Mordechai Rubinstein (or Mister Mort, as he doesn’t prefer to be called) has spent the last fifteen years capturing what he calls ‘the beauty in the everyday uniform’. Sort of like Bill Cunningham with a smartphone, he documents the real style on the streets of New York (and beyond), from the old men in wide-waled cords to the construction workers in cement-coated hoodies.
This eye for the authentic has led him to do stuff like work as a consultant on the Safdie brothers’ recent stressed-out masterpiece, Uncut Gems—helping to pick out just the right shiny pink shirt for Adam Sandler’s frenetic jeweller—and publish a book on the heavily tie-dyed subculture that surrounds the Grateful Dead.
Thanks to the wonders of modern video-call technology, I had a trans-atlantic sit-down with Mordechai to talk about all these things… and sandals.
Where are you at now? It looks nice.
We’re in southern coastal Maine—a little beach town. We’re in a little cottage that’s got a lot of ants and cob-webs, but it’s across the street from the ocean.
Sounds alright. How come you’re out there? Was it just to get away from New York for a while?
You know, as soon as this shit hit, my wife was like, “Where can we go? What can we do?” And her aunt and uncle have this little place, and they told us we could borrow it—which was really cool of them, because the whole world is crazy.
Definitely. I suppose a lot of people might know you from your photography. When did you start that?
I was working at Kate Spade…
I’ve never heard of her. Was that a shop?
She passed away two years ago, but she was a woman from Kansas—a really cool handbag designer who didn’t give a fuck. She took her boyfriend’s name, Andy Spade, and she started a brand. She was just cool.
I was working at that store in Soho—and Soho was still an outdoor mall back then, but it was still fun—we’d run around on our lunch breaks, smoke weed in the streets and just have lunch on a stoop with no-one bother you.
And I went to a tie factory on a lunch break, and this old Hasidic dude was sleeping in a recliner, and he said, “Look around, tell me what you want, and make an offer.” All the machines had inches of dust on them, they hadn’t made a tie in years. The ties were from the 50s and 60s, dead-stock with no labels—I brought 100 back to the office.
I thought we’d give them away or sell them on eBay or who knows what? And Andy was like, “Let’s make a label, and sell them for Father’s Day.” I called it Mister Mort. Long story short, I never had the nickname Mort, some of my friends now call me that and it drives me crazy. But, there was a 50s label called Mr. Mort which was by this guy Stan Herman. He’s responsible for the Avis rental-car uniform where the women wore pants under the dress… he invented that.
So I took the name Mister Mort and we sold these ties outside the store. We bought a desk, some cheap blinds, a water cooler and a mannequin, and I sat there like it was an office, and people would walk by and I’d offer Father’s Day sartorial advice. It was a joke, but it did really well.
That’s right, he’s the jew from the Bronx, I’m the jew from Brooklyn… I mean I wasn’t born in Brooklyn but yeah, I love Ralph.
But what about the photos? What started you taking your shots of people around New York?
Oh yeah, so they gave me a camera. They said, “You need a camera for inventory purposes.” Inventory? I’d give away product to people everyday—so nothing was really in inventory, but they gave me this camera—a Canon Elf, and I used the shit out of that.
Every lunch break I’d go out—the guys that delivered breakfast and lunch in the area—little chicken cutlet on a roll from the corner deli—one of the guys was wearing a tie with British Knight high-tops. He was an old man who’d talk to himself, and I invited him in to stay a while. Eventually I had so many photos that I didn’t know what to do with them, so I started a Flickr account and then I put it on the blogosphere, and yeah… that was it.
What sort of thing were you looking for? What were you trying to photograph?
Well, nothing has really changed. It’s always different. On the Upper East Side it’s suits and ties, in London or Paris or Milan it’s old people. For me it’s the lining of a Burberry check. If I see that plaid I run after it. Or maybe you see someone in all orange or all one colour. I don’t care much about composition. I don’t consider myself a photographer. I shoot on auto and I use my phone a lot. I really just want to share how people dress.
Maybe what you shoot hasn’t changed… but has New York changed at all since you started?
You know, neighbourhoods used to have real style of their own. But fine, things changed. If you’re away from New York for a couple of months, it’s a different city. Or even if you don’t go to the Lower East Side for a month, it’s a different city. You’re like, “Where am I?” It’s changing so, so much. There’s not a New York style anymore, and I think it’s the internet’s fault, but that’s okay—people travel on the internet now.
It’s not that New Yorkers should be tough, or assholes, or mean, but they did have a lot of different looks. But then there are still things, like the black Air Force One, which are very New York. And then the Birkenstock is in every community. We’re in some interesting times.
But the reason I shoot so many of these old dudes is that when they’re gone, I don’t know what I’m going to shoot. Young dudes are pretty boring. With these old dudes who have maybe worn the same Oxford shirt for 20 years and never changed, there’s something exciting about that. It’s so authentic and so real.
It’s that comfort isn’t it? As people get older they find what they like and aren’t as worried about what others are thinking.
Hopefully. I’m still uncomfortable. I get a hat and think, “This is it, I’m going to wear this everyday because I want it to get trashed and sun-faded.” And then two weeks later I’m getting a new hat. What kind of man does that?
So are you taking the photos of these relaxed older men ‘cos that’s what you want to be, rather than worrying about hats and stuff?
