The unique workwear of SEH Kelly

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Wednesday, January 30th 2019
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Here's an interesting one. I passionately believe SEH Kelly should be covered and included in the pages of Permanent Style, even though I wouldn't wear a lot of their pieces.

Why? Because in every aspect apart from style, they're perfect.

Paul (below) and Sara care deeply about traditional materials: heavy cords, natural linens, waxed cotton, unpolished horn.

Their designs are original, yet draw on heritage menswear - and like all heritage pieces, functionality is sacrosanct.

They’re a small company with one small shop, doing little advertising or promotion, and charging good, honest prices. Most things are even made in London.

So why wouldn’t I wear some of them? I think it's that most of the styles are too casual, and with different priorities to tailoring.

The shirts are made in the most beautiful shades of olive linen, ecru cotton and charcoal corduroy. The collars are a good size and the horn-button choice is perfect.

But they’re designed to be worn tucked out, and are therefore a little shorter than what I’d want, and a little squarer.

I’m slightly obsessed with the work jacket in cedar corduroy (below). The materials are so lovely I could eat them. 

I love the sleeve design, particularly the hole in the armpit, and the functional cut of the collar.

But it’s too short for me, and too boxy. It's not really the aesthetic of everything else I own.

It’s really a question of proportion, I guess, rather than style.

Most of the casual pieces I wear - a horsehide jacket, a western shirt - still have similar ideas of cut and proportion to tailoring. The jackets are waisted, the shirts fitted.

Most SEH Kelly pieces are not. The side seams are straight and pockets are quite large and low on the chest. Perhaps too functional, in a way.

Yet I’ve been glad to find some pieces work for me. I love the cut on the Proper Trouser, which has a high, curving rise at the back; I have a pair in navy cotton.

And I’m a big fan of the duffle coats, as readers might remember from this year’s Autumn/Winter post.

The horn toggles they use are beautiful, big and chunky - in fact, cut to be the exact same shape as the big traditional wooden ones.

Frankly I think SEH Kelly designs are some of the best I see in menswear.

I'd draw parallels with Agyesh at Stoffa. Both are obsessed with product and functionality; both create genuinely original pieces from menswear standards.

Both exactly what I'd want a menswear designer to be.

Paul has a real thing about pockets. Take the car coat, for example (above). Most brands would just slap on a couple of patch pockets here.

Instead, Paul has a curtain of cloth running around the waist that acts as the flap for those large, deep pockets. It makes the waist seam part of the design, and means both pockets feel like an integrated part of the coat.

It looks so clean, so functional, and yet distinctive.

He consistently cuts side-access pockets into the seams for the same reason. Indeed, they sometimes disappear into a patched hip pocket (below), so the end of that cut is hidden away. 

On the trench coat, the pocket (shown below) does three different things.

The belt of the coat runs underneath the pocket flaps, but in a channel so they don’t get in the way.

There’s a large, yet neat bellows pocket accessible from the top. And finally, an almost hidden entrance to a separate pocket from the side.

In the work jacket there’s even an entirely hidden pocket, which I was proud to find after only a couple of minutes of searching.

Paul has a similar obsession with shoulder constructions.

Different pieces have set-in shoulders, raglan shoulders, half-raglans, a dropped raglan (bizarre, that one) and a set-in shoulder with a lapped seam (on the work jacket, similar to a Loden coat).

It is, of course, one of the great pleasures of menswear that products can be an investment, designs are not seasonal, and therefore a designer can spend their time playing with all these little, functional, details.

SEH Kelly has been around for nine years, with occasional exposure in the mainstream fashion press.

But for the large part it’s been an underground story, at least in the UK.

In Japan the brand is better known, and in fact UK sales have reduced in recent years, to be just 10% of the total.

Still, there is a small shop-cum-workshop in Shoreditch which is worth a visit. It’s the first in the Cleve Workshops line, off Boundary Street, and is only open on Sundays and Mondays (a recent change from Saturdays and Sundays).

Finally, I should say a short word for Paul’s writing, which he is very modest about but I think is some of the best in menswear.

Somehow he manages to be eloquent yet accurate, distinctive yet straightforward, and each description gets across exactly the purpose of the design, or the beauty of the material.

For instance: “The buttons on the trench are large, and are horn - dark in colour and matte in finish - and each is a little different from one to the next. They are in that regard as if alpha-keratin snowflakes - such is the beauty of being a product of a high-grade natural material, rather than, say, a plastic replica.”

It makes me want to never buy a plastic button again.

The writing is also a powerful form of branding: I’m not sure I’d want to buy anything SEH Kelly sells until I’d read what Paul said about it.

The SEH Kelly website is good, full of those descriptions, technical explanations and back story.

It could do with some more navigation though - I’d recommend using the links on the left-hand side of the shop page, to browse particular product categories or particularly sizes.

The latter is especially helpful, as batches are small and pieces often sell out in at least one permutation.

Start with the coats, then move onto the jackets, followed by shirts and trousers. I've got my eye on the new 'dark natural sheep' trousers.

