Country of Origin has just opened a two-month pop-up shop in Coals Drop Yard at King’s Cross, with sights set on growing its UK exposure following a business partnership forged last year which provided a new factory in Leicestershire to produce its traditional but contemporary knitwear. Co-founder and creative director, Ben Taylor, who founded the brand in 2014 with his business and life partner, Alice Liptrot, talks through how their brand is developing and the importance of made in Britain product
What were your first products in 2014 and how did progress from that?
Our initial products were sourced and manufactured in Scotland using a factory that produces traditional hand-framed knitwear. It was a very small collection of 12 pieces of knitwear. Once we finished the first season of wholesale, we realised the Scottish manufacturer couldn’t keep up with the capacity we required. We then looked around for a factory that could make to the quality we were after, a fully-fashioned hand-linked garment, but we couldn’t find one, so we decided to make them ourselves and took a place in a railway arch in Streatham, south London. We bought a couple of industrial machines and did production ourselves for two years.
What happened next?
A year ago, we met Saïd Saleh, an old industry veteran who is now our business partner, who was looking at starting up a new factory in Wigston, Leicestershire. He shared the same passion as us for the craftsmanship of the product.
How important is ‘made in Britain’ to your brand ethos?
It’s integral to what we do. Country of Origin was started up as a reaction to fast fashion and the less transparent production practices that go on. Keeping it closer to home, and having control over production, would mean that we would never be in that position. Also, knitwear, and particularly the way we make knitwear, is quite unique to the British Isles. It’s a way of making garments that is dying out to a certain extent in the UK, with all the outsourcing to cheaper places to make it. We wanted to update the traditional with a more modern brand. Making in the UK plays into our ethical standpoint on working practices in the fashion industry, and not paying people a pittance for their work.
What’s special about your designs?
Where a lot of the knitwear manufacturers in the UK are very traditional, we take a very modernist approach to design. We keep clean and traditional silhouettes, but then update them with a bright colour palette. We’ve introduced a knitted chore jacket and Fair Isle jumpers, but currently our best-selling style is the tri-colour lambswool crew-neck sweater, which sells for £145. Also, the collaboration with Bergdorf Goodman, through Bruce Pask, the retailer’s fashion director, has been a really good seller for us this season – especially the cable knit patchwork piece.
How did the collaboration with Bergdorf Goodman come about?
I think we originally met Bruce in our first season at Pitti Uomo. He really liked the collection and we kept in touch ever since. He’s also been a a big customer of ours over the years, from a personal perspective, so it was great to design something with him, and we also did an exclusive cardigan. It’s a collaboration that will continue. Around 60% of our orders online are now coming from the US, so it has given us a massive boost. We’ve changed tact quite a lot, and this is the first season that we’ve really concentrated on our direct to consumer online sales. As a result, we’ve seen a really large upturn on that, especially from the US. We do carry stock at the factory because we are pushing online much more.
How big is your current wholesale business?
We have about 90 stockists globally, though probably only about 15 of those are in the UK. We supply the likes of Peggs & son in Brighton, The Content Store and now John Lewis, which received the first ever drop from us two weeks ago. The UK is definitely not one of our biggest markets, but we are hoping to grow it quite considerably next season.
How do you approach wholesale markets outside of the UK?
We do some different styles for different territories which we don’t carry on our website but we do for wholesale markets such as Italy and Japan, which are actually our strongest wholesale markets, along with France. They are not necessarily exclusive designs for those markets, they are open to anyone, but they just work better in those territories as opposed to the UK and US.
Do you do spring/summer knitwear as well?
We have done in the past, and we’re looking to really build on that for SS20. We’re doing some fine knit T-shirts and fine knit Merino pieces, which will also go in to our AW20 collection so it elongates the sales period for the milder autumn months.
What has spurred doing the new pop-up shop at Coals Drop Yard?
We see a bricks and mortar store as supporting our brand in general. It’s not all about sales, it’s about raising brand awareness. We have done a pop-up shop before, in Clerkenwell back in 2014 – not long after we started out. That ran for about three months. The new Coals Drop Yard pop-up opens on 14 November. We’ve done it because we feel there’s a real importance in making that offline connection with the customer. Obviously, our wholesale accounts do that to a certain extent, but I feel it’s important to get the products in front of customers in an offline setting ourselves. We’re on Lower Stable Street in Coal Drops Yard which has some interesting boutiques. The store is only about 200 sq ft, which is a perfect size for us to present our collection. We’ve got some lads from Central Saint Martins to run it for us. Opening a permanent store is something we will consider moving forward, but it’s not something that we’re looking to do in the near future.
What can we expect from the brand for AW20?
There will be a fair bit of lighter weight knitwear to move the collection on and complement our current lambswool offer. We’re also looking at doing some recycled cashmere pieces. At this moment, I’m pretty sure we will be showing AW20 at Pitti Uomo.