Maybe? With suits it’s like that. Maybe it’s because I don’t go to black tie events and if I actually had to wear a suit everyday I’d be miserable, but if I look at those Wall Street guys, I just think it’s so cool. The fact that casual Friday became such a thing, and then the whole world got so casual… it’s sad.
I went to London for Popeye Magazine to find suits, and people were not wearing them. It’s a casual world. And the ones who were wearing suits looked like they were wearing disposable suits.
It’s like that Take Ivy book in the 1960s. Those guys went from Japan to get the photos of ‘Ivy style’, but then all they found were students lazing around in hippy gear and ripped jeans.
I didn’t know that. I like that.
Apparently it was really edited. It took them ages to find anyone wearing the button-down shirts and ‘classic Ivy’ stuff.
Interesting. I want to see the out-takes. That’d be so cool.
Yeah, it’d be interesting to see the reality of it. Going back to your photos… do you ever get much grief for taking them? Sometimes you’re pretty up-close with people.
Yeah, surprisingly it’s only been a couple of times. I was on Madison Avenue and three finance guys were smoking cigarettes on the corner next to a hot-dog stand, and one of them was wearing Belgian loafers. So I said, “Can I get a photo?” I kind of bent down low to take the photo, getting as close to the shoes as I possibly could, and he punched me almost in the face. They throw the cigarette out and walk into the building. They looked back and went, “Seventh floor, come and get me!” The security guard wouldn’t let me up, but I was so pissed. But nothing really happened. Because I have a kid now, I try to behave, but it hasn’t changed much.
You’ve just released a book about the Grateful Dead and the style of the fans. How did that come about?
I was really into Dead clothing, the Dead uniform, and then years later, GQ had me go and shoot a Dead & Co show. I don’t think I even knew what that was, but I was like, “Bob Weir? He’s a legend, I’ll go.”
So I shot the guests going in and out of the stadium and then a friend gave me a ticket, and—oh my god—it really opened my mind. Not to be all cliched and everything, but it was so good. I don’t go to a lot of live shows, but seeing a band live is so special—it’s really cool. You don’t have to drop acid, you don’t have to be under the stars, it feels like it’s intimate, no matter how many people who are there. So I started going to a bunch of shows.
There’s a chef, Matty Matheson, and he was doing a book with Abrams, and he said that his editor was a Deadhead, and he’d want to see my photos. So we did this quick and easy softcover poolside book. You know—sit by the pool, drop a hit of acid, you don’t need to read, just look at the photos and trip out. And that’s how that came about.
I might be wrong but in England I don’t think the Grateful Dead are really that much of a thing like they are in America. Maybe it’s because they were about that live, touring experience.
I’m sure they’ve played there back in the day, but I don’t know the relationship with American rock-and-roll in the UK. I watched an interview with Bob Weir and he was saying that to play now over social media wouldn’t be the same, because they play for the crowd. And he said that’s why they never made any good albums in the studio.
Because they needed that feedback or participation?
They wanted to play for the crowd, so how the crowd was dancing and get the crowd going. You’re making me wonder about the UK now.
Maybe they’ve got a bit of a following here, but I’ve never heard anyone talk about them or mention them over here, yet in America their fans are their own subculture.
There’s a good saying I saw on the back of a t-shirt. “The Grateful Dead are like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.”
It’s funny, because the uniform hasn’t really changed. Bob Weir wore super-short denim cut-offs with the pocket-bags coming out of the shorts with Birkenstocks, and the young kids might be trying to do that look a little bit with their Chacos or their Tevas and all the outdoor gear. And then the older dudes are still wearing the same t-shirts they wore to all the shows—maybe too small now, with joint holes in them.
It’s like going to a baseball game and seeing someone’s hat decorated with a hundred pins. It’s very authentic. There’s still that ‘lot’ scene—as in a parking lot. People go the whole day of the show and hang out, whether they BBQ, or drink and tailgate and listen to music. And that’s just a show in itself, it’s beautiful whether people are camping out, or it’s in Queens, New York. It hasn’t really changed that much. Maybe the drugs aren’t as good or aren’t as open in the air, but there’s a lot of that free love hippy look. It’s just chill and laid back.
I was reading an article about t-shirts recently. It was written in the mid-90s for a magazine called Might, and the guy who wrote it was saying about how he worked for a screen-printers in the 80s and how the knock-off Grateful Dead merch was maybe some of the earliest logo-rip designs. There was a Nike one which said, “Just Dew It.” A reference to some song.
Oh yeah. They do it so well. From every sports logo to my favourite, which is where they took the L.L. Bean logo and it says ‘L.L. Rain’, from a song called Box of Rain, the Dead bears are sitting in camping gear around a fire toasting marshmallows.
And there’s another one it’s a line drawing of an Eddie Bauer jeep driving into the water, with a bear behind the wheel, and it says ‘Deaddie Bauer.’ And those are lot tees. It’s just some kid in his dorm-room making 20 or maybe 50 tees. With Instagram it’s like, “Yo Sam, meet me at the lot before the show, maybe hold me one of those t-shirts.” Or maybe, “I’m not going to the show, can you ship me one.”
