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West India Quay: How Fashion City celebrates the impact of Jews working and innovating in the capital’s garment industry

Museum Of London Docklands’ immersive exhibition takes visitors into boutiques and ateliers

This image from 1917 shows workers at Schneiders Garment Factory in Stepney. The clothing industry dominated the Jewish East End – Image from the Museum Of London

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“It’s been 20 years since the Museum Of London had a major fashion exhibition and this is the first time we’ve hosted one at Docklands – it’s also the first time we’ve done a major exhibition with London’s Jewish population at its centre,” said Dr Lucie Whitmore.

“The Museum Of London Docklands is the perfect place to share this story, because it’s about migration and creativity blossoming at the heart of east London.”

Lucie is curator of Fashion City at the West India Quay institution, a special exhibition that explores the impact of Jewish Londoners on global style, that will be in place for visitors to enjoy until April 14, 2024.

“It’s a celebration and recognition of the contribution that these individuals have made to the industry.

“We’re thinking about this in a very broad sense.

“We wanted to go beyond the stereotypes or what we think people might expect about the relationship between Jewish people and making clothes in London.

Fashion City is on show now at Museum Of London Docklands

“We aim to encourage people to really think about how diverse our garment industry is and how many people are responsible for making the capital a fashion centre with an international reputation.

“To do this we’re taking our visitors on a bit of a journey.

“The exhibition is not structured chronologically, as people might expect, but geographically.

“So we have an East End and a West End and the places and spaces of London inform our structural approach.

“There are a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes – and sometimes anti-Semitic thinking – about Jewish people in the east of London, what is known as ‘sweated labour’, for example.

“That’s the idea of Jewish people either being poor and persecuted without agency, working in horrible conditions, producing cheap clothes in the East End. 

Museum Of London curator Lucie Whitmore – Image by Jon Massey

“At the opposite end of that scale, there are misconceptions about wealthy Jewish people profiting from the work of others.

“We really wanted to dig into Jewish life and work in the East End, and show that it wasn’t like this.

“Obviously there were people who were treated very badly in the trade, but there were also people who had amazing agency and set up their own businesses, not just in tailoring, but also in accessories, leather-work, dressmaking – there’s a lot more to the story.

“We also wanted to show just how important Jewish makers and retailers have been in the West End, which has a glitzier reputation.

“People think about grand department stores, high street chains, couture, the pinnacle of London fashion – and Jewish makers are really important in that story as well.

“Although we don’t go into it in great depth, I was really keen for people to know that there was a big and really important resident Jewish population in the West End.

“People had settled there for quite a long time, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Gold kaftan and maxi smoking dress with beaded panels by Mr Fish – Image from the Museum Of London

“Soho and Fitzrovia were predominantly Jewish areas, and a lot of people don’t necessarily know that.

“The other reason for structuring Fashion City this way was that it allows us to examine different pockets of the industry by place, bringing together designers who knew each other and worked together or, perhaps, who were around at different times but did similar things. 

“Visitors will be able to walk into an East End tailor’s workshop, step into the luxury of a couture salon and have a bit of a dance in our Carnaby boutique.”

While fashion is the core of the exhibition, there’s a thread of music running through things too.

The playlist includes the likes of the Mamas And Papas, The Beatles, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds who all wore clothes by designers featured in the exhibition. 

“There’s Adam Faith too, who was a great customer of menswear shop Cecil Gee and we’re really excited to be featuring them all in Fashion City,” said Lucie.

Men wearing dresses by Mr Fish – Image by Jimmy James/ANL/Shutterstock

“It was also irresistible to include designer Mr Fish, who was in the spotlight in such a huge way in the 1960s.

“He was extraordinarily creative, known for his flamboyant menswear. 

“He starts in Colette’s department store in Shaftesbury Avenue, moves around various retail jobs and eventually becomes established as a shirt maker.

