25-year-old Toby King is creator of streetwear label Merpola a mixture of maritime whimsy and urban sensibilities. We chat to him about what inspired his debut collection, how The Prince’s Trust helped him set up his business, and his aquarium of oceanic tattoos…
How did you start your company? What inspired you? The ocean is the main inspiration for the pieces I make. Merpola worships at the alter of the world Ariel left behind, that inspired Cher for Halloween, that Rose survived and Jack froze in, that swallowed Pinocchio, that produces up to 70% of the oxygen we depend on for survival… it’s an endless source of inspiration. I’m really proud to be the founder of a company that I always wanted to exist, no one else was doing it so I decided to do it myself.
I started Merpola with the help of Prince Charles’ charity; The Prince’s Trust. They have a scheme called Enterprise for young people who want to be trained in entrepreneurship, they are honestly Jedi Masters at what they do (and to be their Padawan was a huge honour) they taught me a lot and helped get Merpola up and running.
Can you tell us a little about your brand? Merpola is my own clothing and accessories brand that launched in Winter 2015. The first collection is on sale now and is made up of t-shirt prints, beanie hats and tote bags. The brand is independent, unisex and forward-thinking. I didn’t want to gender any of the items because the concept of giving a sex to threads of cotton or a design element is ridiculous. If you like it, put it on. A focus on high quality within affordable limits is a number one priority, it’s important to me that I offer something that isn’t set at an elitist high fashion price but that still feels unique and special, like a lot of passion has gone into the creation of it. I source components as ethically and ecologically-friendly as I can given the budget and sell worldwide.
Do you have a background in fashion? I don’t have any background in fashion, no! I studied Media & Communications at university and went into television and PR after graduating. I love all forms of expression though, from tattoos to clothing, and the idea for Merpola has always been in the back of my mind. I had been working for a company that I didn’t respect – the way they did business was without any moral compass. I had to get out of there, and that’s when I went to The Prince’s Trust with my idea for a streetwear label. They provided classes to teach me all about being an entrepreneur and helped fund the equipment and fabrics I needed to get going, it’s an amazing organisation.
Can you tell us a bit about your new collection? With the debut collection, I wanted to create a solid baseline and incorporate certain staples that would help define Merpola moving forward. I think there’s a very playful and rebellious attitude to all the things I’ve created so far, I’m really proud of everything. There wasn’t much money to get started with so I chose to focus on creating a small run of a select pieces that build the foundation of what I want to achieve whilst still having opportunities to expand upon on and adapt as the business (hopefully) grows. Some sizes are already selling out, and because there’s only a few dozen of each item I think the first batch will be quite special one day. RuPaul has already given Merpola his stamp of approval, which was a massive confidence boost when I needed it most. Starting a business is scary!
The brand is a reflection of maritime whimsy and kitshy elements mixed with some urban sensibilities picked up from my current surroundings in London.
What do you want your collection to say? I want Merpola to inspire rebellious spirits and invoke a sense of adventure. If you want to feel empowered like a menacing sea witch, cover yourself in our tentacle print. If you want to tell the world “watch out, I will drown you” then represent that with the Sea Tee. You haven’t escaped the Matrix so you don’t need to dress in plain black every day of the week. Break the rules, have fun with your style.
What is your favourite piece from the collection? I’m proud of the little details in all of my first collection. I don’t have a background in fashion or design, and it was a long process to teach myself how to do it properly – nothing is worth doing unless you throw yourself into it 100%. I actually feel like my DIY approach has benefited the clothing, there’s no fashion rules to follow when you don’t know them! But it’s little details mixed with a sense of humour and rebelliousness that give my label its identity. I really appreciate and strive for humour in what I do and hope it comes across. And I’m getting better at what I do every day, I’m starting the process of creating Collection II now so there’s a lot to be excited about going into 2016.
Where can people buy them? I set up Merpola.com as a platform to sell the collection, that’s where you’ll find my garments. There’s also a blog there with updates on the business and more creative writing planned for the future, swing by and have a poke around.
Can you tell us about your tattoos? I’ve always been awestruck by tattoos. I craved having my own when I was younger because I viewed them as a sign of a free mind, a rebellious statement. Now finally having my own, I understand that they’re much more than that. They’re art, stories, history and emotion sitting under your skin. Unsurprisingly, most of my own tattoos are rooted in oceanic imagery, I’m my own aquarium and I love it.
What was your first one do you still love it? My first tattoo is terrible, but yes, I still love it. A lot of people I meet have a ‘first pancake’, that first tattoo that didn’t turn out right. I saw the movie Hedwig and the Angry Inch when I was around 14 and it blew my mind open. There’s a tattoo in that film which I wanted to replicate so I had a fake I.D. made, skipped school and went to a really crummy place in Exeter that tattooed it onto me for just £20. It’s sloppy and gross, but it’s been with me for over a decade now and reminds me of the fearlessness I had that day, it’s quite empowering.