Every fashion writer has an opinion about whether old brands should be resurrected. Sometimes it works. Take Converse, who filed for bankruptcy in 2001 until new owners Nike turned it around. Or Hunter, whose rise was so elegantly kickstarted by Kate Moss.
But it takes nouse. Founded by teenage brothers Keith and Alan Freedman, Brutus was a big part of the fashion landscape in the 1960s through to the early 1990s. Its button-down check Trimfit shirt was a staple for key working class youth subcultures including skinheads and mods; its denim outsold LEVI’s and Wrangler.
In 2009, the brand was brought back by Jonathan Freedman, son of original founder Keith, and the last six year have seen some stirring developments. Top of the list has to be a three-year partnership with Dr Martens, limited edition shirts in classic DM colourways that sold out smartish. And, while the old guard may not agree, the Brutus Trimfit Illustration Project, a 2013 collab with emerging illustrators, was a high point.
Finding ways to adapt and appeal to a young, sussed, multi-cultural new audience has become key to the brand’s growth. For SS14 and AW14, Brutus worked with the late Buffalo stylist Barry Kamen on its campaigns, to create lively, eclectic looks.
It was an easy partnership. ‘Because Brutus made the shirts that were very much to do with what skinheads were wearing in the late 1960s, they were the first movement that kind of embraced black culture, with the music and the style,’ said Kamen, in a video at the time. ‘The cut of that shirt is quite specific and quite dandy. It has such a high colour. You put it under anything and you immediately know it’s Brutus.’
For SS16, the brand invited South African photographer Seema Allie and her mates to shoot their take on the brand. ‘On shoot day, I just hung all the shirts on a rail, suggested they pick a shirt and put it on, poured a rum and coke and sat back and watched,’ says Freedman. ‘No stylists, no hair and make-up.’
This year, Brutus celebrates its 50th anniversary by ramping up the offering with a retrospective ‘All I’ve Ever Known’ collection: 8 Trimfit shirts in original ginghams, tartans and madras checks, alongside re-imagined retro t-shirts and polo shirts and new outerwear including a Brutus Gold denim jacket and a traditional ‘Harrington’. The aesthetic, as always, is clean and pared back. I talk to Freedman about the highs and challenges of bringing the brand back.
Bel: What does Brutus’ legacy means for you?
Jonathan: The heritage is everything. It means I have a constant reference point for the brand which helps immensely. I don’t need to think about designing the next big trend because it is usually right there in the archive. For me, it’s all about building that archive, taking that heritage and presenting it to today’s generation.
Bel: When did you get your first Brutus shirt?
Jonathan: In 2009 when I came across an original on eBay. It cost well over £200 as there was fierce bidding for it. When I finally got it, I knew I had something important in my hands!
Bel: Tell me about the Capetown shoot with Seema Allie.
Jonathan: One of the most interesting things about the Trimfit shirt is the debate between the old school and new school about how it should be worn. Original fans have a very strict way of wearing them: always tucked in, top button never done up, slim fitting … But the new generation likes to free-style with the shirt: top button done up, untucked, oversized, no rules. It’s a real reflection of today’s trends, where everyone wants to look unique versus those of the sixties where all the kids wanted to look the same and part of a movement. I love this juxtaposition and try to give as much attention to both camps as possible. Both are equally important.
The Cape Town crew – definitely part of the new gen – are an amazing bunch of young creatives and business people breaking barriers in all they do, from filmmaking and photography to retailing and design. Everything they create has a unique flavour to it. I knew if I gave them free reign they would create something powerful. We shot at their store, a hang-out for them, so they were all relaxed – drinking, laughing, joking. Seema, being part of the crew, just seamlessly slotted in and shot her friends hanging-out. It went on late into the evening and was a really fun day.
Bel: What was it about the original Trimfit that appealed to mods and suede heads?
Jonathan: It was smart and hard-wearing. You could go out all night dancing to reggae and ska and still look sharp in the morning. The Trimfit was famous for its bold checks. There were no visible labels or logos. If you were sussed, you recognised a Brutus. It was a uniform and you wore it with pride. All these things were key to the way Mods and then later Skinheads and Suedeheads lived their life.
Bel: What is your approach to relaunching the brand?
Jonathan: I have tried to relaunch it in a low key, organic manner. I haven’t put loads of money behind marketing and have never paid a celeb to wear it. For me, it’s about celebrating the wearer. The original fans existed way before I was around and have so much passion and dedication to the brand. As long as I respect them, everything else falls into place. I’ve chosen independent stockists who understand the heritage; that has been key to our growth. Like our fans, our stockists buy into the brand 100%. They guide me and I ensure we deliver the goods their customer wants. So, really, it’s been a collaboration between Brutus fans and me trying to give them what they want. We’ve also chosen our collaborations very carefully, working with young artists on the Trimfit Illustration Project, as well as Dr. Martens on a five season shirt collab which really put us back on the map.
Bel: What do you think of the mood of nostalgia that pervades fashion, with designers looking back to key decades for inspiration?
Jonathan: Creatives will always draw on the past and often what they’ve grown up with and try to celebrate it in their work. It’s normal designers will be inspired by old imagery, films and music. There’s a sense of wonder when you see old pictures of how your grandparents dressed. Recent interest in late 60’s and early 70’s have no doubt aided the venture’s success; skinhead culture, in particular, continues to enjoy a mass resurgence, as new eyes soak up work by photographers like Gavin Watson and Derek Ridgers, and sartorial signifiers such as Dr. Martens and MA-1 jackets acquire broader popularity.
Bel: Who would like to see wearing your shirts?
Jonathan: I like to see the people who buy our shirts wearing our shirts … Who better to appreciate than the people choosing us!