During my short-lived retirement in Sri Lanka I found the time to start working on an idea that had been floating around in my head for a few years.
Those that know me will know that among my many quirks, I refuse to drive; I prefer to cycle. As I travel, I like to work through my current problems while I enjoy the scenery and architecture, at approximately 11mph. I believe cycling should be part of my lifestyle; not a hobby, not a bit of exercise, and certainly not a sport. Simply, it is how I choose to travel from A to B. It is quieter, cleaner, and often gets me to my destination quicker than travelling by car.
In my previous job I worked in the North East of England, and most of my meetings were with colleagues working in the public sector. The dress code amongst these colleagues can be described as “suit”. If you want more detail maybe “worn navy blue suit” or “suit from M&S”, depending on the meeting. I wore more casual clothes, so that when I arrived at a meeting I didn’t have to squeeze my 6’2” form and my pannier into a grubby gent’s cubicle to peel off some spandex. Also, I don’t like spandex. And this is where my love of cycling became a bit of a problem: The casual clothes, no matter how smart-casual, were not helping.
As a young CEO trying to make the world, or at least North East England, a better place, my colleagues welcomed my ideas for change. At first they were hesitant, but as the successes and evidence grew, they welcomed the approach that I, and my company, was able to bring. The company grew quickly and the meetings, together with the people in them, became more important. No one was dressing down. In order to be a part of my lifestyle, cycling or my clothing needed to change.
I ran through the choices and tried to convince myself: Did I really need to cycle? Surely spandex wasn’t that bad? I could always use an accessible toilet for more room couldn’t I? No. None of those were right. I just carried on in my smart-casual clothes. It was easy really; I was far too busy trying to make the world a better place to bother finding clothes that I was pretty sure didn’t exist. It made the company seem edgy and youthful anyway didn’t it? Wrong again. It made presenting new ideas to traditional minds, convincing the right people to do the right thing, and being taken seriously in a time of massive financial cuts much more difficult than it needed to be.
While in Sri Lanka I reflected on this. Locals, influenced by their colonial past, still wear trousers, shirts and ties in 28 degree heat and 80 per cent humidity. Even the schoolchildren were impeccably smart in their bright white uniforms. The people were thriving, and their culture emphasised the importance of dress. No one dressed down. Influences and opportunity were all around me: There was an abundance of cheap tailors, and I had time to put together the problems and solutions of cycling in work clothing. This is why I had come to Sri Lanka.
I thought about how the trousers should work, balanced that with the look I wanted to achieve, and began to understand how the structure and material would be affected by movement. I watched people hanging onto busses and crouching into tuk-tuks. I saw how professional women were accorded respect as they walked in the streets. I wanted to see some of that pride and strength in the streets and workplaces in the UK.
In our last fortnight in the country I commissioned and collected a prototype pair of trousers made by a small tailors in Bambalapiti. They are far from the finest trousers I own, and they have been unstitched, reassembled, and then cast aside as more prototypes were created developed. But they worked, and the balance of form and function evident enough to inspire me to continue the journey.