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Talking Threads – S.E.H Kelly

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During a hectic visit to London, I took a quick detour to Supreme, to get a re-up on white tees, before heading to my next stop – the workshop of S.E.H Kelly.

I’d taken my sisters to London to see a show for their birthday, but abandoned them “for an hour” to go and meet Paul, the co-owner, who I’d spoken to via email.

After sitting on a train that didn’t move for what feels like a day, I decided to chance jumping on one across the platform that had a different end destination but passed through the general neighbourhood where I needed to be.

Alas, as I take my seat, the first train pulls out the station and I’m once again sat waiting. I’m going to have to jib it and head back to my sisters because I am already massively late.

That was 2012 and I still haven’t made it to the workshop.

S.E.H Kelly’s pieces are like something the Peaky Blinders could wear, but that would also look just as good in 2016. You can’t beat wearing gear that transcends stupid things such as fashion and trends.

That’s because S.E.H Kelly don’t really do fashion, which is why I like them so much. Their items don’t come in big, seasonal collections or try to lead or second-guess what is going to be popular this time next year. Instead, it is all about working tirelessly on producing items of clothing to be as timeless as they possibly can be.

The brand doesn’t even even do sales. The company has a core belief that if you are going to take somebody’s hard earned money off them in exchange for a product of yours, it should simply be the best that it can be and sold for an accordingly fair price. Paul told me that another interviewer once accused him of pricing his jackets a little on the expensive side and he replied by saying, “No, not really, they are priced where they should be for the design, work, care and quality of material that has gone into them.”

And he isn’t wrong; the jacket I bought in 2011 is still going strong. When we finally catch up and I tell him this, he seems to be genuinely chuffed, thanks me and says, “That’s the best kind of feedback.”

This friendly and well-grounded attitude is something that pervades across the company website and email correspondence, so it was pleasing to see it come across so noticeably when I sat down for a chat with him.

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Proper: Thanks for doing this.

Paul, S.E.H Kelly: It’s a pleasure, and yeah, I like this sort of thing, a chance to get it all out. This is therapy for me. I usually have to pay for this once a week.

Well, I’m Paul. I’m listening.

Cool, man, thanks for thinking of us.

No worries, I’ve been a fan for a long while. I bought a – I don’t know what it was called, the jacket – like, French worker/baker type jacket, with pockets around the side.

A blue one? Did you buy one of them?

Yeah! For a New Year’s Eve party, about four years ago.

Off us or off eBay?

No, off you.

Ah, really? That’s one of our first things, you know? That’s ancient. It’s positively vintage, mate. Yeah, I’ve got it here now. It will be our four year anniversary in two and a half weeks.

Aw.

Alright, don’t get sentimental.

 

We chat like this for a while, about the passing of time, the merits of casting your clothing purchases by your other half (“they do say that your partner has the best taste in what’s good for you”, says Paul), the party I first wore the jacket to and how it got covered in red wine. I tell him that the open bellow pockets are ideal for carrying a six-pack of cans, an unintended but very handy design feature. Eventually, the talk moves to the S.E.H Kelly website, a place which is full of care and something which Paul fondly describes maintaining.

 

I like doing the website, it’s a bit of a hobby of mine. It’s what I do in the evenings, in front of the T.V.

I start chuntering on about mills and things. It’s addictive because there is always something to do. I’m my own worst critic, so I’m always going back and changing things that I wrote four years ago, not that anyone is going to be reading it. I think, “Why did I use that tone of voice? That sounds stupid.” So I go and change it, but I know, in four years time, I’ll be going back and changing it again. I’m always thinking, “Why did we do that? Let’s change it.”

Yeah, it’s an obsession really. If it were down to me, we’d never release anything new; we’d just keep releasing updated versions of the same jacket, but on a commercial level that’s not very clever. I think it’s OCD or something.

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Right, I should ask you some more questions, I think.

Oh, is that not it? I thought that was it. I thought we had finished.

