Meeting up with a rising star of the UK fashion industry was bound to be inspiring and as Sam Cotton from the very much on-the-radar Agi & Sam label enjoyed a day out from London at his print supplier; Macclesfield based R A Smart, we tagged along to see what was round the corner for the exciting, young, menswear brand.
Becoming very well known in the right circles for their print inspired menswear collections, Sam Cotton and Agape Mdumulla founded Agi & Sam in January 2010 with the fundamental thought of integrating bespoke print with a sense of humour into their work. Their association with designers such as Karl Lagerfeld, Alexander McQueen and Armand Basi – amongst others – has stood them in good stead and it's easy to forget that Cotton only graduated from the University of Lincoln's illustration course in 2008. Meeting Mdumulla; himself a Manchester College of Art graduate from the same year – whilst working together at Alexander McQueen, they're now moving their brand upwards at an impressive pace, and pioneering some standout work along the way.
The purpose of Cotton's visit to Macclesfield is to discuss fabric sourcing with senior partner at R A Smart; Magnus Mighall. His company is a well know print provider for fashion, furnishings and sportswear and consistently has a number of household names' designs running through their substantial digital or high end silk screen print facility. It's Paris Fashion Week and the resulting spring / summer 2012 collection that's closest to both their minds today, and although digital print has brought deadlines much closer to delivery dates, there's still a body of work to get through.
"Finding the right fabric remains a challenge," says Mighall, "although there are fewer obstacles now, as we can digitally print to almost any material with either dye sublimation, reactive, acid or pigment inks."
Cotton agrees to this, remarking on the frustrations he faces, "The hardest thing has been sourcing interesting fabrics." The one he's keenest on tying down is a sweatshirt jersey with a looped, fleecy back to it. "It's the most popular product in our range," he says, "and to find one that's printable will be a real winner."
They'll produce this next collection on the same digital printer that brought the plaudits and awards at London Fashion Week earlier in 2011. Their Spring / Summer 2011 collection entitled “Tabasco, Tequila and Tomato Juice” was inspired by many facets of Central American society and delivered menswear, shoes and millinery that sported vibrant colour blocks and traditional cuts embellished with powerful printed patterns. The Mimaki Tx400-1800D textile inkjet printer that R A Smart used is capable of printing both direct and via transfer paper to the polyesters that make up the majority of Agi & Sam's range. Long rid of an ancient reputation of being an unfashionable and unpleasant to wear material, polyester is by far the most versatile and creative base fabric available, morphing into substantially different handles, looks and weights with remarkable ease.
Examining the new fabrics for the upcoming collection, alongside some natty looking sportswear styled cloths, Cotton picks out a peached twill, ideal for a suit jacket’s outer fabric and barely distinguishable from its natural inspiration. With all the benefits (to manufacturer and consumer) of ease of printing, wear and care, it has great potential to fit into their new range and it's one that Cotton's clearly excited about.
"Dye sublimation is such an integral part of fashion printing and for next season we're looking to mix natural cloths with man made fabrics in a contemporary and clean collection."
One thing he's surprised about though is the lack of capacity for digital print provision onto polyester in the UK. "The majority of polyester is being printed for soft signage, sportswear or the flag industry," agrees Mighall, "and whilst there are a number of well known bureau services for printing natural fabrics, I'm not surprised that Agi & Sam initially struggled to find a print partner for its polyester work."
Agi & Sam produced its first commercial work not much more than a year ago, describing it at the time as "a fully committed menswear collection". The company has embarked on the usual hard graft to gain the necessary uplift in a famously tough industry, and Cotton admits that they are effectively building an expensive portfolio. They're now at the stage where well known labels request freelance projects – so together, he and Mdumulla are consulting for the big names and gaining the exposure that will elevate their brand.
"With fashion, you have to make a scene," says Cotton. "Everything we do is tarnished with humour. We're making print based catwalk collections and getting noticed for it, but show by show, we're pulling it back to a more normal perspective – we just had to create a fuss to get noticed at the outset."
Sowing the seeds
The sample fabrics that R A Smart will produce for Agi & Sam to create their next runway pieces will be short work for the Mimaki – barely a few hours printing – but it's sowing the seeds for the volume work that comes off the back of a successful collection launch. The beauty of digital lies in the ease of delivery of the short runs required for just such a project, and not that many years ago, it would have been a very different story for designers like Mdumulla and Cotton to get their work off the ground.
Cotton is completely accepting of this and sees digital textile printing – and his knowledge of it – as core to what their label offers. "A lot of people don't really know much about the choice of processes, or how versatile digital printing is. What we're keen on harnessing is where we can take it."
The success of the Mimaki printed first collection was recognised by leading publications like Vogue, ID and Dazed and the awareness this created has seen something of a spike in demand at R A Smart, with a number of designers looking at similar projects shortly after Agi & Sam's showing at London. So saying, Cotton's not one for counting his chickens. "We had this plan. We hit all our targets. We delivered what we'd hoped for," he recalls, "But you know what? We could have done all this and had everyone hate it!"
There goes the fickleness of fashion, but with a drive towards delivering their captivating designs on new ecologically savvy cloths, recycled polyesters and other challenging fabrics, Agi & Sam are happy working on the new, while others have yet to embark on the present.