RUN&FELL are fellow Manchester based designers and Manufacturers creating unique ethical & organic t-shirts. As part of their 'Made in Manchester' series, we were happy to have a chat about how Loose Button came about, what we do and what we stand for.
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Made In Manchester Series - Part 8 - Loose Button
In our Made in Manchester series, we're connecting with visionaries who are cultivating their own innovative enterprises; artists and designers creating inventive new visuals; musicians driving the heartbeat of the city. Northern lad, Lee Smith, having worked abroad for nearly a decade, has returned to his roots, and started a business here. We visited his workshop to find out the story behind Loose Button.
"I used to live out in Switzerland, for about 9 years, doing training development, HR stuff. They made some changes, and kind of turned everything on its head. But I think all the while I was a bit like "Hmmm I want to do something different, I'm a bit tired of the office kinda stuff," I mean it was great, travelling and everything, but I just got a little bit tired of that corporate environment."
Self-confessed "Powerpoint monkey" Lee, gave up the stability of a high-powered executive corporate job in favour of returning to his roots (Lee grew up in Blackburn). "I think the turning on its head was the kick-starter to say "Right, you want to move out of Basel and move back to the UK, you want to do something creative, and do something with your hands and work for yourself"."
"Something just clicked and I started looking online for upholstery courses. I can't actually remember the exact moment but basically found Ministry of Upholstery based in Manchester. So I booked on there, did a little footstool and thought "Right, I like this"."
Still living in Switzerland, Lee regularly flew over to spend time in Manchester learning different techniques at "The Ministry". "I started finding old things, and kept coming back every month, learning different techniques." The Ministry themselves grew and moved to bigger premises, housing a business incubator unit, providing the perfect opportunity for Lee to test the idea of launching his own enterprise, Loose Button. "That was perfect timing. I moved back to the UK then and stayed in there for a year, with mentoring and they'd get you support, but really you were trying to get on your own feet. I was able to gain confidence and build skills at the same time."
Twelve months in to his new life, Lee was able to find the ideal workshop space, down a hidden back street in the heart of West Didsbury, where he now creates his pieces. "After a year there I wanted to find my own space, and found this which is perfect. I moved in here last April, so I've been here just over a year. Before I moved I got connected with Dave (Draws). I saw his stuff and really liked it, and I could see it lending itself not only to the cushions, but we did some furniture, a footstool, and other bits, so we've been playing around with that. We've got about 12 or so designs together."
Both Lee and Dave Draws, a Manchester-based illustrator, featured in one of our previous blog posts, sell their designs at the West Didsbury Makers Market, and have collaborated on a number of pieces of furniture and cushions. Dave's doodle map designs are printed onto fabric using a local digital print company, which Lee then uses to create cushions and pieces of upholstered furniture such as the vintage stools pictured.
"Predominantly I was doing re-upholstery, finding old stuff to make new," Lee explained how he loves the sustainability of re-upholstering old pieces of furniture, and giving new life to old designs. Classic old chairs and footstools are stripped back in Lee's workshop, and transformed with new foam suitable for modern regulations, and re-covered with fresh new fabrics. He's keen to avoid land-fill where possible, and even sends his off-cuts of fabrics to be re-purposed into rugs and blankets. "A downside of some of the old stuff is that you can't re-use the foams, as it's not fire safe, so that's always a challenge. But it's not a perfect world so you will have waste foam, but we get stuff recycled wherever we can, off-cuts of fabrics etc." The local Makers Market in West Didsbury is his "shop window" for the upholstery side of the business.
"There are sort of three prongs to the business really. The bar stuff has been an aside, I never planned to do that." Lee explained that as well as reclaiming retro furniture, he has taken on some corporate commissions to fit out local bars and restaurants such as the Northern Quarter pizza restaurant "Ply", "Brewski" in Chorlton, and the basement in "Refuge". Though he was thrilled to get these high-profile commissions as such a new start up, he described how there were different challenges involved in each venue, "You know, they've got to be durable, got to meet the regulations, got to be wipeable."
The third "prong" to Loose Button, is taking custom orders for Lee's own designs. "Then I started doing my stuff. I started doing these benches and footstools and playing around with different fabrics, different styles, as a custom-made range, and that's where I'm at now, trying to push that side of it," he explained, pointing to various pieces stacked up in the workshop.
"I'm doing the Great Northern Contemporary Craft Fair in October, which was great to get into. I'm working with a media company now, to try and get a bit more visibility outside of Manchester. I would love to have this custom made stuff become a brand in itself." Despite wanting to increase awareness of Loose Button across the UK, Lee wants to keep his business here, Made in Manchester, using local print firms and fabric suppliers where possible. He loves to source fabrics from the mills in Lancashire, who create beautiful upholstery fabrics using British wool.
"I pick fabrics because of the origins of them. I use a lot of wools, natural fibres. I like the naturals I this they work well for upholstery, they're nice to touch. some people don't like the sort of Harris Tweeds, they feel they're a bit rough, some of the other wools are softer. You've got to cater to all markets, if I don't stock the stuff, people can bring their own. Obviously there's a big Vegan movement and people don't want wools because of it being an animal by-product. I don't do a lot of synthetics, I don't like doing a lot of that because its all oil-based at the end of the day, but some people get irritated by the natural wools."
"It's been really good and it's starting to get to that tipping point and I think now I'm starting to think "yes this is starting to click into place". It's nice when I've done something myself and someone sees it. Each job I finish it's like "Yes this is great"."
Having loved art at school, and initially wanting to pursue a career in Graphic design after leaving school, before going into his corporate career instead, Lee attributes his ability to design and select colour choices for his fabrics, to his creative roots. "I think it comes from doing art at school, it comes back round to that it really does. I should have gone into technical illustration of Graphic Design. My sister did that so there must be something in the family genes I suppose."
"I've kind of gone full circle basically. I'm trying to utilise what I probably should have just carried on doing, so it is a funny kind of turn around really." As well as returning to his artistic roots, and embracing his creative side, Lee has had to adjust to returning home to what he described as his "new country" after living abroad for nearly a decade. He described how different Manchester is now, having known it well before moving to Switzerland. He feels it's ideal for his business but said he almost felt like there was so much going on here he was constantly missing out on something. "It's great, it really is. And there's loads of things to tap into. There's a lot of focus on Manchester, which is fantastic. I like it, it's good for inspiration, theres' a lot of art, and you just get the vibe of the place, the whole Media City side of things, the Northern Quarter as well."
Since leaving his old world behind, the executive well-paid job, the travel, and the stability, Lee described how even though he has the freedom now of working for himself, some of the business practices he's used to have been ingrained in how he approaches Loose Button. "It's funny when you leave the corporate world. I hated all those mid-year reviews and corporate appraisals, but I do it. I did it in January, I bought a new notebook and wrote down what went well, what didn't go well, so the background that I've had has been good. It does help with that side of discipline really"
Not unlike the well-loved, vintage chairs he up-cycles, Lee has stripped back his own life really. He's discarded what he has grown tired of, and kept the important pieces. He's found what was there underneath all along, and is re-shaping his career and re-building a new life back in his old country. So yes, in his own words, absolutely full circle.