Photography: James Holborow or SEH Kelly.

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Joel

Thanks for the write up Simon, good piece, always nice to see small brands made in England.

I often look at the Made In Britain website for British manufacturers. https://www.madeinbritain.org

Out of curiosity, you weren’t interested in selling him one of your watch caps?

James

You split an infinitive in the first sentence after the beautiful quotation from Paul(!)

Paul Boileau

The work jacket is similar to the Arnys forestiere jacket (RIP) with the Arnys being longer. Unfortunately Berluti prices are astronomical and the versions I’ve seen in luxe fabrics not good!

Thomas

Not my thing and slightly overpriced in my opinion. But if you are into that style and have money to spend better to support something Made In England.

Robin

Reminds me a lot of Alban and Private White both our whom I firstly heard about from PS.

Like mega rich rock stars dressing in rags, to downplay and appear otherwise, SEH Kelly seem to be almost going out their way to put customers off their clothes !
The trench coat and pea coat are astonishingly beautiful but then some of the other coats and jackets are deliberately ‘nerdy’!
They remind me of Etautz (a mind bogglingly ridiculous use of models to sell their clothes).

The writing on the website is genius ……. extremely witty and poetic .
I wish the man well.

P.S. The way this guy writes might i suggest a guest editorial of PS as a one off ?

Martin

What do you think about the proper trouser in wool twill ? Isn’t it more a cloth for jackets?

Tim

I own their navy duffle coat and I’ve found it tremendously satisfying to wear–you can just tell that everything they sell is of the highest quality. It’s funny I was looking at the same trousers literally minutes before I stumbled upon this post, though I’m still thinking about what they would work best with. Great post, they deserve the coverage!

Rogey

I made it a point to visit there the last time I was in London and had a great shopping experience. Paul is a character, completely entertaining and enthusiastic. I ended up with a terrific balmacaan raincoat that could be made yesterday or fifty years ago. The fit, buttons, and design are perfect, everything you need, nothing you don’t. Paul altered it and shipped it to me in the States at no charge, and sent me a few hilarious emails along the way. I’ll definitely be going back.

Sam

Simon,

Interesting that you bring up the writing on the S E H Kelly website – I recently used it as an example to our copywriters because of how well it balanced a sense of fun with obvious expertise and knowledge about the clothes. From their work jacket copy (describing the collar):

“It has a collar of middling size, with gently rounded points, which is cut such that it caresses the neck when up, but sits pleasingly proud and round when down. No sloppy concavity here.”

I’m very convinced by their Proper Trousers too. I’ll need to get to the workshop to try some!

Joel

Do you know who their shirtmaker is in Kent?

Bobby

I salute any brand which manufactures its items in the UK or in Europe. Long may they flourish.

However, I can’t say I like the SEH Kelly aesthetic. It’s yet more channelling of the workhouse aesthetic which seems to be all the rage since the Peaky Blinders craze.

To my mind, it fails just like the Drake’s suit-turned-preppy aesthetic. Form should follow function. What we have here is workwear in pristine condition, not worn for manual labour. It jars.

I couldn’t say which aesthetic is best for today’s office-working feminised male (I choose my words advisedly – remove manual labour from a man’s life and you’ve removed half his masculinity). I haven’t given it enough thought. Perhaps someone will come up with the answer.

Still, long life to SEH Kelly and all those brave brands which keep British manufacturing going. This is the economy of the future. We must sustain it, or we shall perish.

Nigel C

When we’re talking about quality of writing it surely can’t get much more evocative than “The materials are so lovely I could eat them.”
It’s nice to read these posts and get more than just information. Genuinely uplifting – thank you.
N

Charles Rogers

Really agree here.
Additionally, Simon does a great service by bringing, through recognition of a job well done, honor and dignity to many craftspeople who truly care.

Colin

Glad to finally see this write up. The brand is amazing, unique and creative yet somehow familiar. Bulletproof and wearable using british made textiles, similar to Private White in that regard, although more unusual designs. Agree that the value is strong and certainly in no way overpriced. The rarely open quirky store in a backstreet location just adds to the appeal, although I’m always in the area on their non-opening days!!!

Moby

SEH Kelly’s detailed and humorous website is what compelled me to visit their charming little shop in Shoreditch last month. Simon, I had already seen several products online that I would consider buying despite also sharing a similar view to you in terms of appreciating a tailored silhouette. I bought the parka in canopy cotton because it specifically fit what I was looking for for practical purposes. The real pleasure, however, has been in appreciating how well it is made and also how stylish it is despite being very reasonably priced and a very practical piece of outerwear. Paul’s personal touch to try to cater for my specific requirements and customer service was brilliant. I would thoroughly recommend a visit to his shop.

