There’s only one role that could’ve tempted Lead Menswear Designer Todd away from London. He takes us through his inspirations, from bike polo to travelling to marine hardware, sharing how Cornwall and Finisterre came to feel like home.
“I'm originally from Grimsby on the north-east coast, and when I left school it was my focus to get the hell out of there as quick as possible. It was important for me to channel my creativity somewhere. Before I knew it, I was leaving, aged 18, to study at Central St Martins. I spent the next 16 years of my life in London. I ended up doing some graphic design, some freelance fashion design, some illustration, and I worked in retail for a while. Along the way everything shaped who I am.
I lost interest in the kind of fashion I’d been doing through the university, and became interested in fashion for function and for a purpose. I started my own little eco-streetwear brand in 2004. I’d become very aware of sustainability and there wasn't much of it happening then. I was there in London, and on the other side of the country Tom Kay was figuring out what his brand was going to be.
I didn't find out about Finisterre until years later, when I was in a bike polo team (like ice hockey on bikes). We’d travel all around Europe, playing these huge tournaments. One of the French teams was wearing these black Finisterre jackets. They all looked so cool, so I started chatting to them, asking, ‘What's Finisterre? What's this brand? It looks amazing.’ I couldn't believe it was from Cornwall. As soon as I got back to London I was straight on the internet and I fell in love from there.
I wasn't a surfer but I've always had a passion for living by the ocean, being from Grimsby and having a family that were all fisherman. I could see what Finisterre was doing and I knew I wanted to be involved in some way. It wasn't until a few years later that I saw a position pop up on the website, and that was it for me. I couldn't stop going on the website and checking. I'd been looking at that job ad for about a year, and then there was a mind shift. I just said, ‘I'm going to apply’. They invited me down for two days, and I designed our first jean there and then. And that was it. I’d not driven for 17 years but I hired this long base van, we filled it with all our belongings, got the map out and moved to Cornwall. When we put out our first denim jean, it was exactly as I'd drawn it in that meeting.
From the day I started it was: what are we going to achieve? What are we going to do? At the time, the brand had never done a collaboration, so I used some of my old contacts to start conjuring up products that would tell our story. One of the first collabs we did was a knife with Joseph Rodgers. They’ve been knife-making for 500 years in Sheffield using British steel. I had to sell them a story that wasn't quite there yet; it was a promise of who we were going to become, rather than who we were at that moment. It was saying: ‘This is what we're trying to achieve, it's all about adventure, being out of the water and in the water and back out again, living in that environment, being self-sufficient and all the things that go with it.’ That small product was quite a pinnacle moment. They sold out in about five days, and it got so much traction. It was all about introducing something to the brand that made sense and expanded the customer's mindset of who we were. And then the collaborations all started rolling.
“I had to sell them a story that wasn't quite there yet. It was a promise of who we were going to become, rather than who we were at that moment.”
When I ended up speaking to the head of design at Vans in California, he said: ‘Let's make shoes, I love Finisterre, this is great.’ And that's what we'd achieved in such a small space of time through all the elements of the brand. I didn't need to sell them anything. They wanted a part of what we were, and that felt like such an achievement. If we want to do something now, it really feels possible. It’s led to key collaborations that are more about the feeling and ethos of the brand, like the RNLI and Christopher Raeburn. It's quite nice to use these moments to do the unexpected.
We're doing the groundwork and laying the foundations for big companies to come along and have an easier ride, when we're sourcing all of our materials. There's a list of questions we've been asking for years: Is it recycled? Where does that recycled content come from? Can it be recycled further? Is it organic? It's amazing how much easier it’s become. Five years ago, we were limited to what we could use. But we meet suppliers a year later, and they say: 'You'll never guess what, we've had more people asking for that, you were right all along.'
When you're small it's limiting, but it's never stopped us. We're always pioneering and pushing boundaries. It’s the greatest thing when people catch up with our mindset. The Econyl thing came from working with a small company turning regenerated fishnets back into a nylon yarn. We were one of the first to use it, but it's more common in the market now. That’s a great achievement for us. A lot of our success is in educating other people, helping them achieve what we're trying to achieve. It has a major effect on what's going on with the world and the environment. Everybody needs to be on board to make the right change.
