In this episode of “Labels to watch”, we’re looking at another of the tiny UK-based, 2-person companies doing interesting things whilst being under the radar of most folks. ARN Mercantile is the label of Neil and Akimi, the name being made up of their initials combined with that of their son, Robin. The Mercantile comes from the period when Neil was working as a ‘red liner’ in the US, hunting out vintage clothing. They would use the old Mercantile’s as store front’s to buy old pieces, put up a sign ‘your old levis for cash’ and sort through the dross to find the gold, as well as buying dead stock from the mercantiles. Years later when starting his own company, the Mercantile still had a nice ring to it. They are a small company, and happy to stay small. Being small means being able to be picky about who they deal with and have more control over how they work and who they work with. Finally, it also means there doesn’t have to be such a huge focus on creating massive profits, though making enough to live off is preferable! For Neil and Akimi, ARN Mercantile is more a passion than a business.
Nowadays ARN have they very own small workshop, working with 5 tailors and one seamstress. This means they can produce more focused product, offer a larger selection of cloths and this gives them a greater depth in what they can offer. Akimi works with the weavers of the bulk of the cloths, and they are made just for ARN. The new workshop is it’s about 15 minutes from their home and previous ARN central, and also allows them to produce for a few other small brands.
The collection is now 28 styles, 6 coats, 4 waistcoats (yay!), 7 shirts and 11 pants, plus the bags which are hand made by Neil to order for a few stores in Japan. All the buttons , cloths and all the production is carbon offset and eco-friendly.
Given that Neil is British and Akimi is Japanese, it may not be a total surprise that their combined output fits very well into the Anglo-Japanese movement that is so strong these days. Like previously profiled SEH Kelly, ARN is a tiny company in the UK, but sells most of it’s product in Japan. British heritage is very strong in Japan, and Japan has a lot to offer the rest of the world when it comes to the technical and quality side of things.
ARN’s profile fits quite strongly within work wear, though they combine English/European work wear with a 1920’s US influence. Quality and construction of the garments is paramount, as is the selection of the materials used. They try to make things that change with wear as well as work with the idea of movement and shape. While Neil is a big fan of vintage design, he is keen to stress that they are not a company in the business of reproducing vintage designs. For the most part, fabrics are produced in Japan, whilst the actual production is now done in their own workshop.
The roles in ARN are quite clear cut, so to speak, with Neil being the pattern cutter and Akimi the fabric technician, sourcing and selecting the fabrics. Given that they are primarily a 2 person operation both also act as designers, and share all other tasks. The fabrics used are strictly Fair Trade and only organically grown cottons are used. The stated ambition is to produce eco-friendly garments, through a combination of ensuring production is as eco-friendly as possible, and that the clothes have a long life cycle. Quite the contrast to how most high-street garments today are produced with maximum profit and rapid seasonal turnaround as their main principles.
Neil has been involved in the garment industry since age 12, when he went to work at the corset factory his father ran. Starting out in the cutting room, observing the way the garments were built up, from flat fabric to a fully 3D garment, he early on developed a fascination with disassembling and assembling things. During a period in the US, he set up a small factory with some others and learnt how to construct garments by taking apart older garments. A thorough learning process, and a obvious starting point for the work wear style that is the mainstay of what he does today. Since then he has also worked for Nike, Carhartt, Levi and a few others, but vastly prefers the smaller and more personal situation he is in now.
Akimi’s history is more in the building of cloths, working in Osaka, the centre of fabric and denim weaving in Japan. Given their complimentary backgrounds, it’s no wonder their combined skills produce garments of such great quality and design.
The ARN workshop has, until they recently acquired a seperate workshop, also been the family home. This was intentional, so as to be able to spend more time together as a family. This also influences which shows they attend to show their garments, preferring the child-friendly ones of those that are less so. Again, this shows their caring nature, a rarity in today’s cut-throat economic era.
ARN came to a lot of peoples attention after the collaboration with Nigel Cabourn. Given that both companies have an interest in British work wear and UK-based production, there was obviously common ground. Cabourn is primarily an outerwear guy, so he approached ARN, suggesting a collaboration on trousers, an area where ARN have a reputation for doing trousers that are well constructed, hang and fit well. This resulted in several excellent trousers under the Cabourn brand, included the 4 pleat and Naval pants. Neil’s superb pattern cutting and attention to detail combined with Nigel’s British work wear and fabric history proved to be a great combination. The collaboration lasted 4 seasons, after which ARN wanted to focus on other work.
The main body of their collection is pants, shirts and jackets. Three styles of pants, two shirts and two jackets. By keeping a basic range, you can always return to ARN to replace or supplement the clothes you feel good in. This provides a sense of continuity lacking in many brands, and also a shows the confidence ARN have in what they are doing.
No garments are subjected to artificial wear or distressing to make them appear old or used. Garments should be worn to the wear pattern of the owner and the wear should be honest and real.
Neil has a good sized vintage collection and wears a of it, and still believes cloths are for wearing not just looking at. The age of a garment shows the love you have for it or the memory’s you have in it or just reflects the life you lead. ARN wants their garments to grow and change with the wearer. That is taken into consideration when the clothes are being designed.
Production wise, they produce around 1000-1500 garments per season. Shirting accounts for 35-40% of that, with trousers and jacket even split on the balance. Accessories are limited in production, but account for whatever is left. Production limits itself both to the capacity of Neil and Akimi to design, source, contract and follow up, but also the supply of fabrics and the availability of production capacity in the small factories they use. This is most probably becoming even more difficult now as the Made in Britain movement is gaining strength, at least until more old factories are recommissioned or new ones built. There is also a problem in that most of the small factories in operation, the staff are older (not many young people go into production) the machines they use are old, breaking down and needing hard to find replacements. Primarily ARN work with London based production, which for obvious reasons is harder to find than if you can look all over the UK.
Words to sum up ARN’s philosophy: Versatility, functionality and modernity.
To conclude, a nice story originally published on ARN’s blog. It illustrates perfectly the element of human randomness that Neil and Akimi wish to inject in their garments:
“We use a mixture of vintage buttons and colours, every season these are blended together (in a bucket) and then we scoop out a handful and take them over to the factory to be attached to the garments, it a thing we do, I like the randomness of the colours (do try to get the mixture right to work with the cloths but the odd moment of strong clashes makes for a better feel, anyway, after spending way too much time explaining is mixture of colours to our jacket factory not a week later a very proud gentleman rang me to say now he’d spent a whole day sorting our buttons by colours and matched them to the fabrics……it was a sad moment when I went into the factory and ‘un shanked’ the buttons to mix them all up again…I really felt for the man, he was so proud of the help he felt he was giving us.”
Tumblr (more frequent updates): arnmercantile.tumblr.com