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UKNOWN brand Helicopter Tour
Photography @dexwithspex, Courtesy of UNKNOWN

How the boys from cult label Unknown took over the UK in a helicopter

The streetwear brand’s founders Callum Vineer and Joe Granger talk big drop ideas, their latest collection, and growing a huge community of committed fans

It’s 16 hours before Unknown’s UK-wide Helicopter Tour lands at its final stop in London, and the streetwear label’s biggest fans are camped outside the venue with sleeping bags and portable chargers, wrapped up in oversized rhinestone hoodies. Announced on Instagram with a screenshot of texts between Unknown’s founders – college mates-turned-business partners, Callum Vineer and Joe Granger – the London streetwear label is offering £5 t-shirts for the pop-up’s first 100 customers and giving away free pieces to the first five people through the door. 

Aside from the exclusive discounts, one-off tour shirts, personalised scratch cards offering up to £200 off with every purchase, packed DJ sets, and food sponsors, the event offered a chance for customers to watch a helicopter wrapped-up in Unknown’s logo land at the venue – a stunt sorted after the founders met a helicopter broker during a drunken night at the pub. Why fly a customised helicopter around the country, you might ask? Because the label needed to top last year’s viral coast-to-coast double-decker bus tour, of course. 

“We wanted to think of a completely different way to do drops,” Granger explains over the phone. It’s the day after the Helicopter Tour concluded, and the two founders are working from home in their shared London flat. Vineer explains: “The bus tour was originally inspired by our favourite musicians going on tour.” Instead of a typical tour bus set-up, however, the founders converted the double-decker into a working pop-up shop – passing through six cities across the UK in six days. At each stop, over 300 customers lined up to shop an exclusive drop of the label’s signature rhinestone tracksuits and chat with Granger and Vineer about the offering.

This time around, the Helicopter Tour – which stopped in Manchester, Bristol, and London – revealed never-before-seen pieces from a collab collection with French rolling paper brand Rizla. “It feels like a pretty perfect alignment with us. We all grew up smoking – well… not from that young, but it was what we did to socialise as kids,” Vineer laughs. Besides customised papers, ashtrays, lighters, grinders, and rolling trays, the offering saw oversized denim jorts, crewnecks, t-shirts in blue and black colourways, and socks – each stamped with Rizla and Unknown’s logos and offered exclusively at the tour.

While the founders never expected they’d be known for dropping collections via bus or helicopter, they first thought up the label at college, bonding over a joint interest in streetwear’s drop scene. “When we first met, we knew that we both dressed pretty differently from our other mates, and that’s sort of what sparked it,” says Granger. “We knew we were dressing more similar to American and UK hip-hop, inspired a lot by grime and skate scenes.” 

They released their first-ever drop in 2015: a collection of 50 t-shirts, hand-distressed using cheese graters, and sold mostly to friends. “We never had any design background, [we both had] a business background,” notes Vineer. “We just jumped straight in the deep end. We’ve learned everything as we’ve gone along.” 

Over the phone, the founders share one of their biggest challenges thus far – when the label was forced to resort back to DIY-style manufacturing after its factory cancelled a full season’s order. “It was during our second showroom in Paris in 2019, and we had invited clients down,” explains Vineer. “It was a bit funny – we booked this entire showroom and ended up putting the clothes we brought to wear ourselves on a rail and showing the launch on our laptop.” 

Across the following six months, Vineer and Granger distressed, bleached, and screen-printed the collection from their shared flat, borrowing neighbours’ washing machines and bringing clothes in bin bags to the dry cleaners to ensure the drop was ready in time for fans.

Nowadays, the founders work from their London office – planning collections that sell out fast six months ahead between a nine-person team. “But we both still design everything ourselves,” says Granger, explaining that the friends take a trip somewhere new to hash out ideas for each season’s collection. “One of our key values is that we still only make stuff that we would wear ourselves.” 

Meanwhile, the founders have grown their cult following into a community by continuously interacting with fans IRL and sharing their everyday lives on Instagram. In fact, their second account, called Unknown Archives, documents long days in the office, unseen footage from the brand’s tours, and even follows the pair on nights out in London. “We’re not just showing this polished image that most other brands follow the same formula with,” says Vineer. “[We share] the shit that goes wrong as well.” 

For those who may be looking to start their own streetwear brand – Unknown’s DM’s are flooded with kids asking for career advice, says the founders – Granger shares: “If you’re making clothes that you’d actually wear, putting on events that you’d actually go to, and making sure it’s all stuff that you’d genuinely believe in, you’re going to have much higher success than just following the trends or what’s working for other people.”

Vineer adds: “People will try to make things that sell even though they don’t like it themselves, but you need to have that full passion towards it to make it work.” It seems – beyond its viral rhinestone trackies, nostalgic collabs, and wild pop-up tours [more of each is in store for Unknown’s next chapter, the founders tease] – it’s the authenticity at the heart of the brand that keeps fans coming back drop after drop.