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Last week we were invited to hang out at the newly opened AONO & Co, the Brighton based flagship store of UK lifestyle brand AONO, comprising of a coffee shop and cutting rooms, as well as stocking the latest product from the brand.
It’s an exciting concept and a great addition to the world of barbering and the city of Brighton. It’s clear that a lot of hard work from those behind the store has gone in to making the feel of the space just right, with everything from the quality of the coffee to the relaxed environment of the cutting rooms, carefully considered to the needs of the customer. The space is still expanding, adding nice touches in a private cutting room downstairs as well as a tattoo studio with popular artist Adrian Willard, as they look to bring the AONO lifestyle together under one roof.
We were lucky enough to hang out with AONO owner Paul Hewitt and his partner at AONO & Co – Ollie, to talk about the history of the brand, the lifestyle around AONO and their new venture together. You can read the full interview below…
What’s the story behind AONO, how did you get started?
Paul: It was a passion project that started back in 2010. I really wanted to start a lifestyle brand and at the time I was buying all my favourite colours: black and white, I think I bought every black and white t-shirt you could find out there but nothing was really speaking to me and what I was about. You could get tattoo flash t-shirts but you couldn’t get much barbering stuff, you could get barber shop merch, but you had to buy it from America and it took forever to come in. So my thought was to try and bring everything together under one roof. It was first when I met my wife Anna, who was a graphic designer for different brands developing logos etc, we started coming up with some concepts. It took us about 6 months to design the logo, another four months to find the right t-shirts we wanted to use… did the logo, printed the first 20 t-shirts and sold them out the back of my car outside the barber shop in Hove. But then social media came about, where the following got more and more, and your reach started getting so much bigger. Other barbers and tattooists and skateboarders and musicians started wearing the brand and then from there it started to snowball…
Is it just yourself behind the brand or do you have a team?
Paul: I had the brand for two years, then when we started to do tradeshows and then in to wholesale and it got so big that I needed to bring in help. We wanted to go in to full production with cut & sew, and that obviously costs a lot of money. I sat down with a really good friend of mine called Mark and from that conversation he joined AONO. Now we have another director, a sales guy, a warehouse in Hove and then theres obviously the barber teams. So around two or three years ago I decided I needed help and more support to help the brand grow. We even have an operations director, so it’s gone from being such a small thing to growing substantially.
Did you always see yourself in barbering from a young age?
Paul: No! I started running bars and clubs from the age of 18, back in Southampton, spent three years in Tenerife and from Tenerife back to the UK and Brighton. Six months in to being back in England I met a hairdresser by the name of Mark Wooley who owns a big chain of salons all over the country called Electric and he taught me. I stayed there for four years and found I really enjoyed the mens cutting. But it was after I had left Electric, I was moving around doing my own thing for a bit, and one day I stumbled across a barber shop who needed some cover for a holiday. As soon as I stepped in there, 10 years ago now, it changed everything and I finally found what I wanted to do.
Why did you choose to set up shop in Brighton?
Paul: One reason was that it was my home and two it’s the most liberal city I know. I feel more at home here, so it just seemed like the right thing to do….
Was it ever an option to go to London with it?
Paul: No, I never wanted to. As soon as I met Anna (my wife) I was running barber shops for other people and when my first child Ruby came along then it was just like right, now it’s time to do our own thing because I needed to provide for my family. I never thought that this would happen, I never thought I would go in to business with Ollie, I never thought I would open up in Cologne, or do all what I’m doing now. I wanted a tiny little shop that would bring in enough money to provide for me, Anna and the kids and that was enough for me but then it just kinda snowballed out of control.
There are many different aspects to the AONO brand. Could you talk us through them?
Paul: So you’ve got AONO, the streetwear brand, AONO, the barber shop on Lewes Road in Brighton, AONO Cologne which is a barber shop over in Germany, and now you have AONO & Co which is where we are right now.
What lead you to this stage of opening a lifestyle store? And again why Brighton?
