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Oi Polloi, a Eulogy

Sunday 19 May 2024

Oi Polloi, a Eulogy

England and its green and pleasant has always been home to what I believe are some of the best independent clothing stores in the world. Trailblazers who led the way, bringing in brands from far and distant lands that seemed other worldly to us young lads at the time. Materials and craftsmanship you could only dream of on your garms. Those in the know would always know about these hidden hideaways packed with their treasures from far and wide long before the days of the saturated social media world we now live in where anyone can jump on anything despite their knowledge... One name that slips off everyone who's anyone's tongue, is that of "Oi Polloi". Nigel Lawson and Steve Sanderson met at a mates birthday party and as the saying goes, the rest is history... Both wearing Clarks Originals 'Weavers' at the time they must have given one another the sartorial nod (you know how it is) we've all done it. Steve knew of some of Nigel's previous projects (working with Jonny Marr's Elk brand  - Mod meets Native America) and had also seen him in GQ. Both Nigel and Steve's combined passion for the ever-evolving fashions of Manchester brought them together and fate be responsible for the creation of the UK's greatest independent... 

I'll always remember the first time I entered that emporium of wonder, with aromas of what seemed like one thousand incense sticks, in the Northern Quarter's Thomas St. A mate of mine used to work up the road in a bar and I'd nipped in for a few free beers whilst waiting on a few more mates to arrive for the weekend. Prior to this day, I'd always heard whispers of this store in nearby Tib St that sold gear that nowhere else did. The older lads at football would wax lyrical about brands us younger boys hadn't heard of at that time, little did we know, as time progressed, that we too, would become those older lads... I walked into this gaff not really knowing what to expect, on immediate inspection it was clear to see that design was everywhere and intwined into everything. The way the shoes were positioned on the shelf, the way knowledge in the form of free supplements lied everywhere. I didn't realise at the time, the tip of the iceberg I was on. 

Oi was one of those stores you always looked forward to visiting, relishing at what you might walk away with. The first time I wandered into this place my eyes darted everywhere, to the carefully curated collections, to the artwork that adorned the walls, this was beyond anything I'd previously encountered. Scandi meets MCR, Off the beaten track, meets the beaten track... It was world's colliding into something that you couldn't put your finger on... I think even Christopher Nolan would have a job on describing this gaff... Everything seemed to have a hint of the past but with a flicking glance it was all transported into the present and what YOU should be wearing! Oi was an institution, lads from ever corner of this isle would come from far and indeed wide to salivate at the orthopaedic footwear and Gortex jackets, an urban ramblers dream. Soak it in, breathe it in, whatever "IT" was, it was fucking here man! OP you are truly missed!

Over the years I've chatted to many a clothes obsessed lad in many drinking holes across this land about Oi Polloi. Myself and my good mate James have pondered over said store for years and it felt right that I give him the floor to spread his thoughts on this. He's taken inspiration from Oi for many things from his mixes which bend your head with new sounds to his design work (Ironopolis) which took great influence from OP. Here's JB's words on that hallowed independent we still long for...

The Fabric of Life: An Ode to Oi Polloi by James Bolton

In the back streets of Manchester lay a bastion for the misfits of schmutter. An outpost for the rig-out outsiders. A beacon for the Geography teacher chic. A stronghold with an anti-fashion, anti-hype, anti-corporate agenda. I’m sure it wasn’t part of any great masterplan. It was just the way one shop went about its business; the outlook its founders had on the world. At least that’s how it appeared to me. And it struck a cord. 

Oi Polloi was the gravitational pull for a generation of urban rambling layabouts, all connected by a number of loose threads and loose ideas. As a worker, I was once on the fringes of ‘menswear'. As a consumer, I guess I still am. It’s a serious industry, awash with a London-centric in-crowd, largely devoid of personality, humour and a grasp of reality. But Oi Polloi was the Bible for those seeking an alternative, non-contrived and non-conformist connection. Where orthopaedic shoes and Goretex coats were the message from above.

In my mind, Oi Polloi was rooted in one golden commandment: functional clothing – be it sportswear, outdoor wear, military wear, even fucking gardening wear – was open to misinterpretation. It was a look with a lack of arm patches, chest logos or overt branding. A look where the label mattered, but it also didn’t matter. Their ethos opened minds and wardrobes to an eclectic range of reference points, stretching from the depths of film and TV to music, counter-culture and beyond. It dipped into the scenes we’ve knowingly lived and loved. As well as those we’ve simply admired from a distance. It took Balearic, Japanese and Scandinavian influences, before putting them through a distinctly understated, laid-back northern lens. 

‘Talent borrows, genius steals’ was the mantra. At first glance, it seemed an ironic endorsement for shoplifting – perhaps a subtle nod to the original grafters and Perry Boys – but in reality, it was so much more. It was about taking from the past to create something new. It was about occasionally looking back but always moving forward. It was about timeless silhouettes in modern iterations. It was about pairing Reebok with Engineered Garments; Converse with Norse Projects; Mephisto with Battenwear; Fracap with YMC; New Balance with Adsum… the mixing and matching goes on. And on. And on...

It was a blueprint that shaped my formative years, where identity, belonging and hedonism went hand-in-hand with clothes, football and music. But not always in that order. For an offbeat introvert, much of that was about finding the balance between self-expression and fitting-in; a parity between being part of something and part of something else. That constant effort of being effortless. And that telling nod from those that know. This one shop held the key.  

So, thanks Oi Polloi. For the blog posts, the deck-outs and the pica-posts. For the tone of voice and the in-jokes. For blowing a week’s wages in 15 minutes. For a dog named Claude and two roaming magpies. For something that couldn’t be labelled or put in a box. For the constant inspiration. For bringing it all together.