If you want, we will just put that in? So, thanks for your time…

Ha-ha! That was riveting.

Okay, I’ve got a really dumb question.

Go on…

How do you prefer the name to be pronounced?

There’s only one way, mate.

The letters, yeah?

There are dots in between, Paul.

Yeah, but only two.

Well, to be fair, you aren’t the only one. Lot’s of people get the letters the wrong way round, some people say “She Kelly”, some say “Seh-Kelly”, or even “Seth Kelly”, so you aren’t on your own. I think there is an American footballer, or something, called Seth Kelly; we get a lot of emails to Seth Kelly. But no, it’s S-E-H-Kelly. It’s just Sara’s initials because, we were trying to come up with a good name when we started, she had this big list of names, it was probably about a full page of A4 of possible names, and they weren’t very good.

Give us a couple of rejects.

No, I can’t remember. They were all things like generic nouns, like “Wardrobe” and all very matter of fact.

Very meta.

Yeah, down the line. They weren’t great, so I just said, “Your name looks good, when the bank statements come and stuff, why don’t you just call it that?” And so we did, but when she wrote it down, for the first time, she accidentally dropped the dot after H, so there should be one there but there isn’t. She forgot to do it. I guess punctuation isn’t her strong point, but it’s too late to change now. We would have to make some sort of public service announcement. We’re stuck with two dots and it niggles me, but it’s alright. So, yeah, that’s the name. She literally has her name above the door.

So she’s the boss?

Yep.

No, we’re both The Boss technically. It’s just that she has a better sounding name. Who wants to buy jackets from P. Vincent? “Kelly” just sounds better.

Weren’t you on Savile Row, at a time? ‘P. Vincent’ sounds like it might work down there.

Yeah, Sara was in some of the tailoring houses, trying to help modernise them, because a lot of them were – and are – quite fusty and not quite of the modern world. So, one of her last jobs was to help bring a Savile Row brand into the 21st century. She built up all these contacts in different mills and factories which we knew – Oh, hello, mate, am I in the way? Hold on. Sorry.

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Paul is sat in “the factory”, a place in North London where the majority of the garments are put together. He has an endearing amount of respect for the people who actually produce the garments. As we talk, I learn that he (and Sara, his partner in every sense of the word and recent mother of their first child together) is an ideas man. He doesn’t claim to be a master tailor – though he does know a thing or two – as his role is design.

We quickly digress again and chat about life generally. On his recent addition to the family he says, “any spare time we did have has now gone. Sleep is a foreign place to me. I have forgotten where it is, but I hope it is still there when I eventually next get chance to go.”

He is originally from Macclesfield but now lives and works in London, and has done for a long time.

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I’m getting a bit tired of it [London] now, though. You only go where you need to go; factory-home-factory-home-factory-home. I used to love it but after a while, you know – we might move out, now we’re getting older. It’s a headache, a lot of it, and it’s all so expensive.

We’d like to move out more to the countryside; it’s all full on and everyone is miserable here. Everyone is either really, really, really rich or just really poor or sometimes really smug, and I don’t want to be any of those people. So we might move out. We still need to get to the factories we work with though and most of them are in North London and it’s important to be there quite a lot. Anyway, where were we? Savile Row I think?

Oh yeah. When you were talking about the fustiness of Savile Row, that made me think; have you seen the newish Hardy Amies store? They have their made-to-measure suits department in a shop with pairs of New Balance and stuff. But, anyway, some of their everyday items remind me of your things. Roll necks and that.

They’re doing well, I think, because it can be difficult for an old brand to try and transform into something more modern. It can be difficult and I think some of the other old tailoring houses aren’t doing quite as good of a job.

It’s painful to see the nice, old venerable houses chasing stuff and forcing it, doing catwalk shows and things; just not doing things right. They’ve got such good archives of cloth and patterns and things.

Some of the places have these amazing archives of stuff from the 60s and 50s, back to stuff they made for the army in the 40s, you know, incredible archives; but you don’t see any of it.

