Thom Barnett is the founder of Mamnick, a startup from Sheffield who make finely crafted garments and accessories. He spoke to me on a cold, wet afternoon in Sheffield.
Tell me a bit about your background
I went to a comprehensive, typical B’s and C’s student, liked pissing about and that, stayed on and did A levels where I did Design, Tech and Art. I had a tutor there called Pat Butchell who could see I had potential with design and he just kind of gave me a bit of a push, introduced me to people like David Carson and Philip Stark, until then no one had really pushed me. He acknowledged what my interests were and what I was interested in. From there I did a foundation at Rotherham, then a two year HND in photography up at Norton College and then a three year degree in Fine art at Sheffield Hallam.
While I was doing my degree in fine art I was kind of working part time around vintage clothing and playing drums in a band, making bits of electronic music and stuff. Then when I finished my Fine Art degree I just carried on the same really, selling vintage clothing, dealing with people in Japan, supplying them with British garments. By that point I’d become a little disenchanted with the idea of becoming an artist, I still like Art now but the whole way it works is slightly off putting and hypocritical.
So I decided I could probably channel a bit of my creativity into designing products and that might be a way of subsidising a living for myself. Obviously with my contacts in Japan before, when I started Mamnick I reached out to some people and said, you know, “do you want to sell some of this in our shop” and that started building Mamnick in Japan as well as building it as a website here in the UK.
“I really wanted to just do something where I didn’t have to deal with a load of nob heads all the time.”
So Mamnick in Japan came first?
Well, its just grown alongside, obviously I design and manufacture products here but the first collection I did I already had people lined up based on my story and my logo to possibly do something. Obviously starting a business from scratch with your own finances, there is a lot of pressure on them selling, but having an outlet already, like a big wholesale outfit, it pretty much halved the cost of the first production run because I already had someone to buy a third of it.
That money I got from selling that first collection went into the next product and for the last four years I’ve not really looked back. I’ve just been doing one product at a time, not really doing any wholesale or trade shows and just building strength and equity in my own brand and kind of ignored what’s going on in fashion culture.
Around the time of that initial production run, are you living at home, how are you supporting yourself?
I’m from Rotherham, moved here when I was nineteen (I’m thirty two now) so have been living in Sheffield for thirteen years now, at the time I had a place with two of my best mates and was dealing in vintage clothing and you make contacts in that field. Like most things in life, you might have a few suppliers who are going “oh, I’ve got another few of them jackets If you want ‘em” so I was still doing bits of that when I was starting Mamnick. But I just got a bit fed up of the vintage world, everyone is after the same garments, it gets a bit cut throat. I really wanted to just do something where I didn’t have to deal with a load of nob heads all the time. You know, going to places like Newark antiques fair and everyone is after the same stuff you see the worst in people and I got a bit fed up of all the bullshit that comes along with it so I thought if I build something up myself I can control myself and deal with customers direct, I don’t have to deal with any shit really.
But yeah to answer your question in the beginning I was still picking bits up from charity shops and putting them on Ebay, even now, you find inspiration anywhere don’t you, if I’m having a look in a charity shop and I see an old pair of boots that I know are worth more, I’ll still pick up the odd bit. There’s a few bits of vintage in my studio, and I might get a few customers come in and they might buy a few bits of Mamnick bits but then there might be an old Berghaus jacket and they’ll be like “oh whats that” and I’ll say “yeah, it can be for sale”. I just kind of pick bits up that I like and surround myself with it for inspiration but then end up selling stuff on.
“oh you seem like a bright kid, with lot of ideas, if you ever want owt manufacturing, come and see me”
So that time selling vintage was sort of like an apprenticeship?
I learned a lot about business working with vintage clothing, and how the economics of something like that works. Yeah I did learn a lot, one of the first people that I met who now manufacture for me, I met them through that shop, he ran a factory so we got chatting and he was saying “oh you seem like a bright kid, with lot of ideas, if you ever want owt manufacturing, come and see me”. I’d always be asking “could you make this, could you make that” and from there I built a relationship with him and now he’s become a friend, I ride the bike with him and stuff.
Did you ever think you’d be running a business when you were young?
No, not really, it never crossed my mind. I’m 32 now, I’ve been doing Mamnick for four and a half years, I was talking to someone at New Year and it took me 28 years to find out that yeah I want to do this. I never really had those kind of aspirations, I’ve always had a bit of an obsession with exploring stuff and truth, always been an inquisitive sort of person asking awkward questions and wanting to know more about stuff so starting my own business just allowed me to do that.
