In Duncan and Vicky’s office there are artefacts from their travelling adventures dotted about, as well as a huge throne like wicker chair, “it keeps coming back into fashion,” says Vicky.
Sat with a cup of tea (on the wicker) in their warehouse located down a proper country lane – one where flowers on long stalks dance over the pathway and puddles run deep – there’s palpable excitement about the move to the new office, which will be in the middle of Launceston, in the old Conservative Club. All high ceilings and enormous windows, Vicky has been sourcing furniture “trestle tables, I think,” and vintage Bollywood posters from India to adorn the space.
Nomads has changed in the last three or four years; confident and exciting, the collections are inspiring and original, with a nod to the trends, while keeping the focus on vitality and fair trade. The stories behind the collections are as vital as ever, with the Nomads’ design team continuing to travel the world and immersing themselves in new and changing cultures, observing and working with people, patterns and textiles.
This manner of travel, design and community has been integral to Nomads from the start when Duncan and Vicky met in 1987, in India. Two young 20-somethings, they met in Pushkar and discovered they were travelling in the same direction, so decided to ramble onwards together.
Vicky had always wanted to go to India: “I had been to Israel during the summer holidays – I worked as a kibbutz volunteer – when I left college, where I studied ecology. But I knew people who had been to India and it sounded incredible. Of course, it was still pretty basic, pig toilets for example – environmentally friendly!”
Meanwhile Duncan had lucked out working on cruise ships as a photographer, allowing him to travel the world. “I was with my friend one day and I looked at the world and thought, ‘I could go to India’. So I went there to take photographs – library photography. The last thing I was thinking of was finding someone,” says Duncan.
“I went to festivals and immersed myself in life in India. I was very much on my own, winging it round. I decided to go to Pushkar when I thought I’d quite like to socialise with tourists for a bit. I also had to change my visa, so I went to Bombay and then Dehli. Ultimately, I wanted to get to Nepal and so I either had to go home depending on my visa and funds, or onwards to Nepal. Luckily we were able to carry on travelling together, so we travelled on to Nepal.”
Brightly coloured patchwork dungarees
It was in Nepal that Duncan and Vicky found themselves pondering over an unexpected business idea. Vicky says, “From our hotel room at Kathmandu we could see the shop opposite with brightly coloured patchwork children’s dungarees. We thought, we could buy some of those with our money left. Or of course, we could continue travelling for another month.
“We decided to buy the dungarees and went on to sell them at Camden, Portobello Road and Brighton Station market. We went back later and bought silk, papier mache boxes, socks and waistcoats, and silver jewellery.”
The business flourished, with people connecting with Duncan and Vicky’s items with a story to tell. Of course, backpacking was also very popular in the 1990s, and with the lack of social media and access to computers, as well as far fewer backpacker trails, it was a particularly exciting time to travel. Backpackers could disappear for a while, use (paper!) maps, and make discoveries. Also Nomads' ethos the appealed; fair trade, a life filled with adventure, creativity and thoughtful purchasing. Nomads’ style and story was a perfect fit to the time.
It seemed natural that adult clothes should be the next step and that’s what happened, as Duncan explains: “We gradually moved to clothes, with recycled silk made from old saris. We started off with waistcoats, floppy hats and traditional Indian shirts for men and women. We went on to test the waters with dresses and so on. The transition from crafts to clothing was quite tricky. We used to say we ‘did something for everyone’; and loved supporting the various traditional crafts; such as embroidery. So we continued to do – ‘everything’ for a while.
“At the festivals, people would save their money and spend it with us, particularly at Glastonbury. When we had our own children, it became trickier, however. At market stalls our first child would be in a cardboard box under the table, snoozing. But the markets became less fun as our family grew and we wanted more space, so in 1993, we moved from Brighton to Cornwall. We moved from a flat to a farmhouse – and all that countryside.
“That’s when we switched from markets to wholesale. We still did the odd festival, but our lives had changed. I used to run from Cornwall to Brighton and then we’d sell out of half of the shipment as soon as it came in.”
“We have to get a fax machine!”
As was the method before email, Duncan found stockists by going through the Yellow Pages and ringing them to see if they would like to stock Nomads’ wares. He also exhibited at the business’ first a trade show, where Duncan discovered people all over the country that would like to stock Nomads.
Vicky laughs, “Duncan came back saying: “We have to get a fax machine!” At this point, we still had the stock in a room at home. I would hang out the washing, feed the baby and write orders. It was still just the two of us. Eventually, one of our friends told us that she needed to be employed by us – certainly she was right, we’d grown considerably.”
Change continued when Nomads found themselves within – or indeed forging the path of – a trouser whirlwind, with the rise of hipster trousers. “We continued to travel to India, handpick pieces and check over everything. We employed a designer at a trade show and she introduced the hipster trousers. They were really flattering, fitted but slightly flared. A big change from what people were wearing at the time and very fashionable. We taught our factories how to tailor these new items – they were cutting-edge almost. We were also still championing tie-dye, block print, embroidery and cotton clothing – fantastic.”
Nomads continued to grow gradually, and it was about 15 year s ago when Duncan and Vicky decided to have a reassessment. Duncan says: “We became Nomads Clothing, focusing on womenswear. Then our current designer, came along about four years ago and it was with her creativity and skills, together with our renewed focus, that we found a clear direction. With our team we got to where we are today, looking and adapting the trends, designing and buying our own prints.”
Now Nomads is not just a clothing company, it’s a lifestyle – as it always was in many respects, encompassing an ethos, values and an outlook. Duncan says: “We still travel as much as we can, this year Burma and New Zealand. Vicky has just returned from India and will be going to Italy later this year.
“As for the future long-term, it’s a journey, we never know exactly where we’re going – we’re Nomads.”