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Exclusive Q&A with Universal Works Designer/Founder David Keyte

Exclusive Q&A with Universal Works Designer/Founder David Keyte

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David Keyte is living the dream of every person who worked in a the fashion industry. Everyone who said, “I can do this”. Or “I can do this better”. In 2009, after 25 years in the industry, Keyte started Universal Works, making stylish, honest clothes for men in the tradition of classic British menswear.

Keyte was kind of enough to do a Q&A with The Pursuitist about his time in the fashion industry and his company, Universal Works.

Q. Give us background about yourself and your company, Universal Works.

D.K. I started the business with a small collection for Winter 09. The time seemed right to start my own line after many years of working in the industry. As Malcom Gladwell said, ‘I need to do my 10,000 hours first to become an expert then a few more years to check out I was doing it right’ only then could I start my own line.

I started like many – as a shop boy working saturdays in small fashion store. I eventually got a job managing the original Paul Smith store. I am sure I was not ready for it, but Paul liked me and gave me the chance to shine. From there I went to working on sales with Paul, and then into product management and sourcing, eventually running a team of 15/

I was then head hunted into big “High St. Fashion” job – hated it. Left and started a small retail business while doing consultancy with designers, stores and brands on product development and sourcing fabrics and garments. A few years of that, before I headed back to London to work for five years for Maharishi. After that I went back to freelance before Universal Works went from a small germ in my head to the first collection for Winter 09. I put together the collection in 6 weeks and got 8 clients in the first season.

Q. Where does the Universal Works collection reside in the marketplace?

D.K. We have a really broad appeal. In many stores we are their well priced off. With a retailer like My-wardrobe we are not expensive and sit along side an impressive set of “designers”. With someone like Oi Polloi, we are much more with our peers and like brands. But we also have some skate stores and some less fashion-type stores who buy the collection, as well as more tradition stores like Fenwick’s of Bond Street. We really love that, it’s well – universal!  Really our peers are anyone selling well-made, understated non-branded honest clothes for men. There are a few out there in the US, Scandinavia and, especially, Japan. 

Q. What makes Universal Works and your designs unique?

D.K. My own take is that it resides with my own journey 25 years of working with great product. Using small makers. Keeping things simple. Only having a pocket or a button where a pocket or a button should be. Trying to make easy wear and easy care clothes still feel like a luxury product. By caring about every aspect of the process. By making the patterns to filling the export cartons all ourselves and not outsourcing it all to a nameless corporate company.

Q. What are some of the trends we are going to be seeing this fall and into 2011?

D.K. Simplicity. less technical, more honest and understated looks. Finally less jeans. I love denim but does every man really have to wear over-processed jeans! Yes, less five pocket jeans and more great pants, pleated pants – we love them. 

Q. Are there any regional or international influences that are going to be emerging in the coming years in the fashion industry?

D.K. The classic look of Kennedy preppy is still strong, but the Japanese do it better than the Americans. But then they normally do the British look better than us too. I think we will all still be looking to Japan. Men will stop wearing trousers that are simply too tight. You heard it hear first.

Q. What would you offer as advice for someone interested in getting into the fashion industry? 

D.K. The water is lovely jump in. But it can be hard to swim, so you will need to work hard or have rich parents.

Q. Who are your favorite designers – current and past?

D.K. Rei Kawakoba, Dries, Magella, Massimo Osti, Edith Head (old film stylist but great stuff) and Paul Smith – he gave me a chance in the industry and taught me a lot.

Q. What’s it like to see your designs in stores, on the street or even on a runway?

D.K. Not sure I ever want to see them on a runway, but its a great thing to see someone wearing it on the street. I still get a huge buzz every time (although I usually see the little  things that I got wrong and will improve next time!). I still want to tell everyone else on the street the guy over there is wearing UW.

Q. Universal Works was started in 2008 – explain the big things you learned from starting such a venture? What was your motivation for starting the brand? What’s been the most satisfying element of having your own brand?

D.K. The best thing is not having to answer to anyone else. The worst thing is not having anyone else with a cheque book open when you need it to grow or buy lunch.

I came to the idea late that I could do this. I was always telling others how they were getting it wrong, and at some point you have to but your neck on the line.

The biggest thing I learned is that less is more. Stay focussed and treat everyone how you want to be treated. And be honest and turn up and keep turning up. It really is a big part of success – not that we have achieved success just yet. 

Q. Your collection is very ‘British’ – do you think that will always be a core of your designs? Where might you take the brand in the future?

D.K. The collection will always have a British feel – you might even say a Northern feel – but not in a ‘paint myself with a union jack’ kind of way. Just great preppy clothing with a British feel, and made with love and soul. We are going to keep doing what we do and hopefully find more great makers to work with, to add to the ones we have now, and grow. But slowly and without trying to be everything to everybody. We do what we do and will continue to try to do it well. Stop me if I ever want to make a perfume! 

Q. What kind of person wears your designs?

D.K. Guys with style. People are stylish and the clothes they chose may help, but thats all it is, so a stylish guy any age. And hopefully in a town near you. If not now, then soon.

Q. Your designs are not readily available in the United States. Where can someone find them if they are in the U.S.?

D.K. We have more stockists now in the states for A/W10, here is a list:

Bloomingdales, New York, Santa Monica
Union Made, San Francisco
Craft, LA
Drinkwater, Boston
Stagg, Austin
Douglas Fir, LA
Nomads, San Fran
Rube, Amagansett, NY
Sixteen Tons, Baltimore

Q. Who’s the coolest / most famous / strangest person you’ve ever seen wearing your designs?

D.K. We have a few people in music like Mumford and Sons wearing the collection. And we have a few people in the film industry. But really I just want people to like the clothing for what it is – not because any celeb is wearing it.

I am happy if our local butcher is wearing it, he is kind of cool and famous. Well, around here. And quite strange too. Makes great pork pies too.

Q. Talk about Universal Works and the local connection with regard to producing your clothing?

D.K. We make a big part of what we do locally in the UK. Not all, mainly because we can’t always get the skills here. So many makers here left some years back, and no young people want to work making garments anymore. So we can’t make it all here, It’s great we can make some in the UK, but mainly in the midlands and the north. And we use a lot of British fabric,

I think it is important to keep a good connection locally. It is important where something is made, as well as how something is made. There are probably more sweatshops in the UK and USA than in China – not that we make anything in China – but everyone who tells me to make all my garments in the UK is always talking to me on a phone or emailing me on a computer made in China. Knowing how a company pays and treats its staff, what rights they have and if it is a “fair” factory, is important to me. Important that we work with good, well-run honest factories in the UK or anywhere.

Learn more about Universal Works at their website.

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