Agi & Sam

The British men’s wear label Agi & Sam is one big work in progress — and designers Agi Mdumulla and Sam Cotton aren’t ashamed to show it. Since they launched the company in 2010, they’ve shifted away from their signature prints; changed their price points and market positioning, and launched women’s wear on the runway — although they’re not really ready to sell it.

This story first appeared in the March 23, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

They don’t cater to the latest subculture or club-kid niche. Instead, they tap 69-year-old Sir Paul Smith for advice about how to build the brand — and create a megabusiness like his.

“He told us you can never be successful if you’re too creative, and that you need to find a balance with commerce,” said Mdumulla.

Unglamorous as it may seem, the English duo is not afraid to mine the vast — and still rich — middle ground of men’s fashion in a city that’s become famous for its extremes, with streetwear on one end — London men’s wear designers have taken that category to almost comedic extremes — and on the other, high-end tailored clothing, where demand is on the wane.

The designers, who met in 2008 while they were interning at Alexander McQueen, are building a contemporary label with a dose of design, and the industry is sitting up and taking notice of their collections, which have been variously inspired by kids’ pajamas, Lego bricks and spare, loose Japanese silhouettes.

Having started out doing quirky digital prints in an eye-popping color palette — a few years ago they did a capsule for Topman called The Owls, with avian-inspired patterns — they’ve since segued into more subdued but still fun fashion. They are their own demographic and think of their peers as they design. “You can’t have fun with clothes if you’re spending a month’s rent on something,” said Mdumulla, who studied fashion design at Manchester School of Art. “And we don’t want to be seen as luxury.”

The aim is to make men’s wear that doesn’t go out of fashion but that’s still creative and exciting. They’re on a quest to play around with core product, adding better finishes and fabrics to Harrington jackets and bombers, perfecting and riffing on trousers slim and wide.

The fall collection was filled with roomy silhouettes, elongated proportions and rich Italian fabrics. Coats were rounded at the shoulder and roomy with utility pockets patchworked onto them. Knits were chunky with long sleeves that grazed models’ fingertips while two-button suit jackets were worn loose, with no shirt underneath and with beanie caps.

“We just want to play about with fashion and push our personality and aesthetic through the clothes,” Mdumulla said during an interview with Cotton at the duo’s temporary studio space in London’s Soho.

Cotton, who studied illustration at the University of Lincoln, said it’s important they remain an inclusive brand. Asked about the surge of streetwear on the runways of London Collections: Men, Cotton said it will never be their thing: “It’s a subculture. Something new will always come along.”

Last summer, they won the Woolmark Prize’s British Isles regional men’s final (and in January lost in the finals to winner Suket Dhir, who represented India, Pakistan and the Middle East). They have also been receiving NewGen funding from Topshop and the British Fashion Council since 2013, the same year they scooped the Emerging Talent prize for men’s wear at the British Fashion Awards. The designers are also set to unveil a collaboration with an international sportswear brand they declined to name and, despite not having won the Woolmark Prize this year, have managed to sell that collection — and their main line — to buyers in the Far East. In June, Mdumulla and Cotton are headed to the region to promote their Woolmark line at stores including Isetan in Japan and Galleria in South Korea. The collection, based on tribalism and Ghana, features needle felting, woven fabrics and jacquards.

Other wholesale clients include Simons in Canada; Joyce in Hong Kong;; 10 Corso Como in South Korea, and H Lorenzo in Los Angeles.

Dean Cook, buying manager for men’s wear at Browns, called their latest collection “superwearable,” while Ben Andrew, senior buyer of men’s fashion at Liberty, said that as the designers have grown up, “the brand has grown with them. It’s not tailored, it’s not street but somewhere in between, for quite a casual dresser. It’s just nice relaxed dressing.”

The future is all about upping the quality and versatility of the fabrics — and launching women’s wear. “We want to do that at our own pace,” said Cotton, adding that the plan is to show their women’s collections on the runway with men’s in January and June in order to dovetail with pre-collections.

Their women’s line for fall resembled the men’s, with elongated silhouettes and generous proportions — as in a stretchy gray sweater dress and a roomy olive shearling bomber. Trousers were wide-leg and swooshing, with fabrics sourced from Italian mills.

The duo has also been raising the ante on fabrics, and experimenting with technical ones like bonded nylon and rubber-coated breathable materials.

The goal is to transform their burgeoning, entirely self-funded label — which is still small with sales of less than 1 million pounds, or $1.5 million, a year — into a lifestyle proposition, with their own stores and a variety of product lines. “We’ve always had it in our heads that we wanted to make sportswear that doesn’t go out of fashion,” said Cotton.