The Great Frog's Reino On Motorcycles, Rebellion And Global Expansion

The Great Frog's Reino On Motorcycles, Rebellion And Global Expansion

Sterling silver subculture...

Founded in 1972, The Great Frog still stands firmly at the helm of rock ‘n’ roll and hedonistic biker subculture. From humble beginnings designing for not-yet-known members of Slayer and Motorhead in the late twentieth century, to a globally successful, cult brand with stores on three continents (and growing), The Great Frog has found commercial success while remaining the adornment of choice for a band of rebels and outsiders. Reino Lehtonen-Riley, the brand’s creative director and son of founder Paterson Riley, has struck the perfect balance between championing The Great Frog’s rich history and iconic pieces like the infamous silver skull ring, while constantly innovating and collaborating for an ever growing fan base of young artists and cool kids.  

With a newly Brinkworth-designed store opening in Tokyo last year, we sat down with Reino to discuss the rebellious streak at the heart of the brand, keeping it in the family and the future of brick and mortar stores, with images exclusive to Clash from Harry Clements.

Sabrina Soormally: What was it like growing up with the brand from its early days?

Reino Lehtonen-Riley: As a kid it was great fun, a very unconventional upbringing, with a lot of family as well. My aunties and uncles, everyone was involved. We had a huge house at the time from the bank, because my parents were kicked out of one place, it was huge and there was always an eclectic mix of people. There’d be people from all over, a troupe of drummers from Africa stayed for a while, and a bunch of Hell’s Angels living in the basement, it was just nuts. There was always stuff going on and a lot of weed smoking. We’d moved to Harrow, which was kind of suburban, living in this big house on top of the hill. We were nicknamed the Addams family, so we had the shop at the bottom of the hill, my school was down there too and id be taken to school on a motorbike by one of my dad’s mates, on a chopper or something like that. It would just be the most embarrassing thing in the world because as a kid all you want is to be normal.  Now I think it’s super cool, but at the time I’d be absolutely mortified that my parents would turn up in leather with long hair. We had this old Volkswagen that was like a hearse, and my dad painted it black by hand, and it would hardly make it up the hill, you’d have to get out half way and follow it up. It was unconventional, but fun. I didn’t need a lot of friends because there were always so many people in the house, stopping and staying on the sofa for a while. And then a jewellery workshop in there and I would just play with jewellery, that was my toy so I’d just mess about and carve stuff and learn the whole process from a really young age.

SS: Did you feel pressure to start working in the business?

RLR: I wasn’t really pressured; I think my dad had it… I think it was a slow kind of, subversive way of …

Conditioning?

Conditioning, yeah (laughs), which is not a great way of putting things, but it was like, let him play with this stuff and it will become second nature. When I grew up, the business hadn’t ever made any money or done very well. It had ticked over and provided for the lifestyle, and that was the lifestyle they lived, but it never really took that step …

More of a vanity project?

Not really, I just think it was a different era and it was very niche. There wasn’t a large mainstream audience, you could immediately tell a customer, you could walk down Carnaby Street and it would be all tourists and then a leather clad biker walking down, or a punk, which was extreme in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Now fashion is different, anything goes, especially in London. You can dress however you want and no one is even going to look twice, but then, if you were tattooed, or had a full face of tattoos, it was like, yeah that guy’s on his way to The Great Frog. But there wasn’t anyone like that, it wasn’t a thing, you were either metal, a biker, a Goth or punk, that was it, an those people didn’t really have money. There’d be great stuff but it was hard, and every week was a struggle to pay the bills. I saw it and I didn’t want to get involved, the only way for me to rebel from a family of rebels was to say, I’m going to go to university and study industrial engineering and be really preppy. I’d be in lilac polos with cropped hair and loafers and my dad would just be like, who the fuck is this? Cut to years later, I’d been to uni, I’d been travelling, I came back with a couple of tattoos and long hair and it was like, that’s my boy, he’s finally back.

He’s finally found himself.

Yeah that’s it. I guess it was my way of rebellion, to go the opposite, and not down that route.

