Interview: Indie clothes designer Ed Phillips of By Sea By Land

By Niall Christie

Since its inception towards the end of 2011, Highland-based indie clothing brand By Sea By Land have been styling an increasingly loyal band of followers. Now sending clothes across continents, founder and designer Ed Phillips talked to June & Winter about how the label came about, how to take the next step using small suppliers, and your local Post Office.

Seemingly borne out of a frustration at his current employment situation, the Alness-based man had had enough of his job at Tesco in Edinburgh and was in dire need of some change to his working life.

Phillips said: “The concept behind the brand was to create something that I wanted to wear that reflected where I was from, the only sorts of clothing I ever saw around the highlands were in little tourist shops that had generic Scotland slogans or the Loch Ness monster that didn’t really look too appealing to me. I left my job at Tesco in Edinburgh that I’d been doing for about 4 years my wife and I moved back to the highlands where we had grown up.

“I was at a bit of a loose end really, dipping in and out of odd jobs but had always gravitated back to drawing and graphic design that I’d been dabbling in years before when designing gig posters and bits of merchandise for the band I was in. I basically started designing things for T-shirts that I thought would be cool to one day have printed up and I could wear myself until I basically just decided to go ahead and try to get a little collection of items together to try to sell and see if other people liked what I was attempting to do.”

They did. Within the first year the label’s website was up and running, with orders heading as far afield as the US and Phillips had been to a local festival, Belladrum Tartan Heart. Despite some initial uncertainty and expected teething problems, the process went reasonably smoothly. Having found himself in a mundane job and stuck in a rut, the designer used his past experience within the music industry to kickstart this venture.

“I’d say good design has always been a passion of mine,” explains Phillips. “By extension fashion comes into that because a lot of my favourite designers create clothing. I’m always striving to improve and trying to do something that is cool to look at. When I was in a band many years ago we used to get sent gig posters that someone had made using (Microsoft) Paint and I wanted our band to look a bit more professional. So I’d redo gig posters and send them back to the promoter, who most of the time ended up using the poster I designed.

It was a good feeling to think that someone was into something that I did off my own back. Plus, it made me feel better about seeing the posters around Myspace, Inverness and elsewhere. But now fashion goes hand in hand with that and I take a lot of pride in sourcing great quality clothing that will look good and last a long time. The scariest thing I felt I had to do to kickstart By Sea By Land was to do my first public trading opportunity which was Belladrum Festival in 2012.

“It was terrifying because I was going in completely blind to a festival having never even attended one, let alone trying to sell at one. Other unknowns like people’s reactions to seeing the brand not knowing anything about it made for a nervous few days but it couldn’t have been a better experience, everyone was incredibly friendly and inquisitive about us and a lot of people that came and spoke to us or bought something from us back then have stuck with us the whole time.

“It’s incredibly motivating that people have stuck with us for such a long time and have supported what we’ve been doing for so long. We sold more than we ever thought we would and it felt afterwards like there was a pretty nice buzz about the place so it felt as if doing Belladrum was the right call.”

Meanwhile, questions over the name’s origin continue to be asked. Is it a reference to a seafaring past? Is Phillips an ex-Navy man? Is he a lover of the outdoors? Or does it just sound cool? As it happens, there’s a more traditionalist thought-process behind it all.

“By Sea By Land got into my head when I was looking to get a father’s day present. I thought it would be cool to get a sgian dubh engraved with his clan’s motto, so I researched what his clan was and found that he was a descendant of Macdonnel of Keppoch who are a strain of the McDonalds. They have the motto ‘Per Mare Per Terras’ which translated means By Sea By Land.

“When I had been designing random things here and there to keep for myself I’d always stuck ‘By Sea By Land’ in it somewhere as kind of a place holder and I just grew to love it and it eventually stuck. I feel it represents the highlands really well as you are so close to the sea in most directions, and the land in the highlands is never boring. The landscape feels like it’s always changing.

Unfortunately for By Sea By Land, the nature of Ed’s rural location and lack of large cities nearby, a reliance on online sales can lead to the occasional slow spell.

“The hardest part about being an indie designer or company is getting noticed and sticking with it,” he said. “There’s definitely been a few tough times where the orders run a little slow and you can’t get something new put out because the funds just aren’t coming.

“But when those times come you really have to stick with it if you are passionate. At times it can feel like the wrong thing to do but so far it’s going well.”

