It’s not until you have a face to face conversation that a man’s true essence of intention can be felt. When sitting opposite Paul Weller to photograph him for the first time, I see an icon of British music, a face I grew up looking at on record covers and who’s voice was the soundtrack to many drives with my father. Over the next few hours, this icon transforms into something a lot more relatable. Mr Weller is a man of the people. He earnestly shows gratitude as numerous passers by express their love, and he speak with candour and directness about his life and work.
This year he launched a menswear collection with long time friend Mr Phil Bickley, bringing his distinctive style to a new audience. The obvious path should be a flashy “celebrity” PR circuit, but Paul is hardly even visible on their website. The feeling here is that slow and steady will eventually win the race. I imagine they will.
Exclusively available through Tonic on Portobello Road, the collection mixes knitwear, shirting and tailoring to create a small collection of classic menswear essentials. It was the flannel double-breasted suit that initially caught my eye, produced in a quantity of only 25 and made from the finest Italian wool. Ultimately with Real Stars are Rare, you get a limited edition piece at half the price of Saville Row off-the-peg clothing.
I chatted with Paul and Phil during the photoshoot to hear some more about their opinions on music, menswear and the city that started it all, London.
Firstly, how did you two meet?
Paul: My son used to skate near Portobello Road at the weekends so I’d visit the Tonic shop then. We got chatting one day and I mentioned to Phil that I’d always wanted to do a fashion line. At first it started out with just some shirts and it grew from there.
How long has it been from that initial conversation until now?
Phil: It must be 4 years. The brand has been going for over a year now but it takes a long time to bring a project to fruition.
Paul: I remember when we made our first samples we excitedly showed them to the team at Purple PR. Reality set in when they told us we could do better! That early shirt looks like it was designed for the Pilgrim Fathers.
How did you start to decide what direction to go in initially?
Paul: I had some sketches as well as a lot of reference material so that was the core of our first conversations.
Phil: Yes, Paul has some excellent sketches and that’s the starting point for most of it. Paul also has an archive of clothing we can draw from which is incredible. We’ll take the initial ideas and then see how we can translate this to the customer. Paul can get away with things that most other people can’t because of his job but also because he’s one of those people you can put anything on and it works. It’s about adapting who he is for a broader audience.
It’s clear that you both have great communication. You’re very direct with one another – there’s no bullshit.
Phil: We both come from similar backgrounds so we have a similar way of talking. When we decided we were going to do something together we agreed to always be honest. There’s no point otherwise. We’ve had a few creative stand-offs but that’s par for the course.
We were talking earlier about how menswear is a bit bloated right now. What makes this brand stand out?
Phil: The bottom line is it’s different. Our trousers say it all. Every men’s trouser today is tapered and rolled up but we have a straight leg, parallel leg and one with a bootcut. No-one else is doing that right now. We focus on fabrics and getting small numbers manufactured in the best factories. We only use British or Italian fabric and to keep that at a reasonable price is tricky but we’ve done it. I think that says a lot.
Paul: Personally I’m bored with the tapered leg silhouette. It’s been around for 10 or 15 years and it is time to evolve. We want to change the direction of menswear a little. I think fit is everything with this brand. When I shop in other stores it makes me realise how our brand stands out. Our price is really reasonable for the quality we’re offering and effectively everything is limited edition. For example there’s only 25 of this navy double breasted suit produced. It makes it special.
Style has been such a huge part of your career Paul. Was that a conscious decision to create an image from the beginning?
Paul: I think it’s a cultural thing, just something I grew up on. I was a kid in the 1960s, a decade when Britain was changing dramatically, and by the early 1970s I was immersed in street culture. Music and clothing were inseparable then. There’s only a few things that define you when you’re a kid and clothing did that for me. It was before “designer” labels became a thing so it was authentic, street-led style I would see. All the fashions I was influenced by came from the kids themselves.
Do you remember hitting a groove at some point and thinking “this is me, this represents me best”?
Paul: It changes all the time as I change as a person. As I grow older I adapt. Where I am now, may be different to me in a year. Having said that, my style has always been quite mod-centric and that’s the core of everything.
What age did you start getting into clothes?
Paul: In the late 1960s I was about 12 with the post-skinhead, suedehead movement. That had a huge impact.
Phil: For me it was going to the football in the 1980s. I used to dress up at 15 and 16 to go to the match and wear my semi-flared cords. I’d see guys at the game and think ‘damn, he’s fucking cool’. At the same time I started to identify with certain brands like Levi’s. It all grew from that.
How did you get into the fashion industry Phil?
Phil: I’ve been in clothing for years and it all started with a part-time job in a shop. I did a fashion degree later on then became a buyer. I worked for Paul Smith for a long time then opened Tonic on Portobello Road.
This location is iconic in the style history of London. What does Portobello Road mean to you?
Phil: The area is obviously where my business is but really it goes deeper than that. It’s home to me. I know a lot of people around here and they know me. It’s my London. It’s not as ‘fashionable’ as Shoreditch but it’s a little bit more old school and I prefer that.
Paul: I love the mixture of cultures. I used to live very close by and would love that fact that everyone is here. It’s a real melting pot.
Do you think London is as exciting as it was when you first moved here?
Phil: From a clothing perspective British menswear is more exciting than it’s ever been and London is the place where it comes together. There are so many new independent brands, all with differing points of view on menswear. Different cuts, fabrics, ways of manufacturing with the ‘craft’ returning to focus. I’m constantly finding new things for my shop Tonic. Real Stars are Rare is all about the craft.
If you could give your 18 year old self advice, what would it be?
Paul: Be nicer to people, be kind. But myself at 18 would’ve said “fuck off”.
Leave us with some words of wisdom.
Phil: Keep it simple.