Interview & Photography Kirk Truman
“A well-dressed man who keeps me in a job; and I’m very grateful to him for that…”
David Keyte is the co-founder, director and designer of menswear label Universal Works, a brand that’s synonymous with the small-scale production of uncompromisingly honest and well-designed slow-fashion design that’s found a growing following around the world. I spoke to David about breaking into the business, world domination and the importance of being a man of style.
Tell us about yourself and your background.
I worked in the clothing industry for 20 years, going from Saturday shop boy to production director. I worked in retail, sales, production and product development, until 10 years ago I started my own brand with my partner Stephanie.
How did you get into menswear?
I grew up in the Midlands and left school at 16 with almost no qualifications. I did all sorts of different jobs – painter, fishmonger, coal miner – but they were all just to earn money… most of which I spent in clothing stores. One day I said I should work in one and save some cash – so I went into retail!
What made you decide to launch your own label?
I fancied working 18-hour days, seven days a week, for no money! Seriously, I had – and still have – a mission to get men to dress better, but to be comfortable and confident in that clothing, and I thought I could design it, make it and deliver it. Those long hours were also really appealing, of course…
How would you describe the wearer of Universal Works?
A well-dressed man who keeps me in a job; and I’m very grateful to him for that.
How should your designs make men feel?
Confident, happy, stylish. They made a good choice, so, clearly, they must be intelligent too.
Tell me about your London stores; how did your Bloomsbury and Soho sites come about?
Bloomsbury was our first store. It’s tiny – too small for a clothing store really – but we love it. To be honest, it was on Lamb’s Conduit Street – a street we loved – it was affordable, and we wanted to get a start in retail at the time. It was really all we could afford. The Soho store was a bigger step for us, but at the time Berwick Street was not so expensive. In those days, it was a little dated and run-down. In the five years we’ve been on the street, it’s got a lot cooler; and, of course, more expensive. But we love being on Berwick Street and being part of a real Soho community.
What is the future vision of the brand?
My only plan is to have no plan. Plans can get in the way of taking opportunities as they arise, of pushing yourself further; it’s important to be quick and nimble as a business.
But if I did have a plan, it would be global domination, followed by world peace. If I can’t achieve this in the next few years I’ll settle for continuing to make well-considered, well-designed, well-made, nicely-fitting, interesting clothing. The hardest part of any business is not just doing it well once but doing it well again, and again, and again – and that’s what we intend to do.