How did you start in the fashion outerwear business and what drew you to 7L?
My experience and history are in engineering design and manufacturing. For most of my career I’ve worked for my family run business, which is based in Stockport, Cheshire. As a company, we have spent the last 20 years upgrading many infrastructure projects for Network Rail around the UK.
But after all that time working away, with a young family and wife at home, I became very unhappy and had become quite an isolated person. I was diagnosed with clinical depression and bipolar and after careful consideration we, as a family, decided enough was enough and we sold the business.
At the age of 38, I found myself retired from engineering and had some time to consider my illnesses and recovery and I wondered what I’d do next. Depression is a horrible thing and my self-esteem was on the floor. It was a difficult time and I found it hard to pick myself up.
My GP suggested trying photography because it’s creative and gets you out and about. I really enjoyed it and suddenly it was the photography that would get me out of bed in the morning and it got me back interested in the world again. From there, I became a self-taught photographer.
After about a year off work, I came across an old school friend, who asked me if I’d photograph some menswear clothing. It was a technical brand called 7L. I’d never heard of it, but when we went to the studio to take some product shots, I was blown away with the quality of the technical fabrics. They had been manufactured by one of the best in the world – KTC in China.
My friend, knowing my previous history and business experience, asked whether I’d be interested in coming on board –– I said yes and worked alongside them for about six to 12 months. It brought everything that I’d done in the past together in one: design, manufacturing, project management and of now, of course, photography. I initially became the CEO of 7L then decided to invest – that was about three years ago.
How has the brand changed since then?
Back then the brand was very niche; very young. I had realised we needed to create a new aesthetic with garments that would appeal to everyone, of any age. As a new brand it was difficult to attract new business and generate turnover, so initially took a lot of investment, but worth it. Over the past three years, we have brought the brand back to market, which has been hard, but I wanted to make sure that we had a solid foundation first, for the brand to grow from.
The more I got into the fashion tech industry, the more it resonated with my past experience including sustainability, traceability and environmental impacts. I believe that whatever we’re doing we should aim to be as sustainable as we can. This shifted the brands overall philosophy with regard to natural and technical materials.
How have you made the brand more sustainable?
The longevity of the product is key. I’m fed up with fast disposable fashion brands. With 7L, we’ve picked fabrics that are durable and will last a long time and everything is well made, by competent and trained people, skilled in what they do. Everything is traceable and ethically sourced. For example, our new 3L jacket hard shell is manufactured from 100% Japanese recycled polyester and a recycled hydrophilic monolithic membrane.
Another big environmental issue for technical outerwear generally is the chemicals used to create the water repellent beading effect on clothing. Without it the garments do wet out, but recent studies show that some of the chemicals (PFCs) used, in large quantities, can potentially be are harmful to the environment and people. Many scientists and big brands around the world are working on this and have already reduced the C8 PFCs to C6 and the global ambition is to reach C0 in the future.
It’s a slow process for us, as a small brand, we have to follow the leading experts and scientists around the world, but we’re very dedicated to our research and our learning processes.
Marrying performance, style and fashion is already hard but adding sustainability must make developing clothing even more of a challenge?
I’m lucky to be surrounded by some incredible people who are just as passionate about sustainability. It takes a lot of time-consuming research. We’re a function-first performance brand, and yes, performance can be hard to marry with sustainability. Especially when it has to be fused with the style of the clothing. So, when we want to develop something like a 3L jacket, we’ll research what materials are out there, that have a sustainable story, first. For example, we found a fabric made from recycled Japanese fishing nets, which I love. Then we look at what we can do to it to make beautiful garments. It’s exciting and fun.
Manufacturing in Manchester seems really important to you too, why is that?
I was at the Jacket Required trade show early last year and Christopher Raeburn was speaking, and he said if you’re a new brand then work on your doorstep, use the things that are around you. At the time, I was looking to continue to market the brand in Asia (which would have been incredibly difficult) but then realised, in that moment: “Oh my god, I live in Manchester. I’ve got everything I need around me”.
