Mike Key is the Man Connecting the Dots

From mentoring young talent at The Basement to running production for some of London's most noteworthy names, Mike Key has built a career out of connecting the dots. Styled in the latest grails, END. caught up with Mike on streetwear, creative education, and why not everyone can be a designer.

"Have you seen the Stock X advert on TV? That gave me goosebumps. It aired proper prime time in between Eastenders and Coronation Street, too. It really hit home how far streetwear has gone: they’re marketing to parents now."

It's late May and London is counting down the days to the SS20 men's show season. With most designers on lockdown doing final prep on their upcoming collections, I've managed to steal a morning with Mike Key. The man behind the scenes, Key is one of the many unsung heroes who work facelessly behind the curtain connecting the dots to bring the latest grails to market each season. A fount of knowledge on contemporary streetwear, Mike can't believe we're bearing witness to a time when sneaker resale sites and the culture that surrounds them have come so far that they're airing TV ads between two of the nation's favourite soaps. "It says it all, really. The kids are the ones with the power now. The 14 and 15 year olds on the street; that's who you have to convince. The passion you see is amazing, but I think sometimes it goes too far. I love clothes and I love shoes. I mean, I proper love them. But I'm not going to fight over trainers."

A likely-lad from the Midlands, Mike's journey from undergraduate at Brighton University to running production and wholesale for Liam Hodges and Magnus Ronning's eponymous brand has been a sink-or-swim saga of figuring shit out and then showing others how he did it. After graduating from university, Key floated around London trying to make sense of an industry that's famously insular and clandestine. "Over the past decade, I think young men have been drawn into fashion like never before, but there's still this black hole of knowledge around how things actually run. The traditional places that should be teaching people how to navigate the industry aren't doing a very good job of it," Mike explains as we stand on the roof garden above his flat. "I was speaking to a uni lecturer the other day and I was saying how they push us all to be designers which is kind of mad really. There's a million other ways to make a living in this industry."

Over the course of a morning in east London, we got Mike's take on streetwear, sustainability, and where the universities are getting it wrong.

I love shoes. I mean, I proper love them. But I'm not going to fight over trainers.
You first made waves when you partnered with The Basement to set up 'Basementoring' - a free teaching programme for young talent in London - how did that partnership come about and what was the aim of the programme?

I’d finished University and moved up to London to find some full time work and in all honestly struggled for around 3 or 4 months. I was freelancing, creating tech packs and consulting on a range of projects for various brands, but nothing long-term came in. I was a member of The Basement for a number of years before and always used it to sell, interact with the community and get information. The one thing that really stood out was the volume of kids coming to me wanting to develop a clothing brand, but without any formal training or idea of how to get it in motion other than printing on pre made garments. So rather than just working on tech packs, I thought what if there was a way to educate them on the core steps of how to build a brand and set them up with the skills to have success on their own, time after time? I needed some financial backing and The Basement was the perfect partner. I spoke with Paolo over DM and pitched the idea of a teaching programme and he was fully down to support from the get go. The Basement itself was set up as a community and it was clear we had similar visions of how we wanted to engage with young creatives. We set up the classes, I worked on a mini curriculum to cover all aspects of developing the brand from designs to production and we opened the doors every Sunday for anyone who wanted to come down, free of charge.

You then went on to mentor for Mastered alongside the likes of Nick Knight and Samuel Ross - what was your area of expertise and what were the most common questions you came up against?

My initial role was as a talent manager working alongside the photographers; helping them to build clear portfolios, set themselves up to achieve more and maximize their skills. 6 months later Mastered opened a menswear, womenswear and accessories accelerator and it was the perfect time for me to work alongside 200+ creatives and see what issues they were facing and how I could help. After seeing the vast improvements of professionals work through video conference, I pushed to roll this out over all the accelerators and the in-house brand specialist role began. I would usually do around 10-15 calls a day with different brands around the world offering weekly check ups or intense detailed sessions to help problem solve any issues they were facing. Tackling everything from how to organize a runway show or how to increase sales through to Instagram marketing. Towards the end almost every call I had was production based, which opened my eyes to the bigger picture of what’s really holding people back in the fashion industry at a low-mid level. This is what really cemented my decision to go it alone managing production for brands to take all of the knowledge I had gained and implement strategies to give any brand the best possible chance at breaking through. 

What do you think sets the London streetwear scene apart from the rest of the world?

It’s got to be the fusion of different cultures. I feel now more than ever people aren’t afraid to mix genres of clothing without going full fit in one brand or aesthetic. Also it’s great to see people really experimenting with clothes and pushing what they feel comfortable in from a younger age. By using digital communities they can share, compare and discuss new pieces and styles in a relatively safe zone, which is only going to help us progress. Groups like The Basement and High Fashion Talk have really been pivotal in that change and I feel they don’t really get as much recognition as they should. 

You've touched on your experience with creative education and how you feel that universities are too preoccupied with encouraging people to become designers - tell us more about that?

Not everyone can be a designer. In fact, most people shouldn't. I think what most people forget about having a brand - especially starting out - is that you're essentially putting your entire life on a knife edge every six months. You have that pressure in the back of your mind that if people don’t like what you’ve done one season it can totally wipe out your business growth. We have enough student debt, we don't need to take on any more by setting up brands that aren't going to survive. I’d be lying if when I started University I didn’t want to be a designer. But at Brighton they offered a dual honors with Fashion and Business which gave me a much clearer understanding of the financial issues that were going to be affecting all of these students who were aspiring to have their own brands.

To really be successful in this field you need to know aspects of every angle. You can’t just take one aspect like design and say that’s all you do. To be a production manager you have to understand in detail the make and build of clothes, otherwise how are you going to do quality control or improve products? I think Universities should push people to explore the full service operations of a brand and that’s how new talent coming through can find their feet and figure out where they would have the most impact.

I think what most people forget about having a brand - especially starting out - is that you're essentially putting your entire life on a knife edge every six months.
Addressing the fashion industry's impact on the environment has become mission critical - what are your thoughts on it from a production standpoint?

There’s no denying the fashion industry is having a huge impact on the environment so any small steps that can be taken should be taken. With Liam Hodges especially, we’re pro-actively working on every element of our packaging at the minute to find sustainable alternatives along with new sustainable fabrics and processes. Every brand I work with is having a sustainability push and it’s a game of give and take. I know we can’t implement every change straight away, but we do need to keep striving forward to find more sustainable ways to exist. It’s not about turning the business eco overnight; it’s consciously changing your day-to-day decisions to relieve the impact of what we do on the planet. And if everyone could think and act that way we’d be making a phenomenal impact when scaled up! I’d personally like to see bigger companies making more of a change and promoting that change - it incentivises all of us to do better.

Top 5 brands of the moment and best sneaker silhouette of all time?

In terms of brands - asides from Liam Hodges & Ronning - it's got to be: Engineered Garments, Our Legacy, Stone Island, Rick Owens, and always Nike. Best sneaker silhouette would have to be the Nike Air Max 97. The Silver bullet was the first shoe I was given pre release and it was a bit of a defining moment that really got me hooked on sneakers.