1. Hey guys, can you introduce yourselves and give us a brief history of Scramble?
Matt: Scramble is a streetwear and fightwear brand based in the UK. We've been around since 2009 (incorporated 2010 officially). We make technical equipment as well as street clothing for fans and practitioners of modern combat sports like Brazilian jiu jitsu, mixed martial arts and grappling.
I lived in Japan for four years, and when I returned to the UK, the economy collapsed. (I like to think those two events are not related.) Jobs were hard to come by and despite a lot of confidence in myself and my abilities, I could only find dead end office work. I was obsessed with the martial arts industry of Japan, which at that time was evolved way beyond what we had in the UK and the USA, with established brands on equal footing with some of the biggest fashion brands over there. I imported some products to sell on to hungry UK and USA collectors but the margins were crap. During a meeting in Tokyo, a friend planted the seed in my head – "You should design and sell your own stuff rather than import someone else's". I decided to try it, starting with tees. I sold a fair few, and then added some hoodies into the range. The basic design premise of Scramble was a clean typographic style with some Japanese characters. My long time school friend Ben came on board and I convinced him to plug our meagre capital into making spats (grappling tights) for fighters. We made them in China and somehow managed to convince the Western world that fighting men needed to wear skin tight lycra spats in order to train. Those spats were our breakthrough product and we now sell all kinds of clothing as well as jiu jitsu kimonos (full martial arts uniforms like worn in judo), and rash guards (worn under the kimono or on its own during grappling) all over the world. We have a dedicated US website and warehouse, and around 20 to 30 resellers worldwide. We both also work full time on the brand.
Ben: When Matt and I met up after his return from Japan I had recently lost my job in the financial meltdown. We met up over a coffee where Matt showed me some of the designs he'd already released, and we had a pretty productive half hour where we came up with some cool ideas for products. I think we both realised after that coffee that we could work well together and we incorporated Scramble shortly afterwards. The real breakthrough happened after the release of the first version of our grappling spats. I wasn't sold on the product at all, but we both trust each others judgement and Matt convinced me that they were worth taking a gamble on. It was then that we started getting a lot of interest from resellers and retail customers. We never borrowed any money to start the brand and because of this our growth has been pretty organic. After four years of trading we're still learning, but it's been a great ride so far and it's great being able to work with friends and some of the athletes who I've looked up to since discovering MMA.
2. How important is the world of martial arts to your brand? Do you guys actively train or compete?
Matt: Martial arts is the core of our brand. Both Ben and I train. I've been training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for almost 10 years, and I have a brown belt. The first thing we put down when we moved into our current warehouse was the matted area for training. Martial arts, and in particular the modern combat sports such as jiu jitsu and MMA, are our touchstone, the thing that gives us our authenticity. We have both trained for much longer than we have been doing Scramble. It's a part of us. We use that as a base for designs, for themes, and also for how we conduct ourselves generally. We're lucky in a way because the martial arts has a very strong history and culture associated with it that we can tap into, but it also has a vibrant community that has embraced the internet and social media, through which we are able to communicate to our customer base.
I used to compete fairly frequently but after three dislocated shoulders and a business and family to look after, competing has taken a back seat. I hope to compete in 2014 though.
Ben: It was our mutual love for martial arts that led us to work together. We'd watched our first UFC together at school on a VHS tape in the sixth form common room. Nine years later when Matt visited the UK whilst he was living in Japan, we found out we were both training, and it was from there that we discussed incorporating Scramble and having a decent run at creating a popular brand. We've found that as things get busier with the business it gets harder to find the time to train, but the first purchase we made when we moved into the warehouse was enough mats to form a training area. It's good to break up some of the day with some drills or pads, and it's a handy way to settle any office disagreements.
3. Was your intention to set up a standalone sports apparel brand, or have you always had your eye on the fashion market? If so, are there any brands in particular that influence you?
Matt: Our intentions are constantly in flux, but initially we just wanted to make cool stuff that we and our friends could wear. The next step was training apparel meaning rash wear and jiu jitsu gis / kimonos. Gis are the heavy cotton uniforms similar to those in judo, and rash wear is the polyester / spandex based skin tight clothing used by athletes that is particularly popular in grappling, jiu jitsu and MMA. We've always dreamed of making really high quality sports apparel but due to high manufacturing minimums overseas, it has always been just out of reach until recently. Now we have a little breathing room and have built some solid foundations, we've been able to source some very high quality factories and meet their minimums for manufacturing. We have a number of t-shirts and a couple of hoodies that are built from the ground up and feature all the trimmings that you get excited about when you buy a product from your favourite brand.