My next question was going to be about how you started working for Armani.

That was completely by accident.

Was that part of your rebellion?

No, that was out of desperation. I finished university and then was just going to take the rest of my student loan and go travelling for a year, which turned into longer. It was running out of money, my friends were in Australia and I went over with nothing and moved into a flat they were renting. I There were twelve people living in a tiny two bed, I had $300 or something like that, I was sleeping in a hallway thinking, I’m going to have to go back soon, it’s not working out. I had just a couple of quid left and I printed out a load of CVs, it was pre internet days, I just went around to literally every shop in Sydney trying to get a job, every building site and every McDonald’s, Burger King, nobody got back to me apart from Armani. I reminded the manager of her son or something like that, the only reason I got the job. I ended up working there for a while on the shop floor and then tailoring stuff and then doing VM and all that stuff, nothing major, it wasn’t working for Armani, but the company as a whole. I did get to see how a big retail company worked and learned a bit about that. Eventually I’d been in Australia for a while, it had been a year and a bit of living on the beach, I was enjoying it but I thought, there’s definitely something more. My dad was struggling at the time with the business, they were pretty much shutting up shop. I was making money and thinking, I don’t really know where to go with this, he wanted me to come back and move stuff out. I thought do I stay here in the sun with this pretty good job, or just come back? And I made the decision to, there’s such a great history with this company and I know the business, and the debt wasn’t huge. We were able to claw it back, it took a long time, slowly changing it up and making it more … taking the good stuff basically, and the stuff that wasn’t so good…

Curating and streamlining … 

Yeah, exactly, because there was such a wealth of history, but my dad … it wasn’t really known and it was pre-social media, so unless you had a lot of money it was hard to promote yourself. I mean, how would you do it? We couldn’t afford to have a PR company or pay for magazine articles.

Or a giant billboard…

Yeah we couldn’t afford to do any of that. So just slowly over the years, just plugging away at it, and we were quite early adopters of social media, using it to tell the story, my dad did loads of cool stuff with Motorhead and Iron Maiden, these huge bands who were small at the time. Some people would know it by mouth, and then we had a website, we ended up posting pictures of all the stuff and we re-released some of the jewellery and immediately got a cease and desist order from these record companies. I was so naïve back then, I was like, what’s going on? The band told us that we were allowed to sell them. As my dad said, it was all done on a handshake back then. So we explained that to a few of these record companies and they were like, look you idiots, this just isn’t how the world works. They asked us to come for a meeting and they were like, look you’re morons but we like that you’ve done this so naively. We were like, ok cool, do you want a license deal? And they were like, ok cool, let’s do it. And then we ended up getting a contract that was this thick (gestures), and rekindled all these old relationships and old stories, and then we were able to tell them and put them online to get to a bigger audience with very little outlay. It levelled the field, having that sort of access to lots of people, and we built up a following quite quickly, it’s still quite niche in lots of ways, but I have a lot of varied interests so I tie it into the whole motorbike theme, and it’s always had different fashion designers interested, over the years there’s been loads of people who’ve bought pieces and been influenced by it, and you just realise there’s this huge untapped heritage.

Given all your different interests, how has the brand audience changed since you took over? Or is it more awakening and publicising what it was?

Well, when I was a kid, as I was saying, you could pretty much tell a Great Frog customer. But now, I design all of the pieces, and I in my mind, have an idea of who I’m designing for. I create a customer in my head or largely it’s stuff for myself, but then I make the piece and I think, oh it’s going to be for this guy or whatever, but I would say it’s probably 60/40 women to men who buy our stuff. A lot of the stuff I think is going to be for a big biker guy ends up being worn by girls. It’s amazing, and quite interesting; it wasn’t something I’d planned out. I always thought; you make really good jewellery, good quality and good designs, eventually people will take notice.

Trust your gut and your intuition.