They try and modernise the house but don’t tap into all that history of the company. But some are doing an alright job, I think, like Hardy Amies.

I’d love to get my hands on all that stuff, incredible old jackets, deadstock fabrics, things that they made for Winston Churchill in 1947, an old dinner suit or something; it’s all just sitting there on Savile Row, not being used or appreciated. It’s a shame really.

I think places bring in new, young designers and they feel like they have to make a mark, or make a name for themselves internally, or something.

I don’t know what it is, but I think when a founder of a company is no longer around, the person who set the blueprint for the company, they lose their way I think.

Nine times out of ten, once the founder of a company is dead, they lose their way. There you go, that’s what you should do, when you go shopping you should ask if the founder is still alive because it will probably be better than the one whose founder’s dead.

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Ha-ha. This idea of not changing your ethos comes across from yourselves very strongly. Like the not offering of sales?

Yeah, I think it’s a tricky one, really.

There’re different types of customers for different types of things; some blokes like to buy things in the sale, to get a bargain, for some people there is an excitement in that. But, no, it’s not really for us as it seems a shame to slash the price on something when we know how much work has gone into it and it’s something which isn’t cheap to make either.

If we did sales, we’d end up losing money, to be honest. Hopefully, the longer we do it, the more we will be known for doing so and people will know and respect us for that.

Yeah but then you’ll die and someone else will come in and do a big sale and change it all.

Yeah, then I’ll be spinning in my grave and not be able to do anything about it. But Sara is going to outlive me so I guess she will be the one who does it.

She’s the boss anyway.

Exactly. Exactly, I can’t argue with her.

Okay, I’m going to read a note I made…

Go on then.

“S.E.H Kelly feels like a secret band that you always go and see but has never exploded into the mainstream.” Do you feel like that? Sort of like Cold War Kids or… or… I dunno, I’m not really into bands so it’s a shit analogy.

No. But I like that a lot… though you are showing your age there I think, with the Cold War Kids reference, though I agree; I can’t name any bands that fit that analogy but I know what you mean. I’m not within it anymore, or with it rather; see, I can’t even say it, I’m not even “with it” anymore – I think that’s quite an old reference, there – but it’s just that we are insular really.

I’ve got this theory, that the best way to do it is to do what you enjoy and just keep doing it and don’t be tempted to get above your station. So, we just design stuff that we enjoy, get it made well and improve it where you can, and just keep doing that. Don’t try and do too much and don’t try and do anything you don’t enjoy.

Plus, we’ve always said we don’t want to employ anyone because we don’t want the responsibility; and we don’t want anyone above us, so we don’t want any money to come in that isn’t ours. We are sort of stuck where we are really.

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Did you watch the Salford City T.V. programme?

No, I feel like I’ve seen it though because it was advertised so much.

The people there at the club were going through that once these big owners came in. The volunteers, who cut the pitch and stuff, were saying, “If we wanted to be part of a league club, we would go and get a job at City or watch United or Rochdale or whoever. We do this because we like it.” I can hear that in what you just said.

Yeah, no, I know.

I think some people who start their own company are very ambitious and want to grow and grow and get more money and get employees, but we are ambitious in a different way; we just want to make a success as we are now. It suits us brilliantly.

There is this idea, I think it’s called the Peter Principle, where people start in a career at the bottom, and they’re very good at it, so they get promoted. Then they are very good at that, so they get promoted. Then they do that for a few years and are very good at it, so they get promoted again. And promoted again, until eventually they are the manager, and they’re a very good manager, so they get promoted again, until they end up being promoted to the point where they become incompetent.

Sort of like Steve McClaren. My old boss had a theory on that which went a bit further; they then wouldn’t be able to demote them, so they’d just promote them again instead; so the higher up you go in a big company, the worse the people actually are.

