// by Claudia Green //
Between her jobs as a nurse and full-time mother of two, Rebecca Martin has created Loafe Clothing, a brand which stands out precisely because it listens to young people and gives them a voice.
Rebecca works with graduate fashion students to create designs that are fresh and unique, while also helping them to get a foot in the fashion industry after university. I met her in Turl Street Kitchen to talk about taking young designers seriously, breaking into the design market, and plans for Loafe’s future, including pop-up stores and collaborations with teen-focussed charities.
CG: Where did the inspiration for the brand and working with young people come from?
RM: It started as a concept brand. I came back from holiday having read this book by Richard Branson, and I thought I’ve just got to do it. There’s a real gap in the market between children’s wear and adult wear — although older students tend to wear this older bracket, there’s nothing really in the middle which is produced or designed by kids. So rather than having a student with their own designs and ideas, we’re bringing those designs in with our company and selling them to that gap in the market.
Why do you think giving young people a voice in the market important?
Well, take Next for example. Their children’s range goes from babies to 16 years, but as soon as they hit 12, 13, they will want to buy the adult products, and some of those clothes in that age range probably aren’t suitable for 13 year olds. So I thought it would be great to have young people who have had experience and been at university to be able to have what they want to wear in the market. That’s why we had graduates from Trent Uni come in and design some of our first range.
How do you get in touch with designers?
A lot of stuff happens from Instagram. It’s such a big social network — it’s probably bigger than Facebook. A lot of collabs come from that. But really, Loafe is still a young brand. It’s only been going for just under two years, so we’re still growing.
A lot of your designs are slogan based — why do you think that kind of trend is particularly popular with young people?
I think if you look at brands like Superdry, or Hollister, it’s like a statement. Slogans are not going to be fashionable all the time, but at the moment people like having something on their t-shirt which resonates with what they’re about. But it is hard trying to get the right market for your product. My daughter is 14 now, and she will just wear plain stuff — “I don’t like logos!” — so it’s so subjective. One design isn’t going to suit everybody, but you just have to find that niche.
I looked at some of the events you’re doing — often they’re in collaboration with music. Why do you think this is so effective?
Music is a big part of fashion. Somewhere along the line your look becomes related to what kind of music you like, so I think the two kind of fit really well together. A lot of the brands out there, if you look at their ‘about page’, there will be something which is related to music. So we’ll sell our clothes at this type of event. We did one at Nottingham Trent at the student union. It helps get students see the brand — they’re normally pop-up events.
We are looking for some retail space, but I’ve kind of been swerved off the idea. But I love the idea of pop-up space which is totally branded, because otherwise people don’t take you seriously as a brand. Originally the concept was to have, similar to Burberry’s stores now, a shop which isn’t really a shop. It’s more of an experience. The idea is to have a retail space where you can bring students in and they can socialise and it becomes their space, with the brand as part of that experience. It’s just a bit more interesting. You can even have things like a happy hour as part of the shopping experience, where products become two for one or something. There’s still a way to go but it will pay off!
What’s it like working with young designers who have never really had any experience producing their own stuff?
It’s really nice! You just give them a brief of the look you want, how many designers you want, and then they produce prototypes and send them back to you and you just choose which stuff you think is relevant. They’re so easy to work with. I think they’re just a bit more laid-back. And it helps them as well with getting into the market. We pay all our designers, so there’s definitely an element of giving a bit back to them as well, helping them project their careers forward. But they’re all so lovely and so laid back.
When you’re working with a designer, how much freedom do you allow them?
They really have total freedom. On my part it’s a bit scary! But as long as you give them the right brief, making it clear what look you want, then they’re really good. Because they’ve just come out of that environment they know really what kind of stuff we want without having to ask.
Do you return to the same designers that you’ve used before?
Not necessarily — we’re open to ideas, so if somebody wants to come forward and bring a design to the table then we’ll always be interested.