“Then we get this classically trained designer who has developed all his skills and plays with the designs – subverts them, and then puts his creations in front of a different audience.

“He also invents the kipper tie.

“He gains the attention of several high-profile customers, such as Sean Connery and Barry Sainsbury, of the Sainsbury family, who goes into business with him.

“They open a boutique on Clifford Street between Jermyn Street – the traditional home of shirt making – and Carnaby Street.

“It’s the peacock revolution, with young, stylish customers – musicians, sports stars and actors – it’s also a place to hang out.

A wedding dress by Jewish designer Neymar, dating from the 1970s – Image from the Museum Of London

“There’s a story that an Italian film crew came to London to film in Mr Fish’s boutique, because they saw it as the downfall of British society and they wanted to capture the end of it.

“They saw Mr Fish as a beacon of change.

“He was doing skirts and dresses for men and felt that the male body was better suited to them – he called the garments powerful and virile.

“He wasn’t the first to do that, but the spirit behind his clothes was fascinating and heartfelt.

“Some people want to dismiss him as a bit of a novelty, but actually the quality of the design and the creativity, and how much he believed in it shows it wasn’t frivolity – it was fashion.

“The skirts and dresses were very popular and worn, very famously, by David Bowie and Mick Jagger. We also have a wonderful picture of an Arsenal footballer wearing one.”

The exhibition is filled with glamour. There are evening dresses, high-end hats and exquisite couture pieces.

The exhibition includes a coat by David Sassoon of Bellville Sassoon worn by Princess Diana and another by EastEnders royalty Dot Cotton in tweed by Alexon.

But Lucie and her team were keen to showcase the stories of real Londoners alongside the glamour.

The exhibition opens with the story of the 200,000 Jewish migrants arriving in the capital between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries through personal artefacts.

More than 50% would come to be involved in the fashion, clothing and textile trade.

Items include a small travelling case used by a child who came to London on the Kindertransport – the rescue effort to send children out of Nazi-controlled territory from 1938-39.

More than four years of research has gone into Fashion City and Lucie said one of the reasons she and collaborator Dr Bethan Bide of the University Of Leeds has wanted to explore the topic was the high level of resonance.

“We’d both done quite a lot of talking about it publicly and there was a lot of personal interest in the subject matter,” said Lucie, who began her career as a designer and became increasingly interested in the history of fashion.

“People who came to our talks recognised their own family stories and would feel quite emotional and proud of them.”

This coat by David Sassoon of Bellville Sassoon – Image from the Museum Of London

That’s partly true of Lucie herself, whose own family feature  in the exhibition.

“They were Jewish refugees from Vienna,” she said.

“I should make it clear this isn’t a biased move on the part of the curator.

“We really wanted a story about leather goods and bags, and we didn’t have those objects already in our collection, but the story of my family fits perfectly in the narrative of the exhibition.

“The material was reviewed anonymously by an external reviewer for suitability before I put my great-grandfather in there.

“The family had already made one big move from Ukraine to Austria where they westernised their names.

“In Vienna they set up leather goods business Molmax, which was initially a big producer of sportswear, Alpine skiwear and leather goods.

“Then they moved into luggage, and they won a really big reputation internationally.

“But in 1938, after the German invasion, my family survived at great risk.

“Because my great-grandfather was a businessman, people would phone them and warn them when there was going to be a raid on their buildings, so they needed to be away.

Detail of the Molmax brand created by Lucie Whitmore’s family

“There’s an extraordinary story, which we do touch on in the exhibition, where some Nazi officers knocked on the front door of their home and demanded to be taken to the factory immediately.

“They took my great-grandfather and great uncle there in a van and took pretty much all their stock with no payment, nothing.

“Then they took over and Aryanised the factory.

“My grandmother and her brother left on the Kindertransport and my great grandfather managed to obtain a business visa which was how he managed to escape.

“My great grandmother was left to pack up the family home and make her own way over, and they were very lucky that they all reached Britain safely.

