As Universal Works embarks on its fourth UK store, founder David Keyte is quietly confident that more and more people are gradually discovering its understated approach to contemporary menswear
David Keyte is a man on a mission. He wants to make ordinary men dress better, and to work on projects he enjoys, with partners he likes and respects along the way – it is as simple as that.
It has been nearly a decade since he founded menswear brand Universal Works in 2009. Since then, he has opened 220 wholesale accounts globally, and gained the respect of menswear enthusiasts around the world. On 26 October, he will open his fourth UK store, at the new Coal Drops Yard development in London’s King’s Cross. In August, he doubled the size of his Soho store to 900 sq ft by moving down the road from 40 to 26 Berwick Street. There is one further store in London, on Lamb’s Conduit Street in Bloomsbury, and another in Nottingham.
“It could be the most ridiculous crazy thing I have ever committed the business to,” says Keyte, dressed head to toe in Universal Works as we chat in a coffee shop round the corner from his newly expanded Soho store. “We’re about to go through a huge turmoil in our economy and the costs [of opening stores] are insane, but I think physical retail is important.
“Although online is incredibly important to us and to all our clients, I still think that most of the retailers that I personally look to have really good stores. I buy all my toilet roll online but I still want to go to a really beautiful food shop and go, ‘Oh that’s a really great melon, I’ll buy that.’ I want to touch things and feel things and actually have a nice experience.”
He explains that the brand’s premium, more tactile fabrics often sell better in store than they do online because customers can touch and feel the quality: “At the end of the day, clothing is about fabric and feel and fit, and so you have got to try it on.
“Online, people think, ‘That looks nice, but this one is £10 cheaper or £50 cheaper,’ whereas in store people are like, ‘That’s nice, I’ll try that on.’”
He gestures at his trousers, which were a trial of a Japanese fabric for an exclusive with online retailer Mr Porter that were eventually made in a different colour, and laughs: “Basically, this is all a massive wardrobe for me.”
Universal Works is based in Nottingham, where Keyte lives with his “life and business partner” Stephanie. They now run the company together. She does “everything he doesn’t”, “which is quite a lot really”, he points out.
The pair met when they were both working at Paul Smith, where he spent 14 years, starting in the 1980s – he was one of the last employees in the relatively humble position of store manager to be interviewed by Sir Paul himself. After that, he spent five years as production manager at sustainable Fair Trade brand Maharishi. Nonetheless, Keyte says he did not intend to get into the fashion industry.
I want to be able to push them enough that they can feel like it’s not just ordinary
Born in Tamworth and grew up in Burton-on-Trent, he “left school at 16 with no qualifications and wanted to be a sign writer because I liked letters”. He ended up becoming a painter and decorator, among other jobs, but eventually moved into fashion after realising he was spending all his money on clothes.
His fondness for good-quality clothing translates into the brand. Although he is incredibly passionate about good fabrics and finding the perfect fit, he wants his collections to be wearable.
“I want my best friend to wear it in the pub and no-one is going to say, ‘What the fuck are you wearing?’” he says. “At the same time, I hope all his mates are going: ‘That’s interesting, what are you wearing?’ I want to be able to push them enough that they can feel like it’s not just ordinary and boring, but I accept that I’m not going to be [Comme des Garçons founder] Rei Kawakubo.”
Bestsellers for the brand include the Bakers Jacket and Pleated Track Pant, while key pieces from the new spring 19 range include Universal Works’ take on a Hawaiian floral shirt in toned-down colours. Wholesale prices for the spring 19 collection start at £20 for T-shirts, £45 for trousers and £50 for jackets.
Something for everyone
“I’m not interested in catwalk and unwearable clothes, I’m not interested in retro or avant garde. I love all those things, I admire and personally I love them, but what I want to produce is something that we can all wear,” he says.
“I want it to be the most amazing quality but I want my mates to afford it – and they’re not all super-rich bankers. In fact, none of them are super-rich bankers,” he grins. “They’re mostly ordinary guys and so they don’t want to spend too much money on their clothes because they want to go to the cinema and buy their kids something, they have a mortgage. So I try and find amazing fabric and keep it simple so they can just about afford it.”
It is an approach that seems to be working. Mark Batista, founder of menswear agency Brand Progression and co-founder of menswear trade show Jacket Required, says he has spotted Universal Works worn by “all manner of different people, from the ages of 16 to 75 in the local pub, in an office, at the football, in a posh restaurant, on the school run, at Paris Fashion Week. Pretty much everywhere”.
“It is the finest gear from the finest people,” he adds.
