“Invisible permanent clothing, made in England”
This is the intriguing sign welcoming customers to ‘Inku’ a bamboo-bordered shop on a quiet corner of Warren Street. The statement reminded me of a sort of Zen Koan, a little paradox of sorts, that I was sure hid a truth or two about fashion.
“Most people don’t really understand it” the owner of the shop, Carin Mansfield confesses. Perhaps not, but at least it encourages people to start thinking about fashion, where it comes from and how it’s made.
The shop, home to Carin’s cult brand Universal Utility, carries a calm and reflective mood. It stocks a range of deceptively simple clothes. Simple in terms of the shapes and muted colours, yet complex with their impeccable sewing and finishing techniques.
Her brand began as a sort of underground movement in 1994, where without any advertising or website, it grew to be an insider’s favourite, found in the likes of Maureen Doherty’s Egg and Comme des Garcons stores, whose owner, Rei Kawakubo wears the clothes herself.
Carin has been doing ‘slow fashion’ for 25 years now, making all her clothes in the UK, and is able to describe what the term means to her with real clarity. She splits it neatly into four categories:
- No compromise
- Skilled method
- Without money chasing
“You can’t do something properly unless you’re a maniac”, Carin admits, referring to the obsession with quality and detail you need to produce clothes like hers.
“My machinist would rather hand something to me late then hand something over that isn’t perfect.”
It is this commitment to always producing the highest quality garments; to never make something cheaply, in order to maximise profit, which really underpins Carin’s work.
This encompasses everything from sourcing the highest quality fabric, which costs anything from £5-£30 a metre, to paying her employees, who all receive a London living wage, to creating garments with ‘circular’ sleeves, where neither the form nor pattern is compromised in its cutting and making to reduce the amount of fabric a garment takes.
A perfect example of her uncompromising attitude is a licensing deal offered Comme Des Garcons. When they attempted to produce her designs in a factory in Japan, where Carin’s traditional techniques like piping and French seams were unfamiliar, they simply didn’t fit with her standard. Unsurprisingly she turned the deal down.
Carin has instead chosen to keep her brand small, employing the same two machinists and one cutter, who have worked with her pretty much since she first launched, and make around 10 pieces a week for her.
Her employees are clearly people with whom Carin has a close relationship. She talks about them with a fondness and respect that suggests she values their skills highly. Her sample machinist for example she describes as her ‘best friend’ having worked with her for more than 20 years.
The relationship between the person inventing a garment, and the person making it, is crucial in Carin’s eyes: “Too often an idea is conjured by a designer, then handed to a factory to try to realise it. Here the intimacy between designer-maker is lost.”
Being so close to her employees allows Carin ultimate control over the finished product and a valuable dialogue.
“You’re only as good as your machinist and you need to understand what works for them. Sometimes I will want to make a design in a certain type of fabric but this won’t work on the machine.”
Having skilled employees is something Carin describes as “crucial” for the types of clothes she designs. They are characterised by their simple shapes, made of high quality cloth in neutral shades. In other words, there is no room for error.
Perhaps some less-than-perfect sewing or cheap cloth can be covered with bright patterns or complex shapes, however Carin’s parred-back, elegant style brings the quality of both the cloth and sewing to the forefront.
I run my hand down the seam of an indigo-dyed Khadi dress hanging on a Shaker-style peg. It is a French seam which has been expertly topstitched, and as I reach the bottom, I realise the hem is also bias binded.
Without money chasing
None of this type of sewing is easy or cost-effective, but then that is not what motivates Carin.
If it did, she wouldn’t buy the fabulous Khadi cloth, handloomed in 11m lengths in India. Nor would she choose wool woven by Daniel Harris at the London Cloth Company to make her coats, or organic cottons for her dresses.
Often one of the drawbacks of sources high quality cloths, is the dry cleaning that accompanies it. However, Carin has adopted a system of ‘wash garment washing’, which by washing the garment before it is sold, prevents it from needing to be dry cleaned. Again, this is certainly not cheap but it does ensure that the consumer has the assurance of knowing their garment will not shrink.
Some Universal Utility clothes also have shaped hems which use more fabric and have to be ‘faced’ rather than hemmed. These are not the methods of the mainstream manufacturers.
This method and its attention to detail is really what sets her apart, but it doesn’t come cheap.
Unsurprisingly, when you begin to understand the time, effort and skill that goes into making Carin’s clothes, the price has to be high. Dresses are around £500, tops around £350, which is actually not as high as it probably should be.
As a consequence, retail is hard. It’s about educating the consumer. They need to know about where the fabric comes from and how the garment has been sewn to appreciate the price. However, Carin explains how talking to consumers in the shop is a delicate balance to negotiate:
“If you don’t educate the customer, they won’t appreciate the clothes or understand the price tag, but if you talk too much people can feel as though you’re pushing the sale too much, so it’s tricky, I don’t want people to feel uncomfortable.”
She also finds that rich people don’t necessarily want to spend their money on fashion anymore. The people that are passionate about her clothes are younger, often students, who often come in for inspiration but don’t necessarily have the money to buy.
She believes not enough people with money are supporting slow fashion – there is a lack of education amongst consumers and this makes it harder for smaller brands, with strong ethical commitments but high costs, to survive.
Carin speaks with a subtle South African accent, a reference to her upbringing in the country’s apartheid period, which has influenced her outlook on fashion significantly.
Seeing black people save up to buy the Italian wool jackets they had seen on white people, always puzzled her.
Whilst white people could buy the jackets outright, the black men would have to pay off the cost over the course of some months. When she was younger, Carin wondered why they didn’t just buy something less expensive and not be burdened with the debt.
With maturity she realised that the black people appreciated the quality of these jackets. They didn’t want to buy cheap clothes, they wanted to buy the best and look smart. They only had to buy one or two and these would last until they had holes in them.
In those times, people bought the best. Just some had to save up for longer than others. However, now people who can’t afford the best quality they will just buy something cheap.
Inspired by her experience in South Africa, Carin has made a commitment to only the highest quality. She makes the best she can, and encourages her consumer to buy the best they can.
Her shop is a quiet, almost “invisible” protest against the fashion status quo in creating clothes with a “permanent” style and quality.