Hidden away in the foothills of the Peak District is the city of Sheffield. Once the steel capital of the world, it has, like many other northern UK cities experienced both the lows of industrial decline and more recently a cultural renaissance. One of the companies making their voice heard and building an exciting new business from the embers of Sheffield's rich history is Mamnick. An outspoken menswear and accessories company that above all else is celebrating a slower-paced independent lifestyle. The visionary behind Mamnick is Thom Barnett, a keen cyclist and self-styled “worlds most controversial CEO” who’s unique tongue-in-cheek marketing style has at times courted controversy but also gained a strong following of loyal customers both in the UK and Japan.
I’ve been following Thom’s journey since it’s inception in 2012 after stumbling across the Mamnick website. After some enjoyable chats at a couple of events and exchanging a few emails, we arranged to sit down for an in-depth chat about the world of Mamnick and what ‘YOMPING’ is all about.
We hope you enjoy the conversation.
Did you always want to start your own company or was it something more organic?
I’ve worked many different jobs. I’ve sold cookies, I retailed glasses and watches and I’ve stacked shelves in supermarkets, but it was when I started dealing in vintage clothing that I began to fully understand and appreciate the art of buying and selling. However, I quickly realised this only taught me the pragmatic elements of running a business and there was this creative and design side which I wanted to explore more.
Where did the idea for Mamnick begin?
At school, I was always doing something creative and ended up studying photography and fine art at university. When I finished my degree I had already decided that I didn’t want to work for anybody else anymore, I was also getting a little fed up of spending all my time running around trying to chase vintage clothes. So I decided to create a unique brand with products that you can only buy direct. That way I would have total control over the manufacture and production. This became Mamnick.
I was lucky to meet a couple of Japanese gentlemen who used to buy vintage clothing and they agree to take some of my first production, which helped me start the ball rolling. After designing two shirts and a couple of pieces made from Sheffield Steel, I launched Mamnick online in 2012 and built the collection up each year since then.
The initial success of my original collections really built my confidence and pushed me on. Now in year seven we have produced over seventy products.
How has growing up in Sheffield influenced your work?
I born in Rotherham, 10 miles away from Sheffield centre. I’ve always followed brands and always liked clothing and fabric. I think that is quite common for lads growing up in working-class communities. Also became interested in art and design when I was at school too, I think all that has been rolled together to make what Mamnick is today.
It seems from an outsider's perspective that Mamnick is built on more than a desire to make and sell. Is there an underlying philosophy that guides your decisions?
Yes, I take it as a compliment. Sometimes some products have happened very quickly but to be honest it wouldn’t have been possible for that to happen in our first year, as building trusting relationships with factories makes things run a lot smoother now. Once they are onside it makes moving forward and the process of creation much quicker.
There are definitely two sides of Mamnick: The celebration of the Peak District and riding my bike, that is represented through my cyclist products and the concept of ‘Yompin’. Then there is the Sheffield Steel side, a bit of that is through my grandfather who used to work in the steel industry. There were very few people making and celebrating Sheffield Steel products when I started the brand, now there are a few brands that are popping up here.
Those two narratives run side by side. This eclectic mix feels authentic to me because everything goes through me and Mamnick is a representation of how I like to work and live.
Made in Sheffield, Contemporary design and your lifestyle are all combined into Mamnick, do you think you have found a good balance?
I try to be the most honest as possible. I do small runs of products and don’t do wholesale and because of this approach, this gives me free time for the bike. Riding the bike is where I get all my ideas from. You need to find your balance, it sounds a little bit Buddhist to find the yin and yang compromise. Sometimes I look at myself “oh! I’ve been lucky” but not really, all the manufactures and people that I met they have shown a great amount of trust in me. They have invested in my vision and also added to it.
Do you think building a brand around a community and creating products locally is an outdated way to do business?
I’m not sure if it is an old way to do business, I’ve only been doing this for 5 years. It seems like it has always been that way but now with the rise of the internet, it is much easier to reach people/customers. I don’t work with any overseas factories at the moment, with the exception of our Japanese made collections (identified by the black label).
I work with people locally because they are the best people to work with, in making what I want them to make. In that sense, I’ve been very lucky geographically.
Do you find cycling is an integrated part of your life, or as a way to escape of your life?
Well, I think cycling is part of my life because I’ve got time to do it. Maybe I’ll arrive at a point where Mamnick’s demands so much of my time that I need to work from Monday to Friday late and riding only on weekends. Right now, it depends more on the weather! if I wasn’t raining right now then I wouldn’t be doing this podcast, I would be riding my bike!