“There they re-established the business in London, starting off in Holborn.

“My great uncle, who was only 16, was the only one who spoke English and so he was doing all the work of translating and finding producers and places to work.

“They got it going and moved to Quaker Street, just off Brick Lane.

This silk evening gown by Rhavis dates from 1952 and is one of the key pieces in the exhibition – Image from the Museum Of London

“They managed to grow another international business, with offices in New York, exporting all over the world, before it closed in the early 1980s.”

There is, of course, more.

There’s the Rahvis sisters who designed clothes worn by the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell.

The flamboyant hats of Otto Lucas and an exploration of the connections between the Jewish community and other immigrant populations from the Caribbean and Bangladesh – seamstress Anwara Begum’s sewing machine is on display, which she used to make garments for local businesses at her home in Quaker Street.

In fact, there’s far too much on show to truly do the exhibition justice here – you’ll just have to go and see it for yourself.

Then for even more depth, you can dip into Lucie’s book, written with Bethan, to accompany the exhibition.

Standard entry to Fashion City costs £12 for adults and £6 for children.

Find out more about the exhibition or book tickets here

Designer Raemonde Rahvis, who worked with her sister Dora to create pieces worn by the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell – Image by George Harris/ANL/Shutterstock

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Canary Wharf: How Circle Collective helps young people find jobs with experience

CEO and founder of the charity and social enterprise Turly Humphreys talks aspiration

Circle Collective’s Canary Wharf branch is located in Jubilee Place, Level -1

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‘Intensely practical’ is the best way to describe Circle Collective.

Sure, to people strolling through Jubilee Place it’s a striking shop filled with neon, skateboards and the kind of clothing you don’t really see elsewhere in Canary Wharf.

Aside from the inventory, a chic customer picking up a new look will likely not find too much different in the retail experience.

Knowledgeable, youthful staff will be on hand to offer information on the products and then collect payment at the till – pretty much like any other store on the estate.

But Circle Collective isn’t like any other shop on the Wharf.

It’s the public facing tip of a much larger mission that the customer will, wittingly or unwittingly, have played a role in.

Go behind the scenes and you’ll find a vast space dedicated not to stock, but to skills.

That’s because the shop is a social enterprise that exists in symbiosis with a charity of the same name, entirely dedicated to giving young people work experience and finding them employment.

Having recently opened its third dual site at Canary Wharf, founder and CEO Turly Humphreys said it would be impossible to have one without the other.

“It’s two organisations that have to work together,” she said.

“A lot of organisations have asked whether you need both because they are usually only interested in the training. 

Circle Collective founder and CEO Turly Humphreys

“But the magic of what we do is that we do an employability course and it’s wrap-around. Participants get real work experience related to all aspects of the shop alongside mentoring and really practical information about things like how to do an interview and write a CV.

“We work with corporate partners and take them into workplaces so they can see a real working environment. We get them ready for that, building confidence and resilience.

“It’s about constantly pumping them with sensible information and, when necessary, telling them some really strong home truths – that the bus wasn’t late, they were.

“This is not volunteering – their shifts in the shop are treated like a job. If they come in and they’re not on time, for example, then they’re taken to one side and the implications are explained to them.

“That might be an increased risk of shoplifting because we’re short-staffed, which is obviously not acceptable.”

Circle’s focus is on preparing young people for the realities of work and then supporting them into paid, permanent employment with its programmes typically lasting between five and eight weeks.

So far, it’s helped more than 1,000 into jobs in myriad fields.

Turly said: “We believe that any young person who wants to work deserves a job.

“We’re generalists – we’ll take any young person aged 16-25 who wants to work and is eligible to do so – recruiting them through job centres, social media and walk-ins. 

“They can’t be in education or training but we welcome people straight from school alongside graduates from university.

“They might be refugees or neuro-diverse  – we’ll work with anyone.

“Then they become a peer group, work together and support each other.

