Candice sits down with James Scroggs, CEO and founder of workwear brand M.C. Overalls, for an exclusive on the brand’s history and future plans.
Could you give us a little recap on the brand and its history? How it came about?
So, this brand dates back to 1908. It’s 111 years old. It was founded by two brothers and their best mate, who had left a Lithuanian village looking for their fortune, in a sense. I think they were so young, they probably didn’t realize what they were good at, so they went out to learn. They were what I regard as the classic apprentices, and they ended up in South Africa and learned how to braid waistcoats. The more waistcoats you wore and the more ornate the braiding, it was a sign of your status in life. Then, in the 20s, they ended up in East London and had learned how to cut and sew denim and heavy twills into uniforms, and they supplied uniforms for British military but also for machinists and factory workers during the war. The business was eventually sold in the 50s.
The trademark, Morris Cooper Overalls, stayed within the family of the founders, and the greatgrandson was in a meeting with me on something entirely different the first time I met him and said, at the end of the meeting, “I have this amazing trademark in my family that I don’t really know what to do with it, and I want to do something with it.” At which point, I put my hand out and said I had a few ideas, which started a conversation with a bunch of other people, and that conversation evolved.
In May 2017, we had created our first collection. And, I had been to trade shows trying to sell the first collection in wholesales and found that, because my background is extensively and more recently in music and technology, the conversations mirrored the conversations I used to have in music, which is where a music label would say, “I love your artists. I love your songs.” I would go, “Would you leverage them for me?” “No.” They’re not prepared to take a risk. Go and prove you have an audience for this artist. I found there was a similar echo going on with the wholesale retailers, even though we had fantastic feedback, so I came back and decided to go direct and build a pop-up shop in Dean Street Soho.
It enabled people to come and meet me, to come and hear the story, to come and understand why I was doing it the way I was doing it, to see products that we were only just sampling, and build much more of a narrative around this rather than what might have otherwise happened. And, it went really well. We sold an awful lot in the eight weeks that we were there, and that gave me the confidence to then decide that the foundations of this store had to be in a flagship store concept where people can come and actually talk to me and touch the products.
The reason why I haven’t told a heritage story about this brand (It might have been very easy and intuitive to tell a story and use references from 1908) is I think the world is somewhat fatigued or confused about heritage because a lot of people cling to heritage or use faux-heritage. As much as we have a true heritage, the references we’d have from 1908 would be on a relatively smaller scale, and I felt that what was most interesting about the founding story was that being in the mindset of that 17year-old entering the world, not really knowing what they’re good at, and in a sense, going on an apprentice’s journey and learning by doing stuff.
I feel like that’s particularly relevant today in that the myths and legends of linear careers are gone. We have a workforce who has a lot of side-hustles, and they might earn money over here but, actually, they’re exploring what they’re passionate about or good at over there. That sort of fluidity, I think, plays into what workwear is about. We now live in a world where the formality of work and the informality are blending. Therefore, to come up with a collection that is unisex, because I think gender roles are blurring. It’s quite interesting to take a unisex brand that takes, as far as I understand it, an effectively male and classic workwear silhouette, kind of oversized, hardwearing, boxy, and structured shape, and sizing down to petite women.
So, you have one pitch to people, and the pitch is that we like hardware fabrics that are really easily washable with pretty much all of our stuff being machinewashable at 30 degrees, that is colourful. I like stretching men out of their comfort zones into something a bit more pop that has a uniform feel about it. I thought lovingly about a poly cotton suit, which is matching colour-wise, so you can wear a suit feeling like you have the formality of the workplace but actually its playful and can be separated and styled how you will. There’s a uniformity therefore to the look. For example, in our signature overalls, we have people who wear them with sneakers to dress them down, and then, we have people who wear heels and dress them up. I love that fluidity.
I’m also keen to keep a very tight, affordable, and accessible price point. Because I’m not from the fashion world, I’m not a big believer in seasonality or interested in selling in season. I’m interested in people having the ability to keep coming back and knowing and confident that they can buy the same silhouette and same styles again and again. So, we will keep making the same products as much as possible. Of course, we will explore various things that are a bit more on trend, but the core of this business, I want to keep really consistent.
