“I like taking something as basic as underwear and giving it a push”
Stonemen founder Marc Debnam has fused his background in graphic design and photography to turn to iconic underwear design.
As an adult, he lived in London for a year pursuing graphic design and advertising, before moving back to South Africa (he was born in Cape Town to English parents, who moved to Australia when he was 3 years old) and taking an accidental turn as a photographer when his apartment turned into a thriving nightclub in the late 90’s:
“We had a top floor apartment in Cape Town that had roaring parties. When I went on a trip to London, I returned to what my flat mate turned into a licence premises. It was a proper nightclub – we had DJ’s like Carl Cox in residence.”
So what was the nightclub life like?
“Intense! I don’t remember much of it… little flashes, a bit of a blur, friends who I ran it with remind me what happened. In all seriousness, it was fun! But you need to be alert – it’s a lot of people management, but also incredibly social – we had 3 humming floors.”
Still the nightclub lifestyle does a photographic career little benefit, which was burgeoning in Debnam as he documented his nocturnal subjects.
“It’s not the best working hours – cashing up at 11am,” he remembers of those hedonistic days. “Nightclub was my release and distraction but I’m glad that I got out of it in the end.”
This was the official start of a serious photographic career in fashion and advertising, opening up a lot of doors and networking.
“When I was a graphic designer I became an art director but had more fun on shoots than on campaigns and so made the jump.”
He assisted established photographers around the world – in London, New York Paris and learned from masters such as Mario Testino.
So how did the underwear concept begin?
Debnam admits to losing passion and vision for photography, frustrated by the limited, two-dimensional nature of a photograph to tell a story.
“I am a functional artist. I like usefulness for my art. Taking something as basic as underwear and giving it a push. So I put my own images on underwear and suddenly there was a point of difference.”
The underwear started as a hobby (with business partner Johnnie Cass) and before he knew it, there were 3000 pairs of underwear sitting in his garage and a basic website for www.stonemen.com staring at him from his computer screen.
“I had a niche – people wanted something more artistic. I wanted something comfortable that also sits beautifully under a suit.”
How does he see the direction of the brand?
“We always tried to get underwear to places it has never gone before – avoiding traditional retail. I don’t want to be seen as a gimmick, but rather as a proper fashion item, a piece of quirky and wearable art. So museums, gallery, gifted fashion and competitive strength is where we have an edge. We see it as a fashion extension of underwear.
So how word initially spread?
“We focused online,” says Debnam. “We also went down the markets route and it went really well. Then it gained its own momentum and we got lots of free press! I guess it’s a visually pleasing product that looks good on style pages, magazines and blogs.”
The brand started on a small budget, with Debnam developing a whole new host of business skills such as book keeping, marketing, production and learning to communicate to different people.
He said building the brand is key to what he is trying to achieve.
“The underwear was the vehicle to creating the brand. When people buy our product, they buy a piece of the brand. You want people to come to you for functional and emotional reasons. You are trying to place the visual in the mind when they see it. Thats what builds brand loyalty. When people think of stonemen, what do they think of?”
He reflects on how the brand has grown in the last 5 years…
“It started off in a direction which, in a sense was to my tastes initially – but the 2015 range is very different design wise to the previous ranges. We are going slightly less themed and little bit more natural. I feel it’s more intelligent on the designs and the imagery.”
As far as the creative direction, the brand is being more strategic in each approach.
“We are not doing themed waves or nature – its now about trends, forecasts and more fashion forward fields. Before it was just “lets do this”. Now its about – the markets are doing this, the colours are doing this.”
How did the artist collaborations come about?
“I’ve always looked for images and communicated with artists and adapted art for templates,” Debnam says. “Now I reverse engineer it – I look for an artist, we come up with an idea and then photograph it or draw it.”
To come up with themes, Debnam and his team create mood boards about they want the brand perceived.
“If we were a bird, what bird or lizard would we be? Or a flower? We incorporate that into the design. What would we be? “Ah, thats a stonemen image!” – that’s the result we want.”
What is stonemen image exactly, then?
“A beautiful landscape… NOT a hot dog. It has to be beautiful, not gimmicky. People need to feel like they’d love to have that on their walls.”
How would Debnam now define his role, now he’s not jack of all trades?
“I’m the creative director of the business. I create the assets and design, work with artists and take photographs, as well as liaise with other photographers. Im the asset guy, or thats what I call myself!”
He makes the creative brand choices and decisions but, “keep me away from the books!” he laughs.
He admits that key members of the team, such as investor Johhnie Cass to the brand from a home garage business to a global business.
“We found a niche and developing a following, going boldly where no underwear label has gone before. I am proud that we are still the leaders in what we do, the only underwear label that are creating a unique viewpoint like ours.”
Debnam’s custom Bug Print created especially for stonemen hits our e-store this week.