Universal Works Co-founder David Keyte, sat down for a conversation with journalist Robin Clementson and discussed ethics and sustainability within the fashion industry, the values and ethos of Universal Works and the brands and independent companies David admires that are doing great things in the world right now.
Hi David, thanks for speaking with us. Can you explain a little about Universal Works approach to clothing and what drives the business?
From day one, which is 12 years ago now, my motto was “buy less shit, but please buy my shit!”.
We all need to have less stuff if we are going to make a difference to the damage we are doing to the planet, but we do need things. However, when we buy things, we should think about why and what we are buying, buy for a longer term and buy better made and ethically made.
You are synonymous with workwear and that effortless style which has roots in Japan. What do you love about this aesthetic?
I like things that have a purpose, a reason to exist. Workwear was all made for a real job and to last. It is designed to be worn and to be washed over and over again, which is my kind of clothing.
A postcard from a U.W trip to Japan.
How do you feel about the ongoing chat surrounding sustainability and ethics within the fashion industry?
I’m not interested in the marketing spin, but there are also lots of cool new companies and older companies trying to do good things.
Let’s be honest, ALL new things have some effect on the planet, but the big corporate brands are the ones with real power to change things, and they are driven mostly by profit only.
We all need to be aware of what we do and what we buy – effectively voting with our cash for brands that care whenever we can. But I do get a bit bored with everyone jumping on the “green” bandwagon. Sustainability, like many big issues, is a complex issue and too often people want an easy one-line answer and there just isn’t one – it's bloody complex.
What is important to you when designing a collection, what are the main considerations?
Do I like it, would I wear it, can I make it? Simple really.
David Keyte's Kitchen Table.
Who does this job well, who do you look at and think ‘yep, they’re getting things right?
I like all and any small independent brand just for being there. For being honest and real and trying to survive and grow and be positive in the middle of a pandemic, in a time of global dominance by huge corporate brands, and doing this while we try to lessen the damage we all do to the planet. Big up to small independents everywhere.
As for individual brands I admire…
I admire Patagonia for their commitment to trying to harmless and to make things better and for letting their staff go surfing.
I admire Comme Des Garcons for following their own path for so many years and always pushing boundaries, being creative and commercial.
I admire Yuketan for making great shoes and for not compromising and for giving me great whiskey.
I admire Nicholas Daley for doing new cool stuff.
I admire F/CE for doing great, great things while having a family, playing in an international recognised band and still being a nice guy.
I admire Margaret Howell for never changing for trend.
I admire Veja for making a small dent in the big shoe brands with a good idea and good methods.
I admire Novesta shoes for being independent affordable and not having any glue in their sneakers.
A photo of a Universal Works x Novesta trainer in production.
You’re a non traditionalist in the sense that you follow your own path, is there a strategy behind collaborations, partnerships or films you create?
Not really, but I guess we want to do things that are honest and genuine. I want to work with other companies we like and make great product and also work on new things that excite us – sharing our ethics and our sense of humour!
There is a telling sense of togetherness, made all the more prominent given the recent pandemic. How do you want people to perceive Universal Works? Does it matter to you?
Yes, very much so. I want us to make great clothing that helps them to feel good about themselves, feel good about the way they look and make them smile and be positive. I want people to feel like that about UW, but we also have a responsibility to be honest about everything we do and that won’t please all the people all the time.
There is also a very easy-going nature attached to the brand. Is this your own personality shining through?
I am not sure I can claim a shining personality, but I think all businesses are a reflection of the people at the top. We try hard to enjoy what we do and pass that on throughout the brand, but we also make mistakes every day and try to learn from them too.
We are deadly serious about what we do, it’s a business and we employ a bunch of people directly and many more indirectly and have a responsibility to them and their families to do a serious job, while trying not to take ourselves too seriously.
Universal Works x Tenue De Nimes 2020 photoshoot of the collaboration.
Everyone within the industry seems to really respect Universal Works, why do you think that is?
I hope that’s true, and thanks for saying it. If it’s true, then maybe it’s because we pay our bills on time and we try to be nice wherever possible.
What annoys you about the industry, what are you keen for your brand to avoid?
Bullshit in our industry and all industries annoys me, and I am also keen to avoid going bust if possible.
Music is at the heart of UW and we love the recent campaign No Borders, No Nations, Just People – can you talk about what inspired you to create it and how music played its part?
I ‘borrowed’ the strap-line from a great gathering I went to with a friend in Delhi, it was a time of much political unrest in the world and I really liked the sentiment of us all being people and the need to see beyond the blinkers sometimes. The guy whose system it was played great sounds and while none of this really inspired the clothing, it inspired the ‘feeling’ and that became my kind of drive for the collection.
BTS of Gordon McHarh III from the "No Borders, No Nations, Just People" 2020 photoshoot.
What is your favourite type of music by the way?
Depends on the day of the week. Right now I am listening to some great new British jazz by Nubya Garcia, but tomorrow it might be some old 80’s Bowie.
I love reggae, but I love disco, I’m kind of collective with musical taste, a soul boy at heart I guess but then maybe The Clash would be my all-time favourite band. Like I said earlier, most things in life are more complex than a one-line answer can do justice to.
Credit: SSeams : November Issue.