Agi & Sam, menswear founders

Arts Fashion Retail Workshop

Picking the right collaborators

Menswear brand Agi & Sam took off in 2012 when they collaborated with Liberty and Topman. This stimulated growth but also had significant financial and operational repercussions. Its founders give their advice on what to think about when picking company partners.

2 Sep 2016

When recent graduates Agape Mdumulla and Sam Cotton met while working at Alexander McQueen in 2008, it was difficult to fathom how they could launch their own menswear brand.

They saved money from housing benefits and jobseekers’ allowance to create their first lookbook and a small collection that amounted to about 50 pieces. ‘I sewed everything up and we cut everything on the floor,’ says Mdumulla. ‘We were trying to get an intern and they’d turn up at my living room – you should’ve seen their faces!’

Getting traction proved tough. ‘We thought we’d make and sell a collection and get enough money to put down a deposit for the next one but there are so many other things to pay for,’ adds Cotton.

Getting off the ground

Then in 2012 they embarked upon a series of collaborative projects that gave them lift off. The pair created a T-shirt line for Liberty and a capsule collection for Mr Porter before Topman made contact.

‘We wanted to work with Agi & Sam in particular because we loved what they were doing,’ says Topman’s creative director Gordon Richardson. ‘Their work with print brought something new to what we were offering at the time.’

Weighing up the implications of working with a mainstream high-street chain (‘So many other brands like JW Anderson had worked with Topman so we felt it was a reputable thing to do,’ says Cotton) with concerns over quality (‘It was better than the stuff we were doing at the time’) the result was 2013’s Owls collaboration: a 20-strong range that was carried in Topman stores in as far away as Australia.

Agi & Sam, Topshop collection

As well as confidence, the partnership gave the pair big-league marketing and production insight that they could never have learned solo. ‘I remember going to Oxford Street and seeing our stuff in the shop window. It was the first time I felt we’d made it,’ says Mdumulla.

For a young brand, such a collaboration proved a turning point as other companies saw in Agi & Sam a partner with a proven track record that a big company could work with.

Setting boundaries

Collaborations now make up 50 per cent of Agi & Sam’s revenue: it has teamed up with London Undercover (umbrellas), Evian (T-shirts) and Italian coffee titan Lavazza on a 5,000 run of ‘bespoke coffee cups’. But it does throw up a question. When is a prospective collaboration the wrong fit?

‘The main consideration is money but it’s also the integrity,’ says Cotton. ‘It needs to make sense – we don’t want to look like a brand that does too many things.’

Collaborations can also place strain on creative freedom. ‘Sometimes it’s like banging your head against a brick wall,’ says Mdumulla. ‘If it’s a big company it can take months to get things signed off.’

It also risks creating a heavy financial and operational burden. ‘You take an order from Selfridges or one of the big department stores and they don’t pay you anything for perhaps 60 to 90 days,’ says Cotton. ‘So you might have a £100,000 order but you still have to find £50,000 up front to produce it without getting paid until you deliver it.’

Moving it forward 

Mdumulla says he’d like to collaborate with sportswear or technology brands. ‘We want to work with someone who can elevate us to a new level,’ he says. ‘We’d love to grow into an all-encompassing lifestyle brand that has all these different facets so it’s good if you can work with these people to help get that into people’s psyches.’

Inventive brand link-ups have helped Agi & Sam become fixtures on London’s menswear map and provides an alternative blueprint to other startups aiming to get their brand off the ground.

This story first appeared in Courier June/July 2016.