LOAFE CLOTHING: Werido Graphic T-Shirt, £10
Have you ever considered the issue of trying to make fashion more gender neutral or would you consider it in the future?
I would definitely consider it, I think it’s an issue which is becoming more and more normalised, which is great.
Do you think in the fashion industry in general it will become increasingly important to address that?
Definitely. I think a lot of brands at the moment are making a bigger effort. Brands like ‘Off-White’, which have beautifully structured, simple designs which anyone would feel comfortable wearing. I think that’s why they’re one of the bigger, mores successful brands at the moment.
Whereabouts are your factories based?
We had some in China. I say that, but we’re very keen on making stuff organic, and checking the factors for the workers. We use organic cotton, and we do have stuff that’s printed in the UK as well, even though it’s a little bit more expensive, you’ve got to try and bring that British manufacturing back — especially as a British brand. There’s a big thing about British brands at the moment. People want to get manufacturing back into the UK, but it is a bit of a struggle, because it’s so expensive. Hopefully with a bit of time, that’s the way it will go. It’s difficult though because bigger companies are buying stuff abroad, and they can get it so cheap so their margins are so big. It also takes much longer, 5 or 6 weeks.
How successful has it been in the past two years?
Slow to start. We’re just starting to get a bit more momentum now. I think really what we need is just trying to get the word out. When you want somebody to recognise you as a brand, in such a big market, it gets so difficult. We need to have that space in magazines like PHASER, getting interest and then hopefully projecting who we are into the public.
How did you first get into the industry?
My background is nursing, I have a degree in it. I kind of just stumbled into the fashion industry. When I was younger I did a bit of tailoring, went to Hong Kong and everything. But we’re going to try and work with a charity of some sort. I’m not sure which one yet, but definitely one which resonates with students, the problems that young people have. I want to try and make a brand where we can donate some of the money to that charity, so that’s what we’re trying to do. It’s just finding the right charity.
Why did you transition from nursing to fashion?
I’m still doing the nursing! I’m doing two jobs at the moment — it’s draining. I do three days at work and then my evenings, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday – that’s the business. It’s mad! I still love both sides, but the business is more about my aspirations. Nursing is hard, so the business side is more about me as a creative person, and the aspiration that maybe one day it might be something big.
Did you dream about doing this when you were younger?
Yeah, I went to the Clothes Show, which is where it all started. I wrote a letter to a brand asking to design something, and they replied saying I could. Then when I was 18 I started a business making garments, but back then social media and even the internet really hadn’t come out, so it was really hard, and I just didn’t have the motivation back then. And then, I got the chance to go to Hong Kong, and stayed there for a bit, and then I decided to go down the marketing side. So it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster! Even now, everything is such a gamble. It can feel like one bottomless pit of money. But any business is a gamble. It was supposed to be started organically, trying not to borrow money, and so far we’ve done okay, so it’s alright.
Do you have staff that work for you regularly?
One or two, and then I have a friend who doesn’t work at all, so she does marketing bits for me. So we’re still quite small. I’m just waiting and hoping that when we get a bit bigger we can employ more people. The designers are freelance so we don’t have many outgoings in terms of staff, which helps.
LOAFE CLOTHING: Distressed Longline Denim Jacket, £25
How many designers do you usually have at a time?
We usually have two at a time, because they’re busy with work or student life. Or if they’ve graduated, they’re looking for jobs, so they’re fitting our work around their lives as well. Sometimes it’s difficult to get hold of them — especially working with students! When you have a deadline it’s sometimes touch and go!
Have they taught you anything about the industry or surprised you in any way?
Definitely with some of the designs they come out with. Someone said to me — why can’t you design the products? I tried! And although it might seem very easy, it’s not, because it’s so subjective. Where do you start? It needs to be more than a squiggle on a t-shirt.
Have you had any designs that have been really popular?