Anonymous

Thank you for featuring such a unique British offering. The cut and fabric choices provide a timeless style: that’s the beauty of workwear. The sort of go-to clothing that sits outside of fashion yet remains appealing and easy on the eye. From the website the trench, flight jacket and work jacket are favourites. Similar to SEH Kelly, but not as fine in cut or cloth, is the Carrier Clothing Co. of Norfolk. Great for weekend wear: the design appeal is in the rustic, almost artisanal nature of hard wearing workwear. I have the Norfolk work jacket: great for a casual throw-on over a T, a jersey or a rough textured oxford or linen shirt. Also of Norfolk (must be something in the water) is Old Town. Specialising in made-to-order (vs. made to measure): cut off standard designs the look is of utilitarian workwear with an almost Victorian appeal (think railway yards and industrial revolution). It is a style choice for the truly pragmatic – hardwearing and devoid of frippery. I believe Monty Don (famous TV gardener for US readers) is a fan. Both brands make in-house in Norfolk.

Al O

Long time reader, first time writer of comments. I’ve bought pieces from the shop and I’ve badgered Paul effectively to make me a couple of pieces with custom sizing for long arms. All this from email and infrequent visits during business trips to London. I’m not in the raw denim and red wings cult. I don’t consider SEH to be “workwear”; it is well considered functional up to date everyday wear. I admire the low key design, fair value and consistency they offer. The writing is the bonus!

Collin

Any chance you’ll be collaborating with SEH Kelly?

David

Tucked out?

Never heard that before.

Did you mean untucked?

A.

Simon keep going in this vibe. Your “feelings about lack of” are often mines.

JK

I agree that some of S E H Kelly’s styling is not to everyone’s taste but having bought several pairs of their trousers in various styles and fabrics I can confirm that they are beautifully made with some lovely details.

Scott

I have a PW bomber jacket and it’s fabulous. It’s so well made, well designed and practical, probably my favorite jacket. Definitely planning on adding a raincoat, Harrington and maybe an overcoat.

Scott

Yes sir and I love it! It is fabulous indeed and your client will be very pleased, you served him well. I’m also interested in the PW knitwear. One of the top British brands for sure,big fan.

Colin

I understand. Would love to see them making button shawls from their fantastic fabrics and buttons someday.

ANM

Two minds on this…

I greatly appreciate the innovation, and practical detail you point out…

Yet at the core of it…

I think what you are reticent about, Simon, is the disdain of the “nerdiness” of the type of things the original Banana Republic, or present day “outfitters” are slammed for – trousers with above the knee zippers that can be converted into shorts, etc. That was the first thing I thought of when you pointed out vertical seams that disappear into pockets, or flaps that cover a belt loop and a pocket a the same time, etc.

Eminently practical, but only “Indiana Jones” could make them look stylish – everyone else?

Network Engineer at a Google data warehouse….

Michael, Sydney

Simon this is a beautifully written review of the work of SEH Kelly.
I wish I was a little closer and able to visit the workshop myself.
Thanks for posting.

Chris Gondek

I went to Paul’s shop in early June, right after his write up in the FT’s “How to Spend It”. There was, for him anyway, a fairly healthy crowd at the shop, which isn’t exactly designed for a large group of people. But everyone was in high spirits and Paul could not have been a more genial host. He also shifted quite a few pieces of merchandise while I was there, including one of his cotton jumpers that yours truly bought and then ended up needing during a few chilly nights in Edinburgh.

I love his clothes and am now following him on just about every social media I can. And he is definitely one of the nicest and funniest guys you could hope to meet. I completely understand how one could love his work yet not buy any; it is a particular look. But here in the Pacific Northwest, it totally works and I find myself sort of wishing for the death of my Barbour so I can pick up some of his outwear without guilt.

Al

Really enjoyable and interesting read. How would you rate the make of their jackets/blazers in normal tailoring terms – floating canvas, hand made lapel etc – or are such criteria just not relevant with this kind of casual wear?

John

Just wanted to add a quick note, largely in support of everything that has been said here already.

I recently tried one of SEH Kelly’s blazer (SB3 in airweave cotton), ordered via their website as the workshop is closed for the summer. For 360 GBP i was extremely impressed with the quality of the materials and finishing., and it is surely a jacket that will give good service for many years. The SB3 is slightly fitted, but for my slim physique i would like it still slimmer in the waist. However, i think for many people this would not be an issue, and so i do encourage everyone to try it out, if they are in the market for an everyday jacket. I returned mine for this reason, but will be visiting their workshop to see what else they have.

And i have to say, Paul is not only a character but also tremendously helpful and humble in his approach to customer service. I honestly feel that Paul cares more about his product and that customers are happy then he does making money.

Thomas

Hello Simon!

First I would like to thank you for your amazing work.

I will be in London next weekend and I’m currently in search of the perfect winter coat for rainy Belgium. If you should compare the SEH Kelly peacoat and the Private White VC. What would be the main difference and what you would recommend one over the other?

Thank you for your time

Thomas

Glenn

Hi, Thomas. Did you get either one of them in the end? If so I’d love to hear your thoughts.

AJ

Hi Simon, what do you think of the high rise at the back of the proper trousers? I have a pair, which fit me very well and I like them but the exaggerated back rise I could do without.