So we don’t really do seasons or follow seasonal fashion, for me it’s very much about the craft, I love making jewellery, I’ve learned it all my life and we’ve got an amazing team of people downstairs who are passionate about it. I think the whole story as well, the fact that it’s English made, I’m really proud of. I’d probably be a multimillionaire if we farmed it out to China, but I think that it’s really important to stick to your ethos. I don’t think mass-producing … I don’t think anyone should suffer for you wanting ot wear an adornment or clothing. And we do ok, (laughs), we’re successful an we don’t have to have these horrible factories where people get paid nothing. 

It’s good to know from the ground up, where everything is coming from and that you know exactly what’s going on with everything.

Exactly, I just think it’s really important. But I think we’ve lost a lot in the U.K. in terms of manufacturing, there used to be so much manufacturing and skill, and now it’s really pissing me off because we’re starting to launch clothing, we’re doing a lot of jackets and stuff and it’s being made in the U.K. but we’re finding it really hard to find people who make stuff in the U.K., not even to do it at a decent price, but even the quality, everyone is just like, why bother? It will cost two hundred to get a jacket made here but in China you can get it done for fifty quid. It’s a shame because you lose those people, those artisans who aren’t being paid for their work. And something I’ve had a lot of … not backlash to … but sort of, I constantly see that my job is essentially redundant because nowadays people can learn how to do what I do on a computer. I know it’s the future and I should probably get on board with it.

It feels a bit cheapened.

Yeah it does, I look at some of the work and say wow, that’s incredible. That must have taken years to learn, you must have done years of apprenticeships, and I find out it’s a fifteen year old kid who’s done it on ZBrush and a 3D printer. But I think people, especially in Japan, when you get the story out, they appreciate the fact that it’s handmade and that there’s integrity and quality, that it’s not just farmed out in batches, especially in Japan, people really appreciate that because there’s a huge amount of stuff out there, a huge amount of crap. The amount of stuff you acquire as a kid, just mountains of rubbish, we need to buy less stuff. I know Vivienne Westwood’s really been campaigning lately about buying less stuff and better quality. I think it’s high time that happens, you see people coming out of Primark with ten bags…

Just buy one nice thing, that’s why my whole wardrobe’s black.

Yeah that’s what I’ve always done, out of necessity, I never really had any money. I know you get a dopamine hit from purchasing stuff, but I feel that what we do is something that will last you a lifetime, it has a history about it, it has a story. Jewellery is essentially the most useless thing on the planet, nobody needs it so it’s got to convey something special, otherwise what’s the point in buying it? It commemorates a moment in time, or it’s a gift for a loved one, something like that. You don’t need it.

It’s supposed to be special. If everybody was walking down the street wearing your pieces as if they were a plain band it would be a bit pointless.

This is it, I think we try to cater for everybody’s style as well, I know someone might come in and be a bit intimidated by the heavier pieces, but they can buy something simpler or a smaller band. I just feel that you can see it. We get so many people … social media has been brilliant for us, but also we’ve had so many companies copy us. Even with wholesale, we’ll find companies called ‘The Crazy Frog’, and they’ll use all our photos and immediately have 50,000 followers. I don’t know how, and we try to stop it, as soon as you do another one pops up, you go to their website and it’s just copies of our jewellery done in stainless steel for fifteen quid. 

They want the look without paying for it.

Part of me is impressed, I can make a piece and it’s literally just launched, and I think how do you have fifty copies where we’ve only managed to make ten? I think you’ve got to keep changing things up, not getting stuck and not just dong the same thing over and over again. We get a certain amount of backlash when we do something different to our norm, and some of our old school customers will say, oh it’s not The Great Frog it used to be’ it’s all old rockers.

Who blame you.

Yeah, (laughs), who blame me, like, all these young people wearing this, it’s not The Great Frog. Well when did you last buy a piece, in the late ‘80s?

I’ve got bills to pay.

Yeah (laughs) I’ve got bills to pay! And also, I like to think that you develop, I hate to say as an artist, but as a designer, everything around you inspires you and changes you. As fashions change you do get inspired by the things you see, so if you just did the same thing over and over again, it would get so boring as a designer to be like, ok I’m going to do another thousand skull rings. So to constantly innovate, and hopefully you bring people with you, and that seems to have happened.

