If wearing a tie to the office is no longer de rigueur, how do men state their sartorial attitude? With a Blake Mill shirt, it seems.

We can’t blame Covid for the decline of the tie in the office, this is a trend that has been creeping into the work environment for some years now, but those days of working from home have certainly speeded up the movement. Ties, however, were one of the few ways suited and booted gentlemen could flash a little personality – from the classic stripy club tie to the dashing paisley print, or the staid navy of the CFO to the vibrant violet of the CMO. 

Great British Life: Ken Price. Photo: Tom BarkerKen Price. Photo: Tom Barker

It seems that instead of showing a flash of independence in their ties, men are turning to their shirts, instead, a trend noted by the founders of Blake Mill, shirtmakers, which started from a Bollington Mill. 

Ken Price, director of Blake Mill alongside founder Steve French, laughs when I ask what fashion knowhow he and Steve brought to the table, when building a menswear business. 

“Absolutely nothing. Steve and I are Fin Tech entrepreneurs. We spent over 25 years in that space and built several companies, the last one, based in Wrexham, we sold to a company in New York.” 

Following this, Ken, who hails originally from Canada, took his skills to Silicon Valley, but Steve, it seems chose a slightly different approach to semi-retirement. 

Great British Life: Teal Lux Jersey, with accents of Vincent, as in Van Gogh, the inspiration behind the printTeal Lux Jersey, with accents of Vincent, as in Van Gogh, the inspiration behind the print

“Steve did a few things, including flying aerobatics, deep sea scuba diving, motorcycle racing, climbing...  He was getting a little bored, so he started working on some business ideas with his nephew, Ross French, and came up with the idea of an online romantic gifts company and one of those gifts was dress shirts, which they had made in Bollington. 

“They set up shop and started doing these really interesting print designs, born out of the various passions he has, ranging from science and music and art to literature. 

“The pedigree of the business is therefore based upon inspired design – authentic and original and unique.” 

Aside from a design licensed from the Lowry Museum, each of the designs has a story behind it, or an inspiration that leads to a pattern that tells its own story. 

“One of our shirts, Burn Baby Burn, is quite plain when seen from a distance, but get closer and you can it’s all ones and zeros. It’s actual computer code, and it’s the computer code that sent Apollo 11 to the moon. It was called Burn Baby Burn by the programmer who wrote the code.” 

Ken and Steve bring in artists and independent designers to create the designs and are seeking to create a truly collaborative approach between designers and customers. 

“In our last business in Fin Tech was based on collaboration amongst all our customers and we’re driving collaboration and co-creation amongst the artist community we work with now. It’s a small community right now, but we’re working on a technology platform right now to help those artists collaborate and create. We’re also taking a lot of feedback from our customers – when we’re thinking about new designs sometimes they’re just really bad ideas, so we test them with our customers and will embed that research into our new technology platform.” 

With more than 40 different designs created already, there’s plenty of choice for the man seeking to show a flash of personality whether at work or play, so where have Ken and Steve found their designers? 

Great British Life: Counting DucksCounting Ducks

“We’ve found a few in odd places,” Ken says. “I met one on a chairlift ride up a ski slope, and another through a friend whose neighbour’s daughter was a designer. Others we have proactively looked for, and we’re starting to actively solicit input from artists. In 2024, this is going to become a big activity for us. We’re based in Manchester, so we’re going to set up a series of regular artist events and start creating a community for artists, not for Blake Mill, per se. We’ve learned that artists are underpaid and undervalued and it’s very difficult for them to get work. One of our new artists has a Masters in art and she told us she couldn’t get work because she doesn’t have a portfolio, which is ridiculous, we just think it’s insane that an artist should have to go through some sort of rigid career progression. If you’re good, we want to see how we can tap into that creativity. By working with us they can start to build a name for themselves. 

“We don’t intend this just for Manchester, but all around the UK, and because we have global ambitions and the tech platform, we have the opportunity for artists to collaborate from all over the world. 

Design is, of course, one of the greatest human talents currently under threat from AI. With his background in technology, what plans does Ken have for this opportunity? 

“Certainly one of our Silicon Valley friends tells us that all of our design work can be done by AI, but I think AI will be used only to enhance, never to create. I think art has to have some soul behind it, so while AI may be used to generate different iterations of a work of art we think it’s important that everything starts with a human being.” 

As it’s human beings who will be choosing the shirts that strike a note in accordance with who they are, or wish to present themselves as being, this seems quite right and proper. 

Great British Life: Plain black, with accents of Exotic ZebrasPlain black, with accents of Exotic Zebras

“Our shirts travel easily from the boardroom to the bar,” Ken says. “Men aren’t wearing ties so much, but they still want so have some personality, so wearing a plain black or a plain white with a bold print in the collar and cuffs is a bit of a surrogate for a necktie. One of our advisors is a CFO at a major publicly listed company and he wears our bold shirts to all his board meetings. 

“There’s definitely been a shift in what men wear. I used to wear a suit and tie to work every day going into banks in the City and around the world, and it’s refreshing, frankly, to have a slightly more casual take on things.” 

Express yourself 

In 2023 Blake Mill linked with UK charity MIND, with their collection of Mind Over Matter shirts contributing 10 per cent of the sale price to the mental health charity.  The print designs are inspired by sources as diverse as the drawings of a pioneer in neuroscience, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, through to an abstract take on Australia’s use of marijuana to treat mental health. 

Great British Life: Stoned Skulls, with a print inspired by Australia's ground-breaking psychedelic therapy legalizationStoned Skulls, with a print inspired by Australia's ground-breaking psychedelic therapy legalization (Image: c. Blake Mill)

“We’re a small business and every one of us is either personally or knows someone affected by mental illness. Fashion is all about expression and mental health is often about people finding it difficult to express themselves, so we felt there was a real connection and it all just jived together. 

“MIND is the biggest mental health charity in the UK, and we plan to do similar as we expand overseas.”