“My aim for Canary Wharf is to match the people on our programmes to vacancies on the estate.

“That will be a challenge because there are lots of companies here and those jobs are not all gathered at a single point, so we need to collaborate with HR departments and businesses so they can understand the benefit of hiring from a diverse pool of people who want to work.

“It’s about companies realising that there’s a real benefit to diversity and that you can hire people for many jobs such as front-of-house in hospitality without them needing three years of experience.”

Turly started the charity and social enterprise after being inspired by her son’s sporting activities – initially looking at that as a way to help young people.

“He was 16 and a sports scholar at the time – playing cricket, rugby and football all around the country,” she said.

“Once young people were on the pitch, it didn’t matter what anybody’s background was.

“So I started by trying to get more people into sport, but then I went to a job centre and saw how disillusioned the young people were – the lack of ambition they had.

“It was so sad because they never expected to do better than their parents – to own a house, for example.

“I come from a commercial background and I’ve always run my own business. I had a flagship store for corporate printing in the Strand, then I had a studio in Tottenham Court Road.

“I looked at those young people in the job centre and thought: ‘This isn’t rocket science’.

“I got some of them into the shop, some of them into the office and, out of those first nine recruits, I got seven of them into work.

“I’m still in touch with them today.

“One lad’s father was a farmer and there wasn’t enough for another income on the farm, so I got him a job as a welder, which was perfect.

Circle Collective stocks a range of clothing and skateboards

“Then there was a lovely girl who had hearing problems. 

“I managed to send her on an away week and she came back much more confident. She’s been running a big bingo hall now for years.

“None of it was especially complicated – it was all about being practical. That’s the ethos we still run Circle Collective with. 

“I work on partnering with the corporates and run the shop and we have Matthew Lewendon who has a charity background and is our director of operations who handles the charity – it just works.”

Circle’s Back Your Future programme is very much tailored to individuals and features one-to-one mentoring sessions, work experience in the shop, motivational workshops, a chance to meet employers and access to job vacancies.

“But it’s more than that – once brought into the fold, the charity offers ongoing support to those it finds jobs for as long as they need it to ensure everything is going to plan.

“The aim is that participants feel they belong to a community they can rely on.

“First we sit down with them and find out if they have any barriers to work and to identify any transferable skills they have – which many do,” said Turly.

“So they start off with the charity and then they have an induction on the shop floor, where health and safety and safeguarding is explained to them.

“They get a sheet with a list of things we teach them and on the first day they’re taught cash handling and taking credit cards, at the till.

“Then they’re taught how to approach customers and learn product knowledge – they may have to go and research that.

“When they first come to us and say that they want to work in a shop or in an office – it’s our job to teach them about all the different sectors and how they might find roles within them.

“We use the shop to give them experience in relevant areas.

“If somebody’s creative, for example, we often get them involved in merchandising – we aim to use the skills the young people have got, whether it’s handling websites or using their creativity.

“One girl we had came from prison and she’s now doing merchandising in Primark, which is exactly what she wanted to do.

“Then I’ve got a lad who was a refugee, hardly spoke English and was homeless – he’s now a chartered accountant.

“We have a graduation every year and you can’t bottle the atmosphere.

“The young people come back, get a certificate and they all do a fashion show.

“The corporate supporters come and everybody’s in tears.

“At first nobody wants to talk, but then someone grabs a microphone and they all thank everybody.

“It’s wonderful. It’s about getting people into work, but it’s so much more than that.”

Circle needs both funding to continue its work and a larger pipeline of corporate partners to help it find roles for the young people it supports.

“The people who come to us often have a lack of career advice, work experience or role models and may also be suffering from anxiety and mental health issues,” said Turly.

“There’s also a lack of awareness of the realities of work, which is why it’s so important to take them into workplaces where they can hear from people doing the jobs.”

Turly said Circle would love to hear from businesses locally who can help with similar visits or provide entry level jobs in and around Canary Wharf.

