About Drop Dead
The Story of Drop Dead
Once upon a time Oli Sykes was a restless teenager at college. He was studying film but it wasn’t interesting or creative – he thought he’d be making movies – and the teacher was an unmotivating bore. This, he thought as he sat around watching art films, was just like school. And Oli hated school. He had ADHD so couldn’t focus easily, an invisible trait which made teachers think he was belligerent or lazy. “You’re not trying hard enough,” he’d always hear.
As an outlet for his frustrations and creative expression, the 17-year-old went to hardcore gigs and moshed. It was 2004. This was the era of Myspace: when teens in their bedrooms could discover music they loved from scenes across the world for free for the first time ever. Why couldn’t he do that too? He decided to make a band with other kids from Sheffield and Bring Me The Horizon was born.
“This college thing’s not for me,” Oli told his mum, Carol. “I’m dropping out.” Carol was supportive. She’d seen how excited her son was when he started college and as the months went by his shoulders got lower and lower on his way home. “Why don’t you start a small business? That would get you some money to travel to band practice,” she said. “Don’t get a 9-to-5 – you need to focus on the band!” She was thinking modest and local: printing family photos on pillows or funny slogan mugs.
But Oli didn’t think small – ever. He got animated and obsessed with big ideas. “I want to put my art onto T-shirts,” he told Carol. He’d seen small brands in America like Johnny Cupcakes and Famous Stars and Straps take over in the heavy music scene and knew there was nothing like that in England. They weren’t these massive corporations and all the bands he loved wore them. He wanted to wear them too but couldn’t afford the cost of shipping to the UK. Doing his own independent clothing company felt attainable and concepts were already flying around in his brain – he knew exactly what he’d do and how he’d do it. Besides, if he made his own clothes, then he and his band could wear them.
Between the screamo music her son was making with BMTH and this new dream, Carol was tentatively supportive. She couldn’t understand these daring projects. Yet she knew Oli could do anything when he put his mind to it. She saw how focused and intense he became when drawing. His imagination astounded her, the things she saw him put on paper were otherworldly, strange, fantastical. As for getting a “real job”, he was covered in tattoos now and stood out wherever he went. So she decided to lend Oli five hundred pounds to start his clothing line and make his first run of t-shirts with one condition: he had to attend a local business school.
Oli’s first t-shirt designs were…different. One featured a little drawing of a zombie in a plaid shirt with the phrase “The raddest zombies wear cowboy shirts”. Another had a Pacman style ghost with a speech bubble and a love heart on it. These t-shirts had to be as skinny fit as possible, Oli decided. “No one’s gonna buy these,” thought Carol, looking at them. Oli had decided to call the brand Coffin Ink but changed the name at the very last minute to something else, something less goth, a little cooler: Drop Dead.
But whatever his company was called, it nearly failed at the first hurdle. Oli ordered the t-shirts he’d designed from America and they didn’t come. Months and months he waited. Then an email came through: the company had gone bust. His five hundred pounds had been spent to the penny. Luckily the course gave students a five hundred pound grant and he placed the same order with a UK company. In the end, the American company came back and said they wanted to honour the order, so within weeks of each other both orders came to Oli’s door. Drop Dead was back on.
From Oli’s bedroom, he made the simple website himself, set up a Paypal and linked out to the clothes on his band’s Myspace page. He got his mates and their girlfriends to model and shoot the clothes. This was a completely DIY operation. The day of the launch Oli’s parents were so surprised. Drop Dead was an immediate success, selling hundreds of these t-shirts.
At the business school, Oli was the youngest there, surrounded by 40 to 60 year olds. You shouldn’t expect to make your money back in the first year, the room was told. “I’ve already made my money back,” Oli said cockily. “I put my t-shirts up online last week and they’ve already sold out.” The teacher and the other students glowered at him.
One night the band pulled up to Leeds Cockpit for a show. They couldn’t believe what they saw: five hundred kids dressed just like them. “You can spot a BMTH fan a mile off,” said Oli to his band mates. Between Drop Dead and his own unique unisex take on how Myspace teens from America were dressing, he had started a look. He hacked that US style, putting it together in an English scrappy way that was accessible to him. At the time, Oli was dating a girl from America and she put hair extensions on Oli as a laugh. He looked in the mirror and thought, “Sick, I’m using these!” The band would wear their girlfriends jeans, steal their mum’s make-up and wear fake Converse bought for three quid from the High Street. Fans followed them every step of the way.
The timing was golden. In that first year, Drop Dead made 60k. In the second year, they made 200k. By the third they made 380k and it kept growing from there into the millions. The emo rock scene was exploding in the UK and for the first time alternative kids across the country could buy the clothes they wanted from another alternative kid. BMTH followers and beyond desperately wanted to be part of something. Oli was a leader: he had made the first proper independent internet based clothing company in the UK.
Everyday Oli made the fifteen minute walk from his house to the post office to hand deliver the orders. At first this was fine, everyone’s packages in a small bag. Only a few months in, he’d be walking back and forth from the post office all day with massive sacks. The post office women hated him – these parcels were going to America, Australia, all across the world – because of how long his orders would take. If locals saw him in the post office, they’d turn around and walk out.
When BMTH went on their first proper American tour for two months, Carol said she’d take over. By the time Oli came back, she’d moved Drop Dead out of their house to the business centre, the same one where Oli had done his course. His younger brother Tom, cousin Hannah and his high school friends started working for him – the company was booming and the team became a Drop Dead family. The Drop Dead Army was growing too: Oli gave Drop Dead to his friends in British bands like Architects, You Me at Six and Enter Shikari and to American bands like A Day To Remember. Everyone in the scene seemed to be repping it.
