PRINT IS NOT DEAD: David Owen of IDEA Books
Chances are you’ve seen the name “WINONA” in large serif text splattered on your explore feed, maybe by now it's engraved into your subconscious. To date, over 6,000 "WINONA" emblazoned t-shirts have sold, ready and waiting to be flicked for the gram. Despite this, you may not be privy to where it stems, who its maker is or why even Winona?
The idea came from IDEA (excuse the redundancy) as supplementary merch to their business of bookdealing. The industry renowned book dealer is based in London and sardonically self-titled “the coolest publisher in the world”.
Their selection of rarities provide source material and inspirations to some of the most valuable names behind the scenes of the fashion industry, art world and design community at large. David Owen and Angela Hill, husband & wife and owner-operators of the publishing house, were partners before the company even existed, back when they'd feed their addiction for books by collecting copies of vintage print - with focus on modern art, architecture, fashion, interiors and photography. That hasn't changed much between them.
IDEA has reinvented bookselling. What’s remarkable about their operation is its instant accessibility in the age of Instagram, where they've garnered a following of over 300,000 followers and counting. Whether you're a designer needing reference or a passionate book collector, the process to attain these hard-to-find titles are made available at your fingertips. From the moment IDEA posts a new book to their Instagram, it becomes free reign for a worldwide market. All it takes is an artful email addressed to email@example.com (as stamped on their instagram byline). We go beyond the emails to find more about the duo who have become the real, true and living trend forecasters of our day and the best book curators on the planet! We chat with ½ of IDEA, David Owen, about the origins of his company, as we also snoop around their SoHo headquarters.
PRINT IS NOT DEADDavid Owen of IDEA Books
Tell us about the bones of the IDEA operation.
Angela Hill and I run IDEA from offices on Wardour Street in Soho, London. There are five of us in all and everything happens from here. There is a book room with the vintage books and we take appointments with creatives in the fashion world; designers, stylists, photographers but also architects, art directors, film and video makers, musicians and artists. It’s a starry customer base but that also brings with it a certain discretion - so we don’t name names. The office is also where we scheme up new book projects to publish and where we design shirts and bags and…well it’s busy here.
Can you pinpoint the overall timeline of IDEA for us?
We have done so many things between us (David and Angela) before we officially became IDEA; music business, styling, photography, television production, internet projects - so many careers. Throughout it all, we were finding books and selling them. We sold vintage books through Colette when it first opened in 1997 and the Dover Street Market after that. Then in 2009, Angela asked the St Martins Lane Hotel about a store space they had and we took a pop up shop for three months over the summer. Suddenly we needed a name and IDEA was conceived (actually by our eldest daughter Iris - it is an acronym for Iris David Edith Angela, our family). Things were pretty much normal until 2002 or 2003 when Instagram came along. We spotted the opportunity very quickly. It’s possible that we were the first account to properly monetize Instagram with the ‘email if you firstname.lastname@example.org’ line of text. We have sold every book we ever put up there since the day we came up with that phrase.
Describe your evolution from when you both had initially set out?
That’s tricky to answer as originally all we ever intended it to do was to pay the bills and afford us a living. We have always been open to change and going with whatever idea came next. So Instagram was a surprise. It meant we went from one to one personal sales in stores - showing people pictures from books - to a one to a 300K+ version of the same thing. The point we hit 50K coincided with our first publication - a zine with Gosha Rubchinskiy called Crimea / Kids. It sold all 300 copies in a day - at which point we realized we had a customer base that largely liked to look at £500 super rare books but would actually buy £45 books! That was only 2015 and we have now published maybe 20 books with Palace, Gucci, Vetements etc. Many of these brands are lead by people who are our customers for the rare vintage books so it all ties up very well.
The apparel line began with WINONA bags and then just 20 WINONA t-shirts for the opening of the new Dover Street Market in Haymarket, London. That was two and half years ago. We have now sold over 6000 WINONA shirts! TECHNO is not far behind. We also went from having accounts with about 20 stores worldwide to 45 in the space of the last three months - Neighbour included. That was really the Stüssy effect. The book with them was truly great but we were most pleased that the Stüssy/IDEA shirt sold out so fast - on Stüssy’s site too. It’s very exciting to see IDEA has a value for streetwear fashion kids.
IDEA began as a side project of sorts, where you had both worked in other disciplines beforehand (ie. styling, photography, copywriting). Have you seen the company come full circle, where it started as a book shop/publisher and has transitioned to a consulting agency for brands?
