For more than 25 years Zee & Co has been East London’s go-to destination for men’s luxury fashion. Its clientele include some of the biggest names in grime, but that all comes with the territory. Zee & Co is always a few steps ahead of the game.
To learn what makes Zee & Co tick, we caught up with branch manager and buyer Michael Nugent. He has worked at the store since 1998, when it relocated to its current home at 454 Roman Road. Starting out as a sales assistant, Nugent has risen through the ranks to become one of East London’s leading authorities on male fashion. He now travels to showrooms around the world (Milan, Paris, you name it) curating a selection that’s just right for the store on Roman Road.
We speak in the middle of the shop floor surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands, of premium fashion items. The space used to be an indoor market lined with booths, and something of that spirit has carried over to today.
Light, spacious, and bustling, it is an emporium of designer brands you could normally only find at Selfridges, including Armani, Ralph Lauren and Versace, but also the newer urban brands such as Dsquared2, ami, McQ, Neil Barrett and Acne Studios. They have recently started stocking Jerobaom fragrance for men too.
Not that premium goods are what keep people coming back. Taking its name from the eponymous 1972 film starring Michael Caine and Elizabeth Taylor, Zee & Co is a family business with a tight-knit team personal relationships with its customers.
‘It’s a family feel so everyone jumps in on different stuff,’ Nugent says. ‘Everyone pulls together and grafts.’ From young lads preparing for a night out to grime royalty like Wiley and Tinchy Stryder – ‘the boys’ Nugent calls them, cool as you like – customers are greeted as the friends and neighbours they are.
Everything you see in-store has been hand-picked to meet local tastes.‘We can buy stuff because we know we’ve got that type of customer,’ Nugent says. ‘We’re not just working with numbers in spreadsheets, it’s a closer relationship. I’d think, “Oh, that customer would be interested in that,” and I can feed that information back to them, tell them we’ve got something coming in with their name on it.’
That expertise is the real heart of Zee & Co. Fashionable clothes are nice; knowing what will be fashionable a year from now is real trick. ‘We’re fashion advisers,’ Nugent says. ‘We’ll tell them what’s hot and what’s not. We know trends and waves months in advance. We’re already buying now for next autumn and winter.’
Grime music plays an especially big part in that. Zee & Co has always been the go-to for young men in the scene. In the early 2000s, when the genre was finding its feet, Rhythm Division record store provided the perfect foil to Zee & Co’s fashion credentials.
‘I remember the boys used to get paid on a Friday and they were into music. They’d go straight over to Rhythm Division to get the white label stuff and be playing it all weekend long.’ He laughs. Rhythm Division has closed since then, but the area’s ties to the genre remain strong. Artists still shop at Zee & Co, and now staff spend their wages at Cafe East instead.
Plenty of music videos have been shot inside the shop. Assistant manager Olly shoots grime videos, including one in the shop with Mercston, and is often asked whether the shop is available for a shoot. The shop is an artistic hub as well as a fashion one.
In Nugent’s line of work change comes with the territory. Just as the shop’s stock has evolved to stay fresh, so too has it adapted to shifting trends on the high street. ‘They used to call Roman Road the Bond Street of the East End,’ he says. ‘You used to have coaches pull up on the Saturday and people go into the market. It was the place to be.’
Although the high street is not as busy as it used to be, Zee & Co’s standing in the community has given it a resilience. It has also expanded its online offering, priding itself on the same efficient, no-nonsense service that fuels the store.
There are even rumblings of a refurb. Slick, futuristic interiors, maybe even virtual reality screens. ‘You’ve got to keep things fresh,’ Nugent says as he looks around, imagining it. ‘A house needs a new coat of paint every now and again.’
Whether a refurb comes or not, it’s hard to picture Zee & Co being anything other than current. After decades on Roman Road it’s safe to say it’s earned its stripes. As far as we’re concerned, Zee & Co will always be in fashion.
If you liked this piece you may enjoy reading about Bamboo and Bee, Roman Road’s ethical designer makers
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