We have very low-key branding, where our branding is tone on tone and tends to be embroidered; pop colours, pastel colours, and things that take people out of their comfort zone but make it feel like it’s got a really strong personality. This goes back to that founding ethos of making sure that when people are wearing them out or wearing them to work, they feel really confident and says something about the way they view the world. Industrious, hard-working, our founding ethos, and I think it’s where people are successful today where they have that.
You said that you were more recently involved with music. Why did you personally want to get into the fashion business?
I’ve always been a buyer and lover of fashion. I’ve mentioned a few times to you before. I regard myself as the last turkey in the shop. Also, I run various businesses at the corporate size, as well as smaller businesses, so I was very interested in coming into a market that I don’t know much about but, in a sense, having worked for 25 years and applying a new logic to it because I don’t know what the rules are. I’m creating my own rules. Many people would argue, “Why on earth would you go with a brick and mortar store when, actually, fashion is more largely online?” With my response, I would say, “Yeah, but if I launched online, I think it would be really difficult for people to really touch and feel what this brand is about.”
I am interested in the growth of a business to start and build a really tight fan base. People out there advocating and evangelising what we’re about and what the clothes say about them. Instagram is my shop window beyond this store, and I am really keen that everybody who wears our stuff, I promote them through our Instagram feed to express something about what they see in the world. So, we don’t have an advocacy program that’s based on chasing fame and people with big follower numbers.
I’m interested in standing alongside people who, I think, are kind of peers in what we’re doing here. Whether that’s beer brands or new bands that are trying to break or artists who don’t have a strong following yet, I see a work ethic and aesthetic that is parallel to ours. This means that we all build the fanbase together, and that community is really vital if you’re going to build a strong and vibrant business.
If you go back to the music world, one hit wonders, the reason they’re one hit wonders is they might strike it lucky once, but they don’t have a fanbase to fall back on. I’m also really mindful that the overall boilersuit is very fashionable at the moment, but that fashion will move on. I want to make sure that the strength of what we’re about beyond the overall is really, really secure so that, when people stop buying overalls in a few years time, we actually have other things that are appealing to them. It’s not just about the overalls. The overall is a signature, but there’s actually much more beyond.
With your music background, are you trying to incorporate it into the business in some way?
Only in ways where I know how to work with young musicians who have a day job but they desperately try to carve out the time to express themselves, write and perform. And, I think, if anybody is emblematic of that hard work ethos and, also feel like it’s their calling to nurture and grow with it and the fanbase, for me, that’s a really strong place to be associated. Not exclusively, but it also helps that I know about music. I’m interested in musicians as a breed of people. They’re unique sorts.
So, it’s kind of an obvious place for me to start with this, but I also am a lover of contemporary arts. I used to sit on the board of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), so I have a desire to explore that, as well. Similar to writers and chefs. Anything creative that has that sort of apprenticeship principle of how you become successful in that field. You have to, kind of, learn it and earn it. When they come in here, they’re coming in here not because that’s what they do but because, outside of their day job where they earn their money, they have some other interest that they’re exploring. I think they see us as that kind of brand.
With your idea of consistency for the brand, do you plan on later expanding out or possibly going international?
Yes, we are still doing wholesale. Wholesale is now growing, so we are in Harvey Nichols menswear. We’re about to launch in Harvey Nichols womenswear. We’re in about 14 different accounts from Berlin to France to Toronto, Edinburgh, London, Paris. We just signed three accounts in Japan, which is very exciting. I want this to be a global brand. Why? Because I think it doesn’t feel like a regional, fashionista moment. This feels like something that could be universal to a lot of people. It sounds kind of silly, but it has that democratic principle. Therefore, my ambition is to have that one flagship store, which is the epicenter of your business, but actually hope that the ripples are created by lots of people wearing it, talking about it, and stocking it across the globe.
Would this store in Soho be your flagship store?