Merch used to be about going to the venue—whether it was a delicatessen or a bar or a bakery or a Dead show, and now, you can almost get any merch. I used to love it when you’d go to a restaurant and you had to buy the hat off a waiter, because they didn’t sell them—that’s merch. You’ve got to go to the hotel gift shop when you’re on your honeymoon, they’re not sending some $30 t-shirt in the mail. And now, you can buy almost anything.
Yeah, the hunt used to add to the appeal. And the ease of getting most things means you’ve only got to hunt out more niche stuff.
Exactly. I’m in Maine, and one of the first things I thought of when I got here is that there’s some local yacht clubs. They don’t have a website, but they might have a plastic bin of t-shirts that they made three years ago for a race that benefitted the local firefighters. I’m excited that the season will be opening soon and I can go in and say, “Hey, I bought one of those shirts two years ago and I got mustard on it, do you have another one?” I really appreciate that. If they had a website and they had product, I probably wouldn’t want it anymore.
It’s the interaction. You’ve gone in there, you’ve talked to someone, it’s a memory. You haven’t just sat on a computer.
It’s a true souvenir.
Definitely. As well as the book you also worked on the wardrobe stuff for Uncut Gems and the film the Safdie brothers directed before that, Good Time. What’s the story there?
They liked the people that I shoot, and the style that I shoot, and they liked to reference them a lot for the characters in their movies. And with that, comes me trying to put actors in either similar clothes, or similar feelings. There’s a Fed-Ex messenger in the movie who delivers the fish at the end, and he’s a real Fed-Ex guy in the Diamond District. I was begging him to bring a certain hat. I’m very particular. I get into these peoples’ closets—it’s so much fun.
What were the hardest pieces to find?
With movies you’re supposed to have two or three of everything, in case something happens. In Uncut Gems they throw Adam Sandler into a fountain, so they needed three of his suit because he’s going to get wet each time and we wouldn’t have enough time to get dry. So getting multiples when you’re on a real cheapo budget is not always easy. And a lot of this stuff was second hand. Sandler was wearing a black leather blazer—good luck trying to find a similar one.
How important was it to get it right? Those outfits were all perfect.
I think the clothing was the best part of those movies.
You would say that!
Yeah, I’m proud. The costume designer I worked with for Uncut Gems, Miyako—one of the reasons we worked so well together is that like me, she’s an untraditional stylist. She loves authentic and real people. We’d get all excited… thinking he has to wear Ferragamo or Cartier glasses—we’d both really agree on an item or a look, and then when we’d show them to the directors they’d be like, “Weeeelllll, you know…” And we’d be back to the drawing board.
A lot of it would be at two or three in the morning, them texting like, “Yo that picture you took, let me get that picture.” And it’s great because they’re friends, but it takes a special working relationship to do that. No one is too big for their britches.
I read about how for Good Time you’d be chasing people down and buying the jacket off their back.
Yep. We did a ton of that. The casting was so great for both of those movies. They had a room full of full-on gangsters, and these guys were coming in from construction jobs with their duffle bags, their knee pads still on and helmets hanging off their belt loops. They looked like they were going to kill somebody—they were enormous, covered in tattoos.
And whether they made it into the movie or not, I’d talk to them like they were superstars. I’d take their picture and I’d say, “honestly, no matter what happens, can we buy the shirt you’re wearing right now?”, because nobody is going to get it real like an actual construction worker on site. So buying stuff off people, that’s one of my specialties.
What’d they go back with?
Well, because we were in wardrobe, we’d have rooms full of clothes, I’d say, “Hold on, I got a pair of pants you’re going to love.” Switcheroo! And they’re happy because they’ve got a new pair of pants.
There was a time, it might have been the jacket you’re talking about, when Josh said, “There’s a guy at this subway stop right now, go and find him. Offer him 50 bucks.”
And it works because the characters look real.
I think so. In Uncut Gems a lot of those guys were real diamond District workers— real industry dudes—not actors. At the same time, they all have such unique looks. They’re such characters that to me, they look normal for 47th Street. When I meet someone for casting and they’re wearing their wildest Versace print shirt, I’d be like, “Dude, you have to wear this for the movie.” A lot of the times the directors would look at the clothes and think we should tone it down, but I’d say, “No, no, no, no, no.”
Have you got more film stuff coming up? It sounds like a nice job.
No. I got nothing on the agenda.
Sounds alright to me. Everyone wants to be ‘busy’ these days.
It’s pathetic. “Every hour I’m in a Zoom.” I just think “Fuck you and your Zoom. What are you so busy with?”
All the rushing around people do rarely amounts to much. I think I’ve pretty much run out of questions now, but I think I was meant to talk to you about Chaco sandals a bit. You were a pretty early instigator of wearing them.
I’ve never met a sandal that I felt so comfortable wearing the city. I loved Birkenstocks, but I didn’t feel totally comfortable barefoot in them. Then I tried Chacos and I couldn’t believe how tough and rugged they were. I was like, “Fuck it, who cares if I’m not in Colorado—I’m wearing them in the big city.” And once I felt comfortable in them, I felt comfortable in Birkenstocks.
The sandal gateway drug. Okay, wrapping this up now, have you got any words of wisdom to pass on?
Go with your gut. I like the word ‘wisdom’, it’s better than advice. I think I often second guess my choices, so I’m going to say go with your gut.
Started in 2013 by the husband-and-wife duo of Saeed and Katy Al-Rubeyi, Story mfg. is a clothing company that does things it’s own way.