And to tap new, young creatives, all those bands from when you started were small at the time.

Well that’s the thing, when my dad was hanging out with Lemmy (Motorhead), those guys weren’t household names or known. They were driving around in a small Ford Transit, trying to scrape together money to try and do gigs. But often those people have gotten older and their tastes have changed, but also the people in the ‘80s, the punks and rockers and teenagers, they’ve also done other things and had kids and houses, and they’ve got money now, and the bands they love, they want to buy things that suit their tastes now. It’s nice to see how it’s evolved and that it’s been organic.

What have you learned about yourself since the brand really blew up? Obviously people like Rihanna and Ozzy Osbourne wear your designs.

The thing I’ve learned is to trust your gut instinct, and to say no to things you don’t want to do. Whereas before, the stuff that you don’t think works, and doesn’t align to you, but you need the money, that’s been the biggest luxury. I still need the money (laughs), but it’s not so critical, that if something isn’t quire right, I can say, no, thank you very much, but it’s not quite what we’re after. Also what I’ve learned is that the greatest thing about having your own business is that there’s nobody telling you what to do, and the worst thing about having your own business, is that there’s nobody telling you what to do. If you’ve got a crazy idea, and you want to do an all black shop with a big car in the middle, nobody is going to say, that’s a bit shit. So I’ve been doing stuff in Japan, we’d design the shop, be putting stuff in, and I found out that it’s not in their culture to say no to you, especially if you’re the client or the boss. So I’d be saying, I want to do this pop up, and have jewellery on sticks and fake coals, and serve Yakitori to everyone. They’d all say yes but really what they’d mean is fuck no, don’t do that it’s really shit. So you have to be very self-critical and get a lot of advice, because as you get more successful people don’t want to say no to you. You’ve got to rein that in by having mates who’ll say, actually don’t do that, and keep you in check. I like to think of it as a democracy, when you become too bombastic, that’s when you go off on weird tangents. I’ve learned to understand that it’s important to trust your gut instincts, you’re doing well, people do like it, because it’s always second guessing, but then also be open to opinion and criticism as well.

I wanted to know about your design process, and what inspires new pieces.

A lot of it comes from cities, visiting different places; every time I go to Paris I get really inspired by the architecture. A lot of stuff that you see, like older buildings, just little architectural details you think, ‘ok that would be an amazing link for a bracelet or an amazing clasp.’ You’re always taking photos of weird things, like grates on the floor. On Instagram I post something and then I sign straight back out, so I don’t idly just flick through things, because you end up wasting so much time, and then you start second guessing yourself, if you’ve actually seen something. I’ve had an issue before where somebody sent me a cease and desist, and it looked like I had copied somebody, and I thought ‘shit did I see something, it lodged in my brain, and I’ve ended up thinking it was my own idea and doing it?’ I ride bikes, and I had an idea to do adornments that go on the studs on the helmets, I wanted to have silver buttons that you could personalise. I thought I’d try it out and give them to a few mates, rode around with one for a few years to see, and I get a letter from a company called helmet poppers dot com or something, and they said I’ve copied their idea, they’re taking me to court and want a percentage of profits. I thought, shit, have I seen this and thought it was my idea? Thankfully I remembered we did a photo-shoot with them back in 2011, and this company was formed in 2017, so it was quashed but then I start to think god, how much have I been influenced by things before? So now I don’t want to see.

When you scroll you take in too much information.

You take in too much information, and you don’t realise, and because we’ve had a lot of people emulating us and I’d hate to think that somebody thought we were doing the same thing. It’s very hard to make sure that your own ideas are your own ideas. So I try to regulate that. But architecture plays a big part, going to Tokyo always massively inspires me, the motorbike world, tattoos, all that stuff really translates, music, all those things. Every time I’m doing a shop, and even when I’m not, I’m always collecting antique pieces and vintage pieces that will go into the shop eventually, for shops I don’t even have yet.

Sounds like you have a hoarding problem.