Now more than five years old, Phillips’ drive to exceed expectations has meant shifts in style from collection to collection. One has included a branded babygrow, released after the owner and his wife had a daughter. Others were brought about through collaborations. Work with Cromarty Brewing Company and now-defunct music festival Brew At the Bog provided Ed with a muse to channel his work through. That being said, not working only for himself added an extra element to the job.

“Working with other companies is fun, although I feel like it comes with a lot more pressure. If I do a design for myself and I end up not really being too into it I can alter it or scrap it altogether. But trying to create designs for other people, who might have a strong idea of what they want before you come in, means that if you don’t really deliver the dynamic can be really tricky. One of the worst things you can say to a designer is ‘do what you want’ because I could end up doing a skull or something, only to find out that you hate skulls. So the one thing that I would definitely say is that you need perimeters when doing design work.

“In particular, the Cromarty Brewing Co. collaboration was really good fun. The design sort of sprung out of nowhere and we nailed it first time which was great. And the final product looked really nice when it was labelled up on the bottles. Every letter on the bottle was hand drawn so it took a fair while to complete, but it turned out great (and the beer tastes good too). It was a bit of a challenge at first to design something that was small enough to fit into the bottle’s label, but also still having all the relevant information and looking eye catching, but it was definitely a really exciting project to be asked to work on.”

Now well established, By Sea By Land clothing can be spotted across the country, with large customer numbers in Glasgow and Inverness meaning that the distinctive hats or t-shirts are regularly seen out and about. But for Phillips, one particular spotting of his own designs on the BBC really caught his eye.

“Spotting one of my sweaters on pointless was crazy! My wife just had the TV on in the background when we were visiting my parents one day and she just started going crazy. She said she saw BSBL in the audience and when we rewound it you could just about make out a guy with our signature sweater (2012 collection) on, it was really cool.

“My stuff has popped up every now and again in some cool places. A few months back there was a photographer’s work being showcased on the BBC News website and a trawlerman was very appropriately wearing one of our trawler beanies. I also recently sent a ‘care package’ to the guys in the band Fatherson which I’ve seen them wearing every now and again. There’s definitely a little sense of pride when you spot someone you don’t know wearing BSBL.

“Down in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and a fair few times more locally, it’s a really nice feeling to see it in the wild, so to speak.”

Despite having been in business now for a number of years, it isn’t all plain sailing at By Sea By Land. A settled family and a love for the outdoors means that the designer’s choice to stay in teh part of the country that he loves sometimes counts against him, with the sparse population in the north proving the biggest of the company’s ongoing hurdles to cross.

“I suppose that you don’t get huge conventions or festivals to attend up here. You get the odd festival that can turn out to be good opportunities but if we were based further south there would be many more openings, like in Glasgow, Edinburgh, or even further south.

“We did a festival down in Wales a few years back, that was a pretty fun adventure to travel all that way. Unfortunately the festival was a bit of a bust but you live and you learn. The only real downside to that was the travelling aspect, although we just turned it into a fun roadtrip.

“We turn six in January next year and hopefully what’s changed is a more focused idea of where I want the brand to be heading. It feels more cohesive to me now than it did back when I started in 2012 and hopefully the designs have gotten a bit better. Not a huge amount has changed fundamentally. I still try to give the best customer service that I can and offer the best quality clothing I can. I know how important it is to have a pleasant experience when ordering online and obviously in person, I want people to come away from visiting us feeling happy and looking forward to their package arriving with them, safe in the knowledge that we’ve got their back. If anything untoward happens with an order I’ll always do my best to get the situation sorted and hopefully give the customer a reason to come back even when something might have let them down. Mistakes are rare but they do happen, like with any business.

“Our t-shirts have gone through a bit of a change over the years. We have moved on to a more long-lasting, nicer-fitting T-shirt that I think our customers really love, I certainly do. As far as pipe dreams go, I would love to have a brick and mortar store someday. I feel that would elevate the brand. But the way the high street stores have been going it may be a while until that happens.

“I would love to branch into more cut and sew items: jackets, shorts socks, etcetera. That would be an amazing challenge and something I think would be really fun to try my hand at.”
But for all of these thoughts, Phillips has the air of a man content with his life. Business, family, surroundings: they all seem to come together into one. And it shows with the quality of his product.
Ed Philips may not be living wild in the Highlands, off the sea and the land. But his clothes give us ‘southerners’ a chance to experience the Highlands the beauty of his surroundings first hand.

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