“I loved going round little boutiques, finding out brands I hadn’t heard of before, feeling like I had discovered a gem. I wanted this to be like that. I wanted us to be hard to find, quite exclusive, small runs, and not really in magazines. I just wanted us to be a jewel people could find and get excited about.”
And S.E.H Kelly is exactly that. Tucked away in a set of workshops off Boundary Street it’s not a brand you stumble across on your standard Saturday shop.
However those who do manage to uncover this hidden workshop, most likely through word-of-mouth or style blogs, are likely to return. The tiny space is home to clothes that belie their humble surroundings. Made in London, entirely from British fabrics, using some of the best factories and mills in the country, these garments are enduring, not just in terms of quality, but also in design. They are garments to save up for, wear often and last a lifetime.
The brand was founded by Paul Vincent and Sara Kelly seven years ago in their London flat. After Sara was made redundant from her job in Savile Row, she and partner Paul, saw an opportunity to create their own brand, using the same making processes she had learnt through tailoring – the use luxury cloth from British mills, paying attention to the fine details, a focus on the fit – but applying them to casualwear.
With Sara’s technical background and industry connections and Paul’s knowledge and enthusiasm for menswear style, they have successfully grown the brand to a stage where “the business sustains itself” with a base of loyal customers who regularly return.
Initially, both worked full time whilst trying to establish the brand, Paul for the first 4 to 5 years, so that they could invest in the cloth, whilst Sara worked on the designs with a pattern-cutter friend of hers in the flat.
Now, both work full time on S.E.H Kelly and the collection has steadily grown, from just three garments, to now having six types of coat, five types of jacket and three types of trousers.
They work by simply adding one piece to each collection (outerwear or trousers) each year – or whenever they feel the need for something new. However, there are no seasonal deadlines and most of their work is spent updating the details on the designs they already have, rather than creating new products – a refreshing attitude in an industry that seems to always be demanding more.
Their ethos is “more of the same, but better”. You can tell Paul is a perfectionist of sorts. Inspired by button choice, pocket placement, collar design – the finer details – which he is driven to continually improve.
“If we have idea for a new type of pocket, we’ll go back through the whole collection and update them all with this new type of pocket, so they’re all consistently good. A lot of time is just spent improving the level of everything” he says.
They look to evolve what they currently have before adding anything new, and this is particularly driven by their customer feedback, the people who are wearing their clothes day in day out.
“Over time we realise that customers are saying ‘I like your trousers but why don’t you have a narrow leg trouser?’ So we think maybe we should design one. We’ll think about the style and the cut, shape of the pockets and the details. Eventually we’ll put it on paper, approach the cutter and say can you work on this for us?”
Their cutter is a former technical director at Burberry, and although he retired from this job 15 years ago “he’s just got it in his blood and can’t stop”.
“We met him at one of the factories we worked with. He looked at our stuff and said ‘that’s rubbish let me help you’. Now all the output now goes through him. He isn’t the fastest worker but the results are infallible. He’s just a maestro.”
Their use of just the single cutter is reflective of what is a very simple, but effective set up, with all their outerwear/trousers being made in one factory and knitwear in another.
“The factories we work with are all the best we can find, in terms of UK-based ready-to-wear for menswear. We know what we want, we make exactly what we want and we work with the best people who can make that into finished garments.”
You really get a sense that whatever Paul does, he wants it to be the best it can be. It’s a trend that extends right through the brand, whether it’s the meticulously designed website, the people, or factories he works with.
However, where this ethos is best illustrated is in the choice of cloth, which is sourced from some of the best mills in the British Isles.
Paul takes me to the single row of jackets hanging up neatly on bronze pattern hooks. Their cloth, ranging from handwoven wool to military cotton, is full of texture and character.
I ask Paul which one of their cloth suppliers is his favourite. “We’ve got a soft spot for all our suppliers really. There are mills which we’ve worked with for years, like Hainsworth in Yorkshire, but we also like working with the smaller mills, such as Daniel (Harris) or Mourne (Textiles).”
Paul shows me a brown tweed peacoat with subtle auburn tones. The cloth is woven in County Donegal in north-west Ireland by a sixth-generation mill.
“These are just a father and son team, but they have been going for generations. The dad looks after the looms and the son designs the cloth. They design the yarn with the little neps and burs in it, deciding how many to use and what colour they should be. They realise that the orange there will bring out the base colour. It could easily look like a mess with so much colour, but it doesn’t, it looks really modern.”
