S.E.H Kelly is not just another capital H Heritage brand, although it’s understandable if you mistake them for one. Between their emphasis on classic design, exclusive use of natural materials and steadfast dedication to keeping their production local, all the requisite H-tage (I just coined that) elements are there. However, if you look a little closer, you’ll see that S.E.H isn’t simply mining the manly annals of work and military wear’s past in order to appeal to the chambray-clad masses of today. They’re up to something far more genuine, far more permanent, and a lot better looking.
Founded in 2009 by Sara Kelly and Paul Vincent, both veterans of London’s Savile Row, S.E.H’s decidedly old school approach of producing exclusively in the UK, and only from British materials, is similar to that of the famed suit-makers for which the pair once worked. However, unlike their former employers, Kelly and Vincent favor every day wearability over pomp and flare. Arguably, their pieces are no less lux in regards to quality and construction, but, they’re also far more approachable in terms of design and price. It’s this best of both worlds-ness that separates S.E.H’s wheat from the Heritage boom’s chaff, and why it’s easy to picture the brand thriving long after the trend is over.
S.E.H co-founder Paul Vincent recently took some time out to discuss working with family-owned factories, letting fabrics speak for themselves and never going on sale. Here’s what he had to say.
Well Spent: Give us the S.E.H Kelly origin story.
Paul Vincent: It begins on Savile Row in London. Working in tailoring and couture. Making for the highest of the high end, and with the best mills and factories in the country. In fact, in a few instances the best in the world. Quality absolute and expense never spared.
One day, the penny dropped. Here we were, well-acquainted with these makers, great contacts and strong relationships built up over the years — why not work with these places to our own ends? Make a different type of garment? The sort of garment that’d never get made on Savile Row, but which nevertheless would benefit hugely from these makers’ expertise. Something more casual, more suitable for every day wear.
To the best of our knowledge, no one else was doing it. It seemed a curious path to take. And so we took it. That was in late 2009.
There’s an almost anachronistic quality to S.E.H’s clothes. Where does your inspiration come from? How would you describe the brand’s look?
We steer clear of using superlatives to describe our garments. We might’ve said “simple” once or twice, but that’s about it.
The approach is an appreciation of cloth and make. The output of the mills with whom we’re privileged to work is so very fine that it speaks for itself. Needs no complicating or dressing up. When you have a bruiser of a cotton-twill, an intricately patterned natural linen, or a top-grade cashmere or mohair from Yorkshire, making the most of that cloth, designing something that showcases its qualities and characteristics, seems the sensible thing to do.
Of course, you need fit and function, too. But there must be balance between that with the character and nature of the cloth. If there’s a sense of anachronism, then, perhaps it stems from that. We tend to work only with natural fibres, rather than technical ones — it’s what we know best — and because we have an unhealthy interest in buttons, we’ve only ever used traditional types of fastening rather than zips and so on.
As for inspiration — living and working in London, there’s no shortage of the interesting, the curious, unusual. The place teems with good inspiration. It is inescapable. But there’s no single source or go-to. Much of it comes back to cloth. The best place to start, we find, is a blank page, a clear mind, and a bunch of good cloths.
In addition to making the garments in the UK, you also only use British components / materials. What led to that decision? Has that been difficult?
Far from it. Very easy. Exceptional cloths, one of the best button-makers in the world; it’s all on the doorstep, relatively speaking, and they’re a pleasure to work with. The reason for using only British cloth and components stems from what we keep telling ourselves is common sense. They’re very good, these mills, very easy to work. It’d be remiss, really, not to work with them.
Sometimes it means your hand is forced. There’s only one horn button maker in the country, and, to our knowledge, only one shirting mill. There are a fraction of the possibilities here than there are in the rest of the world. But having your hand forced is no bad thing. Forces you to think harder, to use cloths and techniques that most sensible people would dismiss. It also means we tend to work with specialist makers — small places: five-man shirtmakers, father and daughter knitwear companies — rather than one-stop-garment-making-shops. It’s a satisfying, human-sized way to work.
I noticed you only have stockists in Japan. Is that intentional?
Not intentional, but not by chance either.
The stores we work with in Japan seem to look at and think about garment-making the same way we do. Quality and standards are paramount. Could not be taken more seriously. From the store owners to the clerks in the store to the customers, there’s a forensic, all-seeing eye for quality, in terms of make and materials. There’s also an educated appreciation that, often, long-standing mills and factories have slower, more careful, what many term “old-fashioned”, methods — but that the outcome of these will reward the cost and the patience. Proper scholars of the trade, many of them.
S.E.H Kelly never goes on sale. Why?
The mills from whom we buy cloth never go on sale. A woollen mill doesn’t tell you a herringbone cashmere will cost you £70 per metre one month and £25 a few months later. The button-maker doesn’t tell you “buy one hundred of these, and we’ll throw in fifty of those.” What they make is as good today as the day it was made, and will be just as good a year from now. To pile it high and sell it cheap would be to devalue the product; devalue the raw materials, devalue the labour, the months and months of effort and expertise that has gone into making the finished article.
Some of these mills have been around for five, six generations. We’ll take their lead on this one. We set a fair price for every garment, pass on as much value as possible to the customer. No fat built in so prices can be slashed by half in a few weeks.
In addition to great clothes, the S.E.H site is also home to some very engaging content. What’s the motivation behind that?
There’s a lot to talk about. Leave no stone unturned, we always think, providing the stuff under the stone merits discussion. We spend every hour of every day thinking about and talking about the way in which our garments are made — who, where, when, how, etc. — and there’s very little of that that’s off-limits to customers. If you expect someone to fork a lot of money for a jacket or a shirt, it’s the least you can do.
What would you say to someone that’s still on the fence about buying from S.E.H Kelly?
Have a think about it.
Better to let people work out for themselves if the garment is for them. Loquacious sales talk works in the short term, but we hope customers value and repeatedly wear our garments over years and years. If they’re nudged into it by sales patter or because it’s half the price it was this time last week, you undermine that.
So, if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be; if it’s not, don’t force it.
For price and purchase info, visit S.E.H Kelly.