It should be renamed the Steve McClaren Principle. He should have stayed as a great coach, making a load of money and he’d have been known as the game’s greatest ever coach. Simple. Now he’s the Wally With A Brolly. You can see it in his face that he isn’t happy anymore, but that’s the principle right there. So I want us to stay like Steve McClaren as he was, not as he is now.

Am I keeping you at the factory late for a Friday?

No, not at all, I don’t really get going until about two in the afternoon. Then go home about eight, cook, feed the baby, work on the site, and then go to bed. But, no, I don’t leave the factory till late and then, once the baby has gone to bed, I get the laptop out. I’m always trying to source and order new cloth so I’ll be working out how much we need for that, plus that, plus that, and work out the requirements of each for the next few months.

So you’re a copywriting quantity surveyor, by night?

That’s it, that’s my job description. And nanny.

It suits me though because if I don’t fancy doing that, I can do something else. I can always find something that I’ll enjoy doing. It’s very rare that I’m doing something reluctantly, it is usually stuff that I enjoy doing; you know, if I don’t fancy doing the website I can dive into some dialogue with a customer who wants to know how wide the shoulders are or maybe some other way too nuanced question about a garment. Sometimes, they leave me impressed thinking, “Christ, you’ve read a lot of books about tailoring, I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” It’s impressive.

But there is always something to do.

Well, I think we have nearly covered most of the stuff I wanted to. Just a couple of more questions. Do you want to tell us a bit about what’s coming up for S.E.H Kelly?

Well, we’re going to do more of the same. More of the same, but better. That’s what we specialise in, doing the same thing as last year, but a bit better. Nobody can do the products we did last year better than us because they are our products. I’m sure we’ll do a few new jackets and a couple of new coats, and we’ll tweak things and develop new things. We’ll come up with an idea for a jacket, develop it and then get it made. Then when they sell out, eventually, we will decide whether to do it again and whether we should make any changes to it. We might change the collar or the fabric or the fit. It’s all speculative really. Every time we do a new run we would hope to improve it. We work on a sort-of seasonal basis because we have stores in Japan.

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Is it just Japan where you have stuff going into stores?

Yeah. When we first started we worked with one shop in the UK – oh, actually, we worked with another shop here, more recently, there’s a place in Marylebone, called Trunk Clothiers – but they were one off things as we only really work with shops in Japan.

I bet they love your stuff in Japan in the same way people here would love an equivalent from over there.

It’s exactly the same but a mirror image. It’s uncanny. The brands that everyone covets over here, the dead expensive Japanese brands everyone loves, are matched by one of ours over there. And many of the brands we love from Japan are just every day, nothing particularly interesting brands, to people over there and are not seen as particularly expensive. I think it’s human nature to want what they can’t have or can’t get easily. Scarcity.

We find this out the hard way, sometimes. We might sell out of a jacket really quickly and get a bit cocky, or optimistic, rather, and decide to make a load more… and then nobody wants them anymore. Which is a pain because you’re stuck with the buggers for ages.

Don’t do a sale, if this happens again.

Yeah. I might just burn them, when it happens, and claim on the insurance. No. I didn’t say that. Seriously though, as we are a new company, a lot of the things we try are, not quite but sometimes almost, hit-and-miss. We did a trench coat before and people in Japan couldn’t get enough of it but people here weren’t interested. People in the UK don’t like our trench coats, for some reason. It’s funny really. You never know when you run a young company and you are doing new things.

Is it because people here tend to buy either a cheap trench coat or a Burberry?

I think people don’t tend to buy proper, full-length trench coats anymore. I think the trench coat has been maligned by crap trench coats and shiny trench coats and trendy trench coats and cropped trench coats – mate, do you remember them, it just about covered your bum? – or trench coats which are single breasted, all of which would have been no good in a trench. Ours is a very traditional trench coat and you don’t see men walking down the street who look like they’ve stepped out of a French film-noir, anymore.

And the blokes who would probably don’t have the internet.

Very true. Whereas in Japan, they’ve got a very keen sense of some of the references, motifs and types of construction in our garments, so they see it as a very classic, British item for lots of different reasons and maybe appreciate it more than a British person would.

