If a cat has nine lives, then Grahame Fowler is somewhere between 17 and 22 cats.
Painter. Chef. Footwear obsessive. Former owner of almost 20 menswear stores. Collaborator with Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake. Rolex stockpiler. Collector of 74 vintage Lambretta scooters. Person who’s ridden those Lambretta scooters well over 100mph. Guy who slept on the roof of his factory in India for months at a time. Tricker’s King of America, Japan, and beyond.
All of those describe Grahame Fowler, but none can fully capture the man. For that, you have to spend a few hours with him in his Long Island City, Queens studio.
The first time I visited, Grahame wore a John Smedley cardigan, plaid scarf he made himself, vintage Levi’s, and a Goorin Bros. fedora. This time, he’s kitted out in a far simpler blue polo shirt buttoned right to the top under a lighter blue sweatshirt from the defunct Vintage Surf Co.—which was thick enough to keep him warm on his daily Lambretta ride to his studio, this time on a miserable day in the early part of the New York season that falsely claims to be spring. Both times, he wore cordovan boots that many men would gladly kill for—or failing that, at least do something else highly illegal.
Grahame’s been in that loft space since 2008, a few years before he opened Grahame Fowler Original on West 10th Street in Manhattan’s West Village. That wonderfully unique menswear shop shuttered in 2017, taking with it a needed dash of originality—and many, many pairs of Tricker’s shoes and boots.
“The traffic died, the area died,” Grahame says as he plays around with a pair of white Tricker’s monkey boots. “Fucking Google moved in and bought everything.” Grahame is the kind of person who can say “fuck” without anyone really realizing he just said “fuck.”
“All the artists moved out. All the people who made it funky, the old musicians, the old writers. All the jazz clubs. Everything that was funky New York. FUNKY. The hospital got sold, got developed into $20,000,000 houses. It was over. People stopped walking down the street. It’s all online now. So I’m just joining the revolution.”
That revolution is now based out of his studio, where in addition to piles of screenprinting gear, racks upon racks of clothing he’s made, vintage sewing machines, Rolexes, bikes strung from the ceiling, Lambretta body panels and engine casings, and countless other notes from the song of his life, Grahame has hundreds of boxes of shoes and boots from Loake, White’s, Sanders, and Red Wing stacked 20 feet towards the sky. But his love—and the majority of his stock—has always been Tricker’s, the British country shoe masters who have created some of the world’s finest hand-grade footwear since 1829.
Of course there are Bourton derbies and Stow brogue boots, Tricker’s two essential pieces of footwear. But you’ll also find wonderful brogued single-monks, plain toe derbies and Burford Super Boots in deeply unique shades of shell cordovan, and those brilliant white monkey boots, so named for the roofers for whom they were originally designed. Although theirs might not have been the same color.
“When you go up there to Northampton,” where Tricker’s and many other great classic British shoe brands like Crockett & Jones, Edward Green, and John Lobb are produced, “and you see all the architecture, you can totally see why the shoe looks the way it looks. All the red brick, the raw ironwork. All the details on the pediments, all the architectural references. They all have this style from the Edwardian period, which is when this whole thing kind of took off.”
He sells much of his stock of Tricker’s shoes through his website, but the only way to get the true Grahame Fowler Experience is to shoot him and email to set up a time to visit. While you’re there, you’d be more than a little insane to not probe Grahame on his personal Tricker’s collection, a smattering of which live in the loft.
His cordovan Super Boots are 22 years old—although you’d have zero chance of telling. “I had them a long time, but when I opened the store on West 10th, I figured I should make some more. We did a half dozen pairs, and in one weekend, every pair sold. So I was like ‘Oh fuck. Better make some more.’ I had another pair, but someone wanted to buy them so badly, so I just gave him a silly number and he bought them.”
His black calf Super Boots are only eight years old, and you probably could tell. That’s because they’ve “never been polished. Never touched ’em with anything. It’s kinda fun to see how long they’ll last without it.”
