Built on a hardy foundation of essentialism, authenticity and - above all else - quality, Cole Buxton is a brand writing a new set of rules in their own unique script. Ahead of their very first retail partnership, END. sits down to learn the story of Britain’s rising sportswear stars in their own words.
Challenging the stereotype of what it means to be an ‘Instagram brand’, Cole Buxton has captivated a global audience with their singular dedication to craft and form. Redefining retrofuturist sportswear as a timeless expression of daily style, Cole Buxton has cut through the noise and captured the imaginations of generation-streetwear, recalibrating the status quo with a minimalist vision which forgoes the folly of marketing spin and delivers products that speak for themselves.
Touted by the industry as Britain’s answer to John Elliott, Cole Buxton’s pared-down aesthetic and essentialist ideology has smashed the glass ceiling which has traditionally excluded direct-to-consumer brands from a having a seat at the wider fashion table. From fledgling start-up to cult-favourite, Cole Buxton has forged a new path to success by committing themselves to a subversive agenda which challenges the antiquated fashion system; an agenda which places patience and a resolve to do things properly front and centre.
A proud addition to END. for SS20, we sit down with founder and brand director, Cole Buxton and Jonny Wilson, to talk Cole Buxton past, present, and future and hear the story of Britain’s sportswear wunderkinds in their own words.
Let’s start at the beginning: what lit the initial fire to start the brand?
Cole: To be honest, it was sort of in my blood that I would get into this industry in one form or another. On my dad’s side, they have a retail background – menswear and womenswear - and on my mum’s side, my uncle owns a massive golf brand in Canada. Growing up around it - especially watching my uncle build his sportswear brand from nothing - there was never really another option or path I considered. I went to university, but instead of studying fashion, I did a proper performance sportswear design degree. Everything was highly technical and from there I found my aesthetic and what mattered to me as a designer pretty much straight away. Obviously, sportswear is all about fit, fabrics and performance, but what I learned is that a lot of it is all down to the marketing of the product more than the product itself. It’s kind of like tech, it’s all about the branding and marketing of the products, even if they’re all essentially the same. I was never really into that side of the industry: my passion is for the product above everything else.
Jonny: You took the rules from the degree – the fundamentals craftsmanship, the knowledge of materials, the pattern cutting – and interpreted them in a way that made sense to you to make our products. You saw past the bullshit of copyrighting certain words that are all just euphemisms for nylon or polyester at the end of the day.
Cole: Exactly, because of my uncle I think I’d always seen past all that and wanted to start a brand that stripped it away and just focused on the product. Approaching design almost as an engineer would. None of the spin, just pure design.
You started the brand straight out of university, Cole. What made you feel it was the right decision to start something of your own versus cutting your teeth at another brand?
Cole: Again it goes back to my family. I’ve come from a line of people who’ve always worked their way up from nothing so the desire or feeling that I needed to work for somebody else was never there for me.
Jonny: We both have a bit of that. It comes down to a culture thing of growing up outside of London. When you’re in Britain and you want to work in this industry there’s a sense of having something to prove if you’re not from London. You feel as though you exist outwith the establishment in a sense and so there's always this undercurrent of saying fuck you to the man.
Cole: We have a similar backstory - Jonny's just a lad from Sunderland and I'm just a lad from Derby - and even now we both feel like we’ve got something to prove. It was inevitable that we would cross paths and work on this together. People think Jonny and I have been friends for years, but that’s not the case; we’ve only known each other for about 2 minutes, but we’ve connected in our vision for the brand and the creative partnership we've formed makes people think we've known each other forever.
The brand is Cole Buxton, but it feels like there's a definite co-creative directorship at play. Jonny, how did you come to be involved with the brand and how does the partnership work between you both?
