THERE’S nowt as queer as folk. And so I wonder, as I sit in his showroom with a cup of tea (none of the “good biscuits” he’d tempted me with materialise, I notice) if the man behind the Folk fashion label knew what he was doing when he came up with the name.
Fortunately, I’m not too bothered about the biscuits. As for the scratchy Fair Isle jumpers, fiddles and folk music the brand conjures up, in their place is a cool, airy basement with lots of raw wood and exposed insulation pipes, a kind of cosy, industrial chic space that pretty much underlines what Folk is all about. Details. The wooden owl head that acts as a door knob. The shelves constructed from old surveyors’ sticks and potters’ boards. The quirky lighting – neon tubes hanging from ropes. A glass-topped table – the prototype for a designer whose vision goes far beyond a fashion label to something a whole lot more interesting. “It’s quite easy to fill a shop with vintage furniture – every shop in Brooklyn has done that,” says Cathal McAteer, the creative mind behind Folk.
“It’s very important to us not to do that. We want to be a design house, and there’s a lot more to come. It’s a way of extending our product range without being obvious – a sunglasses deal, iPhone cases. All that’s good but, for us, we want to go somewhere else.”
With that in mind, the boy from Cumbernauld who dreamed of becoming a footballer, who left school with just a few O-Grades and dropped out of his fashion marketing course in Glasgow because he was way too busy doing fun stuff instead, is going back to school this month to study model-making for furniture design.
Folk has been flying under the fashion radar since it was established back in 2001. Which is pretty much how McAteer likes to play things. But, following a Scottish Fashion Awards nod in 2011 and a growing presence on the high street – there are now five stores, including one in Munich, while the label is stocked in such prestigious outlets as Liberty, Coggles in York and Goodstead in Edinburgh – not to mention (but we will anyway) high-profile customers such as Lauren Laverne and Rebecca Hall singing its praises, there is an exciting buzz about the brand. Now, after years focusing on menswear, its first womenswear collection is in the shops and its second is looking good to go. These are exciting times for Folk. “We’re not in a rush,” says McAteer. “Financially we’re in a good place at a time when the economy sucks. It’s a wonderful position to be in.”
The design ethos is so simple, you have to wonder why no one else thought of it firsty. “I got sickened by people buying something just for the branding; it got a little bit boring. Part of our mission is to make a lot of nice-looking details. It’s all very well balanced, subtle, and won’t make you look over the top. But the sourcing is really extravagant. There’s nothing that doesn’t get talked about, from the thread colour to the pocket lining to the buttons – a lot of our buttons are made from crushed coconut shells and every single colour is a colour we’ve chosen. We don’t just go to the button shop.
“The cord here ...” and he points to the colourful strip of piping on a cream, super-soft cotton shift dress, “it’s organic Japanese cord, and someone sews that on by hand.” The result is beautiful-looking, easy-to-wear clothes in fabrics that make you want to snuggle up and sleep in them; classy, understated quality. And the shoes are lush.
Now 40, McAteer has fashion running in his veins. “I didn’t know about any of that when I was growing up,” he says. “My godfather was a trained tailor, but he ended up a fireman. My grandmother too, selling shoes, making clothes. It was something I’d never known about and it was never spoken about.
“For me, I was just a pain in the arse from a very young age. ‘I want this. I want that.’ I managed to buy some of those clothes I loved because I got a job when I was 12, delivering milk. The boy next door had gone to university and given me his round.”
He earned the princely sum of £14 a week, which he saved religiously, then spent flippantly. “In a few weeks you would be able to buy yourself something from the town centre. Something crap, I might add ...
“I played a lot of sport too, so I was always into having nice boots and stuff like that. I was just into things – aesthetic things. I remember buying a rocking chair when I was 14. My mum always thought I would make furniture.”
After the milk round came a Saturday job in Glasgow fashion institution Ichi ni San. “They were lovely, flamboyant people who were buying Dries van Noten, Helen Storey, Betty Jackson, Workers for Freedom – international brands,” recalls McAteer, “so that was a really exciting time.”
This wee fashion-forward boy must have stood out among the football tops and tracky bottoms of Cumbernauld, I suggest. “Maybe I did – more than most at school,” he laughs. “But I think I ran away quick enough so no one could catch me. I didn’t notice it.”
As soon as he got the chance to leave the new town, though, he took it, moving to Glasgow at the age of 16. “The people who owned the shop rented me their flat in the Southside. It was great – living in the city, working in a trendy shop, going to the nightclubs, going to the bars. The thought of a career didn’t really occur to me. Glasgow was such a blast. It was Year of Culture – a great time.”
Most of the pieces he squandered his wages on at the time have long gone the way of Oxfam. All that is left is a pair of Dries van Noten trousers, a scarf and a velvet suit by Vivienne Westwood. “It was the last ever collection made in England,” says McAteer, smiling. “It’s black with gold buttons – it’s just awesome. My pals borrow it as well so it has seen some places.”
Having been given free rein to do the buying for Ichi ni San – going to the shows in London and Paris – he thought he was living the dream. Until he reached the age of 21 and figured there must be something more. “I was getting paid £140 a week and thought, ‘I’m doing all these things for these guys but it’s not going to go anywhere unless I open my own shop.’ I wasn’t qualified in anything. I knew how to run a bar and a restaurant and a shop, but I loved fashion, so I had to come to London to see what was going on.”
And off he went. Jobs liaising between factories and designers followed, plus a selling role at Nicole Farhi, but a growing frustration at the power of the big boys and girls – Stone Island, Armani Jeans, Hugo Boss – had him yearning for something unique. “The big brands had so much power,” he says. “Nothing was really independent. There was nothing very personal about the clothes, and that’s how I like to dress. There was something missing for me and my friends.”
So, gradually, Folk was born. In the meantime, McAteer met his partner AC – “She was my flatmate, six months later we had a barbecue, eight years down the line we have two kids, a boy, who’s five, a girl, who’s four, and another one coming.”
His growing family, he says, has changed the way he works. “I’ve noticed that I’ve been much better at my job since I’ve had kids. Also, your outlook is a lot longer – it’s not a five-year thing or a ten-year thing, it’s a long-term thing. I’ve never looked that far ahead before.”
And the next dream? Apart from baby number four (he may not have persuaded AC about that one just yet), he would like to stage a homecoming of sorts. “Having a shop in Glasgow or Edinburgh would be great – with a wee flat above it maybe,” he says. “But it’s a little pipe dream and we’re taking our time. We’re happy to sit and wait for good things to come to us. Paul Smith – he’s a smart guy – says he’s probably more defined by the things he said no to than the things he said yes to.”
One thing they have said yes to is showing in Paris at the end of the month – which also happens to be two weeks before his new baby’s due date. Awkward.
And as for that brand name, he says, simply, “One of my best friends, when I told him what I was doing, starting my own line, he just said, ‘You should call it Folk.’ When I asked why, he explained it was just perfect for me and what I was aiming to do.
“I took it.”
At least he didn’t name it after his old Glasgow nickname – a moniker he still answers to, by the way. Trampy.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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