Sometimes in fashion all it takes is a keen eye for aesthetics and your own jack-jones enthusiasm in order to make a real success of something. London-based music aficionado Tom Morgan knows this all too well, having just launched his own bespoke clothing company specialising in vibrant handmade suits from Ghana. Part of London DJ collective Brand New Wayo (known for pushing up-front music from new artists alongside classic and obscure records from decades past) Tom is quite clearly a creative at heart, and since its launch earlier this month High Life Tailored has been cooking up quite a storm.
We caught up with Tom to get all the facts on his exciting new endeavour, with a full interview below. He’s also kindly offering our readers a special 10% discount using the code STW10, so head to the High Life Tailored website to redeem your voucher, and keep in touch on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Thinking back to the Brand New Wayo takeover at our Autonomous Africa party in January, you were all kitted in High Life Tailored, right? Has this been an idea in the works for a while?
That was a great night! Thanks again for having us down. It actually turned out to be quite pivotal in the making of High Life. The reaction to the suits at Corsica was so good. People were taking photos and asking about them in the smoking area. The next day I got a call from a random number from a guy I’d spoken to the night before saying I said I’d hook him up with a suit. It got me thinking and I sounded it out with some friends and thought why not, there’s been a great response. So it kind of snowballed from there, to here.
What gave you the original idea, and what prompted you to turn that idea into a viable business?
I saw a shot a few years ago of someone wearing a Senegalese pattern in a Western suit style and loved it. So when I went out to Ghana in November to shoot a doc, and stumbled across The Arts Centre downtown in Accra and found these crazy colourful patterns, that original image came to mind and I made it my mission that day to find a tailor who would turn the six yards I’d bought into a suit. Initially he was a bit surprised, as he’d never made a suit like this before. But he was made up with the result. He’s not part of the current team of tailors who work with High Life, but I know he’s now doing the same for Ghanaians!
It was the reaction when I posted a photo of the suits on Facebook from all my friends, and then when I got home and played at Corsica that made me think it would work. High Life is about high quality, tailored suits that buck the trend, stand out and inject some life into an otherwise pretty mundane outfit.
What was it about highlife culture that attracted you on a business level?
So High Life is the name of a genre of music that came out of Ghana in the 70s, but it’s also a way of life. Much like hip hop is a music and a culture, High Life to Ghanaians is about aspiration and striving for the best. It fits for the suits because it’s a uniquely Ghanaian way of thinking, as the suits are uniquely Ghanaian in their patterns.
I saw a gap, for people who want to look smart but don’t want to conform, and want originality and that’s what we’re about.
As a photographer and videographer, how important is the visual aspect of HLT?
Really important. The colours and vibrancy of the designs are everything. Sarah Jones [The Staple] produced and art directed the shoot. It’s so important to have strong images that catch the eye, so for both the video and the photos we knew we had to get it right. All this said, no image can do the suits justice – you have to see them in the flesh!
What’s the process of an HLT suit being made?
It’s really simple. That was key. If you need, we’ll send you a tape measure to size yourself up, along with a printed measurement guide that outlines each of the measurements needed. Then you go to our website and choose the parts that make up the suit (jacket, trousers and waistcoat) and the accessories (tie, bow tie and pocket square) select from a range of 19 different fabrics and then input your measurements. I send the measurements and fabric choice through to my partner Grace in Accra who takes the fabric to the tailors and gets the ball rolling. Grace checks the suits once they’re finished, sends them to me in London, I give them a final check and then I send them.
How do you choose your suppliers and tailors?
The suppliers are street vendors in Downtown Accra at the textiles market. I went in to a shop and chose 19 designs from Akwesi who has a shop there. He buys the material from a supplier based in northern Ghana. Grace buys 12-24 yards at a time, depending on demand and then she takes them to the tailors.
The tailors were chosen primarily as they are friends of Grace and she knew the quality of their workmanship prior to my getting in touch. They’re experienced in the trade and make all kinds of clothing, but suits are their staple.
Can you talk about the charity side of things?
