Behind the Mask

May 18, 2021

Sam ‘David Watson’ Petty (OD 2002) writes about the experiences that have led him to where he is today, and why he began running his own business, David Watson.


I left the Dragon having spent much of my time playing eggy in the playground and enjoying art with Ma Sturt and Mr Heptonstall. I have very fond memories of the Dragon and, although I didn’t know it at the time, I am so pleased it helped me on my path to a career in the world of art.

I went on to Radley with an Art Scholarship and continued spending a lot of my time in the Art department. My time spent playing eggy evolved into time spent sailing. As school drew to a close and decisions needed to be made for the next step, I realised that going straight into work was suited to me at that time. I had played around with various business ideas, from selling golf balls that I collected out of the Radley College pond to filming promotional videos.

I started my first job on the day I left school, and initially, it was to be a gap year job. I worked for a company that filmed sailing regattas around the world and it fulfilled my desire to travel, sail and be creative. The summer job turned into four years and helped me to learn how to, or how not to, run a business. I became a freelance cameraman and worked on live sporting projects such as the America’s Cup, Formula E, ATP Tennis and Gold Cup Tennis. A lot of fun, but I realised what I wanted was my own business.

In 2015 ‘David Watson’, my middle names, was born. I love art and have a passion for fashion so this business combined the two perfectly. I collaborate with British artists to share their art on my products. Currently, I work with 60 artists and organisations such as the National Motor Museum and The William Morris Gallery. I started making silk scarves and pocket squares and expanded to cushions, caps, ties, eye masks, and over 400 products.

This year has been a very different year for my business. In 2019, 80% of my sales were to shops and we have had to adapt to selling online and making masks. I exhibited some of my silk pocket squares at an Old Dragon Art event and met artist Jonathan Pugh (OD 1975). He is an incredible cartoonist who was the Times pocket cartoonist for many years and is now with the Daily Mail – his cartoons are now found in The OD magazine, too. Since then, we have collaborated using six of his iconic cartoons, and they are proving to be very popular.

Having started a British brand, I believe it is essential to have a transparent supply chain and make everything in the UK. We make our scarves in Worcestershire, ties in Kent, cushions in London and face masks in Macclesfield. Over the last year, face masks have become our top-selling product, from knowing nothing about them to having 100 options for our customers. As David Watson is created using a collection of art that I enjoy, it is key to work with the right people and provide my customers with a varied selection. We have designs ranging from a moustache and abstract art to our best-selling William Morris range.

First, we work with our British artists to create a unique design. From Anna Howarth’s papercuts, Robert Kann’s ink drawings to Paul Cleden who uses his 150-year-old press for his linocut prints. Once we have finalised the design, we start printing. We print in Macclesfield or Worcestershire and use high-tech eco-friendly digital printing or traditional hand silkscreen printing depending on the design. All our fabrics are very high grade and our organic cotton is GOTS certified. Our masks are then handmade by skilled seamstresses in Kent, with each painstakingly put together with no attention to detail spared. This is quite an intricate process, but it is important for us to easily monitor the quality of our products and support the British economy.

I am not sure what the future holds for David Watson but there are some exciting new artists and shops in the pipeline. Having my own business allows me to be creative and also have a varied working day. One day I might be meeting with shop buyers or my agents, another planning a new range, or even doing my accounts. As long as this variation continues, I will always encourage others to follow what they love. If you work hard, the rewards will follow.

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