Insights with Mark Brown: from The Troubles to The Big Smoke via The Hacienda
From growing up during The Troubles to late-night antics inside Manchester’s infamous Hacienda, Kirk Original’s creative director Mark Brown had an eventful youth coupled with an insightful education and formative years as a creative professional. We sat down with Mark and to find out more about his background and how it feeds into the SS21 collection.
From the age of three, I would be in and around building sites and watching the guys working gave me insight and respect for the people who make things with their hands. The architects were often seen as aloof or unreasonable while the guys on-site understood how buildings came together I loved that idea of hands-on making and thinking on your feet.
You grew up in Northern Ireland and were exposed to building sites and construction from a young age. Given your profession and expertise today, what lessons did you learn from that regarding architecture and how things work together in harmony?
Running parallel to my exposure to the world of building, I was encouraged to get out and earn. So from the age of 14, I was working on the shop floor of a gentleman’s outfitter. For three years I learned the ins and outs of working on the shop floor, customer service, tailoring and talking to brand reps. This was during “The Troubles” and one memorable afternoon saw us serving the somewhat divisive character Ian “The Big Man” Paisley. He stepped out of his armour-plated car and we suited and booted him in a Magee Donegal made suit and Aquascutum raincoat. It’s these two formative experiences that shaped how my career would later develop into a love of menswear retail and design and craft.
You’ve cited many style heroes from the past in the design and development of Kirk Originals frames. Where did this stem from?
It was after watching a run of early Elvis movies that as I kid, I was turned onto vintage Rock ‘n’ Roll. This in turn led to a fascination with Brando, Robert Mitchum, Montgomery Clift and James Dean et al. The visuals and styling were as important as the content and my bedroom walls became a homage to the 40s, 50s, and 60s. As I followed my love of drawing, visual style and architecture at sixth form my tastes started to evolve towards a more “art school” aesthetic. Suddenly I was hunting down 70s Roxy Music, Bowie and Talking Heads on vinyl and building a library of graphic influences from The Face and I-D magazine.
From rural Northern Ireland to Manchester, that’s quite a change in scenery and culture. What was that move like? The scene in Manchester must have been electrifying.
The move to Manchester and to the Art & Design department at the Polytechnic for a foundation course was life-changing. I had moved from a small market town where you had to hunt your cultural references down to there suddenly being everything on your doorstep. Manchester was central to the culture in the UK at the time having launched The Smiths, Joy Division and New Order and about to become the absolute centre of what would become Acid House, The Second Summer of Love and The Happy Mondays and Stone Roses.
What did you do after your foundation year?
After a year on a Foundation Art & Design course at Manchester Polytechnic, I pursued a 3D Design Degree focusing on Interior Architecture. An idea mainly fueled by realizing that the various subterranean clubs, bars and had a designer behind them someone with a viewpoint and a considered aesthetic.
What was so appealing about Manchester was its own self-assured “look”. It didn’t follow London for it had its unique aesthetic. Nowhere was that better illustrated than in the industrial beauty of The Hacienda, a nightclub like no other, and later in The Dry Bar. Both of them were designed by Ben Kelly and they had such an impact on my student work I made the journey to London to his studio next to The Barbican to meet with him and gain bragging rights amongst my fellow students!
Is it true you served the Happy Mondays in the Hacienda? What’s the story there?
It’s true, yes. I started working behind the bar at The Hacienda. It was the club in the UK, and I followed soon after. On any night you could find yourself being watched at the bar by Barney and Hooky from New Order (they owned the club and didn’t want you serving free drinks to your mates) and then serving The Happy Mondays and their “interesting” circle of friends. One memorable night saw Bez jump the bar at The Gay Traitor (the club’s infamous basement bar) and get up close and personal with the bar staff.
While we know you had a lot of fun, but in terms of your studies, why did you want to study three-dimensional design? At the time that must have been quite a niche subject?
The three-dimensional design was a culmination of several interests. At its heart was a love of drawing and mark-making, crafting and fabricating and then the love of creating spaces and places that grew out of my early passion for cinema and nightlife.
From Manchester to London, which is where you’re based now as creative director of Kirk Originals, where did you end up settling?
I landed in Camden right at the start of the 90s as it was the place to be. The creative energy was vibrant and it became the centre of Brit Pop and you would see Damon Albarn and all the faces at the time hanging out. Kirk Originals was at the heart of this at the time and was the eyewear of choice for the likes of Liam Gallagher. There was a real feel at the time for vintage-inspired pieces that referenced the 60s. In terms of work, I was on a mission to work for the best agency involved in creating retail spaces for fashion and lifestyle brands. In the mid-90s, I landed at HMKM where, as a designer, I was working on store design projects for Dunhill, Richard James, Valentino and Moschino.
Eventually, the time was right to launch my agency, Irving; named after Irving Penn who along with Richard Avedon, Alexey Brodovitch, Robert Brownjohn and Saul Bass had become creative heroes of mine. I focused on working with premium retailers in the fashion and food world we worked with Reiss on packaging and web, Matchesfashion on their stores and creating their iconic marbled packaging.
You eventually came to relaunching Kirk Originals, but to go back a step why did you want to deviate from your industry and enter eyewear?
In 2013 I was approached by IDL Group about setting up a new retail design agency under their umbrella. However, there was another singular opportunity that proved very attractive as IDL had acquired Kirk Originals after a period of instability and wanted to develop its potential. I saw this as an opportunity to get involved with a brand that had resonance with my younger self in the 90s. As a brand it was a distillation of everything I had learnt, been influenced by and loved in the worlds of design, film, music and culture up to this point.
Running alongside this my day-to-day role with my new agency Author Studio gave me access to conversations and workshops with people who were widely respected within the fashion and accessories world and who understood how to take a brand to market, work with wholesale and E-Com and build a strong social media platform. So, while Author was creating spaces for Edward Green, Acne Studios and Hugo Boss I was also slowly building up a point of view that Kirk Originals might take to re-launch into the market.
Fast forward to today, SS21 is about to launch. What can you tell us about it?
I firmly believe in developing your own point of view and eye plus establishing your own language and not simply working from the tear sheets of others. Kirk Originals’ latest range for S/S21 is our strongest and most cohesive to date as there is a very clear series of influences at play that reference my personal touchpoints. From 50s Greasers and 40s Hollywood Icons through to 70s Serpico and Mean Streets, each frame is balanced with a need to appear modern and right for contemporary wearers.
There’s cohesion across all the styles through the use of a simple unifying material palette and a paring back of excessive statements. It’s a very similar balancing act that we strive for in our interiors work. There’s a classic sense of proportion and rigour, lack of adornment and ornament and use of a simple palette of real and honest materials. So, while this season’s range strikes a chord of recognition for things past it can also be worn in a very current way.