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5th February 2020

In Conversation With Provide.

Provide is more than just a clothing brand. It is a community. The brand is built and shaped by the city of Birmingham and the people within it. In the eight years it has been running, Provide has been a key driving force for the Birmingham creative scene and is now an established platform within the city.

Our Designer, Gaz, is in conversation with Provide and the brains behind the venture, Matt Nation, about his story and Provide’s origins.


Can you explain a bit about your background and story before you got started with Provide?

Matt: For as long as I can remember I’ve been interested in clothes and design. I started drawing football kits when I was ten and was fussy about my clothes from the age of four or five. I enjoyed art and design throughout school and by the time I was fifteen I had a clear vision of where I wanted to go. I loved underground streetwear brands from the 90s like Fuct and Stussy that had a very DIY culture. I went to London College of Fashion and did a degree in Product Design specialising in clothing, which is essentially a fashion design course with a commercial focus. The best part of being at LCF was the placement year that I spent in New York with a menswear brand called 3sixteen, where I learned a lot about working in a small company.

I came back from the States and wanted to break into a similar scene in the UK but soon realised that the companies that I admired here were so small they often didn’t have the budget to take on new staff, so I ended up at a high street retailer in head office and was bored out of my brains. I lasted about five months before I walked out. I had no plan but I knew that I had experienced the polar opposite of what I want to be doing with my life and career. That’s when I decided to start my own thing and build it from the ground up.

So then came Provide in 2012 right?

Matt: Yes; I quit my job in 2011 and started brainstorming and planning right away, and Provide was launched in September 2012.

Your first space was in the Custard Factory; could you explain a bit about how that came about?

Matt: I left London and came to the city as a complete newcomer. I felt like the best way of meeting people would be to have a physical space with an open door. This was during a time when the high street was in decline but the landlords were very accommodating and it proved to be an affordable ‘starter unit’. I was in that space for three years and when Provide outgrew it, I ended up working with the Great Western Arcade and doing two pop up shops within the course of 18 months. These pop ups helped to establish a wider audience across the city without having to commit to a five or ten year lease.

A couple of years ago I moved into my current studio space and started the process of going from high street retail to being primarily online.

What would you say are the pros and cons of having a physical space compared to where you are now?

Matt: The pros of having a retail space is that it instantly legitimatises you; people are a lot more trusting online now than they used to be, but there’s still a huge difference between looking at a website and walking into a shop and meeting the people associated with a brand. It’s a great way of meeting your customers and getting real-time feedback.

The downside of having a shop is mainly the costs associated with it, and it’s only able to generate income when somebody is there working. In contrast, anyone can visit the website in their own time and make a purchase regardless of whether or not I’m around.

In the studio now, I have the space to run the brand more efficiently, but if somebody wants to come and buy something in person they still have the option to make an appointment for a visit. It’s the best of both worlds, really.

Would you ever consider doing another pop up?

Matt: Absolutely! I believe in brands that have a purpose and community, and one of the best ways to share these things is by having a space where you can bring everything together. Pop ups are brilliant ways to bring the brand to life in lieu of a permanent flagship store.

Being up and running for about 8 years now, what would you say have been the biggest challenges you have faced?

Matt: The biggest ongoing challenge for me is balancing my creative and personal vision with the day-to-day realities and financial pressures of running a business. It’s taken me a long time to figure out how that balance should look and to be honest I’m still learning to do that.

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the city since Provide has been running?

Matt: One of the main reasons I chose Birmingham for Provide was because when I first visited the city it had such a limited independent scene. I asked people where I should check out; where the cool shops and coffee places were. Consistently the answer was “I don’t know. There isn’t anywhere.” I saw that as an opportunity; rather than going to another city that already had a thriving independent scene, why not go somewhere that a new business would stand out, and be a catalyst for change? So many new ventures have started over the last eight years and it’s been amazing to be a part of this growing community of creative people.

