Last month Stef Nienaltowski caught up with Rachel and Steve, co-founders of Company of Makers, at their Hotwalls studio.
Company of Makers won the New Start-Up of the Year award at the Shaping Portsmouth Conference in January. Stef asked them about the great work they do, and what inspired them to get started.
Stef Nienaltowski: I'm sat with Steve and Rachel, the co-founders of the Company of Makers. Good afternoon both.
Rachel Owen: Hi Stef
Steve Bomford: Hello
SN: Steve, Rachel, "we design and make products inspired by the British Military's influence on pop culture". That's what your website says; what does it mean?
RO: So, one of the things that we do, is we try to create a greater understanding between military and civilian communities. And there's an awful lot more in common than people might immediately think. And one of the great ways to spark this conversation that everyone can get into is fashion, design, music, that kind of stuff. And if you think about it, British military uniforms have inspired so much of our culture. So, you can think of things like The Beatles and the Sgt. Pepper’s bandsmen jackets. You can think of The Muds and the RAF roundel. Trench coats, duffel coats, camo-fabric, I mean, once you start to actually really look into this, the military is everywhere, no necessarily in the ways that we always thing.
SN: So, we're sat in the historic Hotwalls buildings here, and certainly they are inspiring, but what inspired you two to start this business?
RO: So, I was running a social enterprise up in Liverpool, working with women who were recovering from anxiety and depression, and I'd always had an interest in 'make-do and mend' and ingenuity; I wrote my fashion dissertation on what women wore in Britain during World War 2. So, I was teaching in workshops how to unpick old vintage clothes and stuff from charity shops, and sew it into something new, and also to kind of "shabby-chic" old furniture. And what I found in these workshops was complete strangers, once they were sitting round a table, drinking out of vintage cups, doing stuff with their hands, they started to talk, and it became a kind of therapeutic environment. And Steve contacted me.
SB: Well, I was at a meeting at HMS Nelson in Portsmouth, and learnt about a fund called "The Armed Forces Community Covenant Fund", and this was to foster a greater understanding between military and non-military communities and help those that may also be struggling on civvy street. I was aware of Rachel's work, and basically picked up the phone and said "do you think your work that you do in Liverpool might work with ex-service personnel in Portsmouth?", to which she replied "Steven, it will work with people". So, that's kind of where it all started, in a nutshell.
SN: Fantastic! Now, I know you've got many strings to your bow; the one I personally am fascinated by is this creating of soft furnishings from military uniforms that families bring in to you, not necessarily when the family member is no longer with us, but how do you capture the emotion that family has from that uniform, as you turn it into a soft furnishing?
SB: I think it's how we approach what it means to people, and the way we talk about it, is that it's a celebration of someone's service. So, as you said, most of the people we work with are still with us, but it's a way of continuing someone's service story after they've left. And, you're not likely to have a uniform hanging up in your living room, so the idea it's made into something else like a cushion, or an apron, means it, as I say, continues the story of that person's service.
RO: And it's something that the family can treasure, you know, it becomes a family heirloom. We live in a society where so many things are throw-away, and they've lost their meaning, so everything that we do has this massive amount of empathy tied up in it. And for us, it's not just emotional for the family, it's emotional for us. It is such a privilege for us to do this, and to put the uniforms back into service, that we actually all end up having such a fantastic relationship and a really good giggle, and the amount of stories that we are fortunate to hear about the people who wear, and have worn, the uniforms, it's just an absolutely massively rewarding experience for everybody.
SN: And I think I'm right, it's not just naval, it's all or any military uniforms isn't it?
SB: Yeah, it's all three services. Obviously, we're in Portsmouth which is the home of the Royal Navy, but I think in terms of which service, and they would consider themselves apart, is the most popular, it seems to be the Royal Marines that like a fancy cushion.
SN: And, your customers are not just from the local area are they, as well?
SB: No, not at all, I think that's quite a striking aspect of the business, that could be partly related to our location, it's quite a communications hub, there's obviously Gunwharf Quays just around the corner, but I would say probably 70-80% of our customers are from outside the City, and that can be a significant distance. The furthest is Australia I think we've sent anything.
RO: A former WREN in fact.
SB: Yes, great story there, but not enough time
SN: So, we've talked about how you got started, we've talked about how you came together from Liverpool and Portsmouth, we've talked about the military uniforms, but you go beyond that because your links with services go way beyond the furnishings and the items. Tell me a bit about the workshops that you run and support.
RO: The whole point of Company of Makers is that we exist to help veterans and their immediate families who are struggling to transition back into civilian life, no matter how long ago they left the Forces. So, the stuff we do in our workshops is to benefit the military community directly. So, everything they make with us is theirs to take home and for them to treasure. And hopefully, they've experienced a little bit of the camaraderie and banter that they often miss in the Forces, and learn new skills as well. It's all about making, isn't it Steve?
SB: Yeah, I think that's a really important point, the camaraderie and the banter, I mean when people join our workshops, they've already got something in common. That usually ends up being taking the mickey out of each other from all the different services...
RO: Taking the mickey out of me, usually
SB: Well yeah, there is that. So, they have something in common, and that bonds the team together initially, and that's how it created the opportunities to actually have a positive impact on people's lives. As Rachel said, when people start doing stuff with their hands is when they start to talk, and then if there is any help that we can provide, or other agencies, that's kind of when we work our magic, hopefully.
SN: And finally, every business should have a dream; what's your dream for the next say two or three years?
SB: It's a bit of a running joke within the Company of Makers, but I would like a factory so I can dress up like a Victorian entrepreneur, stove-pipe hat, monocle, I'm not allowed a cigar, and a walking stick! But, in all honesty, the idea of having I think some form of factory, I don't want to conjure up the idea of a sweatshop because that's not what we mean, but something that was also in like an historic monument like we're in at the moment, where we could actually make more items from, say particularly from donations, because we're not able to take donations because of space, so I think that would be what we'd like to do in the future, would it not?
RO: Absolutely, and things like our one-off, unique, bespoke pieces, it would be amazing to sell them somewhere like Liberty, and then beyond you know, like Paul Smith cracked Japan, so I think we'd like to go down that Anglophile route as well, and ultimately, which is the most important thing for us, is that, you know, we're based in the home of the Royal Navy, we want to be the exemplar in how we look after our veterans in the UK.
SN: Steve, Rachel, thank you for today, and I was very proud to see you win the Start-Up Business of the Year award at the recent Shaping Conference.
SN: I can see it proudly displayed here in the shop.
SB: There's no finger-prints on that, she polishes it every day!
RO: I do!
SN: But if our listeners are interested in the military uniform piece, or the workshops, or anything, what is the best way they can get in touch with you?
SB: However they like really; they can come into our studio, we're here Tuesday to Saturday 11-5, they can certainly give us a call or get on our website; all that contact information is on our website at www.companyofmakers.com
SN: Thank you both very much indeed.
RO: Thank you Stef
SB: Thank you