The organisation is also looking for sponsors to help it continue its work.

The other aspect to Circle that is of benefit to Wharfers is the shop itself, with all profits fed back into the charity.

“It’s thanks to Emma Warden and Jane Hollinshead at Canary Wharf Group that we’ve been able to open here.” said Turly.

“The shop is like bringing Shoreditch to Jubilee Place – we stock a mixture of retro brands and vintage clothing including some high-end pieces from labels like Burberry.

“One of our trainees asked if we could do skateboards so we wrote a business plan and I gave him £200, which he turned into £400. 

“Now everyone who comes on our programme is taught how to build a skateboard. We’re not a specialist skate shop but we do sell boards and if people need their bearings fixed then they can come in.

“We also have a lot of skate clothes that people can buy and four of our staff are skaters.

“We also stock products that are locally made and would like to find more makers who want to sell through us.

“What we say to buyers is that when they shop with us in store or online, they are really supporting the community.

Circle Collective’s Alex Emerson-Arfstrom

CASE STUDYAlex Emerson-Arfstrom

There’s a real sense when you visit Circle Collective that people who wind up in its orbit keep coming back for more.

Alex Emerson-Arfstrom is a good example – finding his way onto one of its programmes and then returning to work part-time at the organisation while studying.

He said: “When I left college I was looking for work.

I took  a gap year, but the catch was I didn’t have much experience on my CV outside of projects – I didn’t have any work experience.

“My friends referred me to a place called Circle Collective and I started off as a trainee on its Back Your Future programme.

I was there for about two months, getting some basic retail experience in the Dalston store.

“I was born in Haringey – I’ve lived there my whole life.

Then I received a job offer, but this was the place I wanted to be, so I’ve been here for six months on a kickstart scheme, training people like myself and using the skills I had learned. 

“I was inspired by the training and became a supervisor myself, to train young people.

“I was working part-time and then I got into university to study cyber security. It’s way more than just working in a shop.

There are so many opportunities we can give young people.

“They can shadow the staff here and build their skills – there are so many areas to get involved with – administration, IT and customer service.

“I’ve been here for about two years now, and it’s very rewarding when people get jobs – they’ve done their training, get employment and come back and talk to me about how they feel.

I do keep in contact with a lot of them and seeing their confidence grow over time is amazing.

“I wasn’t the most confident person at the beginning.

My preconception was that it was going to be very structured, but it was a much wider spectrum of things I was taught.

“On my second day I was helping to create a social media project, and then I was going out to stores, talking to people.

There’s such a wide range of things to get involved with.

“I’ve gained more skills than I can count from Circle.

It gave me the opportunity to do some really great IT work – hands-on experience. It’s been great that they have shown that trust in me.

“I’d always been a creative person and the programme allowed me to spend time working with social media and that turned into managing websites, setting up deals with brands and designing things on the IT side.

“While I’d always had an interest in cyber security before I came to Circle Collective, what the organisation has done is allowed me to develop those skills such as managing its website.

“I’m not sure what I will do in the future but it will be within the cyber security sector – it’s such a broad area.”

Circle Collective’s Angela Brown

STAFF SPOTAngela Brown

I’m the partnership manager at Circle Collective,” said Angela Brown.

“As an organisation we can educate, encourage, support and create some fantastic fresh talent for an organisation.

“At present we have a particular focus on equality, diversity and disability and how corporates can embed that within their operations.

“At present, we feel businesses are doing it but maybe not as authentically as they could be.

“For example, we’re currently working with Landsec who will be taking on young people as kickstarters.

“I’m working with them to ensure that those young people are understood and supported by their managers as businesses are often used to graduates or people who come from a certain background.

“It’s really important that everyone is talking the same language so the young people have a chance to shine. 

“I’ve been with Circle Collective for five years and am currently training as a therapist which I feel plays into my current role.