Whilst you could maybe draw similarities with Tender’s traditional dying techniques, or perhaps Satta’s earthy tones, Story MFG most definitely treads its own path—making laid-back, modern garb from natural materials.
Combining a love of vintage outdoor gear with a penchant for psychedelic imagery and a hefty helping of natural dyes (like bark and jackfruit, to name just a few), this lot somehow manage to make clothing that looks both familiar and futuristic at the same time.
Keen to find out more, I talked to co-founder Saeed over the phone as he made his way home from London one cold February evening…
Where are you heading now then? Do you say you lived in Brighton?
Yeah, I live in Brighton. The business is there as well. Well, that makes it sound grand, it’s basically just the living room of our house. It’s not like we’ve got big offices or anything.
I suppose it’s a good contrast to London.
Oh… I hate it in London. I didn’t realise how much I hated it until I left. I used to always say how much I loved London… but I hate it. It’s so busy—it feels like walking through honey. I think it’s just age really. The city used to have a lot more to offer when I was young. Now I just want to go for a coffee in peace, and not have to wait for a table.
You’ve got to put up with a lot to live in a place like that. Going back a bit, how did Story MFG start?
We never started out to do the kind of stuff we’re doing now. We didn’t think we’d do collections, or sell to stores or anything like that, we just wanted to make some jeans that were made with natural materials, and were naturally dyed. It seemed like a cool project. In the end we crowd-sourced the first run. I think we had to see 16 pairs of jeans to make it work—to get the first 100 made. And then we started doing other items… we made a jacket, a shirt and a hat.
What year was this?
We started the company in 2013—that’s when we ‘founded’ it with the government, but nothing was made until 2014. And then it was in 2015 that we first started selling to a store.
What was the reason for wanting to use natural dyes and natural materials? Even from the start it seems you lot wanted to do stuff differently.
There were quite a few reasons, but I don’t think we necessarily recognised them at the time. We wanted to do something that was connected to craft—keeping craft practices alive. And we wanted to do something that was natural—something leaning towards a more eco-conscious, sustainable future—something that could be a point of activism for me and Katy to get involved in.
All of those causes are all well and good, but they’re social causes, so I feel like having a company with those values that people can buy into is a really powerful form of activism. It feels much more powerful than when I was holding a placard up in an anti-war march… which did nothing.
It’s doing something rather than just talking about it.
Yeah, we just wanted to do something, and be a part of it.
It sounds like a definite reaction against how a lot of clothing companies work. Was there anything specific that spurred you on to go the opposite way?
Yeah, well, perhaps not the opposite, but it felt like there was a lot of ‘almost’ stuff. There would be a company that would do natural dye stuff, but it looked really ‘hippy’… or just bad. There was a constellation of companies that were making all the right sounds, but there wasn’t one voice that me or Katy connected with… so we decided to make it ourselves. Back then I couldn’t find the jeans I wanted to wear… or find a jacket that I was interested in—so we had to make them.
How did you go from having these ideas to then making the clothes?
From the beginning until now, we’ve been working with the same dye-house. But everything else around it has shifted and changed. The first time we made something, we made it in a factory here in the UK, and then we moved to a small-scale tailor, and then we moved to this guy in Thailand who makes work-wear, and then for the last few seasons we’ve been doing 99% of stuff in India.
There’s a plot of land with a couple of buildings on it. The dying happens there, the sewing happens there, the embroidery happens there, and the knitting and crocheting happens next door. There are a few things like block-printing and some weaving, which happen elsewhere in India (or in one case, Thailand), but the majority of it comes out of this tiny atelier in a forest in South-East India.
Having everything in one place sounds like a good way of doing things. Can you talk us through how one of your pieces is made? Take one of those Polite Pullovers—what’s the process of making one of those?
Let’s go with the bark one.
It’s a really long process. We take organic cotton, in that case it’s this fat corduroy, and that goes through this ten day treatment process, with boiling water and salt to get it ready to be dyed. Separately we boil this bark which comes from this tree called babul to extract the dye. The fabric is then dyed—this takes several days of dying and then drying—and then it is put together about seven footsteps away by a team of tailors.
Meanwhile, next door, yarns which are dyed different colours—I think in that case it’s jack-fruit, madder and indigo—are given to these ladies who crochet the details across the chest. And then it all comes together at the atelier and is finished with the embroidery by hand.
We didn’t think we’d do collections, or sell to stores or anything like that, we just wanted to make some jeans that were made with natural materials, and were naturally dyed. It seemed like a cool project.
So it’s a full on craft project isn’t it?
Yeah, it really is. I think if you were take a stopwatch to that item, it’d probably take between 20 and 30 days to make from start to finish. There’s a lot of waiting around. It’s like making beer. A lot of the process happens in that in-between time.
I suppose with something like that there must be only so many you can make. It must be fairly limited.
Yeah, for sure. It’s a craft—your granny can only make you one jumper a year. And it’s the same with us. If we want to grow, we have to keep hiring people, and that’s one of the joys of running the brand, but we’re also really slow to do that, as we don’t want to bring loads of people in and then let them down. For wholesale we have to enforce maximums. Most brands have minimums a shop will have to buy, but we’ve got maximums.
How do these naturally dyed items then work once someone’s wearing them?