Jonny: I was working as a photographer when I met Cole which is how I ended up making my way to London. We’d both moved down within a few months of each other and just connected through mutual friends on Instagram. I always saw the brand as more than it was at the time, I saw the foundation of something that had the bones to go somewhere. We met and decided to get a studio together and within two months we were business partners. The type of person I am, I wasn’t shy to say exactly what I thought and tell him what needed to change if we wanted to take it to the next level.
Cole: My name is the brand, but it wasn’t until I met Jonny that it went anywhere. As soon as we met he was telling me what needed to change and asking me for the Instagram password to start deleting stuff off the account. If it had been anyone else I would have told them where to go, but there was an immediate trust that we both knew where we wanted to take things and it just went from there.
Although the brand is formed on the daily essentials concept, there’s a precision in the output which elevates it far outwith the realm of 'basics'. Did it take time to drill down into this collision of old school athletics and a timeless approach to streetwear or was it the vision from the outset?
Jonny: I don’t think it was ever a decision, it’s just a case of that’s where our taste lies. The concept of essentialism, it goes beyond the clothes. It’s about living a life of little noise; taking care of yourself; focussing on what really matters and not getting distracted by all the over-stimulation that surrounds us. Cole Buxton as a lifestyle is about focus and discipline and I think that’s reflected in the garments.
Cole: The old-school bodybuilder aesthetic was never a conscious aesthetic influence or point of reference. It’s more just an alignment between that sport and that era and our values as a brand. I’ve always been about drilling down into the bare minimum. A lot of sportswear, for instance, has become very over-designed, overly technical and the fundamentals of the product get diluted. I want to strip it all back and make things as minimal as they can be.
Jonny: It’s an ethos of devotion. It doesn’t matter what it takes, you get it done. Bodybuilders back when the gym uniform was cotton shorts, cotton t-shirts and a pair of Converse share that mentality with us. There’s no room for anything but 110% perfection in what we create, and I think that’s what we admire about that old-school athleticism. It’s a lifestyle: you can wear Cole Buxton 25 hours, 8 days a week.
Let's talk design process. There’s a sense of restraint and patience in the output so far and it’s clear you’ll only release a product once you’re convinced it’s perfect. Where does the design process start and how do you know when a product is ready to drop?
Cole: I’d love to be able to give you a big conceptual answer of how we get together and design, but that’s just not the case for us. Right from when I started at university I knew that I didn’t like working under the collection paradigm. There’s a stigma in fashion that if you aren’t designing seasonal collections then you’re not a real designer and I don’t buy into that. My mentality is very much, if you’re developing a collection of 20, 40, 100 pieces at a time, imagine if you took all of that energy and fed it into the development of one product at a time? What would you end up with? That’s how we design at Cole Buxton and that’s why our product range is narrow, but each product is something you invest in and keep forever.
Jonny: A lot of people want to run before they can walk. We’re happy to go at our own pace and to earn our right to take the next step. We approach it like a sport; we play the long game. We’re honing our craft, we’re getting our hands dirty, and we’re developing and improving and reiterating things over and over until they're perfect so that the brand is built on a solid foundation and the products are timeless. If you’re chasing trends or chasing hype, before you know it you’ve got an archive that looks like it’s been designed by a bunch of different brands. Is that something you're going to be proud to look back on in years to come?
I’ve heard you say previously that you think graphics as the go-to for a lot of streetwear or sportswear output adds a shelf-life to the product. What do you mean by that?
Cole: If you’re building a brand purely on graphics, you’re not going to be around for a long time. It’s just merch to me. The holy grail of design is if there are no identifying markers on that garment – no logos, no graphics – can you still tell who made that garment?
Jonny: Graphics have their place, but there’s definitely a stigma there now. Graphics need to be the bottom of the list, everything else needs to be nailed first. Silhouettes, fabric, construction, wash all need to come first. If you’ve just got a basic t-shirt with no effort put into and you plaster a graphic or a logo all over it, there’s no way for that to come across as anything other than beggy.