When putting this 'Eulogy' together there was always two people I wanted onboard, my best mate James and a lad I've admired through the lens of social media for years, Saul Wilks. I've always loved Saul's work, from his days of writing the blog, 'Sinister Delicious' to the development of his first brand 'Adour' to his DJing at the 'Boogie Cartel' nights and to his more recent work on his newest brand 'Creu Clothing' Which we did an interview on last year (here) Saul has always had a way with words that has always spoken to me, he knows his stuff from top to bottom, to every last detail and is a true Modernist in every sense of the word... he always looks forward. So here's the words from Newport's finest dresser, Saul Wilks... 

As a young football boy hailing from Newport there were local shops such as Henry Cordy and then Drooghis and Woodies down the road in Cardiff that held a special place in my heart. When you’re young and you don’t have much money these places hold a beautiful mystique about them. The feeling I would get walking into those shops and coming out with a new sartorial treasure was addictive. It was so addictive that I’m still bound by that addiction decades later.


Those establishments all played a pivotal part in my progression as a dresser, starting with the labels that are now irreversibly linked with football fashion. Some of those labels are light years past their sell by date and some have lasted the test of time and continue to grace my wardrobe. Regardless of that, I wholeheartedly bought into the ethos of one-upmanship with full commitment and this always led me to seek out lesser worn and lesser known labels.


I remember hearing online rumblings of a shop in Manchester that stocked an interesting and varied selection of domestic and imported clothing on its rails and my obsession and fascination was further ignited. It wasn’t long before I booked the early train to Manchester on a gloomy, dark South Wales Autumn morning. I proceeded to land at Piccadilly for the 9am rush hour. That feeling of going into the unknown, fumbling my way through the crowds down towards the Northern quarter, taking wrong turns down cobbled streets that once resounded with the clatter of Scuttlers clogs in ancient Mancunium, was unparalleled. That shop was called Oi Polloi and it would become my Mecca for a number of years.


After entering that small but special space tucked away on Tib street for the first time it all changed for me. The selection of exotic offerings, most of which were completely new to me, that were now within my grasp were boundless and my bank account would never be the same for years to come. I vividly remember my first purchases; A pair of selvedge Edwin 55’s, a blue and white Margaret Howell rugby jersey, a cream Baracuta G9 Harrington, an APC polo jersey and classic Superga’s.

For a few years, Oi Polloi became the centre of the universe for me and it became a monthly pilgrimage with my early morning train routine a ritual that I loved undertaking. The familiar welcoming greeting from Brownie and his enthusiastic and passionate love for the garments was infectious.

In fact all of the staff I would encounter over the years were the same, never pushy or sale chasing, just happy to talk about music or clothes with abundant fervour. 


I would always be back on the 11.30 train home often laden with more bags than I could carry. As time progressed my clothing buying expeditions also included record hunting and I would often do a months wages in a couple of hours in the City. It was an expensive lifestyle but I was completely hooked.


Oi Polloi was the gateway to a vast cache of labels that would adorn my wardrobe and then disappear over time as new ones were sought and found. Labels like APC, R Newbold, Folk, Woolrich Woolen Mills, Saint James, Nom de Guerre, Filson, Margaret Howell, Heritage Research, Native Craftworks, Our Legacy and Studio d'Artisan were all firsts for me courtesy of the shop.


It would also offer up items that I still look for to this day, now long gone and probably only relevant in the memory banks by people caught up in that same particular time to me. One of those items were the Gordini mesh lace ups. They were my favourite pair of shoes for years and I bought a few pairs always wearing them until they fell apart. They were an old persons shoe, probably meant for orthopaedic use but they looked cool as fuck. Things like that is what made the shop so alluring, the outside the norm details.


That’s what set Oi Polloi aside from the competition. Well actually there wasn’t really competition, because for a while, Oi Polloi was out on its own, miles ahead of anyone else and that’s the reason it flourished and ended up becoming more known. Once that happened and they moved to a bigger location and opened a shop in London it never did feel the same for me but these things can’t be begrudged.


For me though, Oi Polloi wasn’t just a brick and mortar building that stocked clothes, it represented that incredibly rare and precious opportunity to still find new and exciting clothing that very few people would be wearing. A lot of original been-there done-that dressers often opine that the casual scene stagnated in the early noughties but the truth couldn’t be more stark. A whole new plethora of labels and looks were prototyped amongst mainly younger lads. In my opinion, this is something that is somewhat overlooked and not talked about enough, perhaps because a lot of those labels were never directly associated with football style. The fact remains though, that a lot of those labels filtered through and became worn at football, not just those previously mentioned of course, there were others such as Albam and Oliver Spencer for example.


But as we’re talking about Oi Polloi and the impact it had on people I think it’s imperative to talk about the influence it had on not only me personally but the sub culture that I was devoted to. That’s what made Oi Polloi different from other shops. It had the ability to make me catch a 3 hour train journey to spend money I often didn’t have on clothes that I couldn’t get anywhere else. It also had the ability to make hordes of like minded young men ditch the traditional terrace staples and three stripes that had become the boring norm in favour of Italian tennis shoes, good denim and imported Americana and Japanese labels you’d often never heard of before.


I look back on those days and really cherish them, knowing they played a huge part in not only my style evolution but also as a person. I’ve never found anything to match that here in the UK since and the only shop that ever came close was Hickorees in New York. 


Although I feel that it lost a little bit of its identity as the years went on and some might even say that its soul was sold to corporate entities in the end, I’ve never found anything since that’s even remotely comparable to that feeling I would get when I would visit Tib all those years ago. For that reason alone Oi Polloi was special and was truly one of a kind.

Oi Polloi, a British Style institution, gone, but never, ever forgotten! 

Thank you for reading

David, James & Saul 


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In loving memory of Denise Pottinger