The best jeans may be regarded as a quintessentially American or Japanese product. But now East London – known for giving fashion classics a twist – is seeing its own artisanal denim scene offer some stiff competition.
The love for a more artisanal denim has become a global, if niche, sector of the clothing industry over the last decade especially, with any number of lesser known, micro makers launching to feed the desire for ever more authentic or original denim creations.
Perhaps only known in certain crowds, the boom in East London craft-making doesn’t stop at beer, spirits and foodstuffs – London is very much a part of this indigo scene, with denim seekers and specialists making waves in the industry. So, what is this indigo addiction all about?
“As with other artisanal products, in craft denim there are very nuanced differences that are hard to quantify but just as hard for the big makers to reproduce too,” argues William Kroll, lecturer in denim at London’s Central Saint Martin’s fashion design college, founder of the British denim brand Tender Co. (jeans inspired by Britain’s industrial revolution), and of Whooper, a second denim line launching this summer. “I think you can even regard denim as more of a philosophy than a fabric – it represents a way of thinking about how clothes age, what makes a garment unique – one that has its very tribal followers.”
This is all familiar thinking for David Giusti, co-founder of Worn Out Global, an occasional gathering of denim-heads.
“You know how people go the pub to nerd out about football?” asks Giusti. “Well we do it about denim. People bring their favourite denim garments, sometimes trade or swap them. We sit around and talk about fades. We share a passion. Maybe it’s the kind of thing you could only do in London.”
Denim, he says, is fascinating to him – which makes his day job all the more befitting. That is, managing brand development at Blackhorse Lane Ateliers, the Walthamstow-based denim clothing company and, in many respects, the epicentre of the capital’s interest in the blue stuff. It is here that you will not only find London’s sole premium classic jeans-maker, but also the likes of indigo dyer Katherine May and other specialists in the industry, from weavers to print-makers, who see the fabric and its lustrous blue colour as a form of artistic expression.
“I think you can even regard denim as more of a philosophy than a fabric - it represents a way of thinking about how clothes age, what makes a garment unique - one that has it’s very tribal followers”QUOTE: William Kroll, Central Saint Martin’s
It is more by accident than design that this came to be. Blackhorse Lane factory’s owner Han Ates used to make high-street clothing before squeezed margins saw him move production abroad. Then, back in London, the purchase of some disappointing mass-produced jeans convinced him he could make them better, by keeping production small, particular and local, and by reviving some long-forgotten jeans-making techniques, the likes of the one-piece fly. The business only launched last year but, in a neat twist, is already selling in Japan – the spiritual home of artisanal denim.
“But why launch yet another jeans brand?” asks Giusti rhetorically. “Quality was one issue, transparency another – unlike most factories in the fashion world, anyone can walk through our door and see the jeans being made by makers who are all shareholders in the business. But we also wanted to build a community around the factory. We wanted to try to connect the dots with other people who are into denim.
In line with other London folk developing more small-batch, hand-made products, much of London’s denim focus does seem to be in the East End. Down the road from Blackhorse Lane Ateliers, in Hackney Wick, is of all things, a mill – the first (and only) to operate in London in generations; known more for its dyeing and finishing, the capital’s last mill closed during the inter-war years.
“I didn’t really plan this,” admits the London Cloth Company’s founder Daniel Harris. “I had no weaving experience, but I did use to sew for a living, so thought it would be a good idea to make my own fabric, with a view to eventually making a fully vertical clothing line.”
That is still in the pipeline, but in the meantime Harris has won a deserved reputation – with clients including London brands the likes of Drakes and Ally Capellino – for both the exceptionally good value and quality of his cloths, and for his indigo-dyed cotton cloths in particular. He makes some 70 varieties in three weights, from shirting to the kind that would make for a hefty duffel coat. But Harris is also precise in describing what he does – in an attempt to fend off those many local denim fanatics.
“We say that we weave indigo-dyed cloth, not that we make denim, because as soon as you say it’s denim someone comes along and tells you it’s not – especially the kind of person who doesn’t own a cloth mill,” he jokes. “So many people come to us saying they want denim when what they really want is a replica Japanese denim.” That is to say, typically deeply indigo, deeply textural and heavyweight – when in fact denim, a basic and historic 3×1 cotton weave, actually comes in many guises.
Besides, what Harris does is every bit as inventive as the Japanese. Indeed, like Blackhorse, he sells to Japan, “which feels like selling coals to Newcastle,” he says – he makes selvedge denim in herringbone; union cloths with an indigo rope-dyed cotton warp and charcoal wool cotton weft; latterly he’s devised a technically-challenging three-ply indigo double cloth. “You’ll often find me with blue hands, even blue hair,” says Harris. “I went into the corner shop the other day and the guy there saw my hands and commented on how cold it was outside…”
“We wanted to build a community around the factory. We wanted to try to connect the dots withother people who are into denim.”QUOTE: David Giusti, Blackhorse Ateliers
That’s an experience familiar to Mohsin Sajid, the founder and designer of Endrime, a denim brand established in Whitechapel in 2012 after years of his consulting on denim to the likes of DKNY and Edwin. He works amid a living museum of rare sewing machines (“every time I buy a new one and take up more space, I have to buy my wife a handbag,” he jokes) and his collection of 500 vintage denim garments. That may well be surprising, because his jeans appear to be decidedly contemporary – employing traditional tailoring details the likes of knee darts and straight yokes, the kind actually found in 19th century workwear – while at the same time speaking to the sheer variety of denim experimentation in this part of London.
“Denim is very geeky and it was only when I started using it that I really appreciated it – and why for me it’s about moving it forward,” explains Sajid, who argues that the London scene is already growing – citing young brands from other quarters of the capital – and, given the seemingly unending demand for the fabric, might well be expected to continue to. “It’s not about creating a generic product,” he stresses. “In fact, I think it’s because so many of the people involved in denim in London are trained designers that you get this independent thinking as to what denim can be and how it can be used. There is this London denim scene – even an East London denim scene. It’s strong and, as with design in London in general, it’s about not doing the obvious thing.”
Other London Denim Brands to Watch:
Best Denim Shops:
Son of a Stag
Unarguably the most comprehensive selection of US and Japanese denim in the city
For the best in women's denim
Rivet & Hide
The latest denim shop on the scene
Learn to Dye:
Textile print designer Liza Mackenzie runs regular courses in London on the Japanese dyeing art of ShiboriVisit website