“everyone has got the same twenty-four hours” — ste wing, oaoBack
Jennifer Lee O'Brien
“I’ve always done what I’ve done. It’s not that I wanted to be different. I just didn’t want to do what other people were doing.”
We’re subterranean at Bridge Street with Ste Wing. The walk through Manchester began at Piccadilly dry, clear and blue, but before we got as far as John Ryland’s Library the sky had fallen and we had to seek shelter beneath a shop’s protective ledge, and wait for a strung-out raincloud to mosey on along.
A succinct sun-shower is enchanting. The rain comes from nowhere; it’s warm, and heavy, and when it rolls past you’re left with damp feet and a luminous kind of freshness that you can’t find anywhere else. Beaches, and forest trails, and tall, windblown grass are nothing compared to the smell of Mancunian tarmac strewn with summer drops, and as it was a Wednesday morning of business, we half- expected to see the suits of Spinningfields trying to bottle it all up and brand it. If it weren’t five-to-eleven a.m. we might have tried to ourselves, but we had somewhere to be, and that somewhere might have been gone if we didn’t get there on time.
Upstairs, Close Male Grooming, owned by Ste’s friends Alex and Reza, is open six days a week, but The Vault — a creative hub and platform for OAO, a lifestyle brand and fashion philosophy — only exists when Ste Wing is around. And Ste Wing is only around when he isn’t starting out at 3am for a photo shoot, or working for a company out in Holland, or styling a look book in Tokyo, or visiting a client at their penthouse hotel suite in London. His most consistent activity on an average day is to pick up a flat white from a friend’s independent coffee shop in the Northern Quarter, if he happens to be in the city. Ste Wing lives kind of everywhere, his job is kind of everything, The Vault exists most often as an underground concept, and somehow in every way Manchester is at the centre of it all.
“My mates always joke whenever someone meets me,” says Ste. “Like, say I’m in Holland and I’m introduced to someone and they ask where I’m from — I always say Manchester. And they go, oh, England? And I go, nah, nah, I’m from Manchester, mate.
“Manchester has just got this thing — I don’t know what it is about it, it’s just got that thing. Like, we’re not the capital, but we should be, you know what I mean?”
Ste Wing, the stylist, barber, creative consultant, visual designer and proud Mancunian, has been kind enough to let us spend a few hours in his world, and so, drying off, we’ve been ushered through Close, down a back staircase, into The Vault. The Vault, as Ste will tell us, isn’t a store or a shop, but an enigmatic, evolving space for his clients and mates to meet, work, be creative, be styled; to discover artists, fashion and design from around the globe, and from Manchester, sometimes all at once. All manner of creative-types, from high- profile names to names only Ste knows for now, have hung out, or worked from, or sought out Ste’s expertise in The Vault.
The Vault itself is an expression of that expertise. It’s a curated, industrial space that we’re confident can be characterised as very Ste Wing. And while we made a promise not to say too much, we can tell you that when you’re in The Vault you feel like you’re everywhere, but not just anywhere, and at the same time nowhere, but it’s still very Manchester; and just go ahead and read this sentence again and again, and maybe you’ll get a bit of a feel for The Vault, or maybe you won’t. But as with almost everything to do with Ste, if you know, then you know, and if you don’t, then you’re probably not supposed to.
“It’s always a surprise for people when they meet me,” says Ste. “I’ll work with people with for like six months over email, and then they finally meet me and they’re like: ‘Shit — that accent is strong.’
“I’m Manchester born and bred, but my work has taken me global, so I’m always away. Last year, I decided I wanted to open up this space and give something back to Manchester creatives. I work with people across the board, whether it’s artists, musicians, designers — they all just come down here and pretty much sit together and just jam and do what they’re doing. It’s a hub where I can introduce people to each other, get creative fluids going. It’s also like my office space — I do a lot of my work from here, and a lot of my styling happens down here.
“My client base varies from footballers, to celebrities, to everyday people, which is why access to The Vault is by appointment only; if I’ve got a client in here, and they want this place to themselves, I have to make sure that it’s catered to him or her.” Ste pauses and surveys the room. “If you were to come in on a day when I had people in, it would just look like Ste and his mates hanging out. That’s the kind of vibe you get down here.”
Except that his mates are celebrities, creatives, and often, his clients, and while Ste is still just a ‘sound guy from Manchester’, his glittery, stylised world is something like an Instagram page come to life. Japan, Holland, Paris, London, Manchester, The Vault. A pal for every country, and capital, and coffee shop, and a different pair of kicks for every day of the week, monitored by the avid online sneaker community, who know Ste’s collection. Only the best, and a few steps ahead. It’s a reality that Ste has crafted, day by day, by living it. For Ste, OAO is more than just a brand, or his job; it’s his lifestyle; his day-to- day, 7am to 7am force of being, that is shared, and followed, and liked, and reproduced through that hashtag: OAO.
“How did I become Ste Wing? Just by being myself, to be fair. I believe in being at the right place, at the right time. I never imagined I’d be working in fashion, or working as a hair stylist. I just fell into it, through hard work and being positive. I believe anything is possible if you’re positive.
“I think I’ve done well purely because I’ve got substance. I’ve worked in the industr y, I know what I’m talking about, I know what I’m doing. And that’s why I work with big, global brands like Nike, Adidas, stuff like that.
