Fifth Column has long been known as the punk rock print shop with a social conscience. Images talks to its management team about business development and the importance of remaining ethical and transparent

It’s five years since Fifth Column moved from its much-loved, although fairly impractical, home above Kentish Town tube station to an industrial estate in Tottenham Hale, but the artistic, punky, ‘NW1’ vibe that has helped to define the company since it began printing in 1977 is still palpable.

Fifth Column came into being 41 years ago when a group of friends– Cat Santos, Pedro Santos, Sodge Adams, Chris Townsend and Robin Richards – began designing and printing now-iconic punk rock T-shirts for bands including X-Ray Spex, The Clash, The Jam and The Damned and selling them outside shows. In the beginning, they did everything by hand: the artwork was created on paper and then photographed or cut from rubylith film to make the positives, and the prints were cured at a laundrette on Kilburn High Road, where the shirts were bunged in the tumble dryer for half an hour. Kentish Town, with its vibrant music scene and proximity to the world- famous Camden Market, was a natural setting for the company. After 35 years, however, rent increases and lack of space meant that it was time to find a new home if the business was to continue to develop and flourish. “We had to carry all the boxes up the stairs,“ explains managing director Zsolt. “And the space was very, very tight – we couldn‘t have installed a third automatic machine in there, and we had the screens on rails attached to the ceiling.”

The company may now be situated a few miles further north, near Tottenham Marshes, but the colourful Fifth Column sign, the plants outside the print shop and the racks of clothing and eclectic furniture in the office– not to mention its position right next door to a brewery – give the impression that a small part of Kentish Town was transported along with the screen printing carousels and dryers. A corridor leading from the office has a long window overlooking the factory floor, and it‘s here, however, that the quirky design studio identity gives way to a modern, efficient industrial operation. 

The company uses only MHM automatic screen printing carousels

Printed garments coming of the new Pro-Cure dryer from Adelco

Management buyout

Three MHM carousels revolve at top speed, printing an endless supply of garments, while a stream of long- sleeved tops pours out of an Adelco dryer and stacalmly and eciently move around the machinery. It’s a highly organised production space, with an ink department that must rank as one of the tidiest that Images has ever seen. 

As well as its change of premises the company has also changed its management and ownership, with Zsolt Petrik, Zoltan Hajduk (joint- managing director) and Damian Rys (production manager) having completed a management buyout in January last year. The trio knew precisely what they were buying into, as they all had worked their way up through the company’s ranks, starting with packing jobs in the warehouse. This experience gives them an extensive understanding of all aspects of the business along with a hands-on approach: on the day Images visited, the three of them were back on the factory floor, happily helping out the production team, covering stasickness and holidays. 

[L-R] Zoltan, Damian and Zsolt completed a management buyout of Fifth Column in 2017

Proactive lead generation

For all their experience, it was still a nerve-racking decision to go ahead with the management buyout, admits Zsolt, and it still is at times. But that hasn‘t stopped them from pushing ahead with their ambitious investment and growth plans. The first part of the plan when they took over was to increase Fifth Column’s company’s clients were mainly bands, but it subsequently expanded into work for charities and breweries, and local companies and large corporates. Previously, work had come from repeat orders and recommendations, which were considerable, but to achieve faster growth the company now adopts an increasingly proactive approach towards potential clients. Along with the sales team pitching for business, it has become more active on social media, with Instagram being its favoured channel. It’s a strategy that appears to be working. “Instagram is about photos rather than text: it‘s so easy to show our customers or future customers a nice colour separation or a print,“ says Zsolt.

These marketing activities have increased customer demand, which in turn has required Fifth Column to expand its production capability by investing in new machinery. The last few months have seen the installation of both a new MHM S-Type Xtreme carousel and a Pro-Cure dryer from Adelco, which is Carbon Trust-approved and promises low emissions. Both MHM and Adelco are brands that Fifth Column has stuck with for many years simply because their machines have the best specs, according to Zsolt. Another shrewd purchase was the company’s Spyder II computer-to-screen system, which it bought soon after moving to Tottenham. “It‘s much more accurate than putting anything on films – it‘s money well spent,“ Zsolt comments. A more recent addition is the embroidery department at the back of the factory, which houses two Tajima machines – a single-head with a sewing area that measures more than one-metre wide, and an eight- head. These machines were bought at the same time as the new carousel and dryer. In-house embroidery is a new departure for the company– it previously outsourced all its embroidery orders – but Dawn, who runs the department, has 10 years of experience, so it was able to hit the ground running.

There are three sewing stations in the unit

More and more customers are asking for water-based and discharge inks, says Zsolt

Core technology

One area that Fifth Column has yet to investigate is DTG. “It something for the future. I don‘t think the technology is there right now. The core of our business for the next few years is definitely going to be screen printing and embroidery,“ says Zsolt. Speciality inks will play a part in this future with the company being particularly impressed by Magna Colours’ new special eects formulations. Zsolt also notes the growing customer demand for water-based and discharge inks, with Magna’s inks once again being the go-to solution; “They are brilliant,‘ he confirms.

Stock is held on a large mezzanine area and includes Stanley/Stella garments – Fifth Column is one of the brand’s three UK distributors. It has been distributing Stanley/Stella’s 100% organic cotton and mainly recycled polyester garments for five years now, and in September won an award for Best Performer from the brand. It’s obvious that the company is extremely proud of the award, which came as a complete surprise, admits Zsolt. With its production facilities sorted, the company’s current priority is its website: it‘s been nine years since it was last updated, so a new site complete with a dedicated area for Stanley/Stella is next on the cards.

Fifth Column has paid the London Living Wage for five years

There is growing customer demand for water-based and discharge inks

Ethical ethos

Amidst all the changes one thing has remained constant at Fifth Column throughout – its ethos, with the company remaining resolutely ethical in all it does. Stamembers have been paid the London Living Wage since 2013 and zero hours contracts (and the insecurity these can bring) are not permitted. The aim is to treat stawell, and the result is loyal employees that “stick around for a good number of years“, confirms Zsolt.The company now recycles “pretty much“ all the waste it produces and promotes the use of ethical, organic cotton garments. “We try and educate customers, rather than pushing them or trying to convince them,“ Zsolt explains. “The choice is theirs, but for example, if someone comes to us saying, ‘I want to start a clothing brand,‘ – which we hear a lot – we show them a standard T-shirt and compare it to a Stanley/Stella. The price dierence might be significant to them, say one pound between the two garments, but the end product has so much more value.”

So what is the key to Fifth Column’s longevity and continued success? Zsolt’s response is immediate and unequivocal: “Transparency. Our prices are on our website. Whoever comes to us, they can have a look at the price list. We get a lot of feedback from customers saying, ‘I like your transparency, because we know what to expect from you guys‘. Customers can also come in to approve their first prints, even if it’s just a simple, one-colour design and they want to make sure that the red is exactly the right Pantone. Some come in to take photos and put something on their social media – a ‘how it‘s made‘ sort of thing,” he adds.

It’s remarkable to think that Fifth Column has been operating as a successful screen print and garment decoration shop since the summer of street parties, Union Jack hats and the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. The company has grown and evolved over that time along with the textile screen printing industry, yet equally remarkably, given the ever more competitive market in which it operates, it continues to be driven by the same principles, values and ideals adopted by the five young punks who started the business more than four decades ago.