It’s a natural product, so it’s going to age. Like a pair of jeans, it’s soften, it’ll change colour, it’s going to grow and morph, and that’s the nice thing about it. It’s designed to age, it’s designed to look a let better a few years from now, then it does when it’s new.
Where do you get your ideas for the shapes from? It looks like there’s a lot of vintage outdoor stuff in there.
A lot old work-wear, and a lot of old outdoor gear. I say old, a lot of it isn’t that old—for outdoors stuff it’s the 80s and 90s, whilst the work-wear is 40s or 50s. Anything that has a connection with movement and the outdoors is really interesting to us. A lot of outdoor gear has really interesting approaches to shape.
There’s quite a strong affinity between outdoor gear and ‘the outdoors’… and our clothes are made from the outdoors—they’re made from plants—so they seem like quite good bedfellows.
Were you always into outdoor gear? What did you like when you were growing up?
During my teenage years, from when I was 11 until I was 15, I lived in the Middle East. And everyone there was really into ACG, but it was all fake. So the kind of stuff I’m into is like bootlegs of outdoor gear… basically. And then Katy is into all the stuff that she experienced when she was growing up in and around Newcastle. And it all kind of comes together with Story.
It seems like that early, formative stuff is hard to shake off. Do you think that stuff always sticks with you?
Yeah, I think it does for all creatives. And that’s when there’s some soul to a brand, when someone does something that is meaningful to them—it carries those stories. That’s why something like ASOS or Topshop has no soul, because they’re just making a thing to sell. The designer at Topshop isn’t thinking, “I’m making this spaghetti top because when I was 15 I wanted it and I couldn’t afford it, and it was a turning point for me…” There’s none of that—but there’s a lot of it in other places.
What about your clothes? Are there any interesting stories behind them?
More than I can say. Everything we make has some kind of connection. We’ve got this print which we do call ’Trip Print’, which we do a different version of every season, and that’s based on these t-shirts that me and Katy collect. People weren’t that into it when we first started doing it, but it’s now one of our best selling things. I don’t think people were really into the iconography we were using at first. People were like, “Why have you put mushrooms on stuff?” And now every brand and its dog is doing tie-dye and mushrooms.
Is that irritating? Seeing a thing that means something to you being rinsed?
I don’t know. I don’t want to gate-keep mushrooms.
I suppose you didn’t invent them.
Yeah. Everything has been done in some way.
You lot do some pretty out there stuff, but can something ever be too wild when it comes to design?
Oh yeah, all the time. There’s a camo from last season, and every time I show it to someone they’re like, “Ooh, that’s a bit loud.” What usually happens—what always happens—is that we’ll make something that people won’t connect with, and then three years later, that’s the thing that everybody’s into. There was a jacket with palm trees on that we made a couple of years ago that was very poorly ordered, and then this last season every store wanted it in.
Everything we make has some kind of connection.
You do a lot of work with artists. How does that come about?
There’s a few artists who are into the same thing as me—that 60s and 70s psychedelic stuff—so we started working with them. The t-shirts we make with them we just sell through our website as we not only don’t make money on them… but we often lose money on them. But that’s just another thing we do because we want to do something craft based, and because we like it.
What about those embroidered jackets you make? They look like they take a lot of work.
There are a couple of instances where we do machine embroidery, like on very small logos, but otherwise, it’s done by hand. So for that one, we worked with an artist called Will Gaynor who did some paintings for us, and then Katy hand embroidered the paintings onto the garment. And then in two or three weeks we’ll take it to India, and the ladies who do our embroidery will learn how to do it on the production pieces.
I imagine there must some much easier ways to do all this.
Yeah, there are way easier ways, but it’d cut out all the other stuff. You could go to Sainsbury’s and get a tin of Stella, and every can is going to taste the same. Or you could go to a place that stocks craft beer, and the beer will be more expensive, and sometimes it’ll taste worse, but sometimes it’ll be absolutely delicious. It’s just a different experience of the same trip. We’re just more into the craft-based happenstance of things—if we wanted to be like Stella, we would have started a brand where everything was much more standard.
Even things that might not appear to not have any overt craft in them, like t-shirts… we make them from scratch. We buy cotton, we get it knitted to our spec, and then we get it hand screen-printed. And the screen-prints are all done by artists. So there’s a lot of craft there, even in places where it might not seem like there’s room for it.
How much of this mentality fades into the rest of your life?
I mean, we try, but we’re not perfect. If we ate as good as we made clothes, we’d be so healthy.
With the way you make your clothing, does that put you under scrutiny a bit?It seems that if someone tries to do something in an ethical manner, it instantly puts them under fire.
Absolutely. Sustainability as a culture can be toxic—people are constantly trying to test each other’s purity, but nobody is perfect. You do open yourself up to criticism when you say you’re doing something that’s good. There are a lot of small companies doing sustainable practices, constantly criticising each other, whilst Coca-Cola just goes on doing the same shit it has always been doing. It’s not helpful—there must just be some kind of primal, human need to do it.
It’s a very strange thing. Which brands around now do a good job?
That’s a really good question – I don’t know. There are brands that I like the look of, but then I don’t think they behave particularly well, and then there’s ones that do really cool things, but I don’t like the actual stuff they make.
I suppose if you were fully into other brands, you probably wouldn’t have started your own.
Everything we wear is ours, but not just because we like it, but because we’re skint. The clothes I wear are generally fucked up samples that we couldn’t do anything with.
