New Brand: Universal Works
Peace, Love And Soul
Text & Interview: Caiza Andresen
»We are happy and proud to be an independent, small company, always approaching our work with passion and a sense of humour.« A statement that could have come from us. Universal Works is a British brand that we have followed and admired for years. Apart from the company philosophy quoted above, we are also both deeply rooted in culture and music. David Keyte, co-founder and designer of Universal Works, has been strongly inspired by musical and stylistic influences of subcultures since his childhood and still has a deep passion for fashion and vinyl. He has more than 20 years of experience in the fashion industry, working for renowned names such as Paul Smith, Maharishi and Margaret Howell. In order to realize his very own vision of functional, well-made clothing accompanied by an enormous appreciation for craftsmanship and quality, he founded Universal Works 11 years ago. In times of hypes, over-technologization of fashion, crazy designs, logo overload and the sheer endless search for good, solid style that lasts longer than a season, the Universal Works universe is the place to be. It is the brand for those who are looking for high quality, well thought out and beautiful garments that truly display a very high level of perfection and love of detail.
We give the floor to Caiza, Menswear enthusiast and HHV Journal contributor of the very first hour, for an interview with David Keyte:
My friend Dennis is one of the most well dressed guys around. We met through sneaker stuff and even back then in the dark times of jogger pants, 5 panel caps and matching sneakers and socks he was always dressed well. He was wearing Universal Works. Dennis told me that Universal Works is like witnessing a skilled barkeeper mixing up the craziest drinks made out of the finest gins and scotches with the freshest ingredients around. That’s David Keyte. But instead of liquors he uses fabrics, cuts and materials. Rugged, but smooth afterwards. I had the pleasure to ask David a few questions about the brand and of course about himself.
Caiza: David, there is nothing more enjoyable than talking to someone who made a living out of his passion. But before you actually started creating on your own, there has to have been a point in time where your interest for clothing was sparked. When did this happen? And with you growing up in a provincial UK Midlands town in the 1970s, what were the styles people where going for? Did music play a role?
David Keyte: I can’t recall NOT being interested in clothes. I remember being really young – 5 or 6 years old – and my uncles coming around on a Saturday night to see my dad before going on night out; my dad never drank but my uncles were party people and I was so fascinated by their clothing (or maybe it was their drinking?!?!).
Growing up into my teenage years it all turned around football and music for me, both of which combined my love of clothes. Fashion was an important part of the culture / subculture of the time: what to wear to the match, what to wear in clubs and pubs as a sixteen years old trying to look older. I was a soul boy one day and a punk the next, dressing up for both.
Caiza: Before founding Universal Works you worked at Paul Smith, (I know this thanks to the great Blamo Podcast by the awesome Jeremy Kirkland @blamopodcast / @thekirkland) where you designed the brands‘ first workwear collection. I heard you were one of the first employees, when the number of people working there was in the single digits. Paul Smith is a world respected name. Later you worked for Maharishi, which by the way is the brand that really got me into streetwear in the 2000s. They are well known for their military-based aesthetics and their unbelievable creations with camouflage print.
So from Paul Smith and his clothes to which you brought a workwear twist, to Maharishi, where military aesthetics are an important part of the brand, at what point did you decide to create Universal Works? Tell us about that certain moment, if there was one, or was it a desire that you always had? And what is it you are going for with Universal Works? What influences and inspires your collections?
DK: So.. this is all correct, except I never designed anything at Paul Smith. I worked alongside Paul and the designers making their ideas become alive. For me the process of sourcing, making and delivering well made “things” was just as important: I loved working with cutters, sewers and knitters. Working for Paul was the best education I could wish for, he always had such an eclectic mix of influences, from tailoring to casual wear. I really grew up there.
Working in production for Maharishi was amazing too. I loved the aesthetic, I loved the clothing: the combining of military and street wear was such an original vibe, I still really like it. When I left Maharishi I was working for another brand for about 6/7 months: I was curating the development of the collections, garments and brand image but at the time they were a start-up and couldn’t afford to keep me.