Yes. I’m a massive Soho fan. I think there’s something about the melting pot of Soho that’s unique. I think it’s pretty unique, globally. I had the opportunity to open it in an old bar. With this being an old bar means that the dynamic of the space is very different, and I love that. It’s not an obvious retail environment. By basing the business and my office and our design and selling in the same environment, when we have sale appointments with retailers, we simply put the new product out, and I would welcome the public to come in and touch that product and go, “When’s that coming?” You then get a sense of what people are responding to and whether the ambitions for the products are being met by the customer’s interest. There’s a sort of transparency and intimacy to all of that that I really, really hold dear.
I think we will always have a flagship in Soho. I’m hoping this store because it’s the perfect store for us, but maybe we’ll outgrow it or have to move on for all sorts of reasons. Some of these other stores bring in such a diverse bunch of people. There’s a very interesting mix of brands here, and I feel very at home even though we’re only 21 months old. We’ve come a long way, and we’ve got a really long way to go. It’s exciting, really exciting!
It is exciting! Transitioning to your products, what is the production or creative process like? Is it extensive?
It’s all made in China in order to be able to do it in a scale and being able to be really confident in the supplier chain because, again, I’m new to fashion so that end of things is relatively new to me. I’m learning quickly, but also to make sure that we can achieve the price point. I want to keep the price in an affordable bracket, so it goes from a £30 t-shirt to a £180 top. I think that that ceiling is important to maintain.
I’ve said that in the Summer, we’re launching our first linen collection, and that’s going to be a little more premium. But, again, I want to make it an accessible version of a linen proposition. Again, it will be in pop colours, so we’re doing a Fuschia and, what I’m loving, they’re calling a Savaro Blue, which is like a sky blue. It won’t be an obvious, sort of, safe linen, it will be pop linen, which would be good.
It’s like the price matches the quality.
Yeah! I think, as a consumer, I would say that our quality is really, really good for the price point. We pride ourselves on quality and robustness of the garment because that’s important to me. I want to be confident that I can wear it for a long time and not lose colour or find something falling off in the washing machine.
Do you have a go-to product or colour, that you or your customers usually go for?
Interestingly, when we started the business, one of the biggest debates we had around the table was whether we should actually make overalls. It’s, you know, in the name, clearly, but there was some doubt amongst my investors on whether people would buy it. I, personally, also had a bit of a hankering to wear overalls because I thought there was something quite interesting about it, and you sort of grow up with Air Force men and Scifi dramas that are all wearing overalls and think, “Oh, this would be pretty cool.” So, what I found is actually, for me personally, once you put it on, it’s quite difficult not to take it off. You could also style it up or down. It’s really great.
What I’m wearing today, the pink overall, is probably, to this day, our signature piece, the one across the press and what people are most infatuated by. In fact, the test was, on our first pop-up in Dean street, we had a sample of the Dusty Pink overall that I spotlighted at the back of the shop, and it was interesting watching people, who had never heard of our brand, walk straight to it, as if it were some sort of sacred relic. So, the Dusty Pink overall is our signature, but, you know, things like our reflective coat jacket and our band of poly cotton coat jackets have been very popular for men and women. It’s very universal, and I’m a very big fan of the green denim because, again, I think it’s a very striking look.
Yeah. It’s a very nice statement piece.
It is a statement piece, and I think it’s really fun. We also collaborate with lots of artists, so some of these that I have here are complete oneoffs where we’ve worked with an artist called Jennifer Louise Martin, who’s an artist graduate to customise them specifically as oneoff art pieces. You can either wear them or hang them up on your wall. That sort of sense that this is all a canvas in which you can imprint yourself is really exciting.
That’s a really lovely interpretation to it. On that note, the big question from our last issues was: if you were stranded on a desert island, what is one beauty product you would take with you, whatever you would class as a beauty product?
Probably would be a Prince record.
A Prince record?
Yeah. Prince, for me at a very young age, completely redefined my sense of identity. I think there is a, sounds ridiculous but, a purity and beauty to what Prince was about, even, occasionally, if people didn’t like his music. There was something beautiful about what Prince had and delivered. For me, that is something that if I had to go on a desert island and had one thing to remind me about my sense of gravity, my sense of identity and what beauty is and how you channel it, that’s Prince, an extraordinary spirit.
Shop MC Overalls at mcoveralls.com. You can see more of Candice’s work on Instagram by following @Candice_x9