The main brand that influenced me (as the lead designer) in the early days was the Japanese brand Reversal. They're essentially a modern offshoot of a martial arts brand that has been owned by the same family for three generations. They currently have a physical store in Tokyo that stands proudly alongside brands like Ralph Lauren and Gucci near the Omotesando area, which should give you an idea of the space in the market they occupy. They are a very prestigious (and expensive) brand and I've always looked to them for inspiration. There are a number of other Japanese brands I like to keep tabs on (and spend money on when I visit) like Bakaretsu Ranman Musume. I always check out the shops and magazines like Samurai, Japonica Blood and this ridiculous yakuza fashion magazine Soul Japan.
Mainly, though, we've done our own thing, using martial arts and Japanese culture as reference points. It isn't until recently that we've started really taking notice of how the street / sports apparel world works.
Ben: I love the way that Betabrand operate. Their whole brand identity and the way that they interact with their customer base is a perfect example of the brand owners’ personality shining through. I find that a lot more appealing than the corporate wall that some mainstream brands hide behind, where you can't help but feel that every release has been vetted and signed off on.
4. Speaking of fighter fashion, do you think we’re finally moving on from the dark ages of ‘tribal tattoo & skulls’ MMA brands?
Matt: Definitely. In fact I almost think we've gone completely the other way. When we first started about four years ago, the MMA and modern martial arts "fashion" industry was a dark and depressing place. It was contest to see who could put the most barbed wire on the most skulls with the most wings and daggers and boobies on the blackest shirt with the cheapest plastisol print. We tried to provide an alternative and that definitely helped us find our niche. We offered clean, type-driven designs and sought out the best printing methods. It stood us in good stead, but the industry exploded rapidly and we saw a lot of other companies appearing with almost carbon copies of our own manifesto. We're not saying they all imitated us, but the industry definitely suddenly got tired of the same old depressing imagery, all at around the same time.
I famously vowed never to have a skull on a design, but one of our most popular t-shirts has a hand-drawn skull on it. I now feel that the industry has swung almost the other way completely, with loads of small brands with a copy of Illustrator and a bunch of free fonts pumping out clean and colourful designs. I'm feeling the call of the dark side again, for sure.
It's not that we're against skulls or tribal tattoos (OK, maybe we are against tribal tattoos) but it's against the unimaginative, repetitive use of skulls on every single t-shirt. But that's kind of a straw man because no one in their right mind releases the kind of tat that was gotten away with five years ago.
Ben: It certainly seems that way. A lot of the current brands are starting to change their manifesto regarding the "Facepunch Fightdeath" style that was popular early on. There seems to be a much more concerted effort to put out high quality gear, and I think we'll start to see the brands that don't follow suit struggle to keep up.
5. What are your proudest achievements with Scramble so far? Anything exciting in the pipeline that you can share with us?
Matt: We've had a number of things to be proud of. We never took out a loan or borrowed any money, which we're thankful for every day. We don't owe anyone. Probably the thing I'm most proud of at the moment is that we are working with the Japanese fighter Kazushi Sakuraba. This man is a living legend in mixed martial arts circles, a man who single handedly dismantled the Brazilian Gracie Family (also legends) and ignited a passion for MMA across the whole of Japan. I managed to meet up with him after years of trying, film a video interview, and then propose some apparel, which they got on board with. So far we've released t-shirt but plan to do some fightwear in 2014, starting with a rashguard.
The other things I feel proud of are our charity work – when the tsunamis hit Japan, we sold a shirt to raise money to send over there and we sold out of it repeatedly. We also ran the London Marathon and raised money for MIND and Barnardos, and then recently we raised about £15,000 by selling a t-shirt in aid of the Philippines Typhoon victims.
Ben: The charity work has been incredibly fulfilling. The way the MMA and BJJ communities have gotten behind both ours and collaborative charity efforts has been really inspiring. Without Scramble we wouldn't have had the platform to achieve this, so I'm grateful for that.
In terms of the actual business, my proudest moment has been being able to go full time in a company where I actually look forward to Monday mornings. Both Matt and myself juggled numerous jobs and worked some pretty horrendous hours whilst we got Scramble off the ground, so it was rewarding to be able to just concentrate on doing something we enjoy without having to worry about anything else.
6. Finally, do you have any advice for young brands starting out?
Matt: Start now (you should have started sooner.) Don't borrow money. Be original. Give really good customer service.
Ben: There's a load of great free resources out there for people wanting to start up a business, and support for business owners once things are underway. It's worth checking to see if there are any local business mentors around. We received some invaluable guidance from a business mentor volunteer who helped point us in the right direction for getting information on everything from cashflow forecasting to helping us source our current warehouse. Try not to get too over-faced with what can sometimes seem like a never ending list of things to do. Cross things off one at a time and if you can delegate responsibilities to help you get things done then try and do so. Don't become a bottle-neck.
Interview by SeanM