This article is part of our Rising Stars segment. This series is dedicated to in-depth interviews with up-and-coming labels, bringing you an insider's perspective to building a brand. If your label wants to be considered for an interview, then don't hesitate to get in touch. Meanwhile, for more emerging talent, check the Blog regularly to see new interviews in our Rising Stars series.
BOWLCUT - LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM
Bowlcut emerged in 2016 with a bang... And consistently followed up with bootleg-banger after banger. Their market-stall chic, combined with witty brandjacking established Bowlcut as a leader in what is becoming an increasingly crowded market. I caught the owners at a pop-up event, and later spoke with half of the creative duo known as "J & A" to get an insider's view of their operation.
hs = HYPERSUPPLY – J = Joe
hs: Firstly, can you tell me about yourself and your colleague, and how you two met?
J: We met about four years ago in Manchester, I was running club events up there while I was the promo manager for a club, and so it was up to me to decide which DJs played, and I put my own night on up there. Ash, who is a designer, and she’s been designing for… about 12 years, give or take. She was doing a masters up in Manchester and working for a large soft drinks company, and we met through me needing a designer for my club, and took it from there really.
hs: I’m guessing you didn’t start straight away?
J: We didn’t, but from early on, we were speaking about how working for other people was a bit of a mugs game, and we wanted to set our own thing up. We didn’t really know what kind of way we would do it, we kind of figured out that with my network in music, and with her skill of designing that we had something between us.
hs: When did the idea for Bowlcut emerge?
J: It came around December 2015, and we set up a whatsapp group – really, mainly for the two of us - for design ideas and stuff that was making us laugh, and it wasn’t really like… the original design for us was the “BBC/Bumbaclart” t-shirt, if you can call that a design. Because, I signed off a whatsapp, “BBC”, she asked what that meant, and I told her “bumbaclart”. We kinda took it from there. It coincided with a lot of politics as well. We kinda launched when there was talk of a referendum happening, the Tories had just won another election, and the BBC seemed to be favourable to the Tories, so it tied in nicely with the fact that BBC… yeh when you break it down to the initials, comes out as bumbaclart; but we also weren’t big fans of how they were operating.
hs: What happened between the time you first sent that whatsapp message and the t-shirt being created?
J: I hit up General Levy and Sam Binga with a mock-up of the design, and they both wanted it. We initially got 10 made, because neither of us had produced anything related to clothing before, so we started really small, got them screen printed, and in hindsight paid a lot of money for 10 t-shirts!
So Sam wore it to Room One at Fabric, and that night dropped me a message saying, “thanks for the t-shirt, but I got more comments on the t-shirt than any tunes I dropped”, which made me realise that maybe we’ve got something here. That’s when we thought we need to be a bit more business-minded, so we went down the social media route, launched a facebook page, built on it with Instagram, set up a bigcartel. With General Levy, Sam Binga and Steves from Kurupt FM being seen in the t-shirt, we kinda sat back, because them wearing it was just the best marketing/promo we could ever hope for.
hs: You produced 10, and gave away 3. What happened to the rest, and how did you increase volume?
J: We always wanted to keep it a limited-edition thing. We’ve had to backtrack on that a couple of times. The BBC t-shirt, the ones that I can see right in front of me are literally the last ones there. Literally 2 years later, we printed probably about… I won’t get too into numbers, but it’s a lot more than 10! The rest of the 10 were sold pretty quickly.
We got more made – 20, then 50, then 100 until we just kinda thought, let’s not sell out. We wanted to keep it limited, but if the demand is there, it’s hard to turn it down. We could have tried to keep it really exclusive by only selling 100, but other people had bootlegged it already – bootlegging a bootleg – so if we’re not going to sell it, someone else is.
We did our first pop-up around February 2016. I remember sending General Levy the t-shirt on a Wednesday, and him saying he was going to wear it for his Newcastle show on a Saturday. We were working on a pop-up shop in Brixton, and every time we got an order, my phone would “ping”. I remember thinking that my phone was broken because it kept pinging and pinging, and I looked down and saw 50, 60… up to 200 orders in one day, just from General Levy wearing it and sharing it on social media.
hs: At that moment, where were you operating from? What was your office?
J: It was all from home, from a flat in west London. That’s how it all started. Not quite DIY, but we were using a screen printer, then getting things delivered to a home address, and making sure one of us was in to take the deliveries, and we were both doing 9-5s, so it was kind of packing tees in the evenings then running to the post office the next day, and it was like doing two jobs at once, so when I was saying to mates that I was doing two jobs, they were sarcastically replying, “aww, poor you!” But I don’t think they quite knew how much work was going into it to make it tick.
hs: When did you decide to come out with a second design?
