From selling dead men's clothes on a market stall to building a globally successful business, Oliver Spencer's marriage of tradition and evolution has made his label one of the best-loved names in British menswear
Oli Spencer is frustrated. He’s attempting to marshal a photo shoot, but Damon Albarn won’t let him. Considering Spencer’s borrowed his band and his recording studio, the Blur frontman has the right to doll himself up in pieces from the stylist’s rail. But now the shoot’s been delayed. The musicians-slash-temporary-models hit the beers at lunch. It’s bedlam. And Spencer’s mellowness is fraying.
He wasn’t supposed to be here, on Latimer Road, where the Westway’s grey concrete blends into grey skies. But his wife nixed Spencer’s original plan to decamp to Nigeria, where he wanted to shoot a lookbook in Fela Kuti’s studio. This collection was inspired by Ginger Baker — Cream drummer, heroin addict and a “nasty piece of work” — who made a pilgrimage from London in 1970 to learn African rhythms at the feet of the master. Baker ending up staying for six years, came home sober, and reimagined traditional jazz and rock in African polyrhythms. Western drumming changed overnight.
That tension extended to Baker’s wardrobe — and to Spencer’s attempt, today, to design a collection for the man, then. “It’s a mix between the African pieces and the English Savile Row thing,” he says. The palette is all dusky browns, the burnt reds and oranges of a sun setting behind Lagos. Silhouettes are loose, billowing, built for African heat but equally suited to the modern British taste for clothes that move. It is a collection that looks as comfortable as it feels. On the runway, ‘real’ men modelled it alongside cheekbone-flashing professionals; a comedian, a music producer, a journalist. Alex James, Damon Albarn’s partner-turned-cheesemonger, walked in Spencer’s show two years ago. He’s also appeared in his most recent ad campaigns, two Rankin-shot affairs featuring the brand’s comeliest customers — Mr Porter boss Toby Bateman; skateboarder Thomas Harrison; Tinie Tempah’s manager, Dumi Oburota; John Bradbury, the late Specials drummer, and fellow Coventry native, who invented the reggae rock beat. (Spencer, it seems, has a thing for game-changing percussionists; a signed copy of the band’s debut LP sits behind his desk.)
But in deference to his better half’s better judgment, he’s foregone the Nigerian jaunt. Baker’s trip wasn’t without its perils, but they were mostly in the detoxing-from-heroin vein. New dangers have arisen since. Yes, Boko Haram have more pressing concerns than a British menswear label’s lookbook. But with three less-than-teenage boys at home, the brain can
jump to shaky video streams of jumpsuited men kneeling in the sand, and swords glistening under a West African sun. And Spencer understands the value of a compromise. So while Lagos luxuriates in 30-degree heat, sun beating down through whiskers of cloud, he is here, under grey skies in West London. He attempts to corral half-cut musicians into a shape that
might help sell his clothes in six months time. He strides into shot, past his stylist, past his photographer. “What shirt are you wearing under that? No, I want to see it. To SEE it.”
Two weeks earlier, mellowness rolls off Spencer like cigar smoke. He has just arrived in his office, on the back of a Vespa. It is, undeniably, an office. It is not an atelier. It is not a studio. It is a back room. A box room, really. A pine table, with flanking chair and bench, guzzles most of the floorspace. These rest on the same red, non-slip vinyl that professional kitchens install to avoid lawsuits.
Though you can almost touch each wall at once, to cross it is more complicated. You need to inch around storage boxes stuffed with shoes, unhung Maoist propaganda prints, and beetles captured in resin — all of which consume yet more of the Lego-textured floor, more than it can comfortably sacrifice. In one corner, a window opens onto to a fire escape. It seems less like the kind of space one of Britain’s best-loved menswear designers would operate from, than one where an associate English professor might squat until someone found him something more permanent. But despite its pokiness, Oli Spencer is happy here, because his office nestles beneath his shops — one either side of a chemist that’s losing out to the glut of menswear boutiques which have colonised Lamb’s Conduit Street since Spencer arrived in 2008.
(This original article on Oliver Spencer continues in our Issue Seven)