Last week, here on the TC&G Stories, we met Lauren Yates - originator of Ponytail Journal and workwear-inspired line, W'Menswear.
In this second volume of her feature, Lauren and I discuss the origins of her brands, the business of authenticity, and future life aspirations. Read ahead for more insight into Lauren's life and mind.
A CONVERSATION WITH LAUREN YATES:
TC&G: [Tell me] about the origins of Ponytail Journal and W'Menswear and how it forayed into it. Because you started off as a blog, right?
Lauren: Yeah! I think it's five years ago now. Time flies. It's pretty crazy. So it started as a blog and then I started doing content collaborations that became longterm for Vogue Australia and for 2 Magazine in Bangkok so I have little avenues, local pockets in different countries, but kind of local bases that are also channels for Ponytail Journal, off-site. And then it grew and then I started the product line and now what I can see it's turning into is more of a lifestyle hub. So for example, in November, one of our wholesale customers in Shanghai...[is opening a women's shop] so for that they're bringing me and Nigel Cabourn over to the opening and we're planning a full-on lifestyle event. So we're doing yoga in the morning in the space, and then in the afternoon, we're doing a cooking class. That's what I see it turning into - a fully, all-encompassing...maybe more events in the future...So I see it sort of becoming more of a fully, well-rounded space.
That's awesome! I can see that starting. I love the cooking posts that you do. And the videos are great too. It has a lifestyle vibe for sure because a lot of it is influenced by skate and fishing and surfing and stuff like that, and you can see that. And I think even more so than clothes, a lot of people gravitate toward seeing a life that's really well-lived.
For sure. That's why, for example, on the Ponytail Journal instagram, I don't push any product. It's just all about the lifestyle. And then if people are interested in the product, they'll click through to W'Menswear and then they'll have a look and explore that if they want to. But I'm not like, "Buy this!" or like a vacuum cleaner salesman kinda thing because I think people are smart. I'm a bit self-sabotaging - sometimes just my mind is like, "Oh people don't care about all this stuff that you're doing" but then I get feedback about people coming up to me who don't even cook and they're like, "I love watching your cooking videos!"Or even Nigel Cabourn, who I spend a lot of time with, he's now super into food because of watching all this stuff and he wanted to learn how to cook, which he's never done before, so we even did a cooking show together. I don't know if you saw that one, it was pretty funny - he kept arguing with me the whole episode. So, it's really cool to get people into it as well. I don't know if you feel the same way, it feels strange to try and push product on people - but if you just have a good intention to start getting people mindful about good things in life that you think are more valuable than other things then that feels good, I think.
That's definitely how I feel too. And that's 100% my approach with in-person retail which I still do. That's always been my approach in person - I care more about having a good conversation and connecting with someone than I do them actually being a customer, which is maybe not the most business-savvy approach...
I think it works better in the long run actually. That's how I approach everything in business, and I sometimes pinch myself to see it come back to me...as in the factory owners treat me so well even though I'm a lot smaller than their other customers - they treat me better because they see how I treat their stuff and their factory. Or like with trade shows, people support me by giving me really crazy good deals just because they know that you respect them and that you're not gonna take advantage of them. People can sense your intentions, I think.
Yeah, I think it's rad when you can sense an authenticity behind what someone is doing. Because I'm not quite sure that anyone who goes into retail or fashion design or anything is really in it to make money. It's more of a personal thing.
It's really a shit business idea if you're in it to get rich, for sure.
Yeah, it's not gonna happen. But that's why it's cool when you see the inner workings behind something come out and you see how it reflects that person's personality or how it reflects what they're into. Going back to W'Menswear, can you give a brief rundown of the origin for the idea and what kind of led to you sitting down and actually starting it?
As normal, I was spending a lot of time with Nigel Cabourn - who's kind of one of my best friends slash I would call him a mentor of mine too because he's taught me a shitload in terms of the industry and he's a veteran. He's been running his own business for like over 40 years. And he hasn't sold the whole business to a bigger conglomerate company so he's always been in control. So he loves what I do and he was just like, "Lauren, you need to have product. Why don't you just start off by making a really condensed line?" - which was what my first collection was. A super condensed line, we just made 30 pieces of each, not even that much. And he was like,"Just give it a try." He actually told me to just sell it through the website straight off the bat, but I decided to just do wholesale for a few seasons before I started to try and sell it through my site. I also just wasn't sure if people would care - another one of those demon things - I was like, "Why would people buy things off my site? That's crazy. People buying things from me?!"
