Location: The Fox & Anchor, Farringdon, London
We drank: Soda water with fresh lime
The number of times Tom called me ‘Darling’: 9
Tom Kilbey has lived the kind of life that most people can only dream of. He is a former professional football player, turned successful television personality and has now turned his hand to menswear design. It is my pleasure to introduce you to the undeniably talented Mr Tom Kilbey.
I agreed to meet Tom outside of Farringdon Station, East London on an uncharacteristically hot morning. The city had experienced a heat wave throughout the summer, which was initially exhilarating but was now becoming rather tiresome. On this particular morning the heat was sweltering, the kind of heat that causes the air to feel thick, as if you are walking through quicksand. As I exited the station I scanned the crowd of commuters for Tom. He wasn’t hard to spot, leaning against a bollard, dressed in his distinctive casual style and engrossed in his phone.
As I approached, he looked up, flashed me a mischievous grin and stood up to his full height, immediately dwarfing my 5 foot 5 inches. There is no denying that Tom is incredibly tall, however he carries his height well with great posture and a fierce stride. This was especially apparent as we wandered through the sunshine-drenched cobbled streets, Tom courteously walked slowly taking into account my significantly shorter legs.
We found a table outside of the Fox & Anchor pub and ordered a round of drinks whilst basking in the sunshine. Before the interview commenced, Tom and I discussed whether there were any private matters he would prefer not to be asked about, he leant forward and said: “Were you planning to ask me about Lydia?”
Tom was referring to his relationship with ex-girlfriend Lydia Bright, his former fellow cast member on hit television show The Only Way Is Essex.
I hadn’t actually thought to ask about his relationship with Lydia but since he had broached the subject and it was laid out on the table (metaphorically speaking), I couldn’t help myself. Tom said nonchalantly: “Well, it didn’t end well. She uploaded a video online about the reasons behind our break up, I didn’t really appreciate that. In the video she thanked everyone for their support as though we were in a really high-profile relationship like David and Victoria Beckham. I really don’t think that anyone cared.”
Tom is being incredibly modest, the video in question has currently been viewed over 120,000 times on YouTube and the comment box is filled with messages of support from viewers of the show.
He pondered: “I am definitely not a superstar, but it can be really strange when people are commenting on your personal life. It is weird to think that people who don’t know me follow my life but I suppose it is good because they care about what I am doing.”
He added: “From my football career I am used to giving interviews and people knowing your face but nothing can prepare you for being in a TV show like TOWIE.”
It is fair to say that Tom has a predominantly female fan base, one look at his Instagram or Twitter profile and comments such as ‘marry me Tom or I will die’, ‘you are perfection’ and ‘I am in love with you’ are a regular occurrence. So how does he feel about the attention, does it ever get too overwhelming?
Tom burst into peals of laughter, he said: “Listen, there is nothing scary at all about girls saying they like you.”
He added: “I love everyone who follows my career and life because where would I be without their support? The girls are really sweet but it’s the guys who don’t like you because the girls like you.”
What many of the viewers of TOWIE may not know is that Tom had a completely different career before he joined the cast. Tom played for professional football club Mill Wall FC from the age of 15 until he was bought by Portsmouth FC aged 17 for a rumoured £1m. He remained at Portsmouth for three years before leaving the club aged just 20.
As a successful footballer some would say that Tom was living the dream but there were times when his career was plagued by injury and loneliness. He revealed: “I have been involved in a few industries now such as TV and fashion, but football was by far the most ruthless. It is so dog eat dog and the boys don’t care either, the footballers are all out for themselves. I know in life things can be like that, but I was injured a lot and it can be really lonely when you are injured.”
Nonetheless his experience wasn’t all bad, he added: “Other than that it was one of the best experiences of my life, you make great friends and it is incredible to play in front of thousands of people.”
The life of a footballer can be isolating and Tom definitely had tunnel vision when it came to the beautiful game. He said: “The strange thing is you train every day and immerse yourself in football but you don’t really learn anything else. When you are young you think that you will be a footballer forever and then when you are not, you don’t know what to do with yourself.”