J: Soon after. The second design was “Mandem”, the Marlborough flip, and we did the [former British Prime Minister] David Cameron “Wasteman” one as well pretty soon after that, because we liked the political edge that the BBC one had. We don’t have any particular beef with BBC now, we’ve been on 1Xtra, and Steves is on the BBC. There are a lot of brands out there that just carry a brand hi-jack or a sort of bastardisation of a logo, but we wanted things to be a little bit deeper, so let’s just make it very simple, “David Cameron’s a wasteman”, bang!... Put it on a t-shirt.
hs: How did you come up with the name Bowlcut?
J: I’d love to have a unique and funny story, but we both had bowlcuts as kids. We were looking at old photos, and just thought it was funny! In hindsight, two years later, we probably should have come up with something a little more ‘snazzy’, but we had no idea it was going to take us to where we are.
hs: Yeh, you print 10 t-shirts, give a few away, then all of this happens! At which point did you think, “ok, I’ve got a business”?
J: When I was able to hand in my notice for my job, which is probably the best feeling in the world! That was about September last year (2016).
hs: Now this is your main thing. Is there pressure to always come up with a new design?
J: There is pressure, we put it on ourselves though. Because we’re not… the bigger brands they’ll do seasonal drops, and they know there will be 10’s of thousands of kids trying to purchase a particular logo at a certain time, and whether we want to get that big or not, it’s not even up for debate as there are only a handful of brands that can ever achieve that success. For us it’s more a case of, “this has made us laugh or is very topical – let’s get it printed”. From looking at the 1-year anniversary poster we created to show the designs we had come out with, there are 50 designs on there, so we came out with a new design every week. Between one designer, and one person who chips in with ideas, it’s not too bad, because we then have to get them made, delivered, packed, posted while coming up with another idea and reuploading them to the website, while [we were] also doing another job for the first nine months. It was all quite testing.
hs: If the world became boring, would you ever run out of ideas? Have you ever had droughts?
J: It’s an impossible question to answer because the media will always portray the world as never boring, because shit sells. You’ll never see a newspaper headline saying, “everything’s fine today”, there’s always something up. If they don’t have a story, they will go and find a story, so there’s always gunna be something for us to play on.
Of course, we’ve had droughts. It’s mostly when we’ve been distracted by other projects. We’d love to give Bowlcut 100% of our time, but we feel that now we’re working on this full time, we also have the capacity to work on other projects. However, if we neglect Bowlcut too much, the ideas do get a bit dry, not up to our usual standard
hs: Would you say you have a process? Or do you try to make something from whatever comes to mind?
J: We’ve had to learn as we go; it was very amateurish when we started. It was like… from even the packaging we sent out, we were using the wrong kind of postal bags, we were sending stuff untracked, stuff was going missing… to the particular type of shirt that we printed on. We also probably started off too cheap; we were selling tees for way under market value. We really have just learned from the bottom to where we are now, and I don’t know if it’s worth noting, but we get a lot of emails from people saying that they want to start a similar company, so “tell us everything about how you did it”. And I just think, “no!”, because we’ve had to learn it our way, and everyone’s got a different formula to how they do it, and that’s just a proper lazy email you know. If you want to learn something, you’ve got to go and learn it haha.
hs: What would be good learning for someone looking to start up?
J: Lots of research! Have a look at what is and what isn’t selling. Have an identity. There are a lot of people who come up with a name – might be a cooler name than Bowlcut, it probably will be – and then they make a standard box logo, embroider on a t-shirt and think “that’s my brand”, but there’s no real thought that has gone into it other than, “that looks cool”. My biggest advice to people would be make something that is personal and relatable to you; really stamp your own identity onto your own brand.
hs: After 2 years, how do you rate your progress, and where do you think you could go?
J: Bowlcut is always gunna be our baby, in the sense that we’ve nurtured it, and what we’ve put in we’ve got back, which is why we’re a bit funny when people just ask for our secrets to take for themselves. The way I see us going in the future is just having a lot more time to design and come up with ideas. What we are doing is not unique in the sense that there are other companies doing it, but I like to think that people buy into us because they see us as thought-provoking, cheeky, political. It’s not something you can teach somebody else. We’ve tried to take on interns so we can grow the business, but we realised that Bowlcut is our personalities coming out; you can’t pass that on to someone. You can’t tell someone, “make a social media post funny”, because everyone’s idea of funny is different. We’ve got other t-shirt brands, and I think we’re just gunna continue to develop brands, and keep doing what we’re doing.
hs: On your come up, which lesson cost you the most cash to learn?
J: Dealing with retail. We did a side project to Bowlcut, and it took probably 12 months of work, and we did little more than break even on a project for which we sold thousands of units to a very famous high street store. It was just ball ache. We’re still waiting to get paid on some of it.