But perhaps the finest of them all are Grahame’s scotch grain calf Tricker’s Super Boots from 1984, with a veldtschoen construction. “I have another pair of those. I have a house in Scotland, and left them there. I used to use them for grouse shooting. I had them made in the fucking 80s! They last forever.”
I ask Grahame how he keeps these boots in such remarkable condition. Shoe trees? “No! Nothing! I put them on now and again. I’ve got so many others, boxes of them locked away. But I’m like, I just don’t want to start opening boxes in my basement. It would just freak me out. I’d be like, fuck, I need to throw this stuff away.”
Grahame’s had more basements than most over the years. Born in Yorkshire, England, Grahame moved to Kenya as a young boy, when his dad was stationed there with the British Army. He came back to Yorkshire in 1965, at 11. His father left the family shortly thereafter—”Kinda left to do his own thing, whatever that was. In later life I went and found him. It was very weird. Cathartic. Closed a paragraph.”—and Grahame became “highly self-sufficient.”
“By the time I was 12 I was so independent. I had little jobs, I wasn’t interested in school. I had money, and money was a means of freedom. By the time I was 15 I left school. I was working in a restaurant, learning how to cook.”
Around that time he also learned just about everything about Lambretta scooters. “I bought ’em, sold ’em, crashed ’em, fixed ’em, traded ’em, kept a couple all the time. Had a lot stolen. I used to go real fast on them,” he says as we discuss his one-owner, original paint 1974 Lambretta Jet 200 he’s been working on—”a 70mph bike” (scooters always=bikes for Grahame Fowler).
“Stuart Owen built me a twin engined Lambretta 250 called the Targa Twin developed by Tino from Italy. Stuart was a legendary sprinter who once raced a Ferrari and beat it from a standing quarter mile, hitting in excess of 100 mph.”
“But I had a couple accidents. I couldn’t go fast now. My nerves just couldn’t do it. You’re on 10 inch wheels, 12 inch wheels.”
But Grahame will doubtless go faster than he says he will come June, when he heads to London for a Lambretta roundup that will convoy to Poland on a 3000-mile round trip. His Lambretta for that journey is a BSG 305 tuned by JB Tuning that can hit 100mph, and “at 3rd gear at 80, the front wheel lifts off the ground.”
Grahame either invests himself completely into a passion for his entire life, or tires of it quite quickly. After cooking (“I got bored with that after a year or two”), next up was art. “I used to do all these drawings, and I saw a thing in the paper. So I applied to go to art school, and I got in. From there I moved to a BA in Worthing, near Brighton. And then I applied to the Royal College of Art, and they took me in.”
He claims that at the time, he was the youngest person to graduate from the Royal College with a Masters degree. “I was 21, 22, and I bought a one-way ticket to Japan. I just fucked off to Japan, and started knocking on doors. I just wandered around and met a couple people there.”
Those people included Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake, and Kansai Yamamoto, a murderer’s row of the seminal Japanese fashion designers. They and others need things done—and Grahame did them all. “Designing clothing, making movies, designing shops. Designing restaurants. Like anything. And it was happening. There was money there. And there was fashion.”
All that work set him up to invest in things other than just used scooters—once he collected his keep. “At the end of the month in Japan back then, every bill was settled in cash. So you went around to everyone that owed you money, you just picked up bags of cash. I bought my first house like that. I took my money back to England and bought a house. Cash. I was 23 years old. I was like, what do I do with this all this money? Yeah, I could’ve spent it on drugs and song. But fuck it: I bought a house. And I bought a Land Rover.”
Driving around that beast around Notting Hill one day, he got the inspiration to open his first shop. “I see this old church being gutted. And all the solid oak confessional boxes are on the street, waiting to be thrown away and burned. I say to this guy ‘here’s 20 quid—make sure nobody takes this stuff. If I’m not back in an hour, the 20 quid is yours. If I do, I’ll give you another 80 for all this stuff.’ So we put it on the roof of the Land Rover, and I do the shop out—the changing rooms out of the confessional boxes, and the whole shop out of the wooden paneling of the church. It was so cool. My first customer was Paul Smith.”