Next to the peacoat is slightly more formal two button wool jacket. The cloth is a heavy tweed, woven in a mill on the island of Mull, in the Inner Hebrides. With beautiful natural tones, the wool comes from the fleece of heritage sheep: the grey from the Hebridean breed and the fawn brown from Manx.
Paul visited the mill in the summer, as he does with almost all of the suppliers they use. “All the yarn they use is from sheep on their organic land. The weaving shed is next to the shearing shed. It’s hyper local. And, if it didn’t sound idyllic enough, it’s right next to a beach.”
Visiting beachside mills must be one of the perks of the job, but it’s not the exotic locations that excite Paul most: “All the mills we work with have a story and that’s why we like them. I get enthused by it. Almost all of them are either old, with heritage to them, or they just have a really interesting story.”
I sense the enthusiasm in Paul’s voice rise as he remembers one such story and takes me to a cinnamon coloured trench coat.
“This is a cloth called Ventile, a cotton invented on the order of Winston Churchill in 1940. It is so densely woven that it’s waterproof and performs similar to Gore-Tex. It’s produced by a company in Lancashire and has been used by the military, but we use it a lot for short jackets, overcoats and trench coats. We like the interesting story with the World War II connection.”
The use of old military cloth extends beyond just the trench coat. Paul points out a duffle coat made from a heavy wool from Fox brothers, a mill whose cloth also dressed Winston Churchill and during the First World War produced 8,000 miles of khaki cloth for soldiers.
Although drawn to the story behind the cloth, what stands out most about this coat is the beautiful horn toggles. Individually handmade, the toggles are sourced from a factory in Lancashire, a horn specialist that goes back 200 years. Paul points out that they use horn buttons on all their garments – a reminder of their Savile Row connection.
It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the quality and stories behind these garments. Considering this, I note that the prices seem reasonable. In UK almost everything they create is sold through their online website, which means they are not subject to market forces and as Paul puts it they can “do what we want”.
It’s clear that Paul doesn’t want S.E.H Kelly to be too expensive a brand. It may take a few months to save up for their pieces, but considering the cloth, the cut and the attention to detail put into them, they should really cost a lot more than they do.
“We made a conscious decision to not stock our clothes in any UK shops. Coats that we charge £450 for would suddenly be £700 in a shop.”
“We tried it for one season, but having to use cheap cloth and cut corners to keep the price down didn’t work for us, and as soon as we stopped doing that we felt at liberty to do what we wanted to do. If a cloth is £50 a metre we can use it.”
Paul takes me back to the duffle coat to illustrate the problem with wholesaling: “The toggles are £9 each and each duffle coat has 4, so that’s £36 just on the toggles. You can buy a duffle coat on the high street for that price! Then you think about the mark up – the rule of thumb is something like 2.9 – so times by £36, already that’s over £100 for the cost of the toggles in a shop. It doesn’t work, that’s not what we want to be. We are not a luxury brand. We want to be an accessible brand.”
Their prices are also kept at a reasonable level through their decision to keep them “trim and true and free from the tyranny of the sale” as Paul puts it on their website. Whilst many brands will set a big price to begin with, then slash it in a sale, because S.E.H Kelly pledge never to do sales, it means they are not factoring in these huge mark-ups.
Not only can sales damage the integrity of the brand, “they also get you in a negative cycle having to chase the sales, trying to be the first to go on sale. Not doing sales means it can be hard to shift stuff, but there’s a satisfaction that comes with selling all your clothes at full price.”
They are committed to keeping their business primarily online to allow them this control over their pricing, but do also have a number of stockists in Japan –no doubt won over by the workwear aesthetic and British heritage.
The majority of their garments are stocked in their Boundary St workshop, which they moved into five years ago. Although petite, it is meticulously organized with not a glove out of place, which reflects the brand and gives it a sense of authenticity.
“I’m not a big shopper but shops that don’t have a physical presence don’t really appeal to me. I find it a bit impersonal just buying from the website, you’re effectively just buying from an office and it seems a bit strange. So I wanted to have a physical space because it roots the brand in something real.”
However, the brand is now beginning to outgrow the small space: “On a weekend suddenly you have 4/5 guys in here, and one guy wants to try something on and another wants something in size medium, but the stock in in the same place as the changing room, so I have to be like ‘wait a minute’!”
At some point in the future, they plan to move into a larger space, but at the moment they’re just focusing on the garments and making them better each season.
“That’s what excites us. It’s the clothes that we think about and looking after the customers. The rest is all incidental.”