25 years ago this month, Graham Ridley, then production director at Things Fashions, starred on the cover of the first ever issue of Images magazine. Over the next quarter of a century Graham embarked on numerous adventures in the garment decoration universe before landing back at Things and buying the company. We caught up with him to talk about the past, present and future of garment decoration
“At 19 I had to get out of London and the oil rigs seemed as a good a place as any to hide,” begins Graham Ridley, owner of Retro Activewear. It’s an unexpected start to an interview about a life in screen printing!
His time on the rigs in the late ‘70s saw him hand paint a badge on a bag for a rig and then everybody wanted one. One book from Reeves art shop in Kensington later and he was screen printing bags and T-shirts for all the rigs in the company.
After the Alexander Kielland rig sunk nearby and a minor helicopter engine fail, Graham, with massive understatement, says he thought it might be time for a new vocation away from the sea. He started working for himself in the 1980s printing football club merchandise: the licensing industry was in its infancy at that time and football merch was not yet readily available. In 1985, Things Fashions, aka Things, bought out his business and he took on the role of Things’ production director.
He says he “drifted into T-shirts” but it’s hard to picture Graham drifting into anything. By his own admission, he is an ambitious person and once he decided on T-shirts, he threw himself into it. “I have an enquiring mind – I like to know how things work,” he says. “I learnt it all from books initially and then trial and error and questions.”
John Mason of JT Keeps, who is now the managing director of Rutland Inks, was a formative influence and played a central role in furthering Graham’s screen printing education. “Nobody wanted to tell you anything in those days. Then I met John and he became a mentor to me. He was innovative and he was different.” Together with John, Graham began experimenting with different inks to discover what was possible. “There was massive innovation in those days. We were experimenting with plastisol discharges, discharge and plastisol high opacity, soft hand inks–we played with them all during the 80s and 90s.”
It wasn’t just inks that Graham spent time investigating, he did the same with screen printing machinery. During Things’ heyday he had an engineer on his team and together they built and modified the machinery the company used to create its award-winning prints. “It was bloody hard work – we’d work 12-14 hours a day – but we enjoyed it.” He was also working alongside Adrian Root at this time: “Adrian was quiet, he had incredibly high standards and he was a visionary – in my opinion one of the most influential men ever to grace this industry, but never one to want recognition. Chalk and cheese, we made a great team.”
The highs and lows
By 1992, when the first issue of Images came out with Graham on the cover, he was overseeing an 80,000 square foot factory in east London and 180 staff.
“I came into an enormous factory, absolutely empty. I took it from 30 staff to 180 staff at its height in 1998, and from £3 million turnover a year to £14 million with very healthy profits. That was at the absolute height, when the UK was printing T-shirts for everyone. We were the biggest independent and possibly the best company technically, quality wise and for innovation. And then the wheels fell off the industry in many ways. Not just for us: for everyone. We, as an industry, had prostituted our skills to the Turkish and the Chinese in the form of consultants, and we saw these foreign markets go from being cowboys to excellent printers with cheap labour and, in those days, few checks or accreditation requirements–and they were much cheaper than we were.
“The whole industry levelled out. We had competition coming through in the UK that were good companies, so they were nibbling away at our ankles; we lost all the Adidas work to Turkey; and the rock and roll industry become quite political and we lost certain accounts.”
Graham decided to go to America where he set up a company in Colorado. He then came back to the UK and took on the managing director role at Local Boyz Group. It had an annual turnover of £33 million that sold Chinese-made fashion tees to various businesses, including a small, rapidly growing UK company called Sports Direct.
We take a piece of cotton and put a piece of art on it. How cool’s that?
Since returning to the UK he has continued to print T-shirts, ending up back at Things which he now owns and has renamed Retro Activewear. He’s still based in the east end of London and has as many ideas and plans now as he did when he was starting out. He was one of the first to buy a DTG digital printer–a machine that was, he admits, “rubbish”.
Despite this shaky start, in 1996, in an earlier Images interview, Graham boldly predicted that in five years there would be a digital revolution. It’s taken nearer 20 years, he says, but we’re seeing it now. “I predicted that there would be digital machines based on the hexachrome system with a discharge first colour down. The early digital machines were four-colour process but now we’re seeing hexachrome-type systems with discharge.
“They haven’t cracked it yet, though. In my opinion, the manufacturers don’t get enough printers involved–they use scientists instead, and don’t bring in the practical expertise enough.”
Retro Activewear currently has a Kornit Breeze and Graham expects to expand the digital side of the business massively when his new venture–www.varsitypunk. com–goes live at the end of February. “My biggest mistake was not carrying on with my digital project eight years ago. We got sidetracked, but we’re going to catch up again now with Varsity Punk. Looking at the wider industry, it’s breathtaking what’s happening out there in fulfilment and ‘just-in-time’.” Indeed, the company came close to being bought out last year by a major UK retailer looking to take advantage of Retro Activewear’s ability to provide ‘just-in-time’ production.
As well as the digital side, Graham has two 14-colour M&R screen printing carousels and two 10-colour M&Rs, with another 14-colour M&R Sportsman on order and another Sportsman due to be ordered in the late spring. He also has two hand carousels for basic sampling along with two ASP back neck taggers and small area printers. “I think M&R is made to last; it’s not massively sophisticated, but in a hundred years time it’ll still be doing the same job, and doing it well,” he explains.
Graham’s company is also doing well: when he came back to Things three years ago it was turning over under £700,000 a year. This year he expects to do £3 million, bringing the turnover back to the level it was when he joined over 30 years ago.
Attila the Hun
In spite of his early education through books, there are some things about the industry that books can’t explain to Graham, such as how a white T-shirt cost him £1.10 when he started out in the 80s, yet the same quality shirt now costs him only 90p. “It doesn’t seem right, because these all come from third world countries. I’m a rank and file Tory, by the way, right up there with Attila the Hun, but with a conscience, and I just don’t know how the price of the good old T-shirt hasn’t gone up.” Does this line of thinking affect his purchasing habits? “No, then I become a businessman and I want to buy as cheap as possible. Many clients are in uber competitive markets and it’s ‘price lower, price lower, price lower’ when you’re dealing with higher volume. It’s the pressure from all links in the chain I guess.”
He keeps a close eye on the market in general, having followed two companies in particular: T Shirt & Sons and Awesome Merchandise. “T Shirt & Sons are very good, they’re doing a great job; Awesome are different and they’re young – they’re not constricted by the norm. When you embrace technology, it brings efficiency. One of my main rivals is TOTShirts in Edmonton – another great example of technology driving the efficiency of the business. I’ve watched these three companies with an envious smile.”
With his vast experience of the garment decoration industry, what words of wisdom can Graham offer newcomers to the industry? “My advice to anyone starting in the industry is to do a business course. Understand the numbers and marketing. I made a mistake of not believing what the numbers were telling me – they’ve told me on occasion that I was working for nothing, for turnover with no profit. Turnover is vanity, profit is sanity.
“Then move forward by looking at everyone else and what they’re doing and pick the best. Do a mix of digital with some screen or some embroidery – have two strings to your bow – and build up your business with great service. Be fair with people, it’s important. And experiment. You can’t afford to stand still.
“And always remember: we take a piece of cotton and put a piece of art on it. How cool’s that?”