I think a lot of people have a dream of turning their small business into… their ideal end goal would be selling thousands of units to retail but, having experienced that, if you have full control of what you are selling, to who and at what price, it’s a lot better to sell 100 garments in a set period of time, that you know pays the bills and allows you to live how you want to live. Much better than selling out to retail, and then them just taking weeks or months to pay you because of “x, y and z clause” that, unless you’ve got a law degree, you’re not really gunna understand.
hs: What are your favourite items that you have put out?
J: I might need to check Ash on that… Ash is saying that her favourite is the “Jheeze” one – like an old school football kit. Ash likes the Juventus away kit that Drake wore a couple of years ago, the pink one that had the Jeep logo on it. We were listening to Giggs, and every time we heard the “Jheeze” adlib, we would copy it haha. So when we saw the Juve kit, that made sense.
Mine, it’s probably the “Mandem” one. It’s the one I’m most likely to see out and about. It’s simple, but there’s something about… the font, and the term; how commonly “mandem” is used by people.
hs: I see that you also sell accessories like gold chains. Are there any other products that you would like to create in future?
J: We would like to do more rings. We used to sell sovereigns last summer, and they did quite well, but the guy that we did them with, he kind of became too big [laughs]… to work with anyone else! I think he’s making too much money on his own! But yeh, I would like to get back into rings. It’s quite a London look I think, gold rings.
hs: Do you see collabs continuing as part of your future?
J: I think collabs are brilliant! I mean, yeh you split the money to a certain extent, whether it’s 50/50 or whatever you agree, but you get to work with different people, and collabs give you exposure to different audiences. We’ll always do collabs. Apart from Kurupt FM I think everyone has approached us for our collabs so, come to think of it, we should probably approach more people.
hs: Are you trying to communicate a message through Bowlcut, or express your personality?
J: It’s both. We’ve been described as “anti-establishment”. I don’t know how to word it without coming across as a bit of a dick, but we have slight authority problems I guess. So yeah, anti-establishment, anti-authority, anti- tax dodging huge brands who just prey on the vulnerable and stupid.
hs: But surely the more popular you become, the more “establishment” you become?
J: It’s a good question. I think the way we work, and the fact that we don’t work to a similar pattern as larger companies, will always keep us at this level. We make stuff that is so untouchable by the larger stores. Those stores can’t do brand hijacking; it’s a bit too risqué for them. Because of the way we operate, we’re never going to blow up to the extent that we’re gunna be hypocritical. We’re never going to be a huge establishment ourselves. We’re keeping it low-run, at street level.
hs: What do you think of brands that have reached this “hypocritical” level?
J: If I owned a brand like that, I would find it hard to turn the money away. I’m pretty certain I would have a lot less joy from taking the money at the higher level, than I do at my current limited level. If people buy into the illusion that the wares are limited, when there so many people queuing up, and swapping and selling, thumbs down to them really.
hs: What’s your view of the streetwear market now?
J: I don’t know if kids have got more money, but ten years ago I couldn’t imagine asking my dad for £200 for a tracksuit. People seem to think they are being unique, but if everyone is wearing the same labels, then it’s not unique anymore. Yeh times have changed, but if you don’t keep up with the times you get left behind.
hs: What have you done in response?
J: We do a lot more research than we initially thought we would be doing. We spend a lot of time getting to know about the colours trending, the latest printing techniques. We do a lot of stuff with music. We’re music heads, but now we constantly have tunes on, seeing who’s popping. Because it’s a full-time job for us now, we never switch off, which has the benefit that we’re always clued up, but we’re never too relaxed until we’re sleeping, otherwise we’re thinking about where we can take this business. It’s a 24/7 thing.
hs: Isn’t that a bit of a contradiction? You said that you didn’t want a boss because you want to be in control, but are you not worried that now maybe this is controlling you?
J: No. It takes over our thinking, because that’s what we are into. The day we’ve had enough we’ll stop it and walk away. We’re in control for now!
hs: Is there anything else you would like to say to readers?
J: I think we get questioned a lot about if the money actually goes to charity from our charity t-shirts. Of course it does! That would be dark if we kept the money! So apart from screenshotting it and then showing it on social media, I don’t quite know how to show that we do give the money to charity.
Also I want every brand to start where we did, because you have to fail at something before you learn. If you skip the first year as a creator, you miss out on the fun. I think also once you reach a certain size, there’s probably no fun in what you’re doing; you could just end up only checking emails to make sure sales are on target. The whole ethos of streetwear is to start at ground level and build it up. I hope this interview gives people an insight into how small things were when we started. And we’re not massive by any means, but we take pride in how far we’ve come, otherwise what’s the point in doing this.
Check out Bowlcut's merch here: http://www.bowlcut.uk