The ‘weirdo’ t-shirt we did. That designer, he’s called ‘Whitehouse’, is now in Instagram as ‘superfreak’. If you look at his work, that ‘weirdo’ t-shirt is so typical of the type of stuff he does — always a bit quirky, a bit odd, but somehow it works. The types of designs we go for, often it’s like a piece of art on a t-shirt, rather than having the structure or the cut as the selling point. All of our designs are hand-drawn. So we have a screen print from the initial design, and then we recopy it. When you first start a brand, we only did about ten of each design, just to see how it went. Like I say, it’s like a bottomless pit, and you could just have stock and not sell it.
If you get in touch with a designer, do you go and meet them?
Sometimes we go and meet them, but a lot of it is done by email. It depends how much time you both have. We do try and meet up if we can, as it often works better when we do. Talking on the phone, it’s just not the same. It’s nice to meet them and to actually see what ideas and concepts they have.
Do you feel like there’s any direct competition with your brand?
Not really, I suppose, because of the idea behind it. There’s not a lot of people doing this kind of alternative stuff, which is probably our USP. A lot of brands which start off as alternative then become very highstreet, so I think we’re quite niche at the moment. And because we use lots of different designers, we’re always changing and evolving — nothing is going to be samey. Rather than having one designer — I think Next is probably a good example – the clothes used to be really on target, but now some of the stuff is not what you’d expect from their designers. So as a single designer it’s hard to keep producing stuff that people are going to buy — if you’re constantly changing your designers, you’re never going to fall into that problem.
Is your daughter excited about what you do?
No! She’s terrible [laughing]. I say to her, Ellie, if you had a business brain, you’d be out there getting 10%, 20% commission from everything you sold. I have a son as well, and he’s more enthusiastic for me. He’s 12, and he’ll wear my stuff! We did start doing a kids range at one point, but then we stopped, because we decided we’re just a bit too studenty, and we didn’t want to confuse the message we were trying to send out.
Do people regularly contact you to do stuff like your music events?
Yeah most of the time people come to me. But this is the first interview we’ve had, and it’s really nice being able to talk about the brand and get it a bit more out in the open, in somewhere a bit more interesting. And then we’ll have to have a shop in Oxford!
When you go back to Loafe, do you have a studio or work from home?
No, I work at home. I have an office and then the garage is the printing space, so all the stuff is in there. It would be nice to have a Loafe HQ one day! With exposed brickwork and stuff like that. I think that’s what the shop would be like, really fresh and clean designs.
LOAFE CLOTHING: Black Lonely Hearts T-Shirt, £12
Is there a brand that you take inspiration from?
I like Off-White, and then there’s Pretty Green. It’s Liam Gallagher’s brand. I think a lot of high-street brands are just not really different anymore, everything’s gone a bit mainstream. It’s nice to do something different. On Instagram, you’re flooded with brand after brand, but often they all look the same. We’re also on Depop, and there’s a lot of vintage brands on there, which students love. I think the good thing about having all this different platforms is that you can chop and change.
What are your future plans for Loafe?
We’re thinking of doing a collection — someone asked me to do a charity event, like a fashion show. I said yes, but we really need a collection first. Just a caption collection of quite simple stuff that’s easy to wear, probably without slogans, and more non-gender specific. I think it might just be my kind of style. It’s hard for me, because I’m what, 43, so it’s really hard to know the style of people that are 20 years younger than me. I feel quite trendy though, so I would like the charity collection to be more about me, with a slight twist. Probably a bit more classically clean lines, with a big bright red circle on the back or something!
What advice would you give to someone who’s perhaps quite apprehensive about entering the fashion or design industry?
I think you’ve just got to do it. I think one of the pitfalls people often fall into is thinking about it too much, rather than just going out and doing it. But I completely understand that it’s hard.
After only 2 years in the business, Loafe Clothing’s message is clear: it’s a brand which will always prioritise the spirit of its designers and the ethical appeal of British manufacture, creating a unique shopping experience specifically for young people, by young people.