Everybody said: “There’s no technology here anymore, all of the technical machines have gone” but I thought there must be something we can do. Happily, English Fine Cottons had renovated a huge mill in Dukinfield in Manchester complete with a state-of-the-art cotton spinning facility. We were one of the first brands to approach them and say we’d like to make Manchester-made T shirts and sweatshirts. Our sweaters will be the first ever made by English Fine Cottons. Maybe the first by an old cotton mill in Manchester in 50 years! We also approached UK brand Ark-Air about a potential collaboration and happily they said yes. They make everything in Exeter, so again close to home.
We still work with manufacturers in China. There’s nothing wrong with that, China is still far superior technically to the UK, and we don’t have the expertise or equipment readily available here anymore. But we could bring that technical expertise back to the UK and back to Manchester. Going forward over the next 5 to 10 years, I want to look at training people in Manchester, bring back some machinery and training to the city and start making technical outerwear again.
Our new Origin System is 50 per cent made in the UK and 50 per cent is made in Portugal, Spain and China. We’re also using Irish fabrics from a 300-year-old mill in Ireland, called Dinsmore Kells. By taking these new steps we’re managing to massively reduce our carbon footprint.
Can you give us an introduction to the Origin System?
The Origin System is due out in September. It is priced from £55 – for a 100 per cent cotton made-in-Manchester T-shirt – to £350 3L Waterproof jacket – to £700 for a down parka.
Some of the garments in the collection can interact with one another. So for instance, we have a modular down jacket, a bit like a ski jacket, which link zips inside the 3L waterproof shell jacket. I wanted to take the brand back to its military DNA modular concept with the 7 Layer System and create a more masculine, gritty aesthetic.
The 7 Layer System was originally developed I think in 1985 for the US Marines when they created a less bulky kit so soldiers could easily carry and wear body armour, backpacks, weapons, and carry more. The military developed a 12-piece kit that essentially had seven layers of clothing. Layer one would be the base layer, which could be a cotton type base layer, underwear, or a T-shirt. Layer two would be something like a lightweight shirt or jumper, Layer three a fleece layer, Layer four would be a field or combat jacket, and Layers five, six and seven would be a windproof jacket, a rain jacket and an arctic cold layer.
We took that concept, fused the function with fashion and put it into 7L. We have T-shirts and base layers, all the way up to arctic down jackets and all those layers can be worn with each other and over each other. Layer up or layer down. We like to include pops of colour, so not only are they super technical, you’ll look good in them too.
Is it as useful for city living as it is for going up a mountain?
Yes. The goose down in the outer layer, in simple terms, allows air to move around. So, if you’re running around town and your core body temperature naturally increases, the down – along with the technical fabrics – will allow excess body heat out. This helps to regulate your core body temperature. Likewise, if it’s cold outside, the down traps warm air and acts as a barrier to keep you warm inside again regulating your core. Garments will work differently depending on things like the environment, differential temperatures, humidity, pressure acting inside or outside the garment. Many of the garments have fabric technology like C_change™ membrane by Schoeller, which also helps regulate temperature by allowing heat and moisture out, so you can wear it in your car, or on public transport and it will minimize overheating etc.
What are your ambitions for the future of 7L?
We’re a small brand and we’re realistic. We’ve accelerated and grown quite rapidly over the past 18 months, which obviously has been great and we’re getting a good customer base. It’s taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get here but really worth it.
Another ambitious project for us here at 7L is to bring the manufacture of innovative outerwear and textiles back in Manchester. Hopefully within the next three years or so. Such a huge amount of experience, tooling and machinery went overseas, so it would be very satisfying to grab some of it back and help drive our country’s growth and economy especially after Brexit and Covid-19.
I’m hopeful to start travelling again next year, take some pictures, learn about new cultures, and I’m keen to continue targeting the luxury travel market. We feel our layering systems complement the nomadic jetsetter and luxury outdoor pursuits.
Some exciting news is the opening of our first Flagship Store in Alderley Edge, Cheshire; hopefully in October. This will give new and existing customers the chance to visually experience see and touch our garments and ask staff a little more about their innovative textiles and unique designs. Our design team will also be based here so it will be a great opportunity to see what’s coming up in our collections for future seasons too.
We want to be a global brand and create beautiful garments that last. I love it when I see people’s faces light up when they first put on a 7L. It’s what I do it for, it gives me a lot of joy.