(Laughs) I do have a hoarding problem, you should see the warehouse it’s full of junk. But I take inspiration from all these things, and I’ve designed every single thing in here, from the banisters to the light fittings, absolutely everything.

Of all of the collaborations you’ve done, who have you been the most excited to work with?

It’s hard to say, because every single one I do, I say that one is my favourite, or that’s the one I’m most excited about. It’s not that I get bored quickly, but you put your all into everything. So at the moment, the one I’m doing with Dilara (Findikoglu) is all encompassing, and it has been the most fun because it’s on a scale that I’ve never done before. It’s huge pieces, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. I was looking at ‘90s catwalk shows, like McQueen, and seeing these huge sculptural pieces and thinking why don’t people do that anymore? I guess it’s the budgets, and styles change, it’s simpler, paired down looks. But just to be involved and to do something like that, looking at this stuff at sixteen and thinking fuck that’s incredible, and now to be able to actually do something like that, to play around with massive bits of silver and to do fabrications and beating corsets and making gauntlets, it’s really fun.

But then Neighbourhood, who are a company I’ve looked up to for years, I love their stuff, always thought it was amazing, the original Streetwear in Japan, to go in their stop and see how impressive, and ominous it all is, it just seemed inaccessible and other worldly. I became friends with the guy who owns it, he collects motorbikes, and now I do too. We ended up meeting every year at motorcycle shows, getting on and chatting and I thought one day I’m going to ask you if we can actually do this together. It turns out he’d bought Great Frog pieces when he came over to London as a teenager, as a tourist from Japan and felt the same way, he almost had the black shop, was inspired by it, it was this crazy symbiosis.

A shared history that you didn’t realise.

Yeah, so that was a dream come true. We worked on the design together, he wanted to do something quite minimal and plain, and I felt it was a real missed opportunity. But then when I saw it, I thought actually I love this; this is amazing. For something so simple, it actually turned out brilliant. But that’s always the way, something you can spend months and months on that’s really complicated, really taxing and technically quite hard, and you feel a real sense of accomplishment, but then you work on something very simple, and it’s almost harder in some ways, to get the same design quality using very little. It’s almost a harder skill that I’m having to re-learn, I feel like I’m constantly learning with each project. 

Keeps you on your toes.

We’ve got loads of collaborations coming up that are all really exciting, keeps going and going, I still can’t believe it’s all happening.

How have you found the expansion into Asia and Japan?

I’m not going to lie, it’s been a little frustrating. Great because when we were kids, I think eleven, my mum took us out of school and we went to Japan for a month, her best mate was from Japan, we even went to Japanese schools. I’ve always loved Japan, the design, the food, the culture; it’s always been so fascinating to me. Such an inspiring place and I went there every year for Mooneyes, which is a custom motorcycle show in Yokohama, every year just before Christmas. So I’ve got friends from all over the world who all meet up there, and it’s always been a dream, so all of the coolest shops that I love are in Tokyo, everything is curated immaculately.

For me it was always so exciting to see the way they design shops, such tiny little spaces and so cleverly done. My good friend who owns a restaurant out there, we’d been chatting for years, and I always said that if he ever wanted to get involved in opening a shop out there, I couldn’t do it without him. I don’t speak Japanese, I’m trying to learn but I couldn’t negotiate anything. He said yes, so I went out there, we searched a long time for a spot, I knew I wanted the Harijuku area, it’s always been my favourite spot, but it’s hugely expensive and it’s really hard to find places. Apparently you really need to know the right people, the Yakuza, to find the spot, all these levels of things you could just never figure out. I spoke to the guy who owns the neighbourhood, he said he’d help us find a spot. We looked at a few shops, lost a few shops that we were trying for, because they’re quite conservative in Japan, even though it looks outwardly not, they were quite suspicious of a shop that looks like this, they were worried about lots of motorbikes being there and antisocial behaviour. But we found this great spot; right where we wanted to be, we got it endorsed by the neighbourhood. We had my friend Adam Brinkworth, an incredible architect, he does all the Supreme stores, he’s a good mate of mine, through motorbikes again, as a favour he designed the shop, found a really good builder through my friends so it’s all sort of in the family, it’s all friends of friends. My partner in New York is one of my best mates, we went to nursery together, my accountant, we went to primary school together, I’ve known him since I was six, my cousin runs the L.A. store, it’s all family. It doesn’t really feel like work.

