In Birmingham, business success lies within finding a niche and providing a service that fills a void. In 2012 Matthew Nation, fresh from completing a degree in Product Design for Fashion at London College of Fashion and after spending time in the Big Apple cutting his teeth in one of the industry’s most pioneering cities, decided it was time to support Birmingham’s creative publications and independent brands by providing a home and championing other creatives, designers and startups.
Provide was formally housed in The Custard Factory, an area once dubbed the Brick Lane of Birmingham albeit a little far from the truth, it is a testament to Provide’s business model that the store bloomed whilst housed there.
Following his time at The Custard Factory, Provide had a short stint in Birmingham’s latest independent hotspot, the Great Western Arcade alongside retailers, booze connoisseurs and coffee shops such as The Liquor Store, Projekt21, Loki Wines and Sushi Paradise. This popular parade for commuters, shoppers and culture vultures had provided a one-stop shop for all things indie. Now at the end of 2016, Provide exists within a collaborative space with like-minded individuals at the Jubilee Centre located in Birmingham’s Southside. Joining forces with artists such as BABMAG featured satirical artist Imbue and architectural forward thinkers space_play to create a self-confined hub. By the time you are reading this the Provide ‘Best of Brum’ pop up shop will be back in the Great Western Arcade; not only a place to pick up unique Christmas gifts or a locally screen printed t-shirt that resonates in Brum culture in the ground floor shop, ‘Best of Brum’ will also play host to exhibitions, book signings and a certain magazine launch for issue 4 will be taking place in the upstairs gallery space till the end of December. Provide is doing exactly what is says on the tin; we have only one piece of advice on this independent juggernaut, use it or lose it…
Why did you move from The Custard Factory?
When I opened Provide at the Custard Factory in 2012, it was a great place to start my first ever business in a city where I didn’t know anyone. The rent was cheap, the landlords were willing to work with me as a relatively inexperienced kid in his mid-twenties, and the local community was quick to welcome me with open arms. But after three years there, I felt Provide needed to step up a gear, and anyone who ever visited that first space will remember how tiny it was – there’s only so much that’s possible in a single room that size, so I took a break clause in my lease and started to look for other sites.
How did your original vision and idea for Provide differ and evolve to what we see today?
Back in 2011 when Provide was just an idea, my dream was to take over an entire building and house a full-service creative community under one roof, from desk space to art gallery, cafe to photo studio and retail too. However the dreaming only went so far, and I lacked both the experience and capital to do anything on this scale. The retail side of things excited me the most, hence the original version of Provide at the Custard Factory, which was a great step in the right direction. Today though, I think Provide is closer than it’s ever been to the original concept, especially because of its involvement with 212 Space and all the other people who are doing their thing there. Not being stuck in a shop all day is allowing me the freedom to explore more exciting possibilities including events and collaborations, all of which are in line with the original idea of providing a platform for creative people to make and share work.
How was your time at Great Western Arcade?
I had met with the landlords at Great Western Arcade while I was still in Digbeth, but at the time there were no suitable units available. When they heard that I had a firm date for leaving the Custard Factory but had not lined up a new location, they were keen to work something out, even on a temporary basis. So I took on a space there which was going to be empty for a few months while the incoming tenant sorted out the finer details of their lease. City centre rent is a huge jump from what I was paying at the Custard Factory, and the customer base is much more varied, too. I enjoyed being in a busier environment and during those five months was able to introduce a lot of people to the brand. However, as the pop up came to an end, it was clear to me that traditional high street retail was not the way forward for Provide. With the constant pressure of such high overheads, there was very little time for creativity or collaboration, both of which are central to the brand’s purpose.
What are the benefits of your current space and working with fellow creatives at the Jubilee Centre?
My friend Imbue was helping me to pack down the pop-up shop after it had closed and mentioned he was going to check out a potential new studio space later that day. We walked over to the Jubilee Centre together and talked about how Provide needed to switch things up; to still have a presence in the city but not be a slave to high rents. That discussion and the subsequent viewing led to the establishment of what’s now known as 212 Space. Along with the architects at Space_Play, we spent a month doing up the shell of a unit and building a workspace and showroom to accommodate a number of local artists and designers. 212 Space turns 1 year old in the spring, and it’s already proving to be an amazing place where collaboration happens naturally and people are able to develop new products and ideas alongside each other. The studio is a testament to what’s possible when creative people with very little budget but plenty of enthusiasm are determined to make something happen.
You have spent time in influential cities such as New York and London. How does Birmingham differ from these?
I lived in Brooklyn and worked in the Lower East Side for a year when I was 20, with a menswear company called 3sixteen. My time there was hugely influential, on both me as a person and on Provide as a business. I don’t think there’s anywhere in the world like NYC, so you can’t really compare it, although when I moved to Digbeth from London all the warehouses and factories around my flat did remind me of certain streets in Brooklyn. I love walking all over Birmingham and taking in the industrial architecture, which has shaped the city over the last couple hundred years.
Before New York, I arrived in London in 2005 and stayed for about 5 years in total, with a couple of breaks in between. Like New York, it’s an incredible city, but since I first moved there it’s changed beyond recognition, in my opinion for the worse. Everything, from rent to beer is so expensive, and for anyone who wants to set up something on their own, it’s just not sustainable. London does have an incredible history of youth-led, world-changing art, music and fashion, but I think that’s what it is; history. The city has become a playground for the rich, which is pretty disgusting when you look at how it’s been allowed to happen, but what that does mean is that other cities now more than ever present a competitive alternative for people who want to make an impact and try something new. That’s why I came to Birmingham in 2012, and that’s why you’ll continue to see thousands more young people arrive here over the next few years. And what those new arrivals will discover is that Brummies are incredibly welcoming, supportive people who recognise when someone does something new with good intentions, and are fiercely loyal in getting behind those things.
Current products, what’s your favourite item in store at the minute?
We’ve just taken delivery of some crewneck sweatshirts with a really subtle tonal logo embroidery – black on black and grey on grey. It’s so simple, but they look amazing. I’m now wearing one of the black ones almost every day of the week…