You might not get that looking at the website but being able to pick up the phone and say “oh can you do this, can you do that” it takes on these mad little journeys. You’ll phone one person and they’ll say “oh we can’t do that but this guy can” and then you get chatting to him and then you start talking about manufacturing steel and then you’re talking politics, you just get to know people and it becomes a general interest thing but at the same time you’re developing a product and learning about engineering and stuff like that.
Mamnick is all about high quality materials and products, how difficult was it to get that first product’s manufacturing right?
Well you’re trying for that obviously, but if you’re being completely honest about it though its impossible isn’t it. For instance you might go to a knife factory and they look nice and you order 20 but if two fail then two fail there’s not much you can do about it. But for me I try and work with the best people and I’ve been lucky to find a lot of good places close by. Everything sort of fell into place with Mamnick, it looks like I went out of my way to find the best people but at the same time, the people that I found close to home were the best people. There’s a level of complacency in some places, if you’ve been doing something a certain way for a long time, it takes somebody else who doesn’t know anything about it to go “have you tried doing it this way?” because that’s happened a few times where I’ve been asking “what does that machine do? Could you do this on it?” and they look and it can.
I get a lot of that with Dave when we’re doing stuff with steel, I’m asking questions that are unlocking parts of his head that he’s forgotten it was capable of doing. For instance we did some stem caps (?) and I was talking about using magnets for something, only through thinking magnets are cool, not really knowing what I can do with them, and then through a conversation with Dave, he’s like “Oh you know that Stem Cap idea you had, you could do that with magnets”. It all comes through that dialogue and exploring ideas.
The iconic Mamnick Chip Fork, where did the idea for that come from?
Me and an illustrator pal of mine Steve Millington, he’s a really great illustrator and we went to a factory, I can’t remember why, I think I was going and I asked Steve if he fancied coming down so we could continue the conversation. We ended up having a three way dialogue with Steve and Steve said “You could do this and you could do that” and like anyone who’s creative you’re mind starts ticking and he said “Oh, why don’t you do a chip fork?” and I was like “Oh that’s a good idea” and he said “Oh you can have that one for free”. So that struck a chord and we went and got a traditional chip fork that evening, drew around it, started looking at it. Then I thought wouldn’t it be cool to just put a bottle opener on the end of that and we just took it from there really.
Before that I had contacts with steel, I was doing money clips and tie slides, but I did notice when that went online, especially with Instagram it really struck a chord with people. That chip fork, its become known to me now, that someone else had done a chip fork, a different shape, I think in an art context and it was done in silver but at the time there wasn’t a product like that on the market. It definitely helped me progress the brand a bit, I’m always trying to replicate that but it’s quite difficult. For instance I did think of a dog whistle, because of that link with the peak district and because they are cool but at the same time you know its not going to have that same impact. But little things like that, even though you might not make a lot of money on them gives you something to talk about and explore.
“he said ‘Oh, why don’t you do a chip fork?’ and I was like ‘Oh that’s a good idea’ and he said ‘Oh you can have that one for free'”
You use social media very well to market your products, was that a medium you instantly got or did it take some time to figure out what worked best?
Instagram was around before I was doing Mamnick but, and I don’t know the actual figures, but I know everyone has started using Instagram. I’ve never really been one of those people that wants to be, you know, Thom Barnett on Twitter. So I just used Mamnick as an opportunity to be involved in that world. I set up the Mamnick account and at the time I was riding the bike loads and taking nice photos and its kind of grown from there. I’ve never deleted anything on there so you can probably scan back through and see the first designs of my money clip all the way to now. I think I’ve done 90 products in 4 and a half years which is quite good for an independent brand, to have that much output and be that productive. It makes you feel quite proud, it was only a few months ago when I actually looked back through my Lookbook and everything that I’d done. I counted everything up and thought, yeah that’s quite a lot really.
Do you do any paid advertising at all, or is it all word of mouth and social media?
No, not really. Maybe its because I’ve come from an artistic background but I’ve always been a bit stubborn and wanted to contest culture in certain ways. You’ll get your GQ’s and people like that, they get in touch and then they want £400 for advertising and you’re just like “Well why don’t you just do a feature on me, I’ve got an interesting story etc?” you have to blow smoke up your own arse, you know, to sell yourself. But then you get down to the real nitty gritty and its “if you’re not interested in advertising then we’re not interested in featuring you”. I understand how the world works in regards to money but its not always as straight forward as that so I’ve kind of used the opportunities such as this when they come up.