What are those suede slip-on shoes you always wear? I’ve never seen those before.
They’re made by Merrell. They don’t have any cool factor, but I love those shoes. They’ve got so many models that are like old ACG. They’re ugly, but everyone gets past the ugliness.
Changing subject slightly, who does what at Story MFG? How do you split it between you and Katy?
She’ll do technical drawings and CADs, and communicate with the atelier, whilst I’ll do more of the customer facing side of it—speaking to customers and the artists, arranging shoots and things like that. We’re pretty evenly split, but there are things that I can’t do, and things that she can’t do.
You said before a lot of it is run out of your house—do you get much of a break from work?
Yeah, we do stop. Up until a year ago, we were working up until bedtime, but I had a problem with it, so now we try to stop at 6. We do have set boundaries, but it’s also really nice. I think a lot of people imagine working with their partner to be a really stressful thing, and it is stressful sometimes, but it’s okay, we like it. We started the brand right at the beginning of our relationship, so it became part of our dynamic.
I suppose I’ve pecked your head for a while now. To round this off, have you got any words of wisdom you’d like to share?
I’m afraid not—I think any words of wisdom would just haunt me. I’d say just to be nice to people, it doesn’t cost anything to be nice.
During my regular trawls through the dusty plastic containers of Manchester’s finest second-hand shops, I occasionally stumble upon old copies of a magazine called BLITZ. Published from 1980 up until 1991, the magazine was a fair bit before my time, but from what I can gather, along with i-D and The Face, it was one of the first publications to really push the mix of music, film, art and clothes in one readily available paper package.
On one page there might have been an interview with a young Robert Downey Jr, and on another, a chat with Shaun Stussy – as well as reviews of Derek Jarman films and articles about a mysterious new television sensation by the name of Twin Peaks.
A lot of it is still highly readable today – and it’s funny how much of the stuff mentioned in its pages has gone on to gain ‘classic’ status.
Seeing as I’ve never heard anyone talk about BLITZ before and I know very little about it, I thought I’d pester co-founder and editor Simon Tesler to find out a bit more…
My research suggests BLITZ started in 1980. For a bit of context, what other magazines were around back then? What would you pick up from the newsagents in the late 70s?
That’s right. We published the first issue in September 1980 at the very beginning of our second year at university. We put it together over the summer break after our first year exams. Forty years on, it’s hard to conceive just how prehistoric the media industry was then, compared to where we are now. This was literally the age before computers, before digital cameras or digital anything; before music videos, CDs or mobile phones. There were literally only three television channels in the UK, BBC1 BBC2 and ITV. Channel Four didn’t start until the end of 1982.
And the magazine industry of the time was just as stunted. Teenagers were limited to music newspapers like the NME – my personal bible of the time – and Melody Maker and Sounds, or “girlie” fanmags like Jackie. There was no colour in newspapers, and the only two papers with colour magazines, or indeed supplements of any sort at all, were the Sunday Times and The Observer. The only colour monthlies were bland titles like 19, Honey or Over 21. There was Cosmopolitan, yes, but no Elle or Marie Claire or Q or GQ or Empire or any of the other glossies that launched during the course of that decade.
There were literally only three television channels in the UK, BBC1 BBC2 and ITV. Channel Four didn’t start until the end of 1982.
For kids growing up back then, how important were magazines? With no internet and only a few television channels, I imagine anything containing anything near to underground culture would have seemed pretty amazing back then.
Well underground culture itself was pretty different. It really was underground for one thing. You only ever found out about anything by word of mouth. The main exception was the live music scene in pubs and clubs, which was well documented by the music inkies, especially the NME and Sounds, which were more in tune with edgier, punkier bands. Otherwise, underground culture, or indeed any form of youth culture, was only exceptionally rarely covered by the media.
What led you and Carey Labovitch to start Blitz? Am I right in saying you were students at the time?
That’s right. It was actually Carey’s idea originally. For years, she had been making different sorts of magazines at school, cobbled together on a Roneo machine, which was like a very primitive form of photocopier (because photocopiers didn’t really exist back then either!)
Her idea for BLITZ was really a reflection of the times we were living in. The emergence of punk had really inspired kids to think differently about what they could do for themselves. “Well if anyone can start a band, maybe there are also other things that anyone can do without any training or without grown-ups to tell you how to do it”. The same people who had spent their evenings going to punk gigs were now growing up and trying to make a living, preferably from something more interesting than working in a bank or a boring office.
Inspired by the music press, perhaps (like I was), they were writing or taking photographs; or acting; or making clothes, or art. This was the beginning of an explosion of ‘alternative arts’ in Britain – theatre companies, street entertainment, stand-up comedians, independent clothes shops, filmmakers and so. The emphasis of this new feeling was on appearance, on image, style and design as a way of transmitting ideas.
The idea behind BLITZ was to reflect what this new and very disparate group of people were trying to do, and in covering them we aimed to offer a platform for capable young writers and photographers who were unable to get work in the established magazines because they lacked not ability, but cuttings in their portfolios.
What was the first issue like?
Well, we were only 17 or 18, and we had no professional experience of how to make a magazine; so we kind of just made it up as we went along. For the first issue, Carey did pretty much everything except the writing and photography, pasting up the final pages on her bedroom floor and taking them to the printer. But after that, she and I found our respective roles quite quickly. She took on the duties of publisher, selling advertising and organising distribution, while I was in charge of the editorial.
