New To Us
Albam’s Cool Britannia
An exclusive collection from London’s champion of modern, functional casualwear, put to the test in the Welsh mountains
As the world’s reserves of local character continue to be sucked away by the unstoppable forward march of globalisation, it’s increasingly rare to find brands, and products, that have a strong connection to the places where they were first conceived. Even when shopping at the top end of the style market, you might end up purchasing a coat that was designed in Paris, but made in Italy, from a fabric woven in Japan, with Riri zips from Switzerland. This planet-scouring approach often results in clothes that look, and feel, fantastic, but there’s an element of character that’s lost in the process. And think of the carbon footprint.
One of the many reasons why British casualwear brand Albam is rather brilliant is that it has always started from the reverse viewpoint. Established in 2007 by “frustrated consumer” Mr Alastair Rae and his business partner Mr James Shaw, the brand’s founding mission was to discover which clothes could be designed and produced locally, in Britain, and to make them. “For the first 12 months, we were just getting out and speaking to factories, trying to learn as much as we could,” says Mr Rae. “We talked directly with the factory owners and the people on the machines. And it gave us experience and a view to what you could manufacture in the UK.”
This resulted in a brand that serves up what Mr Rae describes as “timeless British menswear”; in other words, a range of sturdy denim, casual tailoring, shirting and fantastic waxed cotton outerwear. Today, though the brand’s shirting and jersey garments are produced in Portugal (“We assign garments based on where we can get the best products for our customer”), Mr Rae says he is “proud to be able to manufacture anything in the UK as a starting point”, and continues to produce all Albam’s outdoor and outerwear in British factories. What’s more, the brand has retained a distinctly British design sensibility that could only have resulted from working, from the outset, with local suppliers. “Britishness goes through everything we do,” says Mr Rae. “The colours, the fits… I guess we would see ourselves as being influenced by utility and function, but really a British version of both.”
All this is particularly apparent in the exclusive collection Mr Rae has created to launch Albam on MR PORTER, and which we are showcasing here with the help of Welshman Mr Tom Jones (no, not that one). Through his conservation and restoration business Jones & Fraser, which he set up seven years ago with his best friend Mr Finn Fraser, Mr Jones celebrates another British institution – the country’s historic architecture and listed buildings. “We’re maintaining British architecture, but we also train people in traditional skills,” he says. “You definitely feel a responsibility in this job. Living in this part of the country, there’s so much historic architecture.” Mr Jones, who lives and works on a family-run farm in Hay-on-Wye, took MR PORTER into the nearby Black Mountains to give the Albam collection a spin. More specifically, to a hill called Begwyns. “It’s a really remote place, but has gorgeous panoramic views of the Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons,” he says. “We had a fair test on the day. It was freezing, and the producer was so cold she had to stay in the van. But it was a good test – the clothes definitely stood up to it.”
This is not entirely surprising, given the inspiration behind the collection, an exclusive to MR PORTER. Mr Rae’s starting point for these clothes was the idea of a “hardy, foul-weather gardener” or, rather, as he extrapolates, “traditionally British activities and the climate in the UK, which lead to a certain approach to living”. Accordingly, alongside selvedge denim jeans, print shirts and cargo shorts, there’s a good helping of outerwear, made from pleasingly substantial-feeling fabrics such as Scottish waxed cotton and English sanded canvas, both of which are clearly helpful if you find yourself on a hillside in Wales in early spring.
The colours of the collection also reflect the nature of the British landscape. “I guess a key tenet of this was trying to think what it’s like in spring in Britain, what’s in bloom,” says Mr Rae. “That led to some quite bright colours. We have some off-white, which is typical of the sort of flowers you get at this time of year. But we were also looking at the more traditional khakis and olives that this sort of maritime climate produces. There are some great shades within that narrow band.” The floral theme is continued with the collection’s use of fabrics from British institution Liberty. “It adds a bit of fun,” says Mr Rae. “It’s a nice way of introducing colour and variation into your wardrobe without overdoing it.”
Such inspirations are really added extras in the context of Albam’s overall offering and its basic, undeniable wearability. These are highly functional clothes, a fact that’s reflected in details such as the oversized front pockets on a garden gilet, or the practical half-zip collar of a pop-over shirt. “Function and utility heavily inspired the range from the beginning,” says Mr Rae. “We don’t see ourselves as the sort of brand that would be overly fussy or complicated. But these things need to work. We look at utility, but offer a modern take on how we apply that to the garment. The beauty is in the simplicity.”