Words Kirk Truman
Portraits Sandra Vijandi
“Not only does it feel like the centre of Bloomsbury, but it feels like the centre of London in a way…”
Farringdon, Portobello, Lambeth: familiar names of various London districts, but also those of a wealth of garments designed by Oliver Spencer, whose clothes have earned a reputation for distinction, comfort and sheer cool. Designing and making handcrafted garments with stylish accents and practical details for modern men and women, Bloomsbury-based Spencer has produced his own individual take on relaxed British style.
Having grown up in Coventry, Oli first moved to London in the early 1990s to study art. Frustrated by the limitations of art school, he abandoned his studies and enrolled in what he describes as the University of Life, selling second-hand clothes from a stall at Portobello Market. “Lots of things happened which I would describe as being pivotal in framing where my life would go next. I learnt lots of lessons – some good and some bad,” he says. He woke up at 4.30am every day so he could get his pitch, and it was there on the market stall that his relationship with clothes really began, giving him with an enduring love of the product and a passion for shopkeeping.
Oli spent a decade creating and expanding his first venture, formalwear brand Favourbrook, during which time he designed waistcoats for the 1994 film Four Weddings And A Funeral and began to establish his place on London’s design map. Eight years later, he wanted to embark on a new venture with even greater ambitions – success on the global scene. His plan was to produce a range of clothing that combined the quality and craft of traditional tailoring with a more relaxed modern style. His philosophy: quality needn’t mean formality; casual needn’t mean careless. “I have a feeling towards clothing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s dressing up or dressing down – it’s involved in every step of my life in any case,” he says. “When my customers purchase something from us, I want them to feel a sense of belonging – as if they’ve bought something that’s like their best friend… something they’ve owned forever. Every season, I strive to get there. I want to create clothes that talk to people. Most of my customers like to be seen but not heard – that’s why I don’t brand my stuff.”
The Oliver Spencer label was born in 2002, and its founder’s philosophy soon found a number of adherents in the heart of Bloomsbury and beyond. Ironically, Oli’s arrival in Bloomsbury came about through friend and founder of Folk Clothing, Glaswegian fashion designer Cathal McAteer. “I already loved the shops on Lambs Conduit Street, and then my friend Cathal asked me to open a shop here,” he tells me. “Bloomsbury has come up and up. It’s become a much more residential neighbourhood, but also with many more businesses locating here. It’s a melting pot, and full of academics. You can slide into a pub here and you could end up spending your evening with a doctor or professor, but equally they might work in the film industry or law. Bloomsbury, for me, is a very educated neighbourhood. People here are interesting and very creative: you can feel it when you’re walking down the street. The architecture of the place captivates me – it’s steeped in history. The whole atmosphere of is wonderful. If you think back to its heyday, with the Bloomsbury Group and everything else, you can still really feel it here. With our shops, one – No 58 – was a bookshop, and No 62 was a picture framers. They bound books underneath one, and made frames underneath the other.”
The brand first came to Lambs Conduit Street in 2007. Oli’s store at No 62 is home to the latest collection each season, with the original surviving shop fittings making for an immaculately dressed setting. Underneath the shop, where the framer’s was once based, the Oliver Spencer team is at work making for the main office for the brand. Another prominent fixture below the shop is Oli’s studio, where the collections are designed. The numerous sketches of jackets, shirts and other garments pinned to the wall attest to the work that goes on there. Two doors along, No 58 is home to the Oliver Spencer Shoes & Accessories collection. “The brand is wholly focused on menswear. I’ve got lots going on with it,” he says.
Since launching on Lambs Conduit Street, Oliver Spencer has gone on to expand across London, with shops in Shoreditch and Soho. “Not only does it feel like the centre of Bloomsbury, but it feels like the centre of London in a way. Lambs Conduit Street, to me, is the best street in London, because of the mix of people,” says Oli. “I’d imagine it’s the way London was about 50 years ago, with lots of independent stores based along the street. You can do most things in life on this street; get drunk (or merry), do up your house, dress nice, smell nice and eat well… and that’s where we want to be.”
Oli is uncompromising in the standards he sets for production and provenance, sourcing the finest fabrics and yarns from artisanal British and Italian mills. He prides himself on producing his garments in only the best European factories and workshops, with around 40 per cent of the collection made here in London or elsewhere in England.
Despite the emphasis on British quality, Oliver Spencer’s eye is firmly fixed on the global market. Today, his clothes are stocked in many of the world’s leading department stores, from Selfridges to Liberty of London, and he has opened shops in Toronto and Paris, as well as developing a profitable international online business. With wearers of his brand including Daniel Craig, Tinie Tempah, Alex James and Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp, Oli confesses that his next ambition is to become a household name.