“I don’t see what I do as a career, to be fair. I’ve done well, and I’ve carved a good career out of it, but it’s more like a lifestyle because I live, eat, and breathe what I do.”
And the world can get a glimpse of what he eats, where he is, and what he does, through his Instagram. Ste has been known to post up to three times a day, catering to an international following with different breakfast hours who all want to see what the world looks like through OAO Vision that morning.
“It’s great that so many people follow me,” says Ste. “And that they come from all around the world. Usually it revolves around fashion, I guess. Fashion, style, imagery, trends; I think they like to see what I get to see, working in the industry. Sometimes the people that follow me don’t really get it — they can’t figure out what my job is. Like, oh he’s here, and then he’s there, and then he’s in Tattu, and then he’s in Japan, and then he’s in London. But for me, it’s just a lifestyle that I’m lucky enough to have, and I’ve put in the work to be able to do what I do. So many people you meet off Instagram are portrayed totally different on their profile, it’s not actually them. Which you can get away with on the Internet.
“And you know,” he says, “it’s not necessarily about how many followers you have anymore. It was a couple years ago, but now, it’s all about substance. You’ve got to be yourself; if you live a lie, it’s going to be a lie. I’ve got to where I’ve got through hard work. Everyone has got the same twenty-four hours, but it’s how you use those twenty- four hours, if you know what I mean.”
“Your photographer isn’t the only one who will walk through here with a camera. People are snapping, snapping, snapping.”
Ste, umbrella in hand, has taken us for a walk through Spinningfields, along the pedestrianised walkways, past outdoor patios where women clink lunchtime flute-glasses, to the golden-anchor door handles of Tattu Restaurant & Bar. Ste, who is an old friend of owners Drew and Adam Jones, is visual consultant for the two- storey contemporary Chinese restaurant, which has an exaggerated, other-worldly feel that looks good and tastes good and smells good and overall is just really effing cool. We’re led under the floral-wreathed, oversized anchors that hang from the ceiling to a far booth at the end of the bar. We all pile in, drinks are ordered, and suddenly Ste’s booming, vowel-stretched voice becomes hushed and animated.
“I think it’s been, like, twenty weeks since we opened. I was in Tokyo when we launched,” says Ste. “I’ve been friends with Drew and Adam for many years; they were talking about this concept three and a half years ago. When they made it happen they wanted me in regarding the visuals, which is just another thing I do. And if your mates are saying, ‘We want to make this place look shit hot, what ideas have you got?’ — literally my brain just went BRFFFF!”
Ste gestures an explosion around his head. “I mean, like, let’s do this, let’s do that, you know what I mean? “It’s all about visuals and details. Especially the finer details that many people might miss at first blink.” Ste pointed a few out to us, and he’s right, but we’d prefer to let you spot them for yourself. “For us at Tattu, everything is and must be perfect.
“In this space what we try and do is take you through a journey of tattoo art. So downstairs it’s very much Sailor Jerry’s esque, like the old-school sailor and naval tattoos. And when you go upstairs it’s all Japanese influenced, lots of Japanese art. There’s just a really cool vibe in here. I mean, we’ve got a full cherry blossom tree up there,” he points up at the ceiling, where an exposed walkway leads to the second floor. “It’s full on, it’s all about the visuals. Phones are out, pictures are getting taken of the food — and the food is just as good as it looks. We’ve got some of the best chefs in the world upstairs working on the dishes.
“We wanted to bring something totally different to not just Manchester, but to the UK,” he says. “There’s nothing like this at all. In the evening, when you’re up there eating and you close your eyes for a moment, you’re not in Manchester.”
Close your eyes and you smell the incense burning, with a scent unique to every floor, and every time of day. You can also smell the sumptuous aroma of food cooking from the open kitchen, with each dish painstakingly prepared and plated by a crew of almost twenty, all led by a head chef brought from Novikov in Mayfair. Open your eyes, and you’ll see it, as well as the stunning, life-sized cherry blossom tree, its handmade petals individually attached to its dry-treated trunk. And the tattoos — on the walls on styled portraits, on the waiters’ leather shoes, on bodies, glazed onto the windows. This isn’t Manchester, this isn’t Beijing, or L.A., or New York, or Dubai; it’s a far away place, that’s opulent and lavish, where shots are served on ships, and hidden doorways open for those that know them, leading to The Parlour — another world of Ste Wing’s.
Creating those worlds has become Ste Wing’s occupation, and his occupation is his life; there are no lines to separate Ste and The Vault, OAO, Tattu, and Ste again; Ste’s the centre, the eye and brain and hands, that brings worlds to life, and then brings people into them.
He’s done it by just being Ste Wing, all the time, in the same twenty-four hours everyone has; Ste Wing, the sound guy from Manchester. The same Ste Wing he’s always been, who created his surreal, wonderful, illogical, creative life by living it, and by knowing where his own centre is found.
“No matter where I am in the world,” Ste says, “I could be in like, Thailand or something — but as soon as I step off the train back at Piccadilly train station, I’m not joking, it feels good. Forget your holiday blues. As soon as you step off that train onto that platform, this weight just gets lifted off your shoulders and it’s like, right, I’m home. You just get that feeling, it’s one of them weird things. Like I say, you could come from the bluest skies, the whitest beaches, but when you come home, you feel good because you’re back. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve definitely got it, and I love it.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Manchester, issue 1