Alex Brownless is awesome. There’s no other way to put it. He’s creative, stylish, and bursting with enthusiasm about life and design and social media. He’s also the co-founder of Arts Thread, a leading creative network that helps new design talents launch themselves and connect with larger companies like Urban Outfitters, Nike, WGSN, and the London Design Festival. “Whenever I have a meeting with a decisionmaker at a brand,” he says, “They get excited about what we’re doing, and they end up selling it to me.” I wasn’t surprised by that comment, and you won’t be either. Read on to see why.
So what are you doing in town?
We’re building relationships with retailers and brands.
When you say we, whom do you mean?
Arts Thread is a company that’s six years old. We’re the conduit between new creatives and the design industry—actually the industry in general. We work with all sorts of different businesses, from Jaguar to McCann Erickson to Nike. This week I’ve got meetings galore with various brands and retailers. To be fair, we’re doing a lot in fashion. I spoke with Urban Outfitters in Philadelphia yesterday, and with Wolford and Ralph Lauren and American Eagle today.
Are you guys focused on fashion in particular?
It’s my background.
How did you end up starting this company?
The impetus was originally a magazine. We started off as a magazine six years ago, and Katie, my partner, who lives just outside of Paris, created that magazine. I used to work with her at a company called Worth Global Style Network (WGSN). WGSN is an online trend company to which all the brands subscribe. They bought a company called Stylesite eighteen months ago. I bumped into Katie at a show called New Designers, which is a show for undergraduates and graduates from places like Central St Martins and the Royal College.
So somebody like Alexander McQueen might have showed there?
Alexander McQueen showed at Graduate Fashion Week, which is its own independent thing, purely for fashion. New Designers is everything else—products, furniture, textiles. In England they’ve got these shows that represent all of the universities and colleges around the UK, which is really good, because you can find what you’re looking for in one fell swoop. I was there because at that time I was working for an American firm called Aquent, which has offices in San Francisco, Boston and New York. I was looking for product designers, graphic designers, textile and fashion designers. I hadn’t seen Katy for eight years, nine years, and when I bumped into her, I thought this concept she had created was fantastic. I loved the idea of celebrating emerging talent.
Did you want to move into something that was more editorial?
It was never my intention. I got involved for all the right reasons, really. I said, “Look, I’ll help you, because I think what you’re doing is great. I’ve never seen a magazine that was purely for a new creative, a new designer. And to this day, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Normally, students graduate and end up in magazines alongside people who have 30 years of experience. I thought that if I helped Katy in the early stages, I’d also be helping my clients—brands like Phillips and Samsung and Nike. A few months down the line, I suggested to Katie that she do a digital platform. A website. And so five years ago, we launched the site. It took a while to get any momentum.
But that was a good time to be launching, because there wasn’t quite as much content out there. Now there’s so much.
Yeah. And now the question is, “How do you distinguish yourself?” Because there’s stuff everywhere. But ours is very targeted. We made a section where students could put their work on there. So you could be a ceramicist, a fashion designer, you name it. Fine artist. But then we thought we should have a section for the universities and the design schools to market themselves and their programs. Both Katy and I studied at those schools. I studied textiles for fashion, and she studied fashion design. And it was hard to get a break in there. I designed for Banana Republic in the late 80s and early 90s.
Did you go to school specifically for fashion design?
I did textiles. Woven fabrics, prints.
What did you do for Banana Republic? Were you picking textiles, designing textiles? I didn’t even know that was a thing.
I was designing shirts. You choose the fabric, your placket and your color, and that’s about it. Eventually I quit. I tend to get bored easily.
And then what happened?
We spent $200,000 on a bloody website, and we were still producing the magazine, and we thought, “How the hell are we going to start making some money, because we’re not a charity.” People seem to think we are. When I quit doing design, I did sales and marketing, so I have an understanding of business.
What is your goal in terms of creating these partnerships?
It’s about the underdog. It’s about helping a student who is about to graduate or has graduated get a break.
So it’s about negotiating the deals with the big companies and the young designers?
There are elements of that. It’s actually difficult to find good talent, so we’re feeding it into these companies on both sides of the Atlantic. And we’re also giving practical advice to designers about how to market themselves and make themselves look more professional before graduation. We guide them in how to tell the whole story about why they do what they do. And that’s very engaging. You also have to know how to think like a brand, so a lot of our students have a different mindset from the one they had three years ago. They’re telling the whole story of what inspired them in the first place, they’re adding sketches now when they didn’t before. They used to just put the final piece up. But the most exciting bit is why they did it.
What’s your hope for the company?
Our overarching goal is to help as many graduating students as possible to get a job and to launch their own brands. Originally, it was all about employability, but I’d say about 40% of the people on our site have no intention of getting a full-time job. They’re looking for freelance work. They’re craft people—ceramicists, jewelry designers, textiles. So we help launch them.
What are three things you look for when you’re looking for designers to represent?
- Talent. We’re very democratic. It’s not one person’s opinion. We’re small, but we’ve got a lot of people involved on a freelance basis. When we do competitions, we always insist on having judges. And not one judge, but quite a few judges.
- Passion. It’s massive. It’s the reason why someone would ever employ somebody or even purchase from somebody. I’ve represented some amazing designers with no passion whatsoever, and you don’t warm to them. There’s got to be more than just design. You’ve got to have likeability.
- Hunger. They’ve got to want it. We had an amazing lightware designer that we put in Milan fashion week. I was incredibly disappointed in his attitude when we got there, because he’d be sitting in the corner not engaging with the audience that could have been buying his product. At the end of the day, if someone isn’t at least giving the impression that they’re interested, they don’t deserve to get any bloody business.
When someone has talent, and passion, and hunger, you’ll do anything to help them succeed.