“There’s a therapeutic element to what we do and I think young people need that kind of support to take the pressure off their coaches.”

Read More: Why there’s only weeks left to see Punchdrunk’s The Burnt city

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Fish Island: How Wolf Rayet makes clothes for wild festival dancing and gym workouts

Laura-Louise Erasmus’ side hustle is a tour de force of catsuits, colour and creativity in Hackney Wick

Wolf Rayet’s Circus Wave Catsuit, £105

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“Anyone and everyone can wear Lycra,” said Laura-Louise Erasmus, founder of Wolf Rayet.

She creates catsuits, swimsuits, leggings, meggins (for gents), Yoga shorts, playsuits and sports tops – manufacturing the garments from her workshop at The Trampery Fish Island Village in Hackney Wick.

“I make super-jazzy festival wear which also can also be worn for the gym,” she said.

“These clothes are something to be silly in – to dance around in, have a great time and look incredible.

“Anyone can wear these clothes.

“I’ve taken them to hen parties, and made everyone put them on – whatever their size – and, at the end of the night, everyone just loves them.”

She also designs a new print each year in time for Christmas, and makes pieces for her entire family to wear, ready for a festive walk through the countryside.

Laura-Louise Erasmus, founder of Wolf Rayet in her workshop – image Jon Massey

“My parents are my biggest fans – they live in Blakeney and, when they go out walking in Wolf Rayet, other people in North Norfolk people are like: ‘Why aren’t you wearing normal clothes?’,” said Laura-Louise.

“But my designs are like costumes – they completely change people’s personalities in a really nice way.

“That’s especially true for people who would never normally wear this kind of thing – they put a catsuit on and feel great.

“I’ve been going to festivals since I was 16 – I love it, especially the dressing up. I think it’s a British thing. 

“I’ve been to festivals in other countries where I’ve been really dressed up and no-one else is. 

“Clothes make you feel more confident – basically I make big elastic bands that people can dance, have a lot of fun and be free in.

“After a few drinks you can usually get people into some Lycra.”

Laura-Louise first came to London as a student to study fashion at Central Saint Martins but, following a mugging and a series of negative experiences decided to transfer to Bristol to study instead.

She then returned to the capital as an intern in the fashion industry, quickly falling out of love with the idea after spending a year unpaid, while making ends meet by working in a bar at night. 

“We were treated really badly and I didn’t want to be part of that, so I thought I would make my own way and do my own thing,” she said.

“That’s when I started doing screen-printing, then I tried jewellery with a grant from The Prince’s Trust.

“From those experiences I realised I had a love of print design, catsuits and jazzy festival outfits.

“At the time there were not many people making these, so I decided to create my own, outfits that people could go crazy in.

“That’s where it all started – officially in 2016.

“Friends started wearing them and then more and more people.

“Covid completely changed my business, because people were online all the time and they wanted to look cool on their Zoom calls, so my sales went from normal to crazy.

“With the pandemic receding I started doing gym wear as well.”

In addition to selling her pieces online, Laura-Louise has a stall at Wilderness Festival and is hoping to be at Glastonbury this year.

Having originally made her pieces from her warehouse home in Hackney Wick, she also recently took the plunge and moved into a unit at The Trampery in anticipation of further growth, sharing the space with other local makers. 

She also plans to use the sizeable space for her main profession – a separate creative endeavour.

“Wolf Rayet has always been a side hustle for me – the main thing I’ve done in recent years has been set design for TV, film, advertising and live events,” she said.

“I’ve lived in Hackney Wick for 12 years – in warehouses – and many of the people here are musicians, often making music videos, so I got involved.

“Although fashion is creative, set design is even more so because you get to build so many wild things. 

Glitch and Pink Animal Catsuits, £105 each

“Say you want some giant soup bowl to sit in with a load of life-size noodles – that’s the type of challenge that I want to do.

“From doing that kind of thing – making all these weird and wonderful pieces – I started assisting people and getting more work.

