Oi Polloi x Reebok Classics NPC ii — Interview with photographer Alex Hulsey

Last week saw the official release of Oi Polloi‘s collaborative NPC ii model with Reebok Classics. The guys held a launch party down in Soho with a full exhibition of  Vermont-born photographer Alex Hulsey‘s lookbook which tells the story of a typical teenage day in Bolton, wandering through the streets and going fishing.

I met up with Oi Polloi founders Steve Sanderson and Nigel Lawson to have a conversation about their new London store and the background of the NPC ii project for Breaks Mag. Whilst I was there I actually managed to have a really decent conversation with Alex about the relationship between Northern culture and his own US experiences and a load of other stuff. Enjoy the interview below along with a few new images from the campaign, and head over to breaksmag.com to read the first half of the interview with Nigel and Steve. Safe.

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How was the link up with those guys?

AH: I’m part-photographer and part-filmmaker. Before I moved to London I was working in LA and I hooked up with a director called Daniel Wolfe from Manchester. That’s what brought me across to London. He immediately went into production on a feature film called Catch Me Daddy which was set in Oldham, Rochdale, Yorkshire. We were just stomping around the Manchester area and bumped into various people connected to Oi Polloi. Friends who’d worked there, acquaintances with Steve, friends from the ‘90s and so on, those types of connections. They’ve been a huge mens’ styling reference in a lot of the UK cinema that I’ve worked in. You ask yourself, how can we make this authentic and stylish, and you go and check out Oi Polloi. They’re all about the understatement and simple style. So then I did the stills photography of the film which ended up in Steve and Nigel’s hands and I guess they thought that I got it.

I was watching an Anthony Bourdain episode the other day all about Massachusetts—Provincetown, Greenville, the fishing communities and so on. The moment you made that connection it made a lot of sense to me.

AH: The post-industrial, working class, hurricane country… trains! You could do Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Boston.

Trains get no love in the States! You only ever hear about trains in those forgotten parts of the country.

AH: Yeah, if you live anywhere that you can see or hear trains going by you probably live in a shithole. There was a certain element of the North that feels very “East Coast” to me in some way. I definitely felt relatively at home there, more so than in London. No rest for the wicked in London.

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It must be nice to get that kind of endorsement from the Oi Polloi guys though, saying that you understand where they’re coming from.

AH: It’s a huge compliment. It’s always a little bit in the back of my mind as an ex-pat. You’re always worried that you’re missing some sort of cultural element. I’m working in the UK, for the UK, and I hope it doesn’t necessarily come through as an American’s take on something, especially in this case where we’re really trying to be authentic.

And I’m sure you know about that folklorish idea of the North-South divide in the UK. The South can try as hard as it possibly can to “get” the North and the response is always ‘piss off’. For you to have managed to do it so effectively and as somebody even further removed I find pretty commendable.

AH: Everything that I do in the UK is through this lens of working for a northerner for the past three years, embedded in the North for four months at a time working on projects like the film. That’s a lot of man-hours to try and figure something out.

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Obviously the US has those divides as well—North and South, East and West—but they often seem to operate in totally different ways. 

AH: In the States, we have so much spread—cosmopolitan cities all across. The west coast has multiple gigantic multicultural cities, but then so does the interior with Chicago, St. Louis and so on. In the States you get those regional divides, but you’ve got countryside and suburban to city and metropolitan much more than the geographical mentalities. Even though Manchester is a central city, it’s still smaller and has more of it’s own culture than London does at times which is much more of a melting pot.

Manchester has a much more distinctive vibe and what seems to be a history and a way of being. London is shifting all of the time. But you know, having grown up in a rural area and my own city stomping grounds being places like Boston and Montreal, the difference between a Montreal and a New York is probably comparable to that divide between Manchester and London; the mega-city and the micro-city.

Maybe there’s something as well in North America about having that bit more space to breathe and do your own thing. The UK is so claustrophobic at times and centralised around London that the other voices are muffled in the broader context.

AH: But I think those places become more interesting as a result. There are really strong voices in those areas. It’s a weird analogy but I always enjoyed watching semi-professional sports than the professional leagues, because you know the semi-pros are the ones that are really giving it everything they’ve got. That’s where the really incredible stuff happens; they either fail spectacularly—and that in itself is exciting—or they succeed, and if they succeed when they’re pushing themselves to the limit, it’s so much more powerful.

I think that carries over into these discussions. If you’re outside of the major metropolitan area and you’re trying to find a voice, it’s going to be so much stronger than if you found it within that space, and more distinct.

Click here to read the first half of the interview with Steve Sanderson and Nigel Lawson

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