Its quite difficult in that world, I’m not really that arsed about giving FHM £500 a month just to put something in there. I want to stay as underground as possible, and that money, focus it on product and building up a relationship with my own customer. If I can make a living from having 2,000 customers then I’d happily have 2,000 customers for the rest of time. Engage with those customers rather than turning it into some massive corporate machine.
What is the future for Mamnick?
I want to see where it takes itself, obviously I’m not against, if someone wanted to come in and say we could turn this into something that could turnover £25 million and make you a creative director then that’s one possibility, I wouldn’t be against it. But at the minute I just personally enjoy the designing side of it, I enjoy other things in my life which come from running Mamnick, you know, that freedom to be your own bus, do a bike ride when you want I love all that.
I don’t really have any long term goal with it, I’m organised and on top of all my accounts and everything and if somebody wanted to see my forecast for where it was going then its there but I just don’t get too hung up on it. I’m not the kind of person who’s like I’ve got a 5 year plan or whatever. So who knows, everything is trademarked and everything and it would be nice to see it grow but at the end of the day you want to stay loyal to your customers because they make you what you are.
To me its all about having ideas and seeing them ideas through as best you can, and communicating your ideas as best you can. You’re only as good as your last product, its cool having 90 products and stock under your belt but I could fuck it all up tomorrow by producing something that nobody wants or likes.
How is the Thom who started Mamnick 4 and a half years ago different to the Thom now?
I guess I’ve always been relatively pragmatic with regards to bringing a product to market but there are certain times where you have to be honest about whats going to sell. I’ve had ideas in the past where I’ve thought it was great but the market dictates whether its great or not so if they don’t sell, its sometimes quite difficult to keep producing Jackets for example. But if you’re jackets aren’t selling you have to be realistic and say well maybe I should think of something that is more affordable.
So that’s probably a part of me that’s changed, slightly regrettable, I’ll never turn my back on designing garments but there’s a big difference between selling accessories and selling £300 jackets. It doesn’t matter how nice the jacket is. I feel like I’m very reasonable with my prices, always sourcing the best fabric to do the job. For instance I do a cashmere smock and have retailed it at a price pretty much unheard of I think, where another brand it might be £6-700 for a piece of cashmere outwear but doing it at £225, you thing oh these are going to sell out but then they don’t so you just have to be always responding to what’s working. But its all a bit of a lottery really, you never really know what’s going to sell well but it keeps it exciting.
Are there certain times you will launch a product or does it go out when its ready?
You have to be quite canny, if you’ve got a garment ready and you’ve just had it photographed but it turns out it’s the week before payday. It seems daft not to hold off and try and launch it on a Friday evening on payday. It might increase your chances but a lot of the time, for instance this morning I’ve been to the post office and posted a really beautiful 100% wool cardigan with horn buttons but that’s been online for about a year and a half. Someone’s just decided they want one of those cardigans so whether that’s a new customer or whether its someone who’s had their eye on it for a long time and can only just afford it who knows. If you want to make a big ding dong about a launch you can make it happen, sometimes I do that, other times I just put it up online and push it through my twitter feed.
Does the Japan store carry the same products as the website over here?
I’d say 80% is in both but there are products we have in Japan that I don’t even bother shipping back here because there a little bit too, you know, the British market is quite conservative still, maybe it’s just the people I’m hitting. A lot of mash up stuff… people in England don’t tend to dress like that, we’ve done a few of those kind of things where its been a bit more extreme or I just couldn’t see it selling over here.
Do you worry about people copying your ideas and products?
Its frustrating when it happens but there’s not much you can do about it. And I have had a couple of things like the Conran Store had a cracker doing the chip fork but it was through someone I knew who knew where I’d had them manufactured and they’d basically approached the factory. That’s one of the only downsides to the job really, trusting people. I’m an open person I like to speak openly about things but one of the harshest lessons I’ve had to learn is, having a conversation with someone down the pub and saying “ Oh yeah I did some stuff with Dave here” and the next thing they’re down there saying can you make this for us so I had a bit of a spat with the Conran Store on Twitter when they took those chip forks. A shop down the road from me did a similar thing but said it was an olive fork. It was a pretty blatant rip off but there’s not much you can do.
So what disillusioned you with the vintage clothing scene is starting to appear again?
Exactly yeah, one of the reasons I set up my own business was to get rid of all that bullshit but it follows you around a bit. At the end of the day, I could try and patent it but before you know it your throwing money at solicitors protecting a product, its just one of those things. I’ve only so much time in the day, I’d rather go on a bike ride than be trying to sue someone for making 100 chip forks, its daft.