Similar to the popularity of the Ivy League look, for people there?

Yeah, true. There are lots of different looks over there; people who are into League stuff, people who are into Goretex-y trainers and things.

What trainers do you wear?

I don’t wear trainers anymore; I just wear Clarks all the time. I’m looking for something new though. I did fancy getting some New Balance but I ended up sticking to my Clarks, but I’m sick of looking at my feet, to be honest. I look down at my feet and I am bored. I’m bored. But I don’t dally around with that too much, really. What do you wear?

Just a pair of Reebok NPC usually and some Clarks Desert Rain for work.

Yeah, I just wear them. I like the idea of wearing proper, grown up shoes, but I’m always on my feet at the factory or lugging cloth around and I’m always on public transport, as I don’t drive, so it doesn’t make sense to wear something that isn’t comfortable. So I just wear Clarks. I think I want something that doesn’t exist.

But you can’t put your finger on it.

Or rather, I can’t put my toe on it. That’s the danger of having something in your head, you will never be able to find it.

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I’m going through this with my wedding suit.

Tell you what you should do, you should go to Naples and get a proper Neapolitan suit. The Italians are blessed with all these wonderful fabrics; linens, silks, linen silk mixes, cloths which are beautiful; especially so for that kind of climate. Get a completely unlined, unstructured Neapolitan suit and it’d be bloody lovely. We don’t do suits but I’d like to do suits one day. To do suits, you need a really good suit factory. You don’t want to play at it and also the reason why we started doing this was because, at the time, all these British mills that Sara was working with on Savile Row, that’s what they were doing with the cloth, making suits with it. So the idea of S.E.H Kelly was to use the really good cloth but turn it into everyday, more accessible clothes. And that was the original concept because she was sourcing these really good cloths from places like the one you mentioned in Yorkshire, and these other really old venerable mills and making three-piece suits with it. So the idea was to use the really old mills and their nice cashmere and their tweeds and make overshirts and other things that a bloke can wear everyday without having to look like a prat when he is in the pub.

That’s our critical analysis that we apply to anything we make as a business; whatever we make, we say to each other “could I go to the pub wearing that or would I look like a tit?”

We have about 100 ideas a week but only one makes it through. You don’t want people to feel conspicuous, do you? You want something that you can wear to walk down to Tesco, or wherever, and not stand out but also that looks very nice.

If you feel comfortable rather than “on show” it just looks better.

Exactly. It’s a tricky one because with the shop in Japan, they always want stuff that’s a bit more out there, more so than what we would sometimes like to do really.

We did, a few years back, a collaboration with Beams and they told us what they wanted – one of our jackets, one of our trousers, one of our shirts, all stuff we usually make – but they wanted it to have a bright red, Queen’s guard lining and every garment had this dead bright lining. But that’s often what people like over there, these things that they see as British but aren’t really that British, or at least what British people wear. But it works over there.

Maybe they seem to have a pretty romanticised image of what people in Britain wear and because we specialise in British cloth they like to tap into that.

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That being said, I think that is because your stuff is classic British stuff. If you were going to kit someone out from round here (the North West), from a hundred years ago, in just general, typical, everyday style, you could definitely use some of your pieces, couldn’t you? That’s supposed to be a compliment by the way.

It is and I take it as one. That’d be good, I’d like to see that, I’d love to go back in time and see that.

That’s probably because a lot of the cloths and tweeds we use are very British in their heritage and their story. We do try though to bend the cloth to something that suits a more modern wearer than trying to make something look old, if you know what I mean? A lot of the shapes of the collars and position of the pockets, and so on, are quite simple and traditional.

We don’t try to do weird – not ‘weird’, as that sounds disparaging and I don’t mean to be at all – we don’t do unusual or special or out of the ordinary pockets or collars and so on, we try to remain quite classical.

It’s remarkable really, if you change the collar on something or make a pocket flap longer, it can really change the look and we want to make something that really lasts.

