The Scott Fraser Collection has brought vintage styles up to date with classic-inspired designs. Founder Scott Fraser Simpson tells Mark Brierley where his love of clothes came from and what it took to get his collection off the ground

How did you first become interested in clothing and what made you start collecting vintage knitwear?

I was 16 and living down in Brighton. I’d moved over from Hong Kong where I’d grown up. My dad had always been a guiding force in my life, and throughout my childhood, he would take us to these places to have clothes made. He’d been there since he was five, so we’d end up in these back streets, down alleyways, he knew all the places to go. He taught me about the idea of engaging with someone who could make you something beyond being able to just buy it. But when I moved over to England, I got into the legend of the mods and rockers in Brighton. The 60s thing, the scooters, the cool shops that were doing clothes that were not like what my friends at school were wearing. It was different to the mainstream and it attracted me. I would go into these shops and just sort of stand around and start trying to speak to people! They would talk to me about what happened in the 60s, what went on, what people wore, and all these different things about clothes, and I was just fascinated by it all. From there, it grew into a deep interest in vintage clothes, and the whole subculture of the mod movement. It was very big part of my life through my teenage years, through college, and after I graduated and moved up to London. I’d be going to soul clubs and meeting these people, who’d be wearing these really slick Italian cut suits and it was a world of knowledge, surrounded by music and clothes. I had a crew of friends, who all had the education together. It was around this time that I learned I really love clothes, they’re so much more than something I just put on my back.

I then started working on a Sunday, after going out all night to these soul clubs, at a place in Brick Lane called Mendoza. Owned by a Jamaican Brummy guy called Leroy, he did 60s shirts and trousers. I just worked on a Sunday as a helper to serve the coffee, take the bins out, that sort of thing. Eventually, I worked there for five years, and he was one the who introduced me to knitwear. He lived through the 70s, knitwear was one of the main articles of clothing you would wear with your kick flares. He had a small rail of these vintage knit tops in the shop, there were so many different variations in colour, shape, design, pockets, but they were all basically the same thing, a knitted shirt. I was fascinated by the collection and from there, he would sometimes pay me in a top.

“Can I just have that, I just want that, I don’t care about the money, I’ll survive”, on a student loan! I got a few, then started learning more and starting to collect from there. I was making my own clothes on the side, then starting to fall into this world he showed me, which I hadn’t really known about before. It’s led me to where I am today and I’m very grateful.

How difficult was the transition from a business buying and selling vintage pieces, to designing and making your own designs?

I was doing all these things to help Leroy grow as a business; he was an old school market trader, with people constantly asking him questions like, do you have a website? I didn’t know how to build a website, but I offered to build him one, I offered to shoot all the clothes and get them online. It was very much an organic thing. But then I realised that I could probably be doing this too; start my own little thing, where I could pass on some of my vintage stuff that I didn’t want anymore and replenish my own collection.

Then I thought, why stop there? It started from me needing a particular bag at the time, that I couldn’t find anywhere. There are all these bag-makers and leather wholesalers around the East End, so I thought I’d do what I used to do with my Dad, I’d go in, have a chat with these people and ask them to make me a bag. There was a step-by-step process whereby they’d tell me I needed to go and get the pattern pieces, so I’d go home and try to cut my own patterns and bring them back. They’d then ask me to get the canvas or the trimming, so I’d go off and get it. It was learning from other people about what I needed and what the processes were. From there, I started making this bag, I built a website and saw if anyone wanted to buy one. It was the start of something. I saw that this could work.

A lot of what I design is rooted in a vintage piece, but not a direct replica. I’ve always made sure I’m not making anything that is a time warp

My mum said she knew a person who was good at alterations and thought I should go and talk to them about making something. So, I started this relationship with this woman who helped me start making one shirt, that was made to order. And that made to order set-up took any risk away from what I was doing, so I was still able to keep my day job. I could do this at a pace that worked for me. It wasn’t a case that an order came in and I had to get it out as soon as possible. I could buy a metre of fabric and have one shirt made at a time. It was a passion project, started in 2013. Slowly from there, it grew. It started with a shirt, then it was a woolen jacket as I found another place that can make. Then I found a factory that does tailoring. I slowly built up a network of people who could make me things, and a network of fabric suppliers. It’s only been in the last three years that I’ve stopped working for other people and I said to myself, I think I’m just doing my own thing now.

A lot of what I design is rooted in a vintage piece, but not a direct replica. I’ve always made sure I’m not making anything that is a time warp.

It’s also quite agile, and that’s what I enjoy about this made-to-order model. If I see something is doing quite well, I can move quite quickly and find other fabrics that I could run a shirt in, for example. I can put them to the front of the queue, have them made in a fortnight, shoot them, edit the images that evening and drop them on to the website, then they’re ready for the world to see. For example, I’ve recently created these lido shirts, the fabric for those were found at a mill up in the Midlands in a back room. It was only a few samples rolls in four different colours, so I took it all and that’s all there is of it. Once that’s gone, that’s the end of those shirts. I like the idea of that uniqueness, that element of vintage in the way that it’s quite collectable.

Whereas, the knitted shirts I make are all made to order and have been running now for a couple of years. I eventually found a place in Italy who made tops like these in the 1960s, on the same machinery, so the quality and the weight is the same. I’m able to keep those going years after I designed them because they are made to order, and because the clothes aren’t seasonal collections. It’s not a case of, that’s done, that’s over. In this instance, it’s a case of if the customer is feeling that style right now. There’s a rolling collection like these which is much more slowly paced, and then there are these offshoots like the lido shirts which just happen when an opportunity arises.

How do you find time to come up with designs while balancing all the other elements that come with running a business?

There’s so much feedback now through the people I meet, the website, social media and so on, that I can try to add things in that I can see there is demand for. It’s the best pool to utilise because I respect those opinions. Those people are the ones that keep this going. It’s important to listen to your people. I always ask where people have heard about me, it’ll be from bits of press, from word of mouth, or the majority of the time, it’s through Instagram. Sometimes you forget how valuable a tool it is, especially considering I don’t pay for advertising.

I run everything myself, it’s just me. The photos, the marketing, the Instagram, the emails, the packing, the fabric. I’m not industry trained, I never came to this from the business end of things. I didn’t start this business to make loads of money, it was never about that, it was about starting something because I wanted to make clothes, and hopefully I can make a living from it. When I first started, it was only one order a week for a pair of trousers. It’s grown from there.

There is a limit though, I’ve been thinking is there capacity for me to do anymore? I like to touch all the elements of the business, so much of it is enjoyable for me, it’s not just about sitting and designing something and then the rest of the process is done by someone else. It doesn’t feel whole then. But I still think there is a way to continue to grow. I’m passionate about the made-to-order model, so want to continue that. I don’t like to see anything go to waste, so I don’t want to use fabric up on something that gets made and then just sits without being sold. If you find yourself with stock leftover, you’d have to start having sales and that’s something else I don’t really want to get into. Why should someone get this piece for less when exactly the same amount of effort has gone into making it for someone who paid full price? I don’t want those people to feel cheated, they are the ones who helped make this what it is. Plus, there’s the sustainability side of things.

But yes, I could potentially see myself taking on a couple of people to help things grow. It’s going to be hard detaching myself from certain parts of the process, but I have to get over myself! These people will be more than capable.