Right from the beginning the idea was that we wouldn’t be just another student paper: we wouldn’t write about student activities; we’d write about the wider world, and about all the things we were interested in personally. Design, film, politics, theatre, art, video, fashion and anything else that crossed our intellectual radar.
We wanted to make a mark. So another thing we did was to publish in A3 format; the idea being to stand out on the newsstands. Actually, as it turned out, the opposite was true. The only place newsagents had in their shops where they could put an A3 magazine was with the international newspapers, so we tended to get a bit hidden away. So when we left university and went professional in 1982 we had to shrink down to an expanded A4 format like every other magazine…
By the third issue the magazine was picked up by WHSmiths and it wasn’t long before it was published monthly. Making a new magazine every month sounds like a lot of work. What was an average day like for you back then?
Well for the first six issues, the average day was doing our university work in order to get a degree! Putting the issues together was mainly in the holidays or in between uni work. But when we came back down to London in 1982, we managed to borrow a grungy little office in Soho and our little team of four – Carey and me, and our friends Tim Hulse and Shauna Lovell – set about trying to make a living out of BLITZ. Later we added a full-time designer, Jeremy Leslie, and a receptionist.
Right from the beginning the idea was that we wouldn’t be just another student paper: we wouldn’t write about student activities; we’d write about the wider world, and about all the things we were interested in personally.
Our writers and photographers were all freelance, almost all of them people in their early 20s like us, who’d bought an issue and liked what they saw, and got in touch offering ideas and suggestions for content.
But yes. Making a new magazine every month is indeed a hell of a lot of work. You know how everyone has one of those scary work dreams? Like going onstage and you’ve forgotten your lines? That kind of thing? It’s 30 years since I had to create an issue of a magazine but, honest to God, I still have dreams today where we’re about to go to press and I still don’t have an image to put on the front cover.
Blitz wasn’t a music magazine or a film magazine or a clothes magazine… it covered a wide mix of subjects across the board, and there’d be interviews with everyone from Ken Dodd to Hunter S. Thompson. Where did this mix come from? Was it just a case of you picking out things you were into?
Exactly so. As I said before, the idea was to produce the kind of magazine we wanted to read. We felt that people like us would want to read the same kind of things. So in that sense I guess we were deliberately “uncommercial”.
Iain R Webb, our brilliant and highly unconventional fashion editor from 1982 to 1986, sort of summed it up in a spread he did mid-decade. His approach was to convey a mood or a style not a shopping guide, and quite often he would deliver a set of pictures in which you couldn’t see the clothes at all. Sometimes, designers gave him stick for that, so in one spread, he painted in big letters on a plain white t-shirt, “We’re not here to sell clothes”.
There also seemed to be a strong blend of what would maybe be seen as both high and low culture. As well as things about film and theatre, you featured a lot of stuff about television at a time I can imagine it was still seen as a ‘lesser artform’ or whatever. I’m not too sure what my question is here really, but was this blurring of boundaries an intentional thing?
Absolutely. And yes, good point about television. Considering its immense captive audience and its influence over all sectors of the population it’s extraordinary how little coverage television received at that time. (Quite the opposite nowadays, of course, when famous-for-being-famous TV “personalities” hoover up far more editorial coverage than they deserve.)
Back then though, no one wrote about the personalities who had dominated our formative years from that box in the corner of the living room. So yes we wanted to ask questions of those people; not just the cool ones like Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson or Jonathan Ross or Brookside and Grange Hill creator Phil Redmond, but also the uncool ones like Ken Dodd, or Cannon & Ball, or Coronation Street’s Pat Phoenix. Once we even put one of the decade’s most influential TV executives – Michael Grade, the man the Daily Mail called TV’s ‘Mr Nasty’ who had run both Channel 4 and the BBC – on the cover.
But also, growing up in the 1970s, I used to love Clive James’ insightful and often hilarious reviews of the week’s television in The Observer newspaper. (These were memorably collected for posterity in collections like The Crystal Bucket and other books). Paul Morley – who had been one of my journalistic heroes in his days at NME in the late 1970s – began writing for us from around 1983 and had, I think, been similarly influenced, so he started doing a regular review column looking back on the good, the bad and the ugly of the previous month’s TV.
Bit of a stock question here, but have you got any good stories from the heyday of the magazine? Considering the people who were interviewed, I imagine some funny or strange situations must have came about.
One that is seared into my memory was a chaotic party we held – actually we had quite a few chaotic parties – but this one in particular was to celebrate the end of the 1980s. We had an exhibition at a fantastic huge open warehouse space in West London that used to be the fashion designer Katharine Hamnett’s store. We’d invited all the cover stars from every issue of BLITZ so loads of celebrities were there. The artist David Mach build this extraordinary 20-foot-tall column out of back issues of BLITZ, and we had lots of exhibits epitomising the key objects or trends of the decade, all encased inside a wall of Absolut vodka bottles.
Absolut also provided a hell of a lot of vodka, and the whole event very quickly got out of hand, with guests and gatecrashers all off their heads on the free-flowing booze. Someone put a cherry bomb down one of the toilets and blew it up; someone else flushed a bra and pants down one of the other toilets, and people were blatantly attempting to dismantle the bottle exhibits and steal their contents. At some point, the police and the fire officers were called, and determined that the party was a safety risk and had to be closed down, and they forced us to close the big barred gate that led in from the street to stop anyone else from getting in.