Fast forward to 2009, four years after launch. Oli’s designs had to keep up with his imagination. Making t-shirts and hoodies had its limitations. Besides, other kids had seen the success of Drop Dead and started to make their own independent alternative t-shirt brands. A massive high street chain asked to stock Drop Dead and after Oli said no, familiar designs popped up there. So he decided to work with companies in China to make custom pieces. The first piece he made was the iconic cats and bats hoodie: light blue with cats and bats all over. “Are you sure about this?” asked Carol again. Oli was sure. From the moment it went online, it sold thousands and thousands and became a Drop Dead cult classic. Every emo kid wanted one. Oli was like a kid in a candy store – shoes, bags, jackets, he wanted to make everything.
Now Oli was no stranger to controversy – he loved to shake things up with shocking designs. Carol received phone-calls of complaints, mostly from parents whose kids wanted Drop Dead stuff. He loved to parody films and bands on the clothes. Once he did a reimagining of the Slayer logo and was served a cease and desist. Another line had Love Heart drawings on them, but instead of cute messages, they said things like ‘blow me’, ‘choke’ and ‘drink bleach’. Jude Law and Sadie Frost’s 12-year-old daughter Iris Law wore the dress to fashion week. All the newspapers reported on it and Swizzlers who make Love Hearts sent a cease and desist. Oops.
Next Oli gave a Felix the Cat cartoon the Drop Dead make-over – this cursed Felix had his brains exposed. Dreamworks messaged Drop Dead and said they’d licence him the image if he wanted to pay. A lightbulb went off in Oli’s mind: that was a possibility?! Soon enough, Drop Dead were collaborating with Jurassic Park, Gremlins, Sonic, Star Wars, Sega, The Simpsons and later Game of Thrones. Drop Dead was too big to be cheeky now. But they could be friends with these legacy characters and give the brands who owned them some cultural cool points. These were shows and films that Oli had loved so much as a kid and Oli being Oli, he picked the violent, weird and altogether rogue characters to play around with. Instead of doing a Homer design, he would always go for the Itchy and Scratchy.
Drop Dead was no longer just a seminal brand for rockers. In the mid 2010s, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber and Katy Perry wore Oli’s designs. This pissed off some original fans who were mad their alt clothes had gone massive. “Even if you don’t like their music, this is mad and I love it,” thought Oli. When Bieber came to play at Sheffield Arena Tom went along to give him more Drop Dead clothes. He went backstage and saw the singer’s tour bus parked inside. Suddenly The Bieb came up behind him riding a segway. “I really fuck with Drop Dead. I don’t like the satanic shit but I love the brand,” Bieber said, took the clothes, fist bumped Tom and rode away.
Meanwhile future co-creative director [?] [****] was a teenage Drop Dead fan in his own bedroom learning to design clothes. He collected as much Drop Dead as he could and loved how the brand encouraged him to experiment with skirts, big trousers and unusual silhouettes. One night after a BMTH show, [****] met Oli and gave him one of his own designs. “Come and work with me,” Oli told the 20-year-old. Almost immediately [****] flew to Tokyo with Oli to launch a pop up store. The young designer couldn’t believe it: Japanese kids were queuing around the block and police had to monitor the crowd. Soon more A-listers like Billie Eilish, Grimes, Ed Sheeran and the late Lil Peep were wearing the clothes he and Oli made together. “Oli is uncompromising with his vision,” [****] realised, impressed. He learnt that from the fabric to the colours to the textures of the designs, if a product comes in and it’s not perfect, Oli doesn’t care about losing money. It’s not going out.
Every journey puts its characters through thrilling highs and crushing lows. The Drop Dead story is no different. There were times Oli wanted to give up. In many ways, it was like having another band – he had to manage the wants, needs and emotions of a team and a family. When his band struggled with their identity as rock and alternative music came in and out of popularity or transformed, so did Drop Dead. Sometimes Oli would be in London near his shop on Carnaby Street but wonder whether to go in – it felt too strange to do it. When rock seemed like it had gone away, Oli had to ask himself “Who are Drop Dead kids? Who are my people?”
When a global plague descended in 2020, Oli and his family stayed together in the same house to keep each other company. “Maybe this is the time to close Drop Dead,” Oli told his mum. Carol had been saying to Oli for years that Drop Dead should do a throwback collection but he didn’t want to revisit old stuff – he always wanted to keep moving forward. But something about the nostalgia everyone felt during lockdown made him agree to it. Old designs went on the website and Drop Dead fans went crazy for it. He realised he loved expressing himself through fashion, he couldn’t just let that go. Just as Oli had changed the Drop Dead logo many times – something they told students never to do in his business school – he could keep Drop Dead growing with the times, make it anything he wanted it to be. Oli himself had metamorphosed again and again, so could Drop Dead.
Nearly two decades later, Drop Dead is still the most powerful trendsetter in alternative fashion. Kids of all different stripes wear it, along with the adults who grew up loving it. High fashion adopts plenty of what Drop Dead did years ago but these clothes come from the alternative world, imagined by people from that subculture. Just as Oli experimented with the fluidity of his fashion choices as a teen, young people are doing that more than ever. But now there are no genres, no gatekeeping of scenes, music and clothes. This is a brand for anyone who wants to stand out while evolving into whoever you want to be. If you don’t agree you can Drop Dead.
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