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I haven’t got much experience in the retail and fashion industry but Provide was one of the first brands where the pure focus was the city and a big thing I’ve noticed over the past few years is people starting to take more pride in their cities, whereas it used to be all about London and wanting to move there. I think it’s partly down to things like Provide and Birmingham Design Festival. Do you feel responsible at all for the shift in attitude?

Matt: I hope that I’ve played my part in a much wider movement of people who are doing their bit to push the city forward. I wanted to create a brand that would provide space, opportunity and inspiration for the city of Birmingham, and I think Provide was one of the first brands of this generation to use the city itself as the starting point for its creative processes. By saying we’re proud of Birmingham, we want to celebrate it and share it, and I think Provide has given other people the confidence to do the same, whether that’s proudly wearing a Birmingham related t-shirt in another city or starting their own creative business.

Regarding London, its status as the epicentre of creativity is being challenged as more and more people get priced out and move back to their home cities. We’re now seeing a lot of people who have been in London for years, returning to the places they grew up with fresh enthusiasm and experience, which means that all over the country smaller towns and cities are experiencing their own creative revivals.

How does it make you feel when you see a Provide product on someone?

Matt: When I notice someone in public wearing Provide I’m grateful above all, because they have chosen to spend their money on something that I’ve made. They have also chosen to broadcast a message that matters to me, so connecting with people on that level and knowing that I’m not alone in my belief in Birmingham’s potential is really motivating.

So a big thing I see Provide being built on is collaboration – why was that important for you starting out?

Matt: Working with other inspiring people is really important because I thrive on these relationships. Collaboration was a natural way of working from the beginning, and now Provide has established this platform where it can share another person’s work to a new audience, and it’s always great to be introduced to a collaborator’s audience too. It also means that it’s not all about Provide. It adds a collective dimension to the brand.

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I think it fits the brand perfectly; it champions the city and people within the city. How did the first thoughts and ideas for the Brum Box come about?

Matt: It was a natural progression for the brand because it combines various elements of what I already do into one product. It’s incredible value for money and it’s also an amazing way to introduce the Provide audience to new artists and brands. It’s proving to be a fun way of bridging the online experience with product and physical interaction. For example, some of the Brum Boxes have included invitations to follow on events, so as well as the t-shirt, art print and the extra gift, you also get the chance to meet other Provide customers in a real world setting. We’ve just done number five so it’s still early days but I’m really interested in using the Brum Box to get online shoppers together offline.

Were you worried at all releasing the first one?

Matt: Massively, yes! I had no idea if it was going to work or not. I was worried that it wasn’t going to sell enough to meet the t-shirt printer’s minimum order, but it went better than expected. It’s been growing ever since. The challenge now is to keep it exciting so people keep coming back for them.

There’s a huge element of trust with the product which is why I think it's such an interesting idea.

Matt: Yeah, people are trusting Provide to give them something unique without knowing what it’s going to be. The fact that I’ve put 7+ years into curating and supplying products means that people have a certain amount of confidence in terms of the creativity and quality they can expect from Provide so they know when they buy a Brum Box it will be in line with what they know and love about the brand.

It’s also a limited piece right?

Matt: Yeah, they are super limited. I always get a number of messages after the fact saying “Oh I missed out, can I get one anyway?” and the answer is always no!

So you started Provide in the last decade and we’ve just moved into a new one, what are some future plans for Provide?

Matt: I’m excited to see what happens with Brum Box this year, and combining products with events is something that I’d like to continue developing as part of that.

Final question, is there anything that you’re really into at the moment?

Matt: There’s a media brand called Maekan which was started by one of the founders of Hypebeast a few years ago and it’s a really interesting approach to storytelling through media. I always keep up with what they’re doing as they are building community online with integrity, which is something I also aspire to do.

Massive thanks to Matt for inviting me to be in conversation with Provide and inviting me to the studio!

Go support Matt and Provide: 





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