Keyte is keen to take this message to more people, which is why he is opening at Coal Drops Yard. He believes it will provide a whole new set of potential customers for the brand and allow him to display the broadest view of the collection in its own setting.
However, importantly, it will not encroach on wholesale stockists’ territories. Own retail (stores and online) makes up around 25% of sales, and he does not intend to embark on a wide own-retail rollout because “we already work with the best people.”
Keyte certainly has the independents on side. Vince Clark, director of menswear independent The Priory, which has two stores in Bridlington, East Riding of Yorkshire, says Keyte’s passion for menswear is personified through the brand. He describes it as a “one-of-a-kind brand that has achieved something many brands attempt to but fail – to consistently provide good-quality garments with great pricing, a perfect balance of modern adaptations of classic staples, and traditional details on iconic silhouettes”.
Its wholesale accounts span the great and good of menswear specialists in the UK, Europe, Asia and the US. UK stockists include Mr Porter, Goodhood, Oi Polloi and End, and the UK accounts for around a quarter of total sales.
For Chris Terry, Universal Works was the first brand that he approached when he was planning his store The Modern Draper in Beverley, east Yorkshire, which opened last year.
“I’ve been a fan of Universal Works for a few years now,” he says. “I bought my first pieces from my friend Ravi [Grewal] from Stuarts London in Shepherd’s Bush, when I was still working in wholesale at Original Penguin. The fact that I still own and wear some of those items nowadays is a testament to the quality and timeless nature of the brand.”
Trusting your instinct
Keyte declines to disclose sales and profit figures and the brand is classed as “small” (turnover of no more than £10.2m) by Companies House criteria for its latest results, for the year to 31 January 2017. However, he does reveal that it had a 34% increase in sales so far this calendar year.
“I don’t want to be poor,” he says. “I quite like the fact I can go for dinner if I make some money, [or] go on holiday, but I didn’t do this to make money.”
The only plan is not to have a plan
He has recently been conducting interviews for new members of staff (the current headcount is 21), and recruits often question him on a five-year plan, but he refuses to be drawn into making concrete decisions on exactly what he wants to achieve.
“I tell them I haven’t got [a five-year plan],” he says. “The only plan is not to have a plan. We’re 10 years in – or nine and a half – with no plan and I’m happy with that. We plan every day for costs and collections and lots of stuff, but as an overall thing: if we plan to have four new shops, I’ll be disappointed if I only have three, and I probably won’t get to five because I won’t need to because the plan said four, and I won’t notice that this guy over here says, ‘Let’s do something amazing,’ because it isn’t about shops.”
Keyte’s laser-like focus on his core consumer means the brand remains authentic, which is what his customers respond to, but having no fixed plan allows him to keep things fluid and take on new projects. Most recently, these new opportunities include making a collection of uniforms for a particularly well-dressed courier company in Japan.
“The order was for 600 staff and looked like it could have been something from our normal collection, although we chose particularly durable fabrics. Now we are talking about rolling out to 6,000 staff,” he explains. “Those opportunities come because we don’t have a plan.”
He is also about to embark on a project with US menswear retailer Stag Provisions to celebrate their shared 10-year anniversary, and produce some special hand-worked pieces for Seattle men’s and women’s boutique Glasswing. He is also working on a pop-up with Japanese stockist Museum of Your History and recently launched an exclusive range of embroidered shorts and jackets with streetwear store Wellgosh in Leicester, as well as a footwear collaboration with US footwear brand GH Bass & Co.
It is clear that Keyte thrives on the variety of different projects and travelling as much as possible to meet his customers, old and new. He considers that some of the team perhaps wish he said no sometimes, but argues that it keeps life interesting and asks: “why not?”
Indeed, Keyte tends to get involved in anything from painting the stores to sourcing fabrics and discussing production.
On attending overseas trade shows, he says: “We do have a sales team now, so it’s not just me and Steph any more. But because we own the company, and we have a relationship with all of our stockists, and it matters to us, and it’s fun, [we’re still involved]. I didn’t start the business so I couldn’t go to New York. I want to go to New York. And I want to go to Tokyo and Copenhagen …”
For spring 19, the company will show in London, Paris, New York and Tokyo in their own showrooms and then attend Pitti in Florence and Revolver in Copenhagen.
He adds: “I hope that everything we do as a company is a product of all of us, but I guess the handwriting of the company is my vision of menswear.” He shakes his head, and says: “I don’t even like hearing myself say it because it sounds so conceited.”
And with that he is off, probably to discuss the next project and the latest collaboration in the pipeline.