Published on October 16, 2013 | by Nina Hoogstraate

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Thomas Bird – House of Billiam

Tom Bird, founder of House Of Billiam, in his studio [Rosa Hardaker]


Thomas Bird, founder of jacket brand House Of Billiam, has found success creating custom jackets popular among celebrities such as Lana Del Rey, Jamie XX, Richie Culver, and some others he would rather not mention.

The 30-year-old Nottingham-born philosophy graduate almost became an accountant before finding his feet in the fashion industry.

“I didn’t study fashion; I studied philosophy at York – it was really boring, I hated it. Not the degree, the degree was fine – York is really shit for university, but I finished it and got a degree. My job came about because I hated all the jobs I ever did… so I basically had to create my own job.”

Bird decided to get crafty: “I decided to teach myself some skills, so I taught myself to knit and sew. The first thing I sewed was this hoodie that I made for myself. I couldn’t get any normal jersey fabric that you might make something out of, so I just made it out of suiting fabric that I bought from a market stall.”

One of Tom’s sewing machines used to make his signature jackets [Rosa Hardaker Web]

This led to Bird’s friends asking him to make jackets for them until he got a job offer to work as an accountant, which he was set to do until his parents said it “was a stupid idea,” because of his talent and so instead he moved to Homerton, London.

From January 2009 Bird started making jackets in his bedroom: “It all kind of spiralled out of control, I didn’t really know what I was doing most of the time – which is still pretty much the case now – because I had no fashion background, and I couldn’t do anything to get a fashion background because you have to have qualifications or know people in the industry, and I didn’t know anyone in the industry.”

After making rookie errors and figuring out how the industry was shaped and moulded, Bird found his roots and things started to work out.

Sourcing fabrics was one of the most difficult aspects of starting up his business: “People think that if they share their contacts, that means someone will go there and buy it, so they won’t be able to. It’s quite a weird industry.”

Bird named House of Billiam after something that didn’t mean anything to him due to some advice from friends: “If you want to sell your company, and it’s got your name on it or any kind of sentimental name attached to it, then that will be a barrier to you selling it.”

Fabric

Bird chooses to use mostly fabric from the UK – wool from merchants in Yorkshire,  the ribbing from Leicester, leather from London, and lining fabrics from “pretty much wherever we find something nice and shiny”.

The pick-and-choose possibility that House of Billiam offers to their clients didn’t start off as an option, but was the only viable way to make jackets. “I could buy a piece of fabric and make a jacket, and from the sale of that jacket, buy the material for the next one and it kind of grew like that.”

Another sample of Tom’s House of Billiam jacket in grey [Rosa Hardaker Web]

Bird says he has never been interested in a season-orientated fashion label, “if you can pick and choose your own fabrics, what’s the point in me changing the design every six months?”

The House Of Billiam makes four styles of classic jackets: three varsity jackets and one coach jacket. “It’s just about making very simple garments that can take a lot of fabric and colour thrown at them without them distorting into a horrible mess…something someone will have in their wardrobe for a long period of time, something that’s a staple in menswear.”

Bird says dressing men is difficult and getting them to make choices is near on impossible, adding: “our best selling jacket is black on black on black, with black lining. People should be braver, but they’re not.”

Bird began by making all the jackets himself. Now that things have become busier, they are crafted by others. “Manufacturing is really hard, especially UK manufacturing. I know people talk about it with rose tinted spectacles about how great it is, but it’s actually really hard work… the factories aren’t little old ladies sat together in well-lit rooms. British manufacturing in clothes is not  sunny, happy, ‘everyone’s doing really well’. It’s tough and it’s hard.”

Collaborations

Bird has created some incredible jackets; a varsity jacket with a photo of LL Cool J for NME photographer Lawrence Watson, a reversible Arsenal away kit from 1992, a collaboration with Slam City Skates – and the list goes on. The designer said he would love to make jackets for “all of Wu-Tang…J-zone, and maybe Flying Lotus.”

One of Tom’s tartan jacket samples in his studio [Rosa Hardaker Web]

On the other hand he has had some people contact him who he hasn’t been too keen on working with, “I’ve had some dumb requests; I’ve turned down a lot of shit pop stars… I don’t turn them down because they are shit; I turn them down because they don’t want to pay. People that I have never heard of – not that I’ve heard of that many people who are famous – say, ‘will you do it for free ‘cause like, I featured on a track with Wretch 32.’”

How many jackets does the man own himself you wonder? “I’ve only got one jacket, and it’s from House of Billiam, and it’s navy on navy on navy and it’s a sample, and I used to wear it every day; then my mate stole it and took it to New York and ripped the leather on it. I’ve had it for 3 and a half years, wore it every day for 2 and a half, maybe more…It’s what you’re meant to do with clothes really.” As much as he enjoys designing garments for others, Bird himself has a very non-consumerist, real view on his own clothes.

 

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