Back in 2014, when Ben Taylor and Alice Liptrot were brainstorming a name for their new knitwear brand, they settled on ‘Brighton Sweater Collective’. It was admittedly a ‘terrible’ name, says Ben with a laugh, so they soon devised something more suitable, coming up with Country of Origin (COO). The name ‘reflects the transparency of production we always wanted to keep at the core of the business,’ Ben says. And so it stuck. Five years later and COO now has customers and stockists from Japan to Italy, and recently launched a collaboration with luxury department store Bergdorf Goodman in New York. But in the beginning ‘it was all trial and error,’ says Alice.
The couple, both in their late 20s, are originally from south of Manchester, but they met in the seaside English city of Brighton where Alice studied knitwear. They brainstormed the idea for a brand that would stand for everything that’s the opposite of fast fashion. ‘Ours is a very labour-intensive and skilled way of making a jumper. They’re not sewn – they’re hand-linked,’ says Ben. ‘If you go to the high street you’ll see cut and sewn sweaters. But for us, each panel would be knitted to the shape and size of the jumper, in the traditional way.’
To do this, they had to locate a manufacturer. They signed one up in Scotland that still knitted on hand-powered machinery. With Alice creating the prototypes in their Brighton flat, they soon had a collection and launched online. ‘In the first season we picked up a couple of stores but we were still very wet behind the ears and didn’t know how to get the brand out there,’ Ben notes. It was only after attending a trade show in Paris when things really took off and they began getting orders from places like Japan. ‘It all spiralled from there,’ he says. They moved to London, hired sales agents and opened a workshop in an old railway arch.
The Scottish manufacturer wouldn’t last long. ‘We got more orders than they could handle,’ Ben says. ‘We weren’t doing tens of thousands of units, but it was super time-consuming.’ So in autumn 2016 they decided to set off on their own and invested in an industrial knitting machine. ‘It’s a huge, computerised piece of heavy machinery that’s really complicated.
At first we didn’t have a clue how to use it,’ says Ben. ‘Alice was also working for a different company at the time to support us because we weren’t making much money, so it was up to me to figure out how to get it going.’
After two long years and 14-hour days on the machine, Ben and Alice realised it was no longer sustainable to make the clothes themselves while also running all the other parts of the business. Almost on cue appeared their guardian angel – a man named Saïd Saleh – who had a solution. Saïd saw how Ben and Alice’s brand was doing and got their number through their knitting machine manufacturer. ‘He said he has a knitwear factory and had been retired for a few years but wanted to start up again,’ Ben says.
Alice and Ben have now teamed up with Saïd and his business partner Keith to renovate and open a factory in Wigston, Leicestershire. It's going 100% plastic-free and aims to be completely waste-free by 2021. The company’s also working on a number of interesting sustainability projects, including using recycled yarns.
It’s been a transitional year for Country of Origin, but also a big one for Ben and Alice’s personal lives. More than ten months ago they welcomed a newborn son. 'Alice wakes up most hours throughout the night,’ says Ben. ‘We’ve got tons of toys scattered on the floor. It’s been a lifestyle shift!’
‘We’re in a Victorian terrace house with a garden, but it’s overgrown at the moment. We’re enjoying a much bigger space than we’ve been used to. In our living area is a glass sculpture by a good friend of ours called Harry Morgan. We also have a vintage hi-fi system – it’s definitely the best way to unwind at night. We’re so busy with work, so it’s nice to come back home to a place like this.’
The daily routine
‘We tend to wake up at about 7am and have breakfast, then drop off [our son] at the childminder, who is right by the office in Chiswick. We have one other member of staff – our sales director. So we’re there Monday to Friday, running the startup. There’s always so much going on, so each day is quite varied.
‘We’ll have meetings in central London on one or two days a week, and we’ll drive a couple of times a week to the factory, which is just south of Leicestershire, to do design and development of the collections. It’s only a two-hour drive from London on a good day. Now that we have weekends – which we didn’t when we were knitting all day everyday – we can enjoy a stroll along the River Thames, go to the park, or walk along the river to nearby Twickenham.’
Tools for success
‘These are our trusty pair of Japanese snippers… They were in constant use for a good couple of years and still haven't blunted or broken.’
B x Country of Origin
'Ben and Alice collaborated with Bergdorf Goodman’s menswear director Bruce Pask on a capsule collection ‘combining the patchwork traditions of Japan with long-established methods of British knitwear manufacturing.’
‘We live in St Margarets, across the river from Richmond in west London. We’ve lived here for a year and a half. Alice was pregnant at the time and we wanted more space – and more green space – plus a bit of quiet. We’re a 15 minutes walk along the Thames and over the bridge to Richmond.’
This article was first published in Courier Issue 32, December/January 2019/2020. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.