“I came across an Indian prophet who told me my future. He suggested I needed to set three things free, an insect, a tortoise and a bird.”
Like most, Toby Clark, a former design consultant for Margaret Howell, didn’t think too much of it at the time. Until three years later, whilst residing on Waiheke Island in New Zealand, he noticed an insect crawling on the native timber floor of the Bach located in the orchard valley farm.
He captured it, set it free, and immediately received an e-mail message comprised of one sentence: ‘Do you want to make jeans in London?’ Fate was sealed.
All images via Francesca Tye
The person who sent that text message was Han, Mr Bilgehan Ates, a former textile factory owner and now the co-visionary behind Blackhorse Lane Ateliers.
Han comes from a family of textile manufacturers and has owned the factory on Blackhorse Lane for around 25 years, where he once produced clothes for significant high-street names.
However, despite success on quality assured goods, Han soon discovered he couldn’t remain competitive on price with the increasing number of brands taking their manufacturing overseas.
He was forced to move first to Turkey, then to Hong Kong and finally into China in order to meet the manufacturing costs imposed by the large retailers, before deciding that enough was enough. He had spent too much of his life away from his home and children. So, Han made the difficult decision to close his textile business and return to the UK and start up a more local venture.
After opening a successful restaurant – Homa – in Stoke Newington, Han realised he had found the locality he had dreamed of, being able to spend more time at home, however something was still missing. His creativity was not being fulfilled.
Then the epiphany. Needing a new pair of jeans, he did what most of us would do, he paid a visit to Levis in Regent Street and tried on a pair. After discovering these jeans were made thousands of miles away, and reflecting on the high price in comparison to the average quality, it struck him that he could offer something better than this. He could make authentic quality jeans in London.
So Han sent his e-mail to Toby, a design consultant he had heard good things about from Guy Marshall the Creative Director of Studio Small, and together they returned to the textile industry and into the factory on Blackhorse Lane that Han knew so well, and began the journey of creating British-made jeans.
As Toby, who until the e-mail, hadn’t met Han, described their almost pre-destined journey to where I find them today, I was beginning to fall under their spell.
However, what strikes you most about the Ateliers is that they are about more than just making jeans. They are about establishing an alternative reality to the fast-paced, profit-focussed reality of fashion right now.
Made using raw selvedge denim from Europe, the jeans are characterised by their quality. Each pair is crafted by skilled technicians – not in a hurry – but at a comfortable pace “that allows for optimum precision and care – challenging the modus operandi with a sustainable artisanal approach to production.”
This quiet challenge against the modern day attitude of short-term gains, instant gratification and disposability will attract many people, disillusioned with the pace of the fashion industry right now, to their venture.
One such person, was Charly Jacobs. Similarly to the co-founders’ union, Charly’s encounter with Han seems equally fated. From a fine art background, Charly did an MA in Fashion at Middlesex, but at the time was working at restaurant to fund a short course at CSM. She had plans to go into the fashion industry and had job offers from well-established houses. Then she met Han.
Their paths crossed when Han visited the restaurant in Islington where Charly worked. They bonded over a passion for organic wines and well-crafted clothes, as Charly explained how she had made the waitress’ staff uniform using vintage indigo workwear.
Han left her with a copy of his business plan and a big decision to make. Follow the expected path of joining a big name brand, or risk joining a small start-up.
It is not easy to go against the tide, but Han, Toby and Charly are all united in their need to follow their beliefs. They all talk with passion about fashion’s issues of sustainable manufacturing, ethical business models and encouraging creativity.
Feeling unable to live by these beliefs in the fashion world at large, they have found solace in each other’s like-mindedness and created an alternative fashion reality.
And their principles flow throughout the whole company. Taking inspiration from the jean itself, the most fundamentally egalitarian of garments, they have created a business that is not primarily motivated by profit.
They believe in investing in the manufacturers, seeing their job as important as a managerial one, and as such, all factory employees and machinists are shareholders in the company. They all earn a London living wage and nobody is on a zero hours contact.
There is a real local and community-driven focus to the business, from the 17% discount for people living in E17 to the way the factory is designed.
After walking through the main production studio, you soon come to a collection of smaller work rooms, home to leather workers, weavers, dyers and chefs.
They give the consumer an opportunity to appreciate how jeans are created from start to finish, from weaving the cloth to stitching on leather patches. The whole process is reflected within the walls of the factory.
The ethos of the Ateliers is to connect nature to industry. This is why they grow their own Japanese indigo in their local allotment, where seasonal vegetables are also harvested for chef Pedro Passinhas’ ‘Denim and Dine’ events.
It seems to me that the slow fashion movement is closely linked to the slow food one. It’s a natural extension for those who care about where their food comes from, to start thinking about where their clothes come from.
On the day I find them, the 2 founders of the Ateliers have just celebrated their first anniversary since meeting. The opening launch event saw 400 people turn up and they have sold 58 of 60 pairs of samples at a recent pop up in Shoreditch.
Their popularity I am sure is indicative of a society who want to know about provenance and where the items they are putting into their mouths or next to their skin, come from. People who want to invest in a story and its people, not just a product.
Inspired and engaged, I left Blackhorse Lane Ateliers feeling like there is an alternative future for fashion, one that is less focused on profiteering and instead driven by quality and community.