Sublime meets up with Jack Hamilton Fellows, founder of The Social Mercenary, an innovative, youthful brand that features bold Ghanaian prints and supports local makers.
Sublime: How did The Social Mercenary begin?
Jack Hamilton Fellows: The long and short of it is that I excelled at maths and science in school. That’s why I chose to study Chemical Engineering at Loughborough University. I deferred to work with a major nuclear energy company and quickly discovered engineering wasn’t for me, so I changed my university course to Banking, Finance and Management. I began trading in stocks and shares and learning about the structure of our financial system.
When it came to taking on a student placement, instead of taking up a position at a bank I decided to volunteer for three months in Ghana with ICS Challenges Worldwide. This gave me an incredible exposure to another culture and a real insight into how small businesses operate. During this time, I fell in love with the vibrant colours of Ghanaian fashion.
For some reason I then decided that I must go to Hong Kong and booked a one way flight. Hong Kong was an amazing place but it was difficult as I was being paid £6 a day for a hectic internship. I decided at this point that I'd rather be happy and poor. I travelled to Singapore where I refined my idea and business plan for The Social Mercenary, or TSM as we like to call it.
S: Why fashion accessories from Ghana?
JHF: What I really love about Ghana is the extensive range of prints and fabrics, and what really made me fall in love with it all was how the Ghanaian people are so passionate and proud about their fabrics. During any big occasion they have their local tailor create an exquisite African print dress or suit to really show off their heritage.
I spent my entire student loan on purchasing 90 bags from Ghana. Then, I used all the money I had made from selling the bags to book a flight to Ghana, in which I began working with local tailors and a network of ethical factories to launch TSM. We have very bold prints, but what's great is that each is so different that you can really find one that personifies you.
S: Where does business savviness come into play for you?
JHF: I was initially working in Ghana with a smoked fish company – somewhere with a different culture, different infrastructure and different resources. When I was trying to help the business as a volunteer, I didn't have all the resources I might have needed, and so I had to be really creative and put myself in their shoes in to support the business with whatever I had at hand. This taught me so much.
S: You feel people have lost a passion and zest for life. What do you mean?
JHF: Depression and anxiety are on the rise. As someone that had and still has issues with this, I believe it's firstly due to not understanding what you really want out of life, and secondly, feeling that you can't do anything about it. Well, you can. If you believe you can't do something, you won't. What I found with TSM is that by embracing who I really am and embracing my own uniqueness, I was able to fully explore what I loved. That turned out to be building a business full of colour and positivity! I want people to follow my journey and feel encouraged. The road may be hard, but you can follow your dreams and aspirations. I want our customers to feel good and energised when they wear our apparel.
S: You have visited many destinations during your travels when setting up TSM – Ghana, Hong Kong, Singapore, Cambodia, Myanmar. What’s been the main highlight for you?
JHF: This is a strange one. I actually felt that none of these places were any different from one another. They all had incredible people, and incredible communities and I made some amazing friends. I really enjoyed every minute. Hong Kong was definitely the biggest rollercoaster, but my favourite moment was when my friend Jason from Taiwan was saying goodbye. He told me, ‘Thank you Jack, you’ve really showed me how to enjoy my life’. This just took my breath away. The combination of having my own passion and the difference between Eastern and Western cultures really impacted Jason, and I was so humbled to have been a part of that.
S: How did you find your network of tailors?
JHF: In Ghana, the internet is limited, so you rely on people to make recommendations. I sit down and assess their work, and create sample pieces to check for consistency in quality. I have slowly built this network up over the last six months, and these trusted individuals prototype all the designs.
S: How easy was it to create a sustainable supply chain?
JHF: It was a natural progression. l discovered that the tailors I had been using before had been fronting as middlemen, and getting others to do the actual bag construction. I decided to use an ethical factory that adheres to the WRAP principles, and is overseen by Ethical Apparel Africa. This way I could ensure both quality and fair wages for the actual craftspeople.
S: How did you choose the fabrics for your fashion accessories?
JHF: We always choose a range of locally made fabrics and narrow them down. Then, our Facebook community vote on their favourite designs. The top four fabrics then go through to production!
S: What is your most popular product?
Our most popular product is definitely the backpack! I love them as I always carry my laptop around and these bags are great on the go. We are currently on Kickstarter and have raised £2,000 so far. We need to meet our target of £10,000 in order to produce the next generation of merchandise. In this new range, we want to incorporate more recycling into the process.
S: What does living a life of passion mean to you?
JHF: It means having the conviction to do what you love, to face your fears every single day, and to step into the unknown.