind of doing the same hours now. It prepared you for the hard work. And he was there all the time. He didn’t sleep. Look how productive he is.
Emma: And when we were sleeping, he was recording.
How does his public thing differ from his private thing?
Saif: He works. It’s all work.
Emma: At one time initially we all sat at his hotel, the Moritz. In one room, he’d emptied the whole room and he was recording his album with John Legend and Jay-Z was coming in. And in the other room he had the design team, sketching. Multi-tasking.
Stockists, you’ve got a really strong stockist list.
Emma: We’re very lucky that our debut collection was in Tres Bien and in Storm in Copenhagen.
Saif: So it filtered down from there. It was our strategy. We didn’t want to be everywhere and we pinpointed the shops we really wanted and contacted them directly. We don’t do trade shows. We’ve been offered all the trade shows for free but it’s not our thing.
Emma: It’s important for a young brand to have a personal connection to all the stores.
Saif: We sell ourselves.
Emma: You need to see what they need from a brand. All the stores have their needs and their specific customers. And that also gives you the opportunity to decide how you’re going to design your collections in order to keep all your customers happy.
Saif: And stay true to yourself. It’s good to get the feedback and to have the personal contact to your customers. Because for us, we don’t have our own stores or online shop, so they are our first customer. We’re lucky to have stores like Soto, Voo, Tres Bien and Storm all liking us.
What’s next apart from New Gen?
Saif: We’re just really excited about New Gen and putting all the effort and getting a really strong collection.
Emma: And semi-relocating to London. Being here where it’s all happening.
Saif: And doing a great presentation. There’s not much time left, less than six weeks. And Christmas is in-between.
Emma: It’s going be Christmas in the studio. It’s always going be exciting with the new collaborations as well.
Jason Dike is a london based writer who’s contributed to the likes of Esquire UK and Men’s Health amongst other publications. He has a highly entertaining (his own words), but sporadically updated (our words) website at jasondike.co.uk and you can follow him on twitter at @jasondike.