Midlands designer Luke Roper talks to Jon Perks about his fashion brand and its rapidly growing reputation.
It’s a little known fact, but denim was invented in the Black Country.
At least that’s what Luke Roper would like you to believe, if only briefly.
The fashion designer’s website – part online store, part personal Facebook-style portal – includes an amusing piece of animation telling the story of how ‘great ancestor’ Jonny Roper was supposedly the creator of the famous cotton twill fabric, only to have it stolen by a nefarious American.
“One man will make a stand,” says the narrator. “One man will bring denim back to the Wild West... Midlands.”
“That’s pure spoof, that is, but it’s a good story,” laughs the man from Walsall Wood.
It’s just one example of the humour Luke, 32, injects into the eponymous brand he established eight years ago with lifelong friends Deborah and Simon Poole, now seen on a string of celebrities including Kaiser Chiefs, The Arctic Monkeys, The Twang and actors Danny Dyer and Stephen Graham, who wore his clothes in the recent zombie comedy flick Doghouse.
Such product placement – and the list of famous followers – or ‘Friends of Luke’ as they are referred to on his website – is growing on a daily basis, as is the popularity of this sharp and savvy label.
Every bit as good a story as the denim fable is the one chronicling the ongoing rise of Luke – the label and the man.
This is no piece of fiction, however.
With his wedding dress maker mum working from home, a young Luke found himself surrounded by fabric and patterns – and quickly discovered not only an interest in fashion but an aptitude:
“Throughout my life there’s always been sewing, pattern cutting and everything going on in the family home, so I’ve been brought up in that environment,” he explains.
“From a young age, ten or 12, I found I was quite skilled in it and really exploited that and I just started pattern cutting and making clothes when I was 15, 16 – and that helped fund me through university really; back in the day the clubbing scene was quite big and the dress code was a lot smarter than it is now – you had to have shirt and trousers basically – so I started doing them for all my mates, all the lads’ shirts and trousers. They’re still about – one lives opposite me, they’re still loyal punters!”
He adds: “I just used to spend half a day every week down the old Bull Ring market to find the right fabrics, I knew what would work and what the lads would like.
“I learnt my craft in the back room of the house, but I thought ‘I’ve got this, I’ve got to really work hard to make sure I make this work’, so I went down the education route, I wanted to go to the best uni possible and that’s what happened.”
After studying fashion at Walsall College, Luke then got a place at the prestigious Central St Martin’s College of Art & Design, on a dedicated menswear degree. Graduating in 2000, he soon set about creating his own clothes range, albeit from humble beginnings – travelling the country selling pre-printed T-shirts from the back of a shabby van:
“I used to park the van around the corner of the shops it was that shabby, and then walk in and try and sell the dream,” he recalls with a smile.
“As you can imagine, walking in with an unknown brand, it was tough, but I knew it wouldn’t be an overnight thing.”
Eight years on, and Luke Roper now boasts two collections – Luke and Luke Roper, two distinct styles – the latter a smarter, dressier look and slightly more grown-up.
“As Luke is to day, Roper is to night; Luke is a day at the match, Roper is a weekend away at a family celebration.”
It’s a real look-good, feel-good collection, edgy and exclusive, with attention to detail and high quality craftmanship – combined with a smile.
The labels on some of jeans, for instance, bear the legend ‘Original Black Country overalls, for the cowboys of the Wild West Midlands... been around for ‘yeeee-haaas’’.
“The humour was there from the start and then with how busy it was getting it went on the back burner,” says Luke. “But then I thought ‘let’s bring it back in’, because that’s what we’re about – we’re very serious as a brand, but the internal labelling is where we can get some of our personality through.”
The collection now features not only shirts and jeans but knitwear, shoes, watches, scarves, washbags and wallets – all bearing the trademark lion’s head crest.
A new range, Forever In Luke Jeans, launches next January.
“We’re now in a fabulous position but we want to continue to grow,” says Luke. “We never rest on our laurels; we want to get stronger and bigger.”
They’re certainly doing that, with their first ever dedicated store recently opened in Bristol and plans for a Birmingham flagship outlet in the pipeline:
“A guy who used to be a partner in a store in Bristol that sold Luke was absolutely passionate to be the first person to open a Luke store, and he approached us last year and we believe in him,” Luke explains. “Birmingham was always going to be our first... it looks like it’ll be our second now.”
The second but, judging from Roper’s ambition and ability, it won’t be his last.