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With their slogan that reads like the rallying cry for a sneaker industry descending into raffle and resell oblivion, Stepney Workers Club are turning our obsession with exclusivity on its head. Founded by Simon See and Roger Pereira, SWC is rooted in the timeless appeal of traditional vulcanised athletic shoes, and finding a contemporary way to express that. “A big reason for this product existing is that we didn’t think the perfect basic vulc sneaker was out there,” explains Roger. “We weren’t into current vulcanised sneakers on the market, but we liked elements of them. So it was just us making our perfect shoe.”
“A big reason for this product existing is that we didn’t think the perfect basic vulc sneaker was out there. So it was just us making our perfect shoe.” Roger Pereira
Massive advocates of a less-is-more approach to design and production, SWC is defined by just three takes on their instantly familiar shape: high, low, and slip-on. Combined with an accessible price tag, and focus on local communities rather than global domination, their natural association with the egalitarian values of East London’s original workers’ sports clubs of the 30s is obvious. And as a blank canvas for all, it makes the ideal collaboration shoe, if and when both idea and intent fit the spirit of the brand. Projects with Peter Saville, Endless Joy, Heresy, and Brain Dead pay testament to that.
We called Simon and Roger to talk about SWC’s photographic connection with London’s forgotten neighbourhoods, fashion houses jumping on the bandwagon, and the challenges of keeping a shoe brand going in the middle of a pandemic. “All it really takes is one or two suppliers to let you down,” says Roger. “I mean, you can't have shoes without eyelets, so you're kind of screwed!”
Ben Perdue: How did you first discover your connection to the old workers’ sports clubs?
Roger Pereira: We were researching local things in the area and found out someone working with us had a genuine link to the Stepney Workers’ Sports Club, back in the day. There's only one surviving picture of the group, from the 30s, protesting with a banner that has our brand message: Freedom of Sport, Freedom of Thought. This anti-fascist, anti-war, liberal social club just felt right again.
Simon See: It came together so quick. The footwear idea was in talks for a long time. But when we started thinking about a name and whatnot, it all seemed to connect. After finding out one of our team’s grandfathers was part of the original sports’ club, and how that connects with what vulc footwear represents and its appeal with subcultures, all the pieces of the puzzle just fell into place.
BP: That emphasis on openness and inclusivity was always close to the heart of the brand?
SS: Completely. We talk about that a lot and it feels more relevant than ever, what with how the world’s playing out at the moment, and how there’s so much division and arguing. It's not about us being hippies, it’s more of a mindset. We could all do with being a bit more liberal and open.
“It's not about us being hippies, it’s more of a mindset. We could all do with being a bit more liberal and open.” Simon See
BP: Do you think that community-minded way of doing things is something that's reflected in your design approach and how you do business?
RP: Straight off the bat we made a product that's timeless and inclusive. We want it to appeal to all subcultures in terms of price. When we started we got a lot of comments about them being cheap, and that they should cost 120 quid. But the idea was always to stick with the values of the original workers’ club, of unity and accessibility. That means keeping it authentically priced, because there's no point making a nice shoe if someone can't afford another pair when they’ve trashed them.
BP: Does that grassroots focus inspire the series of neighbourhood photos on your Instagram, with SWC-branded shopfronts and high-vis workwear?
RP: We’re from London and want to shout about, but in a less overt way, by doing things like sticking our brand message or logo on a street scene after we’ve shot it. I think people enjoy it, although sometimes they think we have all these stores around town! What's nice is that wherever it is, someone always recognises it, so it’s a natural way to get people emotionally attached to the brand.
BP: Has that documentary style of photography always appealed to you in terms of telling the story of the brand?
SS: We grew up shooting film and it's been nice to pick up a camera again and shoot real bits of London. It’s just another process we do - we always have cameras on us. When we started we worked with Chris Dorley-Brown, a photographer who’s documented East London since the late seventies, and he really inspired us.
RP: We’ve used a similar approach for every campaign we've ever done. Go somewhere, document an event or a place. So, it’s always been a focus of what we do.
BP: Does it feel natural for SWC because it has that same social connection with local people and areas?
RP: We’re really into hobbies and amateur sports. Actually, we really want to sponsor some obscure athletes or sports teams. Whether it’s a local darts team, a Sunday league team, or even lawnmower racing!