Ollie: It’s something that Paul and I had kicked around for a while in terms of a concept and merging both mine and his business together. It was obvious to me that to be truly successful we really needed to buy in to the AONO brand and the lifestyle business that Paul had created. So giving what I knew about food and the team that I have around me it seemed like a really easy fit. I was approached for the site on London Road by the landlord who originally thought that the Flour Pot (Ollie’s business) might be a really good opportunity to set up shop. To be honest we didn’t think it was quite right, it’s a different demographic than maybe my bakery business might appeal to, but from my point of view I didn’t want to risk letting the opportunity go because I know the street is on the way up, there’s investment and it’s a stones throw from the town, there’s University’s, a load of reasons as to why we should be here. We decided to put our heads together, throw some money in the pot and build a flagship for the AONO brand and business overall. There had to be some criteria we had to meet, we had to build a great barber shop, we had to build a great coffee shop, it had to be something that stands out and then maybe look at other alternatives to add to the experience by adding studios downstairs, one is going to be a tattoo studio with Adrian Willard and also a private cutting room for Paul….
Paul: Just to add to that, because the streetwear culture is changing, especially in Europe, and when you’re like us and you’re wholesaling, we are going up against high street fashion, I call it throw away fashion. You’re going up against the likes of Zara, H&M, Topman, even primark that are selling tees at the same price we are manufacturing. So at this time when it’s all a bit up in the air, you have stores closing down, they are changing their concept. Me and Ollie got talking over a haircut and we were saying how this is a lifestyle brand and it’s always been a lifestyle brand, we’ve always been consistent by never straying away from what we know. If I’m not cutting hair, I’m in the coffee shop or I’m hanging out with the family. This is something I’ve always wanted to introduce and there’s nothing really like this in the south. A barber shop is a barber shop, they will run themselves, and the trend is there at the moment so it’s on trend. But to bring in this… this is one of the best barber shop concepts you will find. We were talking the other day, you don’t want to queue outside a barber shop and having a queue is not great business for us, but having something like this where everyone can come and hang out, it’s great! Like right now you’ve got a guy getting his haircut and his wife’s just come in and chilled with a coffee, it’s good to see!
Ollie: There’s definitely an education element to this place too. We are more than just a barber shop, we are more than just a coffee shop, and because this formula doesn’t exist locally you need to get what it is we have out there. Of course people are loyal to their barbers and to change routines is quite a big thing, but we are aware of that. We just want to give people enough reason to come to AONO & Co. over anyone else. It’s not just about the money, it’s about creating something new and fresh and doing it right.
Paul: To have that strong history as a brand you need that consistency throughout. There’s no bullshit involved here, we’ve both been in the business for a long time, we’ve known each other for 10-15 years so we know each other well. Everyone I work with there needs to be a relationship, there needs to be trust. Everyone involved feels like this is the right time for this to happen .
Ollie: And as much as the relationship is important, it’s also about the resource that Paul brings, his experience in the industry. All these relationships that me and Paul have built over the years have kind of culminated in to this. It’s a great model, it’s certainly a business that can expand across Europe, London…that’s the future of AONO & Co.
How do you feel the space is a representative of the brand?
Paul: This is everything now. It’s all under one roof. You’ve got the barbering going on, you’ve got the clothing on display, people wearing the brand including the staff, great service, great music, great people hanging out. That’s all we wanted to achieve, just literally a melting pot of everything that is AONO.
We wanted it to be a place for the customers, that’s what the brand is about. A good environment, where we can make sure everything is right, the food is on point, the coffee is on point… the coffee machine for example, when Ollie was sat there saying this is the coffee machine we are getting and it’s that much, I was like wow OK. But then it’s exactly the same when I was talking about the barber chairs, he did the same face, but if we don’t have the best we aren’t going to be taken seriously and we wanted to invest in the best to give the best representation of AONO.
A lot of what you show of the brand is through a personal level, your work, your travels etc. Is this personality behind the brand important to AONO?
Paul: Yeah definitely. When I started off I said to myself, I’m not going to jump on that whole trend thing because if you portray something completely different to who you actually are you’re going to get caught out and people aren’t going to buy in to it. There’s a certain element of trust in it all and going back to the whole consistency thing, what you see is what you get with me and the brand. If I’m not here, I’m travelling, or I’ll be working with the other guys at the different spots. Yeah you know it’s easier to make shit up, a picture tells a thousand lies, but on Instagram what you see that’s my life, there’s no bullshit just a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifice as well. Me and Ollie have both sacrificed a lot to open this place up, and it takes a massive toll on our families, my business partners and everyone else involved. Theres a lot of sacrifice from those guys as well. I don’t think people really understand that through what they see, but I guess you’ve just got to get your head down and push forward.
Where do the main inspirations behind the brand lie?