You’re going to visit friends all the time.

Yeah I’m going to visit friends all the time and doing cool shit with my friends and family.

What do you see for the future of The Great Frog?

I don’t know, that’s a really hard one, because at the moment we’re about to have a baby, before it was like right let’s open another store, the format seems to work, let’s open in all the major cities, let’s go to Berlin, let’s go to Paris. But then on the other hand of scaling it up, will it lose something? And also my wife has categorically told me no more shops because we’re having another baby, but that’ll change. But for me I just really enjoy doing that, it’s a lot of fun, putting it all together and designing it, and then I have another place to house all my shit, so it’s part of that but also I think, I know everybody is saying everything is going online, retail isn’t what it used to be, and all these companies are going to the wall, that seems to be a pretty bad omen but I just feel like for me, we integrate it with also having our office and our manufacturing, so it works, and also it gives people the experience. I know I’m slightly older than a lot of the clients and the generation gap where people are way more comfortable buying something online, I still really like to go into a shop and see something. If you look at our jewellery … if you see pictures on social media or websites, and it’ll look exactly the same but it’ll turn your finger green, and it’s really lightweight and the plating comes off eventually and it’s made of base metal and it’s churned out in some factory. You get this, and you feel it’s heavy, you can see it’s handmade, you come in and you meet our incredible staff who are really knowledgeable about everything and they’re really nice and personal and you have an experience, and again, there’s no need to buy these things, it’s useless, so it’s about how it makes you feel, it about the experience, it’s about learning a bit about something and being invested in a brand, and being invested in something that you identify with, it’s a way of aligning your personality with something, this is what I’m about and what I’m into.

You should be proud to wear it.

I think there’s be a resurgence in brick and mortar retail, it’ll be different, and I think that’s why a lot of companies that aren’t working, big high street or industrial retail parks where you can go and buy a washing machine. Nobody gets a thrill out of buying a washing machine, you may as well get one delivered to your door and have the old one taken away, so those sorts of things, when companies, you see them going into administration, it’s never a celebration, it’s always sad as a retailer, you think that’s a shame but what’s that experience you’re getting. People are passionate, people love this company and love the brand and it’s lovely to feel that and you hope the customer gets that experience, and they do. The feedback that we get from people we get from people who buy our pieces, they say the staff are incredible, they care about everything, they’re informed and they care.

You can’t claim ignorance as to where your products come from anymore, the human and environmental cost. I think if you invest in brick and mortar stores they need to be done properly like this, not like impersonal high street chains.

Yes, because why would you, you’re not going to spend your afternoon there, shopping is a leisure activity that you do for enjoyment, you’re not going to go and browse the white goods session, you’re going to go for lunch, you’re going to go to the shop and you might buy something you enjoy, or as a gift or whatever. People might think I’m crazy opening stores when everyone is pairing back stores, but it seems to be working.

Again, trusting your gut, not following what everyone else is doing.

It’s also because of that, because of what’s happening that those retail spots that would have been out of our reach in the past, the rent is a lot cheaper. I actually find that opening a new store is cheaper than say, traditional advertising. If you wanted to get a full double page spread advert in certain magazines it’ll cost you a hundred grand, you can open a shop for that. With The Great Frog, I’d love it to expand, what I’d love is to work with other, more exciting brands, I genuinely really enjoy the collaborations and it’s something that opens up two markets from a business perspective, it opens up your market and their market, and it also challenges your way of thinking, I wouldn’t have necessarily done that piece, you have that close relationship with the designer from another company who has their aesthetic, and it does really open things up and you learn so much, so it keeps things pretty exciting.  

Visit thegreatfroglondon.com

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