Situated at the end of Walthamstow’s Blackhorse Lane is a very different kind of denim factory which believes making tailored garments comes secondary to serving the local community.
Founded in 2015 by Han Ates, a veteran in the clothing and textile industry, Blackhorse Lane Ateliers has quickly grown into one of London’s most interesting fashion start-ups. Specialising in high-end jeans that look like the antithesis to the cheap threads you might find on the high street, this factory doubles as a kitchen serving food for locals, and a workshop filled with denim-making tutorial classes.
Ates is committed to doing things slowly, with no immediate plans to scale the business or open more factories. Instead, he’s content with making the sole Blackhorse Lane site the very best it can be. Appear Here caught up with Ates to talk about how Blackhorse Lane Ateliers are doing things differently and to ask him what the future looks like for the denim brand.
How would you define Blackhorse Lane Ateliers?
I would say we’re a group of people from different walks of life, who want to change the perception of the fashion industry among ordinary people. Our business is 80% denim and 20% cotton. I would say 90% of our turnover is selling directly to consumers. We have this factory, or rather small workshop, where we make tailored garments. Traditionally these places are behind closed doors and shut off to the public. We want to change all that and create a space where everyone is welcome.
How are you achieving this aim?
We have a Michelin-starred chef who makes food and does pop-up events here. It could be he makes brunch on a Sunday or bakes 13 loaves of sourdough bread and we then sell them to the locals for £3. This is an amazing thing to do as 99% of the population have never seen the machine that create their jeans. People come in to get some bread but also learn about the fashion industry and all the machinery here too. Long term this creates an accountability. For a long time brands have looked at the fashion industry as a money-making machine, when its purpose should be to serve the local community.
Do you think the public has lost its connection to fashion brands?
Certainly. I have 35 years of experience as a garment maker and manufacturer, and when I started East London was buzzing with factories. They all disappeared very quickly as big fashion brands realised that outsourcing cheap labour and machinery meant they could do the same job in another country and cut corners. If you look at the big fashion brands like Marks and Spencer or House of Fraser they are struggling in terms of sales right now, and that’s because they are no longer connected to the society they are supposed to be selling their garments to. We try to share our knowledge of how you can make garments so that the business is as transparent as possible. Globalisation resulted in cheap labour and materials, subsequently people lost a connection with their clothes producers. We want to change this culture.
But is there really a hunger to learn about denim making?
Our denim making courses are very popular as we are creating an opportunity for people to learn a new skill. The courses last for two days and there’s something special about sharing our philosophy with 15 strangers in a room. We had a 65-year-old lady on one of them recently and she said that her son had come along to the factory three years ago. He was in a job he hated and the course inspired him to enter the fashion industry instead. These are the kinds of stories that make everything we do worth it.
So what’s next for the business? I sense you’re not in a hurry to expand?
We believe in locality and togetherness. If we decide to expand and open in a big market, say, Scandinavia, then our policy won’t be to rapidly open new factories. We would want to find a local partner in Stockholm and use their expertise to really integrate ourselves within the local community. We don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach or being like a Starbucks.
I also want us to work with new fabrics and do more classes for the public. If we can have a new site within the next five years then that’s good, but I will be just as happy if we’re still finding ways to make the London one a success.