Having the focus be so tuned into the fit and construction means there’s nowhere to hide. Has that driven the dedication to quality that’s become a cornerstone of the brand’s DNA?
Jonny: I think it’s about having your priorities straight. The design process should always champion quality above all else.
Cole: Exactly, surely this should be a given for all brands? Quality has become another buzzword, but it should be the absolute cost of entry for designing and selling product.
Jonny: It’s also about tapping into the customers who are the engine behind the brand. We think the price of our product is very fair for the amount of work and time and development that goes into our pieces, and the quality of the materials and craftsmanship, but ultimately Cole Buxton is still an aspirational purchase for your working man: the lads we grew up with. They’re the reason we’re here and if they’re going to invest in the brand then we’re going to make sure the pieces are worth investing in.
The brand is founded on a concept of ‘athletic essentialism’ – talk a bit about what that means to you?
Cole: Athletic Essentialism is the core of my aesthetic. The essentialism side of it is about stripping things back so that a product does the job but isn’t over-designed. People think it means that the product is an ‘essential’ but that’s not it. It means everything we put into the product; every seam, every pocket, every panel is there because it serves a purpose.
Jonny: it goes back to the lifestyle element of things as well. Living a life of essentialism to me is knowing what you like and knowing what matters to you and focusing on that. Working on projects, bettering yourself wherever you can. What’s essential to you? The band story has evolved naturally based on how we live our lives and we both ascribe to this essentialist mindset. It's about having the discipline to filter out unnecessary noise that doesn't serve you. With social media being what it is now, everything can get to you if you let it. Media, opinions, it can all get through; your phone buzzes and you've read a headline without thinking about it and it's ruined your day. You've got to take control of curating your own bubble and making sure it serves you properly.
There’s an undeniable sense of transparency and authenticity to everything the brand has done – even the honesty in the journey from a start-up on Instagram to where you are now - everything has been the result of hard work and dedication to the product. What have been some of the most fundamental lessons you’ve learned so far?
Cole: We’re mega transparent about everything, even when it’s not to our benefit. At one point we accidentally ruined a batch of hoodies because we got our shrinkage calculations wrong for the garment-dyeing process and we had to refund everyone’s orders and apologise. When we did we were honest about our mistake and explained what had happened because we want to be open and honest about our process.
Jonny: That was a massive lesson for us because it came on the heels of our best month ever. We're riding this high of thinking we've made it and suddenly we’re in one of our darkest periods sitting with £25,000 worth of unsellable stock. Experiencing those two polarities in a short space of time really humbled us and refocused our energy on getting everything right. We still have all those ruined products in our studio as a reminder not to make the same mistake again. I think starting out as an ‘Instagram brand’ has taught us a lot, too. It's given us the ability to connect with our customer. There’s a romance to the fact that up until now we’ve physically touched every order. We know the names of our repeat customers. That direct-to-consumer model has taught us exactly who the Cole Buxton customer is and what he’s looking for.
There’s a timeless quality to Cole Buxton which makes it easy to imagine the brand having longevity. I’m curious what you think of mainstream streetwear culture at the moment and what the future might hold, when everything is so focused on creating newness each season?
Cole: To give you an honest answer, I don’t really have too much of an opinion on it. I try not to waste energy looking at what other people are doing if it’s not something I’m interested in. I don’t stay caught up on who’s creative director at what brand and that kind of thing.
Jonny: I’m the same – I only take the time to follow brands when I respect what they’re doing. Teddy Santis at Aime Leon Dore and Rick Owens are two that spring to mind. It’s not even necessarily brands that I would personally wear, but I take notice of them because these are brands that are bigger than clothes. They’re rich in culture. Going to the ALD store in New York or the Rick Owens store - it’s an event and that's what we want Cole Buxton to become. We’re not worried about what brands who are just chasing hype and trends are doing because that’s not the goal for us.
Cole Buxton SS20 is now available exclusively at END.