Aloof aims to shine a light on the best brands and companies operating in the independent market right now, from all over the world. Those under the radar of the wider consciousness but with great stories to tell and a unique perspective on the nuts and bolts of building a brand.
During our interview with Dangerfield Mills, we were put on to another Scottish bag maker, in the form of Whitehill Mercantile Co. Although they share those two things in common - Bags and Scotland, they couldn't be making more dissimilar products. We caught up with John over Christmas to get a better understanding of the pressures of Scottish textile heritage, his bag rotations and which camouflage looks best on the streets of Glasgow.
Aloof Studio (AS): Could you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what you do?
Whitehill Mercantile Co. (WM): Hi, I’m John and I run Whitehill Mercantile Co. The name comes from Whitehill Street in Glasgow, where I was born. I also freelance for other fashion brands where I’m involved in Production and Development.
AS: Your bags show a meeting of traditional craftsmanship and contemporary design. How do you strike the balance between the two?
WM: It’s probably not a conscious decision, I’d hate to think of my bags as being poorly made or not lasting, so that’s the first requirement when I go to make something. I have a load of bags that I take inspiration from and love looking over vintage examples as you can see how well things were made back then. At the end of the day, there’s people out there who do fantastic things with bags, way beyond what I would need from one or could do, but I appreciate what they do and if I can carve a wee spot for my simple and well made bags that people enjoy, I’m happy.
AS: Scotland has a really proud history of quality textile manufacturing. Did you, or do you, feel pressure to live up to expectations placed on being a ‘Made In Scotland' brand?
WM: Fucking hell, not until now! It always felt important from the offset to be known as a Glaswegian/Scottish brand, but I wanted to avoid the connotations of jumping on the slang or comedy side of things (there’s people that do that well and others who do it badly). It would be really easy to get stuff made overseas but trying to produce here makes me happier. There really seems to be a movement at the moment to return to things being made locally and there's a good attention to detail that comes naturally with that.
AS: You worked on a collaboration with ReJean, a zero waste denim maker. How was the challenge of working with offcuts of different sizes, weights and textures?
WM: I really enjoyed it! I try not to waste any of the fabrics that I pick up, so I end up with loads of strange shaped offcuts that sit around. It’s also why some of the fabrics pop up again and again. It was great to be able to put them into something that tied both our styles together but had the same message.
AS: Your bags often feature materials that will age personally to the user, such as denim, waxed cotton and leather. What’s your personal bag rotation like? Are you working with one bag to really break it in or do you rotate through different styles?
WM: I can’t stick with one for too long, I’ll try out any new styles that I particularly like to make sure it’s up to the task and then swap them around for a bit. There’s also a host of inspiration bags from my past, or stuff that I’ve picked up elsewhere, that I use to see if I can get something from. I’m never without a bag!
AS: You’ve been experimenting fairly recently with non-accessories. Are there plans for a fully-fledged clothing line alongside the bags?
WM: Initially, I set out to make a clothing line but I found myself constantly working on some bags! I will always love a bag but now the desire to have some garments running alongside them has come back and I find myself with a bit more patience to work on the clothing side. I want to have a little collection of clothing and keep it as small batch productions like the bags.
AS: As a camouflage enthusiast, have you got a particular type of camo that you personally favour?
WM: There are so many and it changes frequently! At the moment, these are high on my list: Swiss Alpenflage, German Flecktarn, the Swedish and Danish Camo and, finally, the Mitchell Camo, which I have had a really tricky job of trying to source.
AS: Our initial introduction to you was from Dangerfield Mills, another fantastic bag maker. Are there any people or brands you’re a big fan of at the moment that you think deserve our attention?
WM: Chris’ stuff is great and I’ve had plenty of chats with him pouring over fabrics and trim. As mentioned earlier, working with Siobhan at Rejean was great, I like what she does and I also really like what The Blank Faces are doing and their ethos. I also have to mention Everyday Garments, I really like how they continuously put out new products, keeping the runs small and interesting. It’s great to see smaller brands emerging.
AS: How does Whitehill Mercantile grow and get bigger whilst still keeping the level of attention to detail and quality it has now?
WM: I ask myself that all the time! Certain things need to scale up and I definitely need to add another level of professionalism to things, especially when it comes to the photography and website. I’ve recently been introduced to a great machinist who is helping me with the garment side of things and I think this is a good step to help scale things. It still keeps it small enough to keep the quality levels where I want and still make everything in Glasgow, but also allows me to step outside my comfort zone.
AS: You introduce new patterns regularly and have taken on everything from wash bags to kit bags. Do shapes often get left on the cutting room floor or do you work on a continuous basis of re-working patterns to get things right?
WM: I have a load of half finished things hanging around and sitting in boxes. Sometimes I start something full of excitement and part way through realise I’ve lost interest in it or it’s not going where I want. I do like to revisit them and very often they are the starting point for something totally different.
AS: What can we expect to see from Whitehill Mercantile Co. in the near future?
WM: Clothes! It’s definitely something I’m looking to add. They have to be something that compliments the bags and something that I like and would wear myself. I've made quite a few bags where I've wondered what I was thinking when they're finished, so I want to avoid that with the clothes. I’m currently working on finalising two trouser styles and I’m looking at some outerwear, but I know I need to keep working on my new found patience to make sure I don't rush them!