So it started from him but then also at the time, I had a friendship with this denim tailor - his name is Ben Viapiana - he's Canadian but he lived in Thailand at the time. And he had a workshop, and I hung out with him quite a bit so it was like..."Do you want to make some clothes?" And he was like, "Yeah let's do it!" So we made the first collection with him and it was just him and his assistant in this shipping container workshop. So we [said], "Ok let's just make some samples and then I'll take it to market to show in Japan straight off the bat and let's just see how many we sell." And we ended up selling like 30 pieces of every style and every color and then I brought the order back to him, and he's like "Oh my God. There's just two of us and so many pieces to make!" And I was like, "Oh dear" and started freaking out and looking for other options for bigger factories to help make it. But he ended up making everything himself, so everything was tailor-made. Just the two of them, they probably didn't sleep for like a month. So that was the first collection.
Before that, we had no idea how big the order would be or what this capacity would be so we thought "Ok you probably can do it" but after that experience, he was like "Lauren, I can't do another season of this if you get bigger." And I [said], "Fair enough" so then I started to find real factories. So I guess it started off as not just Nigel, but a few people in my life who had full confidence in me and knowing I can execute stuff and just saying, "Do it!" And I was like, "Hm. Okay" and then I just did it. And once I started, it's like hopping on a treadmill that gets faster and faster and it never stops - that was only 2 years ago and now I'm starting to design my fifth season and I'm like "Woah, where did that go!" In 2 years, so much has happened and it seems like just not long ago, that I fumbled into this. I learnt so much on the way and thankfully it's growing every season so it gives me more confidence and less doubt. And things are getting easier and easier.
I had a really tough time for the first year - I got crazy, anxiety issues. Like my skin broke out, I just completely unraveled. And I was super stressed all the time. You know that feeling in your stomach when it feels like it's dropped? I would get that like a few times a day every day. From like phone calls or emails - I had some nightmare factories and all these nightmare situations that I had to solve. But if I didn't go through that from the beginning, I wouldn't be so calm and chill now. I found good suppliers, I found my groove kind-of-thing. So now this Spring/Summer 18 - every collection just gets miles better every time, and the current collection that I'm selling right now, it's gotten to that point which I've seen before with other projects like Ponytail Journal - there's a point that you push it to and then it starts to take a life of its own on. And you step back and you watch it. And that's the cool part! So now I feel with this collection, this is the jump and that's really cool.
How did you meet Nigel? Did you meet him through Ponytail?
Yeah. I went to interview him for one of the Ponytail Pals interviews. So I interviewed him in the London shop, and we're just cut from the same cloth. The two of us were like, "We're gonna be pals!" And then the craziness began from there. It's crazy that was almost four years ago, a bit less, and time flies so much and I forget that I did a catwalk show for him. We've been to so many places together and worked on so many things. It feels like I met him just the other day. But then time just flies when you start doing stuff.
Especially when it's like the right stuff. It just flies by because it feels so like an extension of you, which is a really cool feeling. That's awesome. I have to tell you in the first shipment I just got - the shearling jacket is so fucking good! I lost my mind when I opened the box and saw it.
That makes me so happy!
The details on it are insane.
Do you like the buttons?
I love the buttons. I love the detachable collar. The plaid detailing on the shoulder. It's so good!
Thanks! See in the beginning when I started, there were little details in the garments, but now that I've got my groove going, now I just spend all day in this studio just nerding out on like micro-details because that's the fun of it.
It looked incredible in the photos and I was super stoked on it when I saw it in the look book, but then when I got to see it in person, it was a whole other level of excitement for me because I saw all the detailing up close and the piping on the inside and everything. The tag was amazing. It was all so good, and for me that's what seals the deal on whether something is quality, is that even in the more minute details of the garment, it's still 100% there.
