Folk explosion: A great British menswear brand turns its attention to women

One of London's finest purveyors of understated menswear is expanding with its first-ever collection for women. Rebecca Gonsalves meets the folk behind it
  • @R_Gonsalves

Since it was established in 2001, British brand Folk has built a reputation for quiet, understated style that has seen it expand from making T-shirts to 250 global stockists, and stores here and in Europe.

This progression has been as measured and restrained as the collections' defining characteristics and, until now, this was mostly all for the benefit of men. Although there is a Folk shop dedicated to dressing women, it has until now only stocked a carefully edited selection of other labels – such as Acne, Sessun and Ally Capellino, alongside their own-brand shoes launched in 2004. That's all set to change with the launch of the first womenswear collection which designer Elbe Lealman sees as just the beginning.

Folk founder Cathal McAteer always knew that womenswear would eventually be part of the puzzle. "We have always talked about it," he tells me in the Mayfair Folk store where on the shop floor a customer is attempting to haggle over the price of a pair of shoes. The reason that it has taken so long to come to fruition, despite a lot of requests from customers and stockists, was McAteer's insistence that the building blocks were in place. "We had to make sure we were set up financially, because we're self-financed. We planned it a year earlier, but Elbe specifically wanted the right people in place. It would be stupid to use the same design team as for our menswear because you need that experience."

"I was trained in womenswear so I have always had an itch to return to that," adds Lealman. "We have really loyal male customers that we've had for the last 10 years and we want to build up women customers in the same way. We would rather not be the next big thing, but the brand that people love and always enjoy going to the shop."

The womenswear collection, Lealman explains, is designed to be demure and sexy at the same time, and always with a sense of humour. "It's practical," states Lealman. "It's a really dull, awful word, but I do think it's needed. It's all designed to be very easy to wear, and that practicality bubbles below the surface with everything else we do."

McAteer adds: "The beauty comes in getting those simple shapes, and then that's when we go to town: picking the right fabric, the stitch, thread colour and making sure they are washed out the right way and then the garment comes to life."

The duo have worked together for nine years, and the easy way they communicate – elaborating on each other's points, joking about their team and generally being open and enthusiastic is a testament to this working relationship. Although it appears that not everybody is so keen on their methods, "We have had experience of factories not actually wanting to work with us," admits McAteer. "We get asked: 'Why are you so complicated?' and it's a sign that they're not the right people to work with. We find beautiful factories that may be more expensive but are where we should have been all along."

Working to the strengths of different factories, the collection is made all over the globe – denim comes from Japan, leather work from Portugal, while "a guy" in Liverpool casts finishing touches in brass and pewter. "We choose the factories we use based on quality and look if they are good factories, and good people who work there," states Lealman. "We're in the process of making a pod coat with a lovely London factory, but British factories aren't necessarily better than one in Lithuania, for example. They have amazing handicraft skills because they learn sewing at school, whereas we don't."