In Depth: An Evening with Blackhorse Lane Ateliers
Last week we hosted Annie and Han from Blackhorse Lane Ateliers (BLA) at one of our evening events at Ray Stitch. There’s currently a big buzz around BLA and their role in the Great British denim revival and we were delighted to meet them and hear their story.
BLA set up their factory in Walthamstow only a couple of years ago but despite being very new on the block, they claim to make the best jeans in the world. It’s a big claim but Han is confident that their approach to sourcing, manufacturing and the customer experience all set them apart from the crowd. Han has worked in the textile industry for 25 years, he knows his subject and studied ‘the jean’ extensively before coming up with the selection of composite, ready-to-wear designs they now offer in the Walthamstow atelier and the concept store in Shoreditch. Examples of BLA jeans, a traditional high street favourite and a high-end American Jean were handed round and fully inspected. There was a marked difference between BLA construction methods and the others, and as sewers, we could fully appreciate the detail, complexity and the amount of work that goes into these garments.
The other huge appeal of these jeans is the knowledge that every step of the production process has been ethically considered. 'We can’t claim to be thoroughly sustainable’ says Annie; ‘We put things in the wrong bin sometimes! - but we are thoughtful and responsible about all the choices we make.’ Han told us that their denim comes from a small number of audited suppliers (meaning they meet high standards of production in terms of energy and water usage, the kinds of chemicals used, recycling and reuse of waste products) but the whole business of sourcing is a minefield of contradictions. The highest quality denim, for instance, comes from Japan where the production methods have changed little since the 1940’s, but to ship the cloth 6,000 miles to London gives it an enormous carbon footprint. Similarly, cotton produced in Africa is unique because the cotton is hand picked allowing the fibres not to break - but Africa is a long way from Walthamstow.
When asked about the importance of organically produced cotton, Han admitted to being sometimes uncomfortable with it. He suspected that poor communities striving to achieve organic certification might be forced to forego other basic standards of employment. But as demand for organic goods increases, conditions will presumably be brought into line across all production processes. He explained that the washing process is the most costly, both financially and environmentally. Jeans made with raw denim are sent away to Europe to be washed or ‘distressed’, a process which uses masses of water and toxic chemicals. Han is keen to see other cleaner methods developed and employed in the future, possibly using lasers to cut the ‘rips’ in fashion jeans - interesting!
So, should we be changing our definition of ‘luxury’ goods? Burberry? Really? Shouldn’t the term ‘luxury' be associated with transparent production processes and customers having a thoroughly enjoyable shopping experience and going away with a clear conscience knowing their garments have been produced under a rigorous process of accountability? That could make it sound a bit worthy but Han is very passionate about the idea that an enhanced customer experience is the future of shopping. Being able to stand face to face with the maker of your jeans is a fairly unique experience.
The very fact that a pair of BLA jeans can cost between £155 and £300 is sustainable in itself. Cheap, unethical production practices have clearly not been employed and those jeans are going to be cherished and they’re going to last! And if they’ve been loved to death and start to show signs of wear (crotch blow-outs were discussed) BLA will mend them for free so they’ll just keep on going…
And what is the next challenge for BLA? Definitely not to be a global brand producing thousands of garments and shipping them all over the world, says Han, but to produce more garments locally and to continue forging connections with the UK’s growing network of like-minded makers and designers. Here’s to that!
(We are planning a group visit to the BLA factory in Walthamstow, please get in touch if you would like more details)