He added: “What do you do? Go to school? Not many people want to do that when they are in their twenties. They say that one out of three footballers suffer from depression when they leave the game so it is a very hard industry.”
At this point in the interview, my iPad decided to overheat and switch itself off. Although Tom had a busy day ahead with other interviews planned, he was patient as I desperately tried to get it working again. Tom suggested that we construct a napkin into a tent so that it would cast a shadow over the device, it worked to my relief and the interview commenced.
The injuries Tom endured during his time at Portsmouth, lead to him questioning whether football was something he wanted to pursue long-term. He said: “I also don’t think that I got my break at Portsmouth, then I got injured and I became really negative.”
Tom revealed that the opportunity to join the popular television show The Only Way Is Essex came as a welcome distraction. He said: “There was a period when I was at Portsmouth and was in a transition period to find another club. My sister Cara had joined TOWIE and then they approached me and asked if I wanted to join the cast.”
Tom is always open to new opportunities but he initially turned down the offer to appear on the show. He said: I thought that the show wasn’t really me, I am not a typical Essex boy and I didn’t think it would work well but in the end that was the reason they wanted me on it.”
Tom is keen not be stereotyped, be it as a footballer, a reality star or anything else, he stressed: “I was never your typical footballer either. I am the kind of guy who would be wearing skinny jeans before everyone started wearing them and Vans, I looked more like I was in a band rather than a footballer.”
He is also wary of conforming to stereotypes, he added: “I never really conformed and I think that in football you need to conform. Once, I got told off and wasn’t allowed to play because I hadn’t had my hair cut. I couldn’t understand what my hair got to do with my performance but in hindsight they wanted me to listen and conform.”
He said: “I had a few offers to go to football clubs abroad and up north but I had played football since I was seven so I think I just wanted a change of scenery and the show definitely gave me that.”
In the end, Tom considered the offer to appear on TOWIE for a few months and eventually decided to join the show but thought that he would make a cameo rather than a full-time member of the cast.
Although Tom was used to giving interviews and being recognised from his time as a footballer, nothing prepared him for the exposure he got on TOWIE. One of the low points was reading comments that people would make on news articles about him and his life.
He said: “I’ll be honest, I have read the odd comment section. It is weird, some people just abuse you for no reason, they don’t know anything about the person that you are. I just can’t understand who would make an account and log in just to be negative towards others, they must just be insecure themselves.”
After a few successful series on the show which gained Tom hundreds of thousands of followers, enough was enough.
Tom was brought up in East London and although his family are now based in Loughton, he lives in EC1.
He said: “It got to a point where I felt like I always had to be in Essex and that isn’t me at all so I started Merge then. The show didn’t reflect who I am and what I want to do and I thought that I wasn’t going to sell out just to be in the show.”
He added: “There are so many people in the show who avidly want to do it and will do anything to stay in but I am not that kid. It is ultimately about the Essex lifestyle but in the end it wasn’t portraying the life I was living.”
Tom then teamed up with Mus, a family friend and together they launched Merge London, a menswear brand that specialises in exquisite British tailored streetwear. He said: “I have known Mus since I was young, his dad is my family doctor. Mus used to play cricket for England so we have had similar lives in some ways. We have both played sport professionally and been at the peak of it and then it didn’t end the way we wanted it to, so we can relate to each other a lot.”
Tom is wary of people perceiving him as just a reality star who doesn’t know anything about fashion but I assure him that from one look at his Merge London lookbook, this clearly is not the case.
He said: “Thank you that means a lot. I think that you can come from any background you can show through your product that you know what you are doing and most people will eventually accept it.”
The Merge London collection completely embodies the EC1 lifestyle which Tom is accustomed to.
He said: “A brand should represent who you are as a person. EC1 is where I have grown up, this is where I live, where my family’s business is, I have partied, this is where I have laughed, this is where I have cried. I couldn’t relate to it more if I tried.”