“It's quite amazing seeing our tiny Cornish brand having this total ripple effect.”
Vans stand for everything we stand for in terms of surf culture but, for our first collaboration we didn’t have the opportunity to develop new materials. So I got back in touch and said, ‘I've got this idea, we need to keep working together, and this time it's got to be different.’ And it was all about the materials. They've since done a huge material sourcing mission for us and come back with recycled laces, recycled fabrics, vegan recycled materials – all cruelty-free products. I think it’s going to be the most eco set of shoes in their whole history, which is quite something. And off the back of that, they can introduce those materials into their own brand at a later stage. That's how true change can happen, and others will see what they're doing and jump on board. It's quite amazing seeing our tiny Cornish brand having this total ripple effect.
I've always wanted to be a designer who has a voice within a brand, but is also able to carry the brand message onwards. I feel so involved, wherever I go, everything I'm looking at and thinking of is for the future of the brand. It's not possible to come here and not fall in love with the place. This is home now.
Finisterre’s got open arms, we all do things together, and the good that we're trying to do in the business affects the good we're trying to do at home. Plastics awareness, recycling, and all those tiny values we adopt at work, we adopt at home too. The way I work and operate in this company has shaped how I live and work at home and connect in my own life. It’s a passion. I don't think there are many people that can say: ‘I really want to work for those people, in that position,’ and then go and do it. So I feel very lucky.
I have my own personal taste as to what I think is a good design. I also operate within what I feel is most useful for our customer. It's always a challenge, but every year it gets easier and more exciting for us. I most enjoy the creative side, especially working with the graphics and print. I get in contact with different artists around the world, and ask them if they want to contribute to our t-shirt range. Having those relationships is wonderful. And deciding what the new colours are going to be, what the new fabrics are going to be every season – how can you not be excited by that?
“Deciding what the new colours are going to be, what the new fabrics are going to be every season – how can you not be excited by that?”
I go everywhere for inspiration. Cornwall has changed a lot over the years, there's a lot more culture and design and people sticking around, which is great. It used to feel important to leave Cornwall to stay inspired, but now there's so much on our own doorstep. But I love getting out of the office and travelling round the world, seeing new things, discovering new brands, looking at random products and asking: ‘Should we do something like that?’
Some of the greatest ideas we ever had, we found right here. I could put together a product range based on the colour of that grass and these flowers – which is often the truth. It's a way of thinking that you develop and learn over the years. I could easily spend a day in a hardware store looking at all the marine chandlery and going through ropes and stuff, and it would give me enough ideas for about three seasons. I do have an eye on trends, but we try and lead through trends rather than follow.
I'm the only vegan in the company and it shapes a lot of what I'm doing. We're talking a lot as a company about microplastics and preserving the ocean, but I'm looking at other things too: animal agriculture, the strain on the land, and how that affects the ocean. I’m not saying we’d need to go vegan, we have a love affair with wool and I do my hardest to make sure animal welfare is a huge priority within that category. But I think it’s important to be aware of the rise of veganism. Without trying to preach, I think it's the way forward. The company won an RSPCA award in 2013 and it's time to start winning more awards. Product, Environment, People... and Animals!
Just because we're on a cliff on the edge of Cornwall doesn't mean to say that life is easy – we work incredibly hard. It’s beyond what I ever did in London. People come and they fall in love with the company and they give everything. It’s quite astonishing. Tom is incredibly lucky to have all these people who believe in the brand and see so much potential.
Part of it is that we've got all these outside elements right next to us. If work gets on top of you, you can come down for your lunch and sit right here on this bench or take a dip. My background with the sea was very industrial, and then in London I’d take my bike the whole length of the Thames and out to the ocean. It was amazing to come here and look down at the green and blue water, which I didn't think existed! I spend a lot of time on the coastal paths, paddle boarding, swimming, and my bike's still everything. Except this time round it's got loads of gears and not just one…
I want to keep pushing Finisterre forward, taking the company in directions it's not always 100% comfortable with. And to open new doors, work with new people and help to shape this brand so that more people fall in love with us.”
View the Fifteen Years Collection Here | Images by Abbi Hughes