SS: The more obscure the better. Our recent collaboration with Heresy featured the British sport shin kicking. We love things outside of the normal sport clichés. When I was a kid I went to a Scalextric club with my dad because he was into a drag racing, and they had this long straight track with all these fully grown men in club T-shirts getting excited about it.
BP: Does this accessibility to all, no matter how outsider they are, connect with the shoe being like a blank canvas to translate however you want? And could that be why it lends itself so well to collaboration?
SS: The shoe is very adaptable, so when we do collabs we can really think outside the box. Joy Division was a good example of that, with how much detail and thought went in. People seem to have fun with it.
BP: It must feel like there is so much scope for evolving what is essentially a simple design?
SS: But we never want it to be overly simple - just bunging different colours, leathers and suedes on the same silhouette every season - because I don't think that helps the brand evolve.
BP: So, it's important to avoid constantly updating the collection just for the sake of it?
RP: From the beginning we wanted to make a product that could have been around in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and today that is still relevant. A lot of brands we see with a nice product quickly deviate away from it because there's this constant pressure to innovate and expand your range with lots of different constructions and styles. We were very focused. We wanted three styles that would be king, then play with those as much as you can, only bringing in something new if we believed in it.
SS: People always asked us what silhouettes we were doing next season. That's not what this is. We don't feel the need to jump on seasonal trends and develop unnecessary product, because then all of a sudden you've watered down the product, moved away from our core values and the brand just becomes a trend follower. Longevity is the key for us.
“We don't feel the need to jump on seasonal trends and develop unnecessary product, because then all of a sudden you've watered down the product, moved away from our core values and the brand just becomes a trend follower.” Simon See
RP: Constantly developing all this needless product is also a huge waste of resources, so that’s at the back of our minds as well. Being more resourceful in what we do.
SS: If you buy a pair of Cons or Vans, you don't really deviate from a pair of Old Schools, Eras, 70s, Chucks, you know? Because you don't need to, the product is essentially perfect as it is. We always believed in our silhouette and said to ourselves, this doesn't need to shift every single season.
RP: We still do big things, our model is just different to other modern footwear brands.
BP: Coming straight in with a shoe that people will want to buy again and again when they get too knackered, it’s all about confidence really, isn't it?
SS: They feel familiar, like they've been around for a long time. A genuine product which stands alone, that feels like an instant part of the wardrobe, that you can grow attached to and want multiple pairs of. People have been looking for something like this for years. And every time we hear that we're just like, yes, thank you!
BP: It makes sense then that when you do collaborations they have to feel natural and authentic. Is that how they come about?
RP: There has to be a point to it. A collab has to excite us, or have something unexpected about it. We’ve said no to so many commercial opportunities with big brands because we just can't visualize what the point of it would be. It's got to be something our customer will find interesting. Next year we have a couple of things coming that will feel totally unexpected.
SS: We were lucky enough to work with Brain Dead a few seasons ago, and that was unexpected as well. It’s funny the reach we have, we seem to be on a lot of people’s radars now, and the stuff on its way is going to notch things up a few levels.
BP: How do you feel about Dior doing an Air Jordan 1, or Louis Vuitton making skate shoes?
RP: I think I speak for both of us when I say we’re cynical about that stuff. It just feels like fashion houses trying to be relevant and get a piece of the pie. We’re fed up with all the hype. We have a sneaker brand but we don’t want to get into the world of weekly drops, that's not who we are. So when we see big fashion houses working with streetwear or sportswear brands it reeks of jumping on the bandwagon.
“We’re fed up with all the hype. We have a sneaker brand but we don’t want to get into the world of weekly drops, that's not who we are.” Roger Pereira, SWC
BP: That exclusivity thing must feel like the polar opposite of what you do - making something that not everyone can get, then having people resell it for even more?
SS: You hear nowadays about how a brand's value will be judged on how much their shoes sell for on Stock X and it's just embarrassing. If a shoe has a name attached, and a raffle, it sells no matter whether someone likes it aesthetically or not. A better colourway might come out, but without the hype it just sits there. It really makes you question why people buy stuff.
RP: We want our shoes to hang around for a bit. We don’t like this idea of putting something out, it's gone in an hour, and then it's on Stock X. We want people to enjoy it and wear the hell out of it.
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