Unfortunately, it was just at this point in the evening that one of our most iconic cover stars, Siouxsie of Siouxsie & the Banshees, arrived – fashionably late of course – and accompanied by a large entourage, only to be denied entrance. She was predictably furious, and I was required to shamefacedly explain through the barred gate to her that yes, of course I knew who she was, but that the matter was entirely out of my control, and no she couldn’t come in.
That doesn’t sound ideal. BLITZ is often mentioned in the same sentence as iD and The Face, who both also started in 1980. Was there a bit of competition between the magazines?
Hahaha! Not at all!We were all the best of friends… Er… No.
The funny thing was that the three magazines were all privately owned and run by couples. Carey and I were and are a couple. Terry & Tricia Jones launched and ran i-D. Nick & Julie Logan launched and ran The Face. We were effectively three separate husband and wife cottage industries.
The big difference, of course, was that Terry Jones and Nick Logan were each 15 years or more older than us and had many years’ experience at the highest levels in the established industry, at Conde Nast and IPC and EMAP, whereas we were just a couple of university kids with no experience at all.
To answer your question, yes, there was a lot of competition. I could never understand that, because we were all to some extent on the same side against the entrenched industry at large. We should really all have been pulling together against the old guard.
There wasn’t really any sense of competition with i-D. They did their thing and we did ours, and several contributors went back and forth between the two magazines, and Terry and Tricia Jones were always really nice and supportive if we met at events.
However, I think it’s fair to say that wasn’t the case at all with Nick Logan. I never met him, but we were always told that he nursed a lot of bad feelings towards us. Apparently, Face contributors were told in no uncertain terms that there would be no going back if they ever started working for BLITZ. What a shame.
Very strange. An issue in 1988 featured an interview with Charles Manson. What was the story there? How did that come about?
That was all down to one of our most prolific writers, Jonh Wilde [Jonh is the correct spelling]. Growing up in the 1960s, you couldn’t not have been aware of the Manson Murders because of the blanket coverage they received in the media. Quentin Tarantino is our contemporary in age, of course, and he had been nursing a similar fascination for years before Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. I forget exactly how this came about, but Jonh teamed up with the writer and musician Nikolas Schreck, who is and was one of the leading experts on Manson, and had interviewed him several times.
In another issue we also interviewed Reggie Kray, one of the infamous gangsters who had ruled parts of London back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It’s not that we were lionising these guys, we were just trying to get some objective impression of how and why they came to be who they were.
Unreal. Slight change of subject here, but after much chat about the so-called ‘death of print’ around ten years ago, it seems that people still read magazines. What are your thoughts on the printed page today?
Do they, though? It seems to me – and it’s a terrible shame – that although newspapers are just about managing still to hang on for now, the age of magazines is well and truly over.
Just as changing technology allowed college kids like us to start our own magazine in 1980, the latest wave of change allows literally anyone at all to start their own virtual magazine on social media, and distribution is as easy as pushing a button.
Yes, of course, there are still magazines, but in the sector we once inhabited with BLITZ these are now only once or twice a year affairs like AnOther or The Gentlewoman or others. Beautifully produced, of course, but fed entirely by fashion advertising, and entirely dependent on that income stream. I’d be surprised if any sell as many as 5,000 copies per issue. I couldn’t be happier that they exist, but the days of mass-circulation magazines is over; and the age of mass-circulation newspapers is unlikely to survive the decade to come.
It’s not that we were lionising these guys, we were just trying to get some objective impression of how and why they came to be who they were.
The last issue of BLITZ was in 1991. How come it stopped? And what did you do next?
I said we made it up as we went along. Well, one of the problems with that philosophy was that no one told us that the economy is cyclical; that for every boom period there is also a bust. We started BLITZ in the recession of the early Eighties, and we really rode the crest of the wave that followed, pumping all our income into producing thicker and more expensive issues, and also diversifying into other publishing projects. As a result, we weren’t prepared for the equally brutal recession that hit in 1990. Our advertising revenues simply melted away and we couldn’t afford to keep BLITZ going.
However, one of the sidelines we’d launched was a company producing business-to-business directories and newsletters for the magazine publishing industry. Luckily we were able to hang onto that business and build it up in the 1990s. Carey and I are still partners; we got married in 1989 and we’re still going strong almost 40 years after we met and launched the first issue…
Amazing. I think I’ve pretty much run out of questions now. Thanks a lot for doing this. Have you got any wise words to wind this up with?
If I’m honest, though it grieves me to say it, if I was starting again now with a magazine like BLITZ, I wouldn’t be doing it in print, I’d do it on Instagram or whatever the next platform is that comes along.
The basic underlying truth is that you have to follow your own instinct. If you have a passion to do something, whatever it may be, you have to pursue it as hard as you possibly can, and if you’re very lucky you can make it pay. But it takes a lot of perseverance and also a determination not ever to take no for an answer.
There’s a saying credited to the famous advertising man Leo Burnett: ‘When you reach for the stars, you may not quite get them, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.’ My wife Carey has a similar saying that has always been her modus operandi: “If you don’t ask, you don’t get…”