Greg Woodin chronicles the journey of the company behind Ouse from their beginnings at university to the top of the underground Birmingham dance scene.
We spoke to Oliver Elmes (Business Manager) and Ben Clark (Illustrator) of Fables, a Birmingham-based company specialising in nights out, installations, illustration and clothing. Beginning as a loose collective of Birmingham City University students living in Erdington, Fables has rapidly grown into a fully-fledged business with connections across the UK and Europe.
In the beginning…
In 2012, eleven BCU students in their second year of university moved into two houses in Erdington. Some of these students were illustrators, some were into media and others were more business-minded. At this point, Oliver remembers, “Ben Clark, who’s an illustrator, started up his own illustrating company doing jobs on the side during uni. He called his company Fables Illustration.” And so the first seeds for the company were sown.
At around the same time, Oliver and his housemates started throwing parties in their house at university. Because most of the parties they attended were in Selly Oak on the other side of Birmingham, throwing their own parties allowed them to bring the party to where they lived. As Ben recounts, “We had these two adjoined houses that we bodged together with tarpaulins and lasers and it kind of turned into a two-house fancy dress fiesta we would throw once a term.” These parties steadily became a regular fixture of Erdington life, with students travelling to them from Selly Oak and even cities as far afield as Leeds and Manchester. The tables truly were turning.
The housemates decided to brand their parties ‘Ouse’, a name that stuck even as their parties broke out of the house environment and in third year relocated first to Suki10c and then to Boxxed in Digbeth. “We started enjoying going to house parties as much as going out,” Oliver recalls. “They have a good vibe. You feel safe and at home, so we thought it’d be a cool name to call a night and try to get that vibe across.” Ironically enough, as Ben explains, “The name never had anything to do with house music, although as its popularity boomed in the last few years people naturally assumed that that was our inspiration”.
As I speak to Oliver, I notice that he’s pronouncing ‘Ouse’ a little differently to how I and pretty much everyone I know says it. Pronounced like ‘moose’ without the ‘m’, this pronunciation started life as something of an inside joke, with the original Erdington party-throwers being reluctant to use a name that sounded too similar to the word ‘house’ – or indeed that might get confused with Oust the aerosol. However, as the brand has grown bigger, the Fables team have gradually come to accept that, generally, people will pronounce it like ‘house’ without the ‘h’. “We’ve just kind of let it go now,” Oliver laughs.
While these two concurrent enterprises began separately – Fables Illustration and Ouse’s parties – after a while the decision was made that the two should join together. “We decided to get all of our skills, bring it all together and try and make a business out of it.” This business took on the more simplified ‘Fables’ name, and the Ouse name was subsumed under its banner.
Onward and upward…
As the newly united Fables crew entered their third year of university, they started doing small builds and installations for nights outside Birmingham. The parties they were throwing kept growing bigger and bigger, and Fables began to branch out into different parts of the country, slowly but surely gaining a reputation across the UK. “We started off with these small jobs which were just a bit of fun at the time,” Oliver explains, “and now it’s led onto large-scale commissions, getting recognised and becoming a bit of a brand.”
The team established links with a few friends who ran a successful decor-based night called Good Life in Leeds. This quickly led to Fables producing the stages for Good Life nights on a regular basis, bringing their playful Ouse-style production to the north. Through these different avenues, working across the country showcasing their production talents, Fables began to push further into the festival scene, working with respected festivals such as Outlook, Secret Garden Party and Shambala.
It was at this point that the clothing side of Fables got up and running, with Ben’s illustrations being used as the basis for t-shirt and jumper designs. This was the perfect opportunity to turn Fables into the all-encompassing brand they had always intended it to be. “We had a chat and decided to start it off – get a few designs, get a few printed, see how it goes. It started off quite small because it was third year and we had a lot of work on but we kept it going”.
After graduation, most of the original Fables team moved home and only the people who could commute into Birmingham were left to keep it going. For this reason, the original eleven-strong team were forced to condense into a more compact five-man business. As well as Oliver and Ben, this quintet consisted of Saul Blake (Team Manager), Ross Lamerton (Production Manager) and Josh Fry (Media Director).
For about a year, these remaining members were forced to take various different jobs to keep Fables going, and it was only after a lot of hard work and graft that Fables began to look like a profitable venture. However, with a smaller group of members and a more formal arrangement than the scattered eleven that began the company, it became easier to really try to make waves in the industry. And now that university was behind them, Fables could begin to think seriously about where they wanted to take their company.
Seven months since this overhaul of personnel, Fables have gone from strength to strength. The weekend past saw them put on their biggest Ouse event to date, a seventeen-hour epic sprawling across the whole Boxxed complex with the largest number of DJs that Fables have ever put on, and this summer is set to be their biggest yet. “We’re building one of the stages at Gottwood, which is one of the biggest jobs we’ve had,” Oliver tells me, “and we’ll be doing most of the production at Cirque Du Soul’s new El Dorado Festival. It just shows how Fables has expanded over the last two years.”
It really is a remarkable success story, and its significance for university students with an appetite for business isn’t lost on Oliver. “The basis of this is that it all started from uni. This all started from all these random people meeting in our second year, and now it’s grown up to be quite a big brand within the Birmingham scene”. Only time will tell just how big this brand can get.
Visit Fables’ website here