We have aligned with Wheel Life, a UK based initiative that helps to provide unused wheelchairs to people in Ghana who don’t have access to them. Millions of disabled people are ostracised by society due to traditional beliefs that are so embedded in the culture and leave disabled people behind. Believed to be cursed and a burden on both society and their family, we’ve met so many neglected people who struggle every day and are forced to beg for hours on skateboards or crutches. When people buy a suit they can choose to donate any amount towards Wheel Life, who will put the money towards sending out wheelchairs from the UK.
Do ethical or fair trade values play a role in HLT?
The tailors work in their original workplace, and are not tied to High Life. They have many other jobs come in and fit High Life suits into their schedule as and when they can (hence why it can take longer than three weeks to turn a suit around). They are paid the rate they set from the outset, with no negotiations. Their daily wage as paid by High Life is ten times the average minimum daily wage rate in Ghana and they’re key to the operation, and are treated as such.
How do you pick the patterns you work with? Do they have particular meanings or cultural significance?
There are hundreds of patterns to choose from! But those picked are ones that stood out to me and meant we had a broad range of colours and reflect the spectrum of Kente designs. I’ve since learnt from friends in Accra that each colour has a significant meaning, as below.
Kente was originally the fabric used by Royalty and Chiefs of different regions in Ghana, but has now become more widespread and mainstream.
- black— intensified spiritual energy
- blue—peacefulness, harmony and love
- green—vegetation, planting, harvesting, growth, spiritual renewal
- gold—royalty, wealth, high status, glory, spiritual purity
- grey—healing and cleansing rituals;
- maroon—the color of mother earth; associated with healing
- red – spiritual moods
- silver—serenity, purity, joy; assoc. with the moon
- white—purification, sanctification rites and festive occasions
- yellow—preciousness, royalty, wealth, fertility, beauty
What’s your favourite design and why?
I have two. Beema, the orange suit as it was the first one I had made and always gets such a great response. And Asyroma, as worn by Thris Tian. The colour combination is just so strong, and with the tie, it just comes together so well! But really I love them all. They’re all unique and have their own feeling.
Why ‘High Life Tailored’ not ‘Highlife Tailored’? Was this a move to separate what you do from the musical movement, or would you still like the spirit of highlife music to live on in your exploits?
I wanted High Life to be a nod to the music of the same name, but foremost about the cultural movement that is High Life. The music is a big part of it though. When I was in Accra in May I went to meet Ebo Taylor, the King of High Life and I showed him the suits and the logo and he loved it. So his whole band will be rocking the suits at gigs throughout Europe. Keep an eye out!
Music is a big part of what I do and I love the sounds of High Life. I will be throwing a launch party for High Life this summer and it’ll be a great excuse to play the sounds of Ghana and celebrate such a strong culture, through the suits and the Kente designs, and the music.
It’s also been great to see people engaging with High Life that otherwise might not have known about Kente fabrics and Highlife music. In that sense, we’re exposing Ghanaian culture to a new audience; the hope being that people want to learn more about, and celebrate the culture.
It’s nice to see some familiar faces in your look book (shouts to Andy and Thristian – it takes guts to pull off a polo-neck/jacket combo!). No disrespect to those two sartorial gentlemen, but if you could pick one celebrity endorsement what would it be?
Tough question. But to be told by Ebo Taylor, the King of High Life music that he wanted one was a massive buzz.
I’ve got Earl Zinger on board, and he’ll be rocking Beema. Doesn’t get better than Galliano.
What’s been the most challenging thing in setting up a clothing brand from scratch?
The tailored element. Having people input their own measurements and having a clear guide that makes the process has been a challenge but we did it! Massive thanks to Studio Jubilee are due for all their help with the design and the site.
Where would you like to be this time next year?
My ideal would be to get on to the tube for the morning commute and see someone wearing High Life. High Life is not a gimmick, or a festival one off. I really want people to shun the traditional black and grey, mundane suits and wear a High Life suit to work, weddings, parties and just in general. We’re in the 21st century now, everything is global. So let’s get rid of tradition and dullness. Don a High Life suit, you’ll feel like you’re changing things!
A final thought…how would you like people to feel when they put on a HLT suit?
Superfly. Confident. Fresh. That’s the only way I feel!