The Kilbey family business is the notorious Fabric nightclub in Farringdon. A place where hedonism is the norm, I can confirm this having spent endless nights there myself, partying on the stage until dawn broke.
Tom has grown up with the club and it is like a second home to him, he said: “It is like my little playground, I know the workers personally it is just a nice place to go to feel safe in. There has been hard times when I would see my dad getting stressed with it but every birthday has been spent at Fabric, I know I can always go there and have a good time.”
With its simplistic and classic design, Merge London could not be further than the extravagant unspoken dress code in Essex. Tom said: “If you look around EC1 people dress exactly how they want to. There is a freedom here whereas in Essex a lot of people wear the same things, they don’t want to be different. That isn’t the way.”
For those who doubt Tom’s credentials as a fashion designer, I can happily shoot your theories down. The man most definitely knows what looks good and how to wear clothes well. He was actively involved with the design process alongside Mus. The duo also headed to Japan, where they studied brands who shared their creative vision and gained much inspiration.
Tom stressed that Merge London is predominantly clothes that he would want to and often does wear. He has even added personal touches, delicate and distinctive features to certain pieces that reflect the way he likes to wear his clothes. He said: “For example, I made the arms a little long on the tops because I have such long arms, nothing ever fits me. If you have long arms this is for you!
He added: “I like wearing chinos and I personally like to roll them up so I made sure that the Merge logo was embroidered on the inside so when you roll them up it’s there, simple but effective.”
Another endearing feature was the addition of metal and plastic toggles to the collection as Tom nibbles his clothes when he is anxious if anyone does the same, he would hate for the clothes to be ruined.
Merge London is not for the pretentious, it isn’t for someone who revels in showing off what he has. Tom said: “You wouldn’t necessarily look at a piece and immediately know that it is Merge because the style is so simplistic. My priorities for this collection were that the clothes fit well, are of the highest quality and make the wearer feel good, that is all I really care about.”
The most impressive thing about Tom is that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He lives in the moment, is always grateful for new opportunities but also knows when enough is enough. He has achieved so much for someone so young but in his eyes there is no room for complacency, he said: “I think I have had a weird life, I have done so much but I don’t think that I have achieved what I want to achieve just yet.”
Running his fingers through his famed mass of golden brown hair, he pondered: “I think that I’ll look back on my life and think that it was fun. I’ll show my children what I have done and we will laugh about it. People take things so seriously, you only live once.”
With that the interview is over, we say our goodbyes and Tom walks away in the direction of his offices in Fabric nightclub. Tom has left me in no doubt whatsoever that whatever happens, he will always land on his feet with a twinkle in his eye and that mischievous smile on his lips.
Ten Questions We Ask Everyone
1. What did you want to be when you were younger?
I always wanted to be a footballer.
2. If you could offer advice to your twelve-year-old self, what would it be?
Stay away from girls!
3. You have 24 hours with no travel restrictions, how would you spend it?
I would head to Paris for breakfast, then to a beach in Thailand, no work just pure relaxation and finally to Los Angeles for the evening.
4. What is the most exciting thing that has happened to you this year?
Good question, definitely the launch of Merge because it took so long to get it all together. I came up with the idea of Merge when I was around 14 but we have been actively getting it up and running for around seven months. It has been a long process so I am excited to share it with everyone now.
5. The film you can watch over and over yet never tire of?
Casper the Friendly Ghost, Forrest Gump and Home Alone.
6. The song that always makes you emotional?
Towers by Bon Iver
7. If you could spend an entire day with anyone uninterrupted, who would it be?
Miranda Kerr, she is so beautiful.
8. It is Friday night at midnight, where are you most likely to be?
The Box nightclub in Soho.
9. What is your biggest vice?
This is going to sound really boring but it would have to be chocolate, I love it.
10. How would you like to be remembered?
I would want people to remember me as understanding. It is easy for people to be misunderstood and it would be nice to think that people thought of me as understanding.
Check out the fashion editorial we shot in collaboration with Merge London here.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @TomKilbey
Follow Merge London on Twitter: @MergeLondon
View the Merge London collection: www.mergelondon.com