A Decade of Oi Polloi


Way back in 2002 in the city of Manchester, England, Steve Sanderson and Nigel Lawso opened a shop with a unique concept that became on of the most enviable menswear destinations in the world. With an emphasis on heritage, quality, and style, the Oi Polloi philosophy became the launch pad of a movement. Steve and Nigel's extraordinary understanding and tenacious pursuit of the world's most sought after classic and contemporary labels have impacted the way men dress today, undoubtedly for the better. We spoke with the always charming Steve about 10 years of Oi Polloi.

Congratulations on a decade in business! That’s quite a milestone, especially with the recent economic turmoil worldwide. What do you think is the secret to your success? And what are you guys doing to celebrate?

Thank you. We didn't set off with a map and a big plan, but we've have been pretty good at adapting and changing the things we do as we go along. I think that's our strength, being small helps when we want to change direction, we can do this quicker than the bigger retailers. As for celebrating our 10th birthday, we've got a party planned but it’s nothing big or flashy. It's for everyone that's been involved—our friends, customers and people we've worked with. It's going to be pretty good.

Please share with us a little background—who were the original founders of Oi Polloi? What were you doing before?

There are two, Nigel Lawson and myself, Stephen Sanderson. Before setting up Oi Polloi, I used to cut hair. I had my own business for 10 years, but the problem was that I was always more interested in footwear and clothes, always had been. Meanwhile Nigel had a little unit in Affleck’s Palace selling Henri Lloyd and vintage trainers. This was the early nineties before most other folk had cottoned on. He then went traveling, stayed on a reservation in Arizona with some dude called Grey Wolf and learned how to make moccasins before setting up a clothes label called 'elk' then we went out for curry one night and Oi Polloi was born.

Were you always into fashion? What was your style like as a teenager?

I wouldn't like to call it fashion, more of an interest in youth culture, different types of groups. I didn't know this at the time, but that's what it was and still is today. I'm more into it now than ever. Someone once told me, if you do something you love, you'll never tire of it. They were right. As for what I was into as a teenager, what wasn't I into? That'd be an easier question. Both myself and Nige grew up on the outskirts of Manchester, living twisted parallel existences, I'm about 3 years older, that's a lot of years in a teenager's life. I think music and Adidas were my first loves, the problem is, I’ve always had a wide and varied taste in music. This probably started in the first year of secondary school, another mate (who happened to be called Nigel) had an older brother. This is the key to being on it, cool, whatever you want to call it. When you’re at school, other people's older brothers know their shit, better than any of your same age mates.

We’ve noticed that several companies are celebrating their 10th anniversary this year. Was there a particular event or occurrence that prompted you to start the store in 2002?

Just the fact that we thought there wasn't a one stop store that catered to all of our rather eclectic tastes. Nowhere was selling rare collectable sports goods & outdoor clothing. It was hard enough for us to source, that was part of the fun. At the time something as simple as a classic dry unwashed pair of jeans at a reasonable price were not available in Manchester, or anywhere else in the U.K. at the time, can you believe that? We thought it was a good idea to open a shop.

Or if you’re talking about one moment, I suppose it could be when we were at a mutual friend’s birthday at the Katmandu if you’re interested, very nice Nepalese if you’re ever in Manchester. Me and Nige ended up sitting next to each other, drinks were flowing, curry was being consumed and the conversation took a weird twist. It turned to tie-dying a Lacoste polo. That was the idea, a tie-dyed Lacoste polo shirt. Genius. This was Oi Polloi's Eureka moment. We decided then and there we were going to open a shop, we already had a store in mind and three months later we were in business. I told you there wasn't a plan, sometimes the planets line up and shit happens you can't explain.

Your website says that your mission is to provide customers with the antidote for stale and uninspired menswear. You’re essentially the world headquarters for authentic and heritage brands. How do you select the brands you carry?

World headquarters, I like that, can we use it? Do you really want to know? It's out of our obsession. When things are everywhere, we like to go in a different direction. It might not always be the most commercial decision but usually people come around to our way of thinking. We like to think we know a little about authentic brands and products, ones that are relevant for now, something to do with 'zeitgeist'.

How much credit do you take for the current global consumer demand for these types of brands?

A little bit, considering we were this tiny little shop on a back street in Manchester. We definitely had an effect, that's pretty amazing, when you think about it. That's made my head spin. It’s definitely weird how stuff happens, but it’s all part of the plan.

How do you think menswear will evolve in the coming year? Will heritage continue?

It depends on what you mean by heritage? Our heritage is what we grew up with . . .

You’ve proven that even a small store in a remote area of the world can have an enormous impact on menswear. Was e-commerce always a part of your business model? What percentage of your sales is done online?

It wasn't in the plan. Neither myself or Nigel were that interested in computers. We thought they were a bit boring. Obviously, this was before we discovered eBay. That made me want to be able to use a computer (I even went on a course, to teach me how to turn one on). There were untapped sources of unbelievable vintage footwear, the likes of which we'd never seen. We didn't even need to go on recon missions to Europe. Not now we had the world at our fingertips. The thing I noticed about eBay is that it became the great leveller—prices on there became global. They set the market prices for collectables and any other rare items. The thing that's interesting is that the sellers don't set the price, the customer does. This means the prices are the same as a retailer can sell them for. Once this happened our eBay days were scuppered. We couldn't get a good enough margin. Back to the plan, let's build a website and see if we can sell some stuff on it. Now it’s a massive part of our turnover.

We love the content on your site—it’s helpful to get educated on the brands, and gives us a glimpse into your world and sense of humor. We’re also fans of your magalog Pica~Post, which artfully mixes art and commerce. Who creates all your content?

We try to educate anyone that stands still long enough or listens. If this was a subject when I was at school, I’d have a degree or doctorate in it by now. We're like a kung fu master teaching our students, giving them a lightning-quick crack round the head and then telling them, “There is a fine line between knowing the path and walking the path.” We create all the content in-house, we've got a very talented team working on it. With Pica~Post we'll collaborate with freelance designers, illustrators, photographers, writers—all the art direction and editing is done in-house though. Sense of humor . . . what sense of humor? We take it all very seriously.

What types of trends or key items will you be looking for with SS13?

I can't really say at the moment. We’ve got a few good ideas up our sleeves, a couple of brands of our own we're looking into getting produced. We could do with some help if I’m honest, if there's anyone reading this that's interested, maybe they could get in touch. We’d like to talk to people in the industry about our ideas if anyone would like to back us?

Which brands are you most excited about seeing during the SS13 market season?

The usual suspects . . . Engineered Garments, Nanamica, Woolrich Woollen Mills, Homespun, A.P.C., Fjallraven, Post 'O'alls, blah blah blah . . .

Do you have any fun summer plans?

I’m off to a yoga retreat, getting all bendy and flexible and eating healthy stuff. Just hope it's not full of vegans. I don't like vegetables.