Entrepreneur: Conscious Fashion

Joe Williams talks rioting, slogans and giving back to the community

He might masquerade as a media buyer, but don’t be fooled by his Clarke Kent desk job. Joe Williams is a man on a mission – to bring politics back into the hands of the “real” people, one graphic tee at a time.

Joe’s fashion label – Dalston Coathanger – is still in the incubation phase. Having launched only in 2012, the foursome who make up the Coathanger team are at pains to ensure that it attracts the right attention and doesn’t stumble into one of the many traps that new ventures often fall prey to.

Using the “Dalston” label was a brave decision. Dalston, forming part of the Hackney and Hoxton family, is one of those places that has become unfortunately celebrated as a hipster hideout. When Shoreditch got too mainstream, the more pretentious among the greater unwashed upped sticks and moved to Dalston, continuing their mission to turn every third fried chicken shop into a pre-loved clothes emporium.

The funny thing about Dalston Coathanger, then, is that it is about as exclusive as an open bar. The whole premise behind the idea is to encourage you, your dad and your neighbour John (as long as he’s not a right-wing politician) to get involved. To get us ordinary folk to talk about things that matter, as well as to buy something fun to wear.

To explain: Joe and his band of fashion impresarios design t-shirts which are informed by recent cultural and political affairs. Their most famous creations to date, for example, bear slogans relating to the London riots.
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The Concept

Mentioning the London riots leaves a sour taste in your mouth. “The whole world’s eyes were on England’s youth during the riots and it ended up being the worst spotlight they could have been given,” explains Joe.

Joe and his team are keen that this sour taste be replaced by something a little more balanced. “It was so damaging for young people,” he continues, “but there is so much creativity among the British youth, especially in East London. That summer it wasn’t showcased and the negativity that the riots engendered was so damaging. It means that young, underprivileged kids had to take two steps backwards in public estimation and we are now going to have to work harder to undo this.”

“The point is to generate debate. We don’t just want to point out that it happened, but to look at the cause of it and what to do going forward. We aren’t trying to pick a side – there is nothing really to gain from doing that, as you end up in a stand-off – it’s more about getting people to think about it and talk about it, for longer than the couple of week’s worth of editorial coverage that it received.”

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But it’s still just a t-shirt…

The slogan t-shirt has been around for a few generations – just ask Katharine Hamnett. It has had a few cameos in the public protest arena, but if it was going to change the world, perhaps it might have done it already.

“We know we aren’t stepping into particularly new territory, but we are putting our own spin on it,” says Joe.

This is definitely true – there is an artfulness and a clear design element to the Dalston Coathanger products that is absent in the traditional “slogan tee”. They way that they sell and market them has its own edge too.

“Aesthetically, there is a lot of work that has gone into our t-shirts,” Joes argues. “Some people might like the t-shirt just for the design and think it looks sick, and that’s fine, but for others it will be a double hit of they like the design; they think it’s a cool t-shirt, but it also hits a note with them and it speaks about something they feel passionately about.”

“It’s nice to be able to give people the opportunity to enjoy it that much on different levels.”

Giving Back

With a message about social conscience, it is only appropriate that Joe’s company put some money where its mouth is. It wouldn’t quite fit with the image if one were to discover, for instance, that Dalston Coathanger’s slogan tees, promoting justice and fair discussion, were lovingly handmade by a bunch of pre-teens in a Guatemalan sweat-shop.

“Before we had even printed our first riot t-shirt, we got in touch with Pauline Pearce [the so-called Hackney Heroine, who became famous for a YouTube clip that captured her outside her workplace, berating the local youths for “bustin’ up the place”],” says Joe.

“She is a big figure associated with the riots and she already had a foundation called Do Something For Life, which has a platform, so we wanted to see if we could get involved.”

“For the riot range, £1 of every t-shirt sold goes into her riot fund. Then, we speak to Pauline about what the money could go on – from sending two kids from the community centre on a Mac computer course, to buying something for the community centre to use. We put the options on Twitter and Facebook, get a poll going and whatever people want, it goes that way. It’s a way of engaging back with society.”

“Also,” Joe goes on, “We use UK based manufacturers. We are talking about things in our society so it seems wrong to then import our t-shirts from Turkey or India. Yeah, the costs will be higher, but the quality in Britain is amazing.”


Aren’t We all “Real”?

“Real” is a buzzword that Joe keeps coming back to, as if it denotes a certain tier of society to which we don’t all belong. His clothes are inspired by “real” people and he wants the discussion to take place among “real” people. For someone who’s ethos seems to be “this is for everyone to talk about”, it strikes as odd that he would apportion off any group of society.

“If you look at politics,” he says, “it trickles down to the working man on the street. ‘Real’ means the person that it is affecting on a day-to-day basis. It is always easy to sit from above and say, ‘Oh look, that’s a shame’, but until you actually speak to people or experience it for yourself, you don’t know.”

So basically, “real” mainly refers to the working class, but encompasses pretty much everyone besides billionaires and politicians…fair enough.

“There is a bloke who has a stall on the market in Hackney and we were opposite him last week. His son got arrested during the riots. He’d been at an evening class and they arrested him because of an incident nearby. They reckon he got a beating. For two months it was hanging over him and he got summoned to court and it turned out to have been a case of mistaken identity. You speak to someone like that, and that’s ‘real’ – that’s the London riots right there.”

It All Comes Together

At the moment, Dalston is where Joe and his team get their inspiration. So, in an endeavour to celebrate the area and to ensure that they continue to be surrounded by “real” people and “real” conversations, that’s where they plan to stay for the time being.

They do have other ideas on the horizon though. Just because there are some “real” people in Hackney, doesn’t mean there aren’t also some “real” and even “interesting” and “powerful” people elsewhere in the country that might also enjoy wearing, or benefit from talking about, the Dalston Coathanger products. The t-shirts will soon be available on their website and they are looking into other vending opportunities.

“We want to really establish ourselves in the streetwear industry, while trying to maintain our roots. People do sell out easily. We’ve had various buyers getting in touch, but we want to maintain ourselves as a premium streetwear brand.”

And by that, they mean they want to remain closely involved – discussing each theme with their contemporaries and with the people of Hackney, to ensure that the t-shirts actually speak to people.


Quickfire Questions:

Are we all capable of success?

I’ve always worked in media, with a bit of scaffolding in between. I just enjoy fashion, we all have our own taste and we are all very different.

Who did you look up to as a child?

Mike Skinner. Or Mark Kinsella – he was a grafter.

If you could be anyone, who would you be?

Theo Paphitis. I wouldn’t actually want to be like him as such, but he does a lot for society now in terms of small businesses. Someone in a position to change something and still conscious enough to know what it feels like so that they can make a difference.

Can money buy happiness?

It all depends on the person. If you are a genuine person and you get given a load of money, it will help you buy that happiness, but you could have got there anyway. But if you are an arsehole and you get loads of money, you are just going to be an arsehole with loads of money.

Tips for other entrepreneurs?

Do as much research as you can possibly think to do.

Within two years, the majority of all small businesses will collapse. There can never be enough time spent looking into the finer points of the industry you are going into. Only then can the end product be of a quality that works.

Your product represents what you put into it.


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Words: Natasha Bird


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