That shop, much like Grahame Fowler, was named Grahame Fowler. It opened in 1982. After running it for years with his now ex-wife, Grahame headed back to Japan, where in the early ’90s he sprung up 15 shops called West End Company in Osaka, Kyoto, and of course Tokyo. Tricker’s shoes and boots were a huge part of the footwear offering, as the Japanese obsession with a timeless English tailoring look really began to take hold. “We also did overcoats, handmade suits, duffel coats, socks, bags. I had a massive budget—I would just go buy shit and put it in the shop. It was my eye, my taste level.”
In 1997, the Japanese “Lost Decade” recession caught up with him, and all the West End shops shuttered. Grahame went back to England, and pursued business in Switzerland, Italy, and Spain. “And my marriage folded. I was never home. I was always on a fucking plane. After going to Milan, and waking up in Lisbon with people I didn’t know, I sort of realized it was fucking time to change my lifestyle.”
And change he did. “I quit smoking, quit the drugs, quit the alcohol, got rid of all my friends, lost my marriage, moved to New York, got an apartment, and started another business here.” That business was Robert Grahame, a shirt company that Grahame built into a $65 million dollar operation. “We built a factory in India, and I spent three years going back and forth, living on the roof of the factory.”
Despite the success, Robert Grahame ended up on the list of things that just couldn’t hold Grahame’s interest. So he returned to one of the things that did. “I sold the company. I stayed in India, bought a scooter off a guy who was riding on the street. I said, ‘That’s Italian. I’m buying that.’ So I hopped on the back, we went to the bank, I drew 500 bucks out, I gave him the cash, he gave me the bike, and I fucked off driving around India for a year.”
After that came another return to New York—this time for good, after he met his second wife in 2000 (“I owe her my soul, man”). He found his current studio in 2006—”I put pins in the map. North, south, east, west, and I got on my bicycle and recorded where I could get riding 20 minutes from my house.”—and focused on painting and screenprinting.
“This place was rough. There was a methadone clinic just over there, people were getting shot all over the place. But it had a massive elevator so I could get scooters in.”
Someone asked him for a custom suit, which evolved into doing special orders for Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman. One day as Grahame was zipping a Lambretta around (obviously), he saw a West Village shop for rent. That turned into Grahame Fowler Original in 2008.
“We hd a good run, it was a lot of fun. Lot of people coming in, copying everything we’re doing. J. Crew, Ralph [Lauren]—everyone was in there.” But the neighborhood changed, and with it, so did Grahame’s customer base. “It used to be a lot of photographers, art directors, film directors. Other fashion people. Some of them are still down there. Some of them moved on. Some of them are dead.”
If the man is a master of timing, he proved it by closing the decidedly polished Grahame Fowler Original during the current decade when menswear has swung far more casual. “No one’s interested in clothes anymore. They all go work in a t-shirt and a pair of jeans and nobody gets dressed. A whole different generation’s come through and they’re not really interested in it.”
“I think generally Americans aren’t as interested in clothing as Europe. If you go, if you go like Italy or France or Hamburg or London, you’ll see people on the street far better dressed than they are here. Even though New York has tons of money, it doesn’t really care about what it looks like. So you see people here—they dress like fucking down-and-outs, but they’re multimillionaires and they don’t care.”
“But in London, in Milan and Hamburg and Frankfurt, you go, there are people there that care. London especially is still—you can still go to Saville Row and have a really nice suit made or have a last made and get yourself some shoes.”
“I mean, maybe I’ll open a store that only sells English boots and shoes, American boots and shoes. There’s retail in my blood, so I’m always like looking for another angle, you know?”
Until then, if you care, you’ll just have to stop by Grahame’s studio. There, the dream of looking damned good is very much alive.
If you’re interested in stopping by Grahame’s studio (and, you should be), just shoot him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you can’t, he’s got a ton of shoes and other fantastic stuff—because he’s just part of the revolution now—on his website.