Paul: Working with the people that I trust and people that I want to work with. And again it’s just the environment and the lifestyle that I am immersed in, it’s not all about the barbering but the things around it, the skateboarding, the tattooing, the music and now with the coffee culture and all that, it’s just bringing it all under one roof. The travel helps as well because your always finding inspiration in that. Bringing the guys like Shane (Nesbit) over from San Fran and the barbers that do guest spots and the clients we have in, you’re just building all the time ad learning as well.. consistently learning.
What do you hold as the main contributing factor to AONO’s success, not just in the UK, but worldwide?
Paul: Again I would say its purely consistency, literally staying the course. It’s never a straight road and along the way you’re constantly coming across barriers and bumps, but slowly slowly wins the race. There’s no point running to jump on to one trend, then on to the other. Certain things you have to follow granted, but the relationships we have built and the people that we work with, that all comes through time and hard work. We always deliver, we say we are going to do something we do it. Then you can build on to the next step, then the next step.
What has been the toughest part of building a brand? What have been your main barriers?
Paul: I would say the barriers are more personal. That time away from your family. There’s a lot of sacrifice and that’s the hardest thing for sure. Things just happen, there’s not much you can do when things go wrong, but being away from my family means that they have had to suffer. But on the flip side, they are also a huge support for me. But yeah I would say that’s the main barrier, just trying to keep the plates spinning you know?
Also I used to keep on saying yes to everything and now I finally feel I can say no. Don’t get me wrong, at the start it was great to build relationships, but now I have those relationships hopefully things will get a lot easier.
What advice would you give to someone looking to start off their own brand?
Paul: You have to know exactly what you want. Don’t do it just because you think it will be ‘cool’. Of course theres a certain element of wanting to be cool with it, but I wanted to do it because I knew something was missing. I did it for myself as well, I couldn’t find what I wanted in the market, so I thought well if I cant find what I want then I know in my head I can do it. Life experiences help quite a bit as well which is another important aspect to building a brand. It’s just hard work, nothing comes easy. If you’re prepared to put the work in and sacrifice a lot to get where you want go, then that’s the main thing.
Ollie: You’ve also got to know where you fit in to the market. Paul reeled off a couple of reasons as to why he started making tees and why he chose that specific branding, but you automatically have pigeon holed to exactly you want to achieve. You’re not making wedding dresses, not making trainers, it’s tees, shorts, sweats, that really fit the market your appealing to. And you build the idea around that, you’ve got to believe in the product as well because if you don’t wear it its gonna be pretty hard to sell it.
You’ve teamed up with the likes of Mishka and Electric in the past. Are there any other brands you would like to work/collaborate with?
Paul: We’ve been really really lucky, obviously we work with Vans, and I keep on asking and asking if we’re going to do a collaboration but I think there still needs to be a bit more history there. I think already with the Mishka and Electric collabs, they are two brands that I absolutely love. I first met Greg (Mishka) four or five years ago at Bright Berlin when we first started out, and then I cut Greg’s hair when we went to agenda in Vegas. Greg came up to my hotel room in Vegas and I said to him maybe one day we could work on a collaboration and here we are. So that was really cool, and then we did a pop up at the Brooklyn Mishka store and another in the LA store and that was really good. Then the Electric thing, we have our own watch and sunglasses, that was great as well. We have Monster stuff as well and we are collaborating with on some pieces. But those were the two brands I really wanted to do and I got them, because of the history there. I wanna do more but we will have to see.
Aside from the barbering and lifestyle store, how do you plan on developing the brand? What’s next for AONO?
Paul: Fingers crossed we are going to bring out our own hair care product. We are in deep conversation and negotiations with a couple of companies in Canada and North America, hopefully that’s going to be ready for next year. We are aiming to go to Chicago, one of the biggest hair shows in the world and launch it over there.
Apart from that, keep pushing AONO & Co and keep pushing the brand. The fact that now we have such a good flagship store, we really have to push on from here. Also I think because the streetwear industry is kind of up in the air with high street not knowing where its going to go, that traditional streetwear is gonna come back in and you can kind of see it already. The long sleeve tees, the heavyweight cotton tees and everyone rocking dickies. And that’s what I started wearing back in the day, I’ve always worn dickies, and always worn vans and oversized tees. You can see a lot of brands saying fuck this and going back to basics, and that’s exactly what we are doing. We have redesigned our blocks, they are being worked on now, and really consolidating the line down. But yeah, AONO & Co is the main focus now, it’s a bigger platform and makes it a lot easier with it all under one roof.
You can shop our full AONO range HERE