Picture it: you’re a Northern man in the early 2000s and you want to look good. If your accent has any sort of Yorkshire tinge, you’ll flock to The HIP Store in Leeds. If you’re from Birmingham-way you’ll head to Wellgosh. And if you’re from anywhere near Manchester, Oi Polloi is the Mecca. Now, fast-forward 20 years, and what do all these independents have in common? Well, they’re all owned by JD Sports, and they’re not so independent anymore.
Oi Polloi has been owned by JD since early 2021. Unfortunately, the new announcement is that the much beloved shop is closing. When Drapers delivered the news last Thursday, the fans went mad. After I put up a story on Instagram about covering the closure, my inbox was flooded with replies, with most singing to the same harmony – firmly against JD’s acquisition. The closure of Oi Polloi’s shop on Thomas Street, in the belly of Manchester’s Northern Quarter, struck a nerve.
Speaking to Steve Sanderson – Oi Polloi’s co-founder alongside Nigel Lawson – last year about Manchester’s style, he described Oi Polloi as “an extension of Manchester’s music-and-clothes-obsessed working-class culture,” which is a way of saying that Oi Polloi is just as ingrained into the minds of Mancunians as Factory Records, The Haçienda or a grey, piss-wet sky.
Glenn Kitson, Bolton-born director and part-time meme-lord, sent a voice note from Berlin. “I wouldn’t do what I do now if it wasn’t for Steve and Nigel. Oi Polloi started a menswear renaissance and they kickstarted the careers and direction of so many people,” Kitson says. “When it opened 20 years ago, it didn’t have a website for the first three years; it was just a rumour that this cool shop in Manchester existed.”
Oi Polloi has been described as being a blueprint for men’s retailers. In a Guardian article from 2015, David Hellqvist compared its allure to that of Dover Street Market, seeing it as a destination shop that represents a Mancunian lifestyle. While the floor staff were described by one Instagram commenter as being “as friendly as an Italian away end,” the shop did everything it could for a regional community and acted as a medium for Manchester to export its own self-worth. There’s an intangible side to Oi Polloi’s charm, one that was shaped as much by the staff who worked there as it was by the intentions of the founders.
Mark Smith, co-founder of Proper Magazine and founder of outwear brand Hikerdelic, worked at Oi Polloi in the early years. “It opened well before the internet created a digital soup of choice […] and it wasn’t underpinned by any great masterplan to change anything, but that’s why it worked.” Smith describes Oi Polloi as “uncontrived” and acknowledges that while Steve and Nige are from the outskirts of Manchester, it’s because of this that it had success. “Cities of a certain size are defined more by those who grow up on the edge of its shadow than those in the middle of all the hustle and bustle. I think Oi Polloi would reject any parochial pigeon-holing. [Steve and Nige] appreciate good product and their natural personalities combined to add a marketing context that hadn’t really existed in the same way before. Irreverent yet knowledgeable, geeky but never nerdy, warm but cool.”
This all combines to underline that Oi Polloi isn’t just a culture-shifting shop. It’s a lesson in doing it yourself and, for that reason, anything that threatens it isn’t just a blow to the brand, but a blow to Manchester, the North, and anyone that’s dared to try.
Picture it, part two: you’re a man in the late 2000s and you don’t just want to look good, but you need to know about good, so that you can chew all your mates’ ears off about clothes over lager and fags. One destination: the Oi Polloi site, an information hub that’s packed to the brim with interviews with people like Pete Macnee of Adsum and David Keyte of Universal works. It’s full of amusing anecdotes about fishing jumpers, Berghaus coats or iconic fashion moments in movies. It also talks about clothes in a way that people can only emulate. This is what they have to say about a Nanga jacket:
“it should come as no surprise that these are made from some mighty fine, flame-resistant woven polyester stuff that feels damn near indestructible, and should offer a bit of protection next time a group of adolescent ruffians shoot fireworks at you on your way to the off-license.” [sic]
This tone of voice, says Smith, “was started mainly by Steve.” When Smith worked there in the late 2000s, he and various others “expanded it and turned up the daftness.”
On top of all that, the blog is host to their creative work, which features Manchester-based models, photographers and videographers. Standouts include everything that Oi Polloi has done with Rawtape, like the Mephisto x Oi Polloi Part Deux, where Rawtape films the Mephisto Rainbow (a shoe that Kitson describes as “everywhere now” and “started by Oi Polloi”), cutting about Manchester.
The story of acquisition is nothing new. After all, retailers are struggling. All throughout the North, independent shops have to compete with the likes of END and Flannels, where the latter has opened a massive 45 shops across the UK, while END has only recently opened in Manchester. Shops of this weight are in direct competition, put pressure on buying power and distribution and bring their own sets of adjacencies. But there’s no single answer to the question. There’s rent price to consider, the influence of local councils and genuine shifts in consumer taste. The matter of fact is that Oi Polloi, like Wellgosh and HIP before it, was on its back and JD came along to offer a helping hand.
Many were livid when Oi Polloi got into bed with JD in the first place, but it’s easy to criticise from outside the party. Some blame JD’s 2022-appointed CEO Régis Schultz for homogenising the group, where strings of individual brands under an umbrella will put more strain on budgets than clone shops. That’s the essence of JD’s move, anyway: get that bag and clean up those bottom lines. But there’s a lot of talk going around that’s forgetting one thing: Oi Polloi is far more than bricks-and-mortar.
We called Sanderson up to get an insight into what’s really going on. He answers the phone with the sort of sigh-chuckle-fusion that says there’s a lot to unpack here, isn’t there? I express to him that, yes, THE FACE wants to cover the closure, but they also want to celebrate the brand. I think I might’ve let the word tribute slip. “I don’t want a fucking tribute,” he shouts. “This isn’t an obituary!” and that’s when I know: Oi Polloi is as alive as ever.
Sanderson and I chat about the future of the brand, and while he’s assertive that Oi Polloi and JD are still in the negotiation stage, he’s confident and relaxed. “This is all a part of the journey, innit. This is the next phase.”
“Look, we’ve worked with the best. We’ve got 20 years of schooling, but we’re still developing new ways of working. We’re getting into our own label and making and working with designers of pedigree.” I mention the “Mohair for the People” Oi Polloi x Lyle & Scott range which elevated Lyle & Scott from their current (Sports) Direction and put them back in touch with their Scottish, argyle roots. It was the best Lyle & Scott release for a decade.
“That’s what we can do. Sometimes, you need an outsider to put you back in touch with what’s possible.” It transpires that while Sanderson is talking about Oi Polloi’s outsider perspective to Lyle & Scott, the sentence also contains their relation to JD. The enforced closure will free up Oi Polloi’s time to focus on themselves and where the brand exists outside the shop. For Sanderson, this closure is a good thing.
While it’s easy to mourn the loss of Oi Polloi’s shopfront and lament the cloned JD fascia that’ll spring in its place, Oi Polloi’s cultural relevance is undeniable. And if this move allows them to claw back some of their attitude, online persona (God help anyone who’s tried to use the JD-downgraded Oi Polloi website recently) and focus on working with brands that they’ve developed a relationship with, then it’s a welcome change, as Steve Sanderson assures us: “This will be a more distilled, purer stage of Oi Polloi.”