I think that's why I started out in Japan as well because [there] everything is freaking crazy detailed like that. They pay attention to every little thing, the fibers and everything. And I think being there first off the bat - you could call that my local market because that's where I'm most present - but that pushes me because I know they're looking for all those details. So if I don't step it up to that, then I just wouldn't survive. But it's also that I now understand the pleasure of it as well. Because I come from Australia, the garment scene there is really lacking in detail. It's very cheaply made stuff. Unfortunately so many Australian labels are, I guess, just trying to compete with the pricing and the fast-fashion. It just makes me sad that things are being made so cheaply now and so shit basically. I'm happy that there is a market for what I'm doing because it is super niche but at the same time, I'm happy that people are actually supporting it because it gives me faith in humanity.
I didn't know that you started out mostly with the clothing in Japan as opposed to like, Australia.
Yeah, straight off the bat, I started in Japan because I got a distribution deal. I think it's because I built the Ponytail brand so strong that companies could see some material thing that they could then hedge their bets on. So that was really fortunate. I spent those first few years building the Ponytail brand to build the networks and make something that people could see working. So it's a long pathway up to it.
Do you see yourself making lifestyle products, or are you gonna stick to clothing?
Yeah I just had a conversation about this with my fiancee...Dog Outerwear! Like waxed cotton jackets lined with wool for "rugged dogs." With like a huge handle on the back in case you have to pull them out of something. I'm really dog-deprived - we really want a dog but we both travel so much. If we can take turns, if one person's traveling and the other person's not, then we can get a dog.
But yeah, lifestyle products. Dog ideas. For sure. I'm already doing gardening dresses, with the gardening pockets. I think I'm gonna start doing an apron, but there are so many aprons out there, it needs to be a really cool apron. There's too many overly functional things as well that just look terrible because they're so functional, so everything that I'm designing now is driven by that story of cooking and all the things that I do anyway, so that's always in mind when I'm designing. Like that jacket with the shearling collar...that is based off a vintage jacket that I always wear when I'm going in the forest or going fishing. It's got the pockets in the back - the sneaky [game] pocket. In my one, I've always got these breadcrumbs. I always have bread crumbs in my jacket pockets and in that secret pocket - because sometimes when I go fishing and I don't catch something for a while, I do a cheat and I use bread because I hate failing. I lent one of my jackets to my friend because she was going on a trip and didn't have anything. And then she texted me from where she was in Morocco, like "Lauren, why is there bread all through the jacket?" Some weird fetish I have.
It's starting to happen, which is kind of touching on my true intentions or aspirations to do - and this sounds like a Miss Universe answer but it's true - to do more conservation projects. I just got word of this a couple of weeks ago which I'm super happy about. But basically a year ago, I started this project called the "Ponytail Goes Strawless" project. I'd written about it a few times and it's been published by 2 Magazine in Bangkok. So I started this with the intention of working with a huge shopping mall company in Bangkok to stop using straws in their space, and do an ad campaign based on those "Got Milk?" ads and that format - a throwback to that but with the "stop using straws" [tag]. And I just got approval for it a couple of weeks ago, finally, after back-and-forth and meetings for like a year straight revising different ad campaign ideas and things. So finally they're like, "Okay we're gonna go ahead with it" and this entire huge main shopping mall in the main shopping area of Bangkok will be the first mall to stop using straws in all their vendors.
Yeah, I'm super happy about that. So to me, the flexibility to use the brand to do things that I really think matter and not things that just make money. I think our value system is completely wrong - we value money way too much, but the earth is completely crumbling. Sounds weird, but in my past life I think I was a fish. I really think so.
I totally see it!
This is the part when you go, "Okay, she's not all there..." But I was raised in a Buddhist family and we believe in past lives basically - so I'm really compassionate toward sea creatures and to me one of my biggest issues that I've always been concerned with is the ocean plastics and overfishing. So my intention is, being in Japan where they're the biggest abusers of fish in the world basically, is to start to spark mindfulness amongst my local market for this because they're the biggest consumers of fish in the world. I don't want to say things too soon but I've started talking with one of the biggest Urban Outfitters-type companies there to start collaboration in the future to [do] these beach clean-ups because they have quite a big cultural influence on the young people so if I could swing that, that would be rad. So [those] are the real goals. I think that's what would make me truly feel fulfilled and happy.