Hostem is a ‘department store’ like no other. Firstly, its founder James Brown, who is not a 70s funk singer, was a professional football player until he snapped his Achilles heel, after which he decided to change his work field entirely. Located outside of ‘Central London’, in Shoreditch on Redchurch Street, it’s still a gem to stumble upon, especially when discovering the products that are behind its doors. Unlike department stores that stock big brands like Céline alongside emerging designers like Simone Rocha, Hostem has a unique approach to buying, selling, and not putting things on sale. Ever. Similar to Machine-A’s founder Stavros Karelis, they help lots of very young brands who are in their first or second season, and grow them during the journey.
We sit down with James Brown and Christie Fels (Hostem’s womenswear buyer and artistic director) in a small room on the second floor of their 6-story shop, where several garments of Amy Revier hang on the walls. We start talking about Dover Street Market’s move to Haymarket in Piccadilly Circus, when James walks in and takes a seat. They both talk very rapidly; question each other’s minds continuously with a keen interest to know each other’s thoughts on every cultural topic. Their excitement about artisanal product is aligned, as is their disdain about the existence of pre-collections, and the speed of fashion that decreases the quality of the products that big fashion houses are putting out. From several case studies, we can tell with certainty that within these companies, there is hardly any time for development because of the industry’s speed. Techniques are not tested so finishings are not as refined as they used to be, and final fabrics are never used with toiling so the cut is not perfect. Adding to that, customers are being fooled as ‘high quality’ products are made with cheap materials.
Christie Fels: There is a difference between fashion and luxury, and I don’t think they are related anymore.
James Brown: If you for example take a ‘luxury‘ fashion brand like Louis Vuitton: they’re not luxury, they’re mass produced. If you look at a brand like Lanvin, and you go and see some of their runway pieces, they’re incredible. I mean, the level of work in the finishing and the construction…
C: Thom Browne is another one, the technique and finishing in every piece is mind-blowing. You can feel the value in the product, you can see it.
J: I think you can find a balance in-between the two. You’ve got a brand like Amy Revier, who we work with, where all the fabric is hand-loomed. Each piece is one-off and takes her weeks to make. Then you have a Thom Browne coat and even though it’s a more commercial brand, the artisanal work and quality of the garments’ construction is exceptional. If I think of Thom Browne from a high fashion point of view, there isn’t anyone making womenswear like what he is doing.
“We look at pieces that we think are investment pieces and that kind of reassures the customers that they aren’t going to go to 80% off in two months.”
C: I think it’s quite cool — there’s been a shift: people who used to really be into fashion and big brands are now paying more attention to smaller brands like Amy Revier and Atelier Baba – things that are more bespoke and hand-made. This used to be associated to a specific aesthetic, and I think that has changed in a very positive way.
J: People are investing in the piece now — it’s less relevant who it’s from.
C: We’ve seen it here, for sure. I don’t know if we are in a unique position because of our client base, but there’s such an appreciation for the story behind the pieces.
Do you think that kind of customer interest is growing?
J: People want that now, when there are so many products, brands, and stores. I think there is a frivolous attitude towards spending on a seasonal basis. You can invest in a piece of Ann Demeulemeester or Haider Ackermann and you spend £3000 on it, then in 3 months it’s ‘worthless’ and that same jacket is on sale for 80% off. So customers now want to be intelligent about how they buy things and I think they want to invest in pieces that have longevity. Whether that’s Thom Browne or a small designer like Amy. It’s more about the piece and its quality.
C: That informs our buying quite a lot now. We look at pieces that we think are investment pieces, special and unique in some way, not necessarily the ‘trendiest’ of the collection. We don’t want to put these pieces into sale, and after a sale – does this mean these pieces are worth less than 80% off then?! Competing on this level is useless, we want to retain value not slash it. Hopefully in turn we can instil a sense of reassurance in our client.
J: We aren’t even putting the big luxury brands that we buy into sale. We believe in pieces that are relevant for us. It just stays and stays and stays. It has to be relevant, I don’t care what everybody else does. We believe in that piece. I think when you spend £3000 or £4000 on a dress it shouldn’t be in sale… We have dresses from Thom Browne from three or four seasons ago that we have out in the store.
“The introduction of pre-collections is like the worst thing that ever happened in the fashion industry.”
C: You talk about brands not having the time to invest in the making of a product as they produce season after season, and that the window for creation is so small… it’s equally as difficult for stores. It’s so competitive. The delivery windows are getting smaller and smaller, and we’re up against big stores like Selfridges. Everybody’s got their own delivery terms, for us it’s really difficult. It’s really hard to keep up with the brands. It will have to slow down eventually.
J: How the fashion industry operates now is just not sustainable.
When we spoke with Adrian Joffe, he was saying: I would be so happy if designers would change the system of seasons, because as both a store and a brand, we’re suffering. They’re so big that they can’t actually do this.
