The rapport between design duo Agi & Sam is instantly evident from the way they joke around and finish each other’s sentences.
So it’s something of a surprise to learn that when they first met, while interning in the studio of Alexander McQueen, they weren’t exactly fans of each other: “Agi hated me,” says Sam Cotton, 26, of his business partner Agi Mdumulla, 27. But as so often with the pair, such a statement is all in jest: “I didn’t hate him; I just thought he took things too seriously,” defends Mdumulla.
Since launching their label for spring/summer ’11, Mdumulla and Cotton have carved a niche in the London menswear scene for their witty take on tailoring and tradition in fowl prints and bright colours. While inspiration for recent collections has come from Miami Vice and the Marquess of Bath. Now the pair are bringing their skills to a collaboration for Topman which takes the football kits of the early-nineties as a starting-point. “They said ‘do whatever you want’,” says Mdumulla. “And then we scared them with this,” deadpans Cotton.
“Back then football kits were all printed and looked amazing, but now you find that they’re all really technical. There isn’t really a massive change between the newest Arsenal kit to the one seven seasons ago – whereas back then they were really identifiable,” explains Mdumulla, who studied Fashion Design at Manchester School of Art. “Every collection or project we do starts with some kind of muse, the kind of guy we’d always love to be – we’re living out our dreams through everyone else. For this it was George Best when he was young – when he looked a bit unrefined and like a kid from a northern town.”
The collection, which arrives in stores on 4 June, isn’t just football-focused, a fact the Topman design team was relieved to learn. While two full kits for the pair’s fictional club “The Owls” have been designed, the rest of the extensive range is largely made up of what their muse would wear off the pitch. Having studied illustration at the University of Lincoln, Cotton’s forte is print design, which explains the duo’s strong signature use of surface decoration. For the high-street collaboration this manifests as owl-inspired prints: eggshell, feathers and the birds of prey themselves all feature.
“Back then when you thought of a player, you didn’t think of them as a commodity,” says Cotton, a Manchester United supporter who finds the whole idea of non-players wearing replica football kits perplexing. “Whereas now, when you think of certain football players you think Nike, Puma – it feels like their personality is their kit sponsor. Before you could have one kit that was Umbro and another Nike and they’d be so different.”
In a way that is similar for players of the beautiful game, cash-strapped designers are often beholden to sponsors, and acknowledging this patronage without letting a collection be hijacked is a balancing act that emerging talents must fast learn.
Indeed, Mdumulla learnt the hard way that sponsorship can be a double-edged sword. “I had my graduate collection for sale on a website, and someone emailed me from Iceland Fashion Week. I looked online but there was nothing really on it. I thought it seemed really weird but there seemed to be really good people – from Central Saint Martins and the Royal Academy in Antwerp – connected.
“The organiser paid for accommodation and the catwalk – in the pitch they wrote that it was a catwalk on water at midnight, but it’d still be light because it was summer. I thought ‘wow’. We all ended up staying in this abandoned Nato base; one day we were wandering around the base and a bus rode by with nobody on it except a kid at the back wearing a helmet – we thought ‘what is going on?!’.”
The final straw came when Mdumulla was presented with the promised catwalk on water: “One of their sponsors was a water company and had built a stage on crates of their water still in the packaging. Backstage was just a tent and there was no electricity to steam anything. I came back and told my mum, and after she’d laughed for about an hour she said, ‘It’s good, you never would have done this collection otherwise.’ That was the collection we used to get Vauxhall Fashion Scout.”
Luckily Mdumulla is now able to look back and laugh at the whole experience, but he took away important lessons too. It helped the pair get the attention of the aforementioned Vauxhall programme, through which they presented their first collection at London Fashion Week in September 2010. After that Agi & Sam was picked up by Lulu Kennedy’s Fashion East programme for two seasons, before making their way onto the Topman-funded MAN roster in February 2012.
Next month, the pair will present their first collection without an establishment backer – although they are hotly tipped to receive the British Fashion Council’s Newgen Men award when it is announced tomorrow. As well as high-profile support, the pair has received backing much closer to home: although they had stints in the studios of Alexander McQueen, JW Anderson, and Karl Lagerfeld under their collective belt, they found turning that experience into a paid job difficult. It was 2008 after all – when even the most stable and supported of fashion houses were unsure of how they would weather the financial storm.
“Because we couldn’t get jobs we thought ‘why don’t we try and make a brand just out of frustration’,” explains Mdumulla. “But then it took us four months to come up with a name, and another couple working on the branding. We did the actual collection in about a month.”
“When we first started we’d saved up jobseekers’ money and housing benefits and started this collection,” remembers Cotton. “Our parents never said ‘why don’t you get a job?’ They supported us and understood that we were trying to do something different.”
The support of a business as big as Topman has obviously had a huge impact on the designers’ fledgling careers, but the relationship with the brand is mutually beneficial. “We’ve been watching these two talented young designers grow and mature over the past few seasons under our sponsored initiative MAN,” says Gordon Richardson, creative director of Topman. “Their aesthetic is very much in the Topman world with colourful clashing prints and a young silhouette that sits comfortably alongside our own ranges. With this collection the boys have demonstrated everything that has made everyone sit up and take notice.”
The pair also receives mentoring from Sir Paul Smith – a bastion of British tailoring whose witty designs and sense of humour have sustained over three decades of success. “We see him once a season,” says Mdumulla. “We definitely want to emulate his career, but in our own way. The way he’s started his business and the way he’s done it – the respect he has. It’s a nice brand – I don’t think anyone can say anything negative about it.”
And of the humour that is so evident not just in their designs but their daily life? “I don’t remember the first conversation about our brand being about humour,” says Mdumulla. “We’ve done so many internships where it has been ridiculous,” adds Cotton. “People take fashion so seriously, get so wound up. People really think of it as life or death. And although we love what we’re doing…”
“There are more important things in life,” finishes Mdumulla, laughing.