So I moved from London back to Nottingham: we had kept our home there and we felt lucky not to have a mortgage, it meant less pressure. This was the moment when friends pushed me to start my own thing, it was 11 years ago. I honestly never thought that I could do it: my own company. But as soon as I made a plan I knew it was what I always wanted to do, it was the time. I had no backers and no money really, just my experience, my passion and a lot of friends in the industry who helped me, for whom I am grateful.
Caiza: You did some great collaborations: The »Unknown Pleasures« Jacket with artwork by Peter Saville is one of the strongest pieces I’ve seen that year. If you keep in mind how fast fashion brands and stores are using the displayed cover design by Joy Division’s 1979 groundbreaking album, yours feels so authentic. What did that album mean to you? And what other music inspired you on your journey from being a boy with green corduroy shorts in the Midlands to becoming who you are today?
DK: Honestly Unknown Pleasure for me was about wallowing in self-pity. I had just split up with a girlfriend (again) and that album was perfect for an angst-ridden young man going the pains of growing up (and let’s not forget it was totally cool and on trend too). I always loved all the Peter Saville artwork too, It really was a personal joy for me to make those jackets.
Other music that I use to listen to at the time was The Clash, The Specials and Dexys. It just had to be loud and fast but danceable, it was perfect for the time (and for now!). I have also always been a huge Funk and Soul fan. The music I was dancing to in clubs was New York disco, Brit Funk, Jazz inspired soul, the sort of music Gilles Peterson would play on the radio now.
Caiza: Two other collaborations that really stuck with me are the G.H.Bass loafers and the one with Birkenstock. Nowadays a large logo and an expensive sneaker seem to be the must haves to be a part of the 2020 fashion Instagram cosmos. That’s what the masses seem to desire. Why did you decide to go for such timeless but nevertheless »exotic« pieces to collaborate on?
DK: I guess for me a collaboration is about working on a product I actually like and want to wear, we try to only do projects we believe in. Next I would be happy to do a sneaker (we have done in the past) if and when the right projects cone along.
The G.H. Bass Weejun loafer was a no brainier for me as I love the classic loafer (and they asked me!).
Birkenstock has been a footwear staple for me since I met my wife. She always loved them even when it seemed only hippies and weird climate change geeks wore them. Now of course we all are weird climate change geeks, and rightly so. Jokes apart, Birkenstock can be considered an acquired taste for many, but for me it was always an important shoe, I am wearing some now! I am so happy we did my two favourite styles and I hope to make some more soon. We also loved making the dance movie, it shows how much can be done wearing a pair of Birkenstock:
Caiza: Nothing brings more joy than being rewarded for one’s work. Please tell me: How do you feel when you see someone wearing one of your pieces?
DK: I feel utterly humbled and delighted. It genuinely makes me so happy every time I see someone in a UW garment, I never want to stop being thrilled by that. I know it’s just clothing, it’s not vital or important, especially at times like this in the world. But we all have to wear clothes and I’m proud to be making well fitting, cool looking things. People seem to want to wear them, and it is such a great feeling.
Caiza: David, It was a pleasure talking to you. Thank you for that.
Universal Works is not easily forgotten, because in these times we are living in right now, such an authentic brand lead by such a passionate man like David Keyte is one that can never be left out of a conversation about fashion and the few parts of it that have not been run down by trends. A selection of the Universal Works Spring/Summer collection is now available in the HHV Store as well as the HHV Webshop: https://www.hhv.de/shop/en/universal-works
Universal Works x Sebago
HHV is also lucky to top off the introduction of Universal Works with the brand’s beautiful collaboration with US dock shoe specialist Sebago: A collection consisting of the classic dockside shoes Portland and Canvas Silhouettes like the John, which you should definitely take a look at:
Oh, and please follow my Friend Dennis (@soul_azzazzin) on instagram. His posts deserve likes.
Visual content: Universal Works