J: It’s the same for us. I think that the introduction of pre-collections is also the worst thing that ever happened to the fashion industry. As a buyer you’re constantly travelling the whole year. There’s always a fashion week, there’s always a collection. Deliveries are continuous, so you don’t have seasons, you just have products coming in, going to sale, coming in, constantly. It’s ridiculous. Pre-collections are geared around the big department stores and the big online marketplaces.
I hate the idea of a sale: if there’s a beautiful coat, why should it be on sale?
C: It hurts the brands as well. Severely. They have no control, the product is at the disposal of the stores who are trying to keep up with this relentless cycle.
J: I think it has to come down to the retailers now. They have to make a stand.
What advices would you have for students, from a buyer’s point of view?
C: It scares me, because we know so many people that want to have a brand, and who want to be designers. But I think it’s so important to understand why, because of the excess that’s being produced at the moment (and we get a hundred emails a day of people pitching their stuff): there are so many brands. Most people haven’t even been to the store, they just have a master list of stores contacts.
C: Honestly, no. Every now and then there’s a gem of course, but I have a belief that if there’s something for the store, then it will find us. Most of the emails I receive are from brands that are derived.
J: We don’t actively search out brands. But then, for example, we work with this young guy called Jeffrey Smith, who just makes these perfect white shirts. He literally arrived at the store with a suitcase. He made 3 samples, that was it, and he showed us. He hadn’t even worked out how to price the garments, or what he would earn. We’re his only store and we kind of guided him through the whole process.
“If you want to gain any kind of respect, longevity, or identity, you have to show in Paris straightaway. Don’t fall into this trap of being part of these graduate shows.”
C: For us it’s quite frustrating because we go to Paris to buy our main collections, but we do that together with every other store in the world, looking at the same brands. It’s overwhelming. The process is the same for the smallest store to the biggest department stores and we’re all stepping on each others toes to see the product (literally.) I would love to skip showrooms all together.
J: I have a real issue with London Fashion Week. I look at it from an international point of view, and to me what’s being shown in LFW is really amateur. Especially from a menswear point of view. I think womenswear is a bit stronger. It seems to all be about making a statement. If you put that in the context of Paris or Milan… It only gains momentum or press because it’s London-based. If you want to gain any kind of respect, longevity, or identity, you have to show in Paris straightaway. Don’t fall into this trap of being part of these graduate shows.
C: London does however have amazing support platforms and structures in place.
J: It does, but the quality of what’s being produced is awful.
You see a lot of young designers that are failing — what are they doing wrong in your opinion?
C: Quality is one thing which is really difficult if you’re a small designer starting out. I think it’s very important especially if your price point is high.
J: It also depends on the relationship that the buyers have with the designers. For us, we work a lot with very very young brands — brands in their first or second season — it’s more about us guiding them. Communication is really important with young designers and buyers.
“We don’t have conversations about fashion so we don’t really follow hype.”
C: A lot of brands overexpose themselves. I feel there’s a rush to get to a certain level too quickly; taking on too many accounts, too many stores — not knowing where you want your brand to be positioned. Again, it’s about understanding your aim, your goal: what do I want to do, where do I want to be stocked, who do I want to be wearing my clothes? As opposed to wanting to be in every magazine, stocked in all the stores, showing in Paris, doing all of these things.
J: It’s also very rare that you see something new. I can’t remember the last time in five or six years of walking into a showroom and seeing a collection from a young designer and being really blown away. We had that a bit with Atelier Baba when we first saw their shoes. They’re incredible and unlike anything.
Do you look at the hype around the brand when you take it on board and do you think it’s important?
J: I think the overall image of the brand is really important. I think about what Jonathan Anderson does with J.W. Anderson: the world he creates around the brand is incredible, from a buying point of view. You can look at different aspects of a brand and I think what he’s doing at Loewe is interesting. You almost buy more into that world.
C: Jonathan really understands the meaning of ‘”brand.” So as an onlooker I can associate with what the Loewe woman looks like. Where she holidays, what publications she reads. We respond to the world that Jonathan has created, from an imagery point-of-view.
So if someone has 0 Instagram followers, you don’t care?
J: Yeah, I mean, it’s even better if they have no Instagram [laughs]! I think we’re quite unique in how we work. I can’t really compare what we do with anybody else, because we work with a lot of gut and instinct. It is an internal joke: we don’t talk about fashion here. We don’t have conversations about fashion so we don’t really follow hype. It’s such a different approach to how we work.
Interview by Olya Kuryshchuk
Photography by Oliver Vanes for 1 Granary
Upcoming events at Hostem:
Hostem Presents Alice Waese – Hostem invites designer Alice Waese to create a site-specific work in store for one week in October during Frieze. (13th Oct – 18th Oct)
Heikki Salonen – As a prelude to the upcoming re-launching of Heikki Salonen eponymous label, Heikki has crafted a collection titled Deadstock and it will be exclusively available through Hostem in London, launching with a showcase at Hostem. 15–18 October at 71 Redchurch Street, the collection will then continue to reside on the mezzanine floor of Hostem at 41–43 Redchurch Street.
Check out www.hostem.co.uk for more