We don’t want to make something that might go out of fashion. We want to aim to be as timeless as possible… or as much as you possibly can be.

We want a jacket we release now to fit into our collection in five years time, so we don’t tend to piss around with those kinds of things. Though there is a place for both, it’s just not what we do.

In somebody’s wardrobe too or even an outfit, some of the flashier bits, or whatever you want to call them, could work well, or even better, together with something more simple and vice-versa.

Absolutely. We are also working towards, one day, having our own look that is so typically ours and so distinctive that, without having to show any labels or whatever, people in the know will recognise it, as there will be enough visual clues. But at the same time as doing that, we want to do something that doesn’t just blend into the background, so it’s a tricky balance really.

Hopefully, over time and the more we establish ourselves, people should recognise us (on somebody) when someone is walking down the street, without doing anything too ostentatious. We just keep chiselling away in our own little tunnel.

Take the jacket you bought from us four years ago; on the face of it that and the things we do now are quite similar, they haven’t changed that much superficially, in terms of the collar style and so on, but the amount of work that has gone into it has changed, via the cut or the fabric choice and things. Hopefully we will do what I said without having to do any kind of gimmicky things.

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At the same time, if it popped up on your site now, it would look slightly out of place whilst also looking like it was yours, if that makes sense? The changes are subtle but they are there.

It’s constantly evolving really rather than changing. It originally started with a shirt, jacket and trousers and it’s grown from there. But it has all morphed from those first few garments. And really, our tastes haven’t changed much since we started, but we do have more experience and access to better materials and manufacturers and things, but we have learnt a hell of a lot in terms of how things are constructed. But broadly speaking things are largely the same and hopefully they will be in another five years; but just slightly better every time. It’s like one big puzzle in my head. In my head, I’ve got one big whole collection mapped out of everything we do: ten shirts, ten jackets, ten pieces of knitwear; and I’ve got it all to balance and it’s all got to sit together where every piece in that puzzle works together. If we change something on one garment, we have to apply it to every other garment, as well as keeping things at a level which is as good as they can be.

Another idea to manage is the original idea of [the brand] having just enough garments for a bloke to have in his wardrobe for the full week: a couple of trousers, some shirts, an over shirt… that all fit together and that you could wear together or alone. We still do that now but it has grown into a month. Every piece in the jigsaw in a man’s wardrobe is what we are aiming for.

Hopefully, one day, we will get to that stage where we have all the pieces in the jigsaw and that’s that. That’s it.

I like the idea of a brand being finite; I like brands that do the same pieces year on year but really well and just change the cloth and improve or change things behind the scenes. But when we have a really good pea coat or trench coat, why would we need another one? I think we will reach that stage where we won’t need to do anything new; just improve things.

It might be boring though, I’m not sure! No, I’m joking, I don’t think it will.

So what are you working on next?

For example, at the moment I’m going through a double-breasted phase, so I’m redeveloping our pea coat and making it double breasted. After that, trousers need to be looked at because we’ve taken our eye off the ball a little bit when it comes to trousers; we have got a bit engrossed in coats and jackets. After that, I don’t know really, I’d like to do a parka or something technical for outdoors, because we haven’t done that for a while.

We’ve got some other bits too like a hooded jacket and a tour jacket. We like to use Ventile, we like that a lot, so I’d like one or two new things using that. But then I like to go back to old pieces and apply new ideas to them.

A new jacket has to be really good for us to bother doing it, otherwise we can apply new ideas to an old jacket. This is what keeps me busy, mate, this is what I’m thinking about all the time. I never stop thinking about it. I love it.

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Visit S.E.H Kelly

Thank you again to Paul at S.E.H Kelly for taking part in Talking Threads.

If you would like your brand or store to take part in its own Talking Threads, get in touch with Mark (mark@propermag.com), Neil (neil@propermag.com) or Paul (tweet @dpmortimer or email contact@thingandwhere.com) at the Proper offices.

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