Yes, it’s not a totally unexpected circle. We learned a lot as we worked on IDEA and particularly on the Instagram account. We changed and adapted and innovated (hopefully we still do) to a point where we became an example of how to do it well. Perhaps, more importantly, we became an example of how to do whatever comes next well. It is not just that the media and technology are new, it is also, with regard to next month or next year, unknown. So in that regard, we are very well placed to consult on other brands and even run other accounts for companies and brands.
Having a dedicated corner at Dover Street for years, why have you decided to extend distribution outwards to stores like Neighbour?
DSM expanded to include Tokyo, New York, and Singapore - and with LA to follow next year. But really it was a move led by our own shift to publishing. We have a very tight distribution model which can be extremely economical when almost all sales are through ideanow.online. However, the brands and the photographers want to see that their book is available in Seoul, Madrid, Toronto, Berlin etc. The same applies to the Stüssy book and shirt we did and the hat that will be released in December. Brands like Stüssy like to appear in the stores that stock IDEA - many of which are bookstores or lifestyle stores and not the usual Stüssy stockists. We still lead with DSM and our Instagram says ‘booksellers of Dover Street Market.’ The DSMs arguably the best retail stores in the world and, beyond that, the DSM brand is built on the creativity and innovation of Comme des Garçons, which is always going to be the greatest foundation.
Do you have a personal favorite book project and/or company that you have helped to publish?
The Fiorucci book we didn’t publish, it is a Rizzoli book. But I edited it and made the selection from their amazing archive and chose to interview people who have direct experience of the brand rather than have myself or anyone else write a text. The interviews and transcriptions with Marc Jacobs, Toscani, Maripol, Douglas Coupland etc. were a pleasure to do - and to read I imagine. It is a great book so I am very pleased with that. Looking at our books, it won’t go down so well if I pick a favorite but safe to say working with Vetements, Palace, Gucci and Gosha all within the first half of 2016 was a fashion highpoint!
Would you and Angela ever consider writing a more personal book or memoir for creatives?
Probably not! We have told the story a few times for press features. What we should have done is kept hi-res pictures of the ‘superbooks’ we have found and made a book of those. They are archived now on the website but only lo-res so it wouldn’t be fit for print. There were one-off books like Images Polanski or the David Bowie fan album that will never be seen again. But we weren’t thinking ahead when we started and now it is too late.
As of now, IDEA stands as a studio and an e-commerce site. Are there plans to open a store?
In 2009 Angela walked into the St Martins Lane Hotel in London and asked about the large shop space they had that used to be Philippe Starck’s Golden Kiosk and had become a coat room. We took it as a pop-up shop for three months that summer and then again twice more. We were completely fitted out by Vitsoe and open until midnight seven days a week. The music was so loud that if they left the door open at the Starbucks on the other side of the road they could hear it in there. It was a lot of fun. Very demanding - talking to people for 13 hours straight. We might do it again but then again, in the meantime, we have reinvented bookselling so it is kind of counterintuitive to try and wind back the clock and pretend like it is 2010 again.
As for consulting, what is the scope of your work and can you speak about the brands you have overseen?
For the most part, it is Instagram and copywriting that we do. There are a few Instagram accounts that we either run or contribute to and they are major brands but it is not something that is up for public discussion! We are working covertly in plain sight - if you know you know and if you don’t, all the better.
Beyond the books, what has IDEA come to provide for all these multidisciplinary industries?
IDEA didn’t have a message at the outset other than providing employment and a living for Angela and I and now our staff. It has, however, become apparent that we do have a meaning if you can call it that. It is in our nature to treat everyone as creative. It is how we address people in our copywriting and communication. Very creative people buy from us and use what they buy to inspire their work. They also work with us to make books and shirts. But the crucial difference is making everyone feel creative - whether they are, are not or to whatever degree they might be. We try and transfer the energy of ideas and creativity to everyone. Apple, of course, did this in the 80s on a much, much bigger scale than us - but the principle and the message are the same.
Last words for the young archive collector?
We would always say that you should buy whatever makes you feel better and more confident about yourself. Some of our books become quite valuable quite quickly and people do turn them for a profit - we love this as this is exactly how we built IDEA in the first place - but unless you are out to collect money then always buy what you have the most respect for.
And last but not least...why...WINONA?
We wanted to do a bag. It was the first product we did. Before we published books even. We had the Kelly bag and Birkin bags as our blueprint and thought it would be easier to just write the name of our muse on the outside. Angela chose WINONA. And then six thousand shirts later...