There are numerous myths surrounding people who run businesses relating to working patterns and rituals such as waking up at 5 am or drinking 10 cups of coffee. Do you have a unique approach or ritualistic pattern to enable you to achieve success?
It changes from day-to-day depending on my responsibilities. You never know what it is going to happen. I use a diary and a pen, every morning I wake up and go “right, this is what is happening today or these are the responsibilities that I have to get done” But sometimes I get a call from a manufacturer and I need to go to check the colour of a collar of something like that. One thing that I have learnt is that you have to be very disciplined. It can sound like you have your life sorted out when you have time to ride your bike, but I can only do that thanks to being organised really.
It’s inspiring to see what one person with a laptop can build thanks to the internet, could you have done this without the world wide web?
I think is something relatively new on our generation. In the past, the products need to go through a shop and you needed a salesman but today I can do the design and meet the people to produce it then sell and ship to a customer on the other side of the world without needing any other employees.
If I don’t know how to design something I contact people who do, like for example Jamie from Bantom frameworks. We only shared a couple of emails, we never meet in real life and we have ended up producing a collaboration range of sunglasses that we sell directly to our customers.
When it comes to connecting with customers, social media has been an amazing asset. For instance when Instagram introduced ‘Stories’ I thought that it would be an opportunity to do something interesting and memorable. I mean, I can obviously stick product shoots on the feed, but I always try to go against what everyone else does, for bad or good.
At the end of the day, it’s all just a constant experiment really, you have to be prepared to takes risk to stand out from the herd. The community is out there ready for your product and it’s down to you to build a relationship and communicate with them.
Do you feel you have anti-establishment angle of what you do?
I feel I’m more stubborn. I don’t like the idea of authority. I always have my eyes and ears open and always try to ask the difficult question. Being an independent and small brand enables me to interact with my customers in a different way than bigger brands can.
There is a Mamnick store in Tokyo, did you find it easy to access the Japan market?
It was easy for me. I mean before Mamnick I met Osamu and we build up a strong relationship. Also, he showed a lot of enthusiasm for Mamnick when I first started. For him, it was easy to introduce the brand to Japan because he has a core audience interested in British design. I trust him.
An interesting thing about our relationship is that when I met Osamu, he didn’t speak any English. Even now his English is very broken and he finds it difficult at times, but we seem to have a common language that we speak and that only we understand. It sounds pretty weird! My girlfriend said, “I don’t understand, how have you ended up growing this business together, all you do it look each other and laugh?!” but this gives us unique freedom and we don’t suffer from a conflict of vision.
Opening the store in Tokyo was a great opportunity. I think for me it was just being in the right place, at the right time.
We spoke previously about the cost of producing in the UK and how taking a unique approach and going direct can bring the cost back down to a realistic price.
It's a fresh approach to the retail, I own all my own products and I can set my own prices. I’m not interested in fashion trends. I try to look at everything I make for Mamnick as a product with a price. These products have a value and I respect that value regardless of the time in a specific season.
YOMP is the acronym of “ Your Own Marching Pace” Whether that is walking, riding or designing.
The same is said for selling. I’m getting my products to my customers for an amazing price because I don’t need to buy huge stock, engage in discounting or expensive marketing.
Do you believe there is a London centric bias to the UK, and if so does this impact your Mamnick in any way?
I think there is, and as a result, I get noticed more by not being down there! I remember before starting Mamnick, I was riding around the Peak District - I stopped at the top of a climb to look across the valley. I remember thinking “that looks amazing! Why aren’t there more people doing this?” And when I started Mamnick I decided the company needed to reflect this, not just in the brand image but in practice. I’m not the first person to go to the Peak District on a bike, but I hope I’ve helped to put it on the map.
I like London, but it costs a lot to live there. I would just end up having to work full time for somebody else, selling my time for money and in the end have no freedom. Especially no freedom to exercise my creative muscles. I found that approach to life an unnecessary struggle and a trap. We live in a free world and we don’t have to, for example, be stuck in traffic every day.
Maybe to some people, Sheffield sounds duff because is a little town, but it’s given me a huge amount of freedom.
I hope when people see me riding the bike that maybe they are inspired to do something they love. If they are are not interested in my products, that's fine, what’s more, important is that they are motivated to start doing what they’ve always wanted to do.
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To find out more about Thom and Mamnick please click the links below;