“With Covid, I got a lucky break – a few people knew I did sets, so they gave me their entire projects to design and that’s now my main job.

“It’s an amazing thing to do, really exciting and every day is different.

“I worked as the art director on a film called In Too Deep, for example, looking after every aspect of the set on a boat in Cornwall and making sure that every single thing is in the right place.

“I get quite seasick on boats, so it was quite challenging.

“But it’s fun, it’s creative and I love being able to do Wolf Rayet as well.”

Inspiration for her prints comes from all around with Animal, for instance, actually based on the iron casting on top of a storm drain in London.

“I started by seeing the water and the ripples, then put loads of colour in to completely change it from the original,” said Laura-Louise.

“I draw out the design, bring it into Photoshop or Illustrator and then send it to be printed at a factory in Manchester.

“I use two different fabrics that are like Lycra, but made from recycled bottle tops and plastic waste.”

Wolf Rayet is named for a kind of massive star that burns brighter than our sun – a little like Laura-Louise’s clients in their catsuits on the dance floor.

But make no mistake – her brand is not about making throwaway clothes for a single moment of radiance.

Black Confetti Leggings, £62 and Sports Top, £40

Fiercely environmentally conscious, her pieces are high-quality hand-made garments for repeated wear, designed to stand up to the rigours of dance and exercise.

“I want to be as sustainable as possible,” she said.

“I try to make everything to order, so there’s very little waste and the offcuts are kept and turned into bum bags, bikinis and so on.

“I do make some stock for the shops at festivals, also so people can come and see pieces in Hackney Wick and try them on. Having this space is great.

“But if people don’t feel they fit in my size range, they can easily give me their measurements so we can make a custom order.

“People can also have any of the prints mixed and matched – whatever they want.”

Future plans include looser fitting pieces featuring Wolf Rayet prints and the steady growth of the business, as Laura-Louise continues making clothes and building sets in east London.

Block Melt Catsuits, £105 each from Wolf Rayet

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com

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Canary Wharf: How Russell And Bromley blends history with cutting edge retail

Canada Place store acts as ideal modern backdrop to the 140-year-old brand’s high end products

Russell & Bromley recently opened its latest store in Canary Wharf

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Russell & Bromley pulls off a neat trick.

The latest retailer to arrive in Canary Wharf is both a brand with decades of history while also shining out of its new store in Canada Place with a cool blast of chic modernity.

Even before officially opening its doors, the footwear and handbag shop’s wall-size visual display was drawing attention in the mall.

But step into the pale wood, brass and bronze interior and the atmosphere has a subtle flavour of the brand’s pedigree to it, with golden metal and minimal displays showing off the products to luxurious effect. 

“We have a 140-year-old family owned business that looks to entertain its customers with a modern shopping experience and offers a wide range of products for men and women manufactured in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Northern Europe,” said Andrew Bromley, CEO of Russell & Bromley.

“We blend modern styling with longevity and quality through long-term partnerships with factories, including some that my grandfather worked with.

“I knew him well – he was around for a long time. I’ve taken over from my father, having apprenticed with him 25 years ago and he took over from his. 

“My brother’s now doing what my uncle did, and he did what his uncle did.

“Originally the Russells and the Bromleys were both shoe purveying families.

“The Russells were manufacturers and the Bromleys were in sales

“George Russell got together with Julia Bromley, and George Bromley got together with Liz Russell.

“There’s a huge thread that runs through it all.

“Today my brother, my cousin and I are now all working in the business and the wider family are sill linked in too – especially with what the brand is doing and where we are going.

“For us, it’s about balancing that heritage with modernity and the passion we bring to the business.”

Family business: Russell & Bromley CEO Andrew Bromley – image Jon Massey

In 2023, Russell & Bromley is very much a forward-looking, high end retailer focused on building and continuing to develop and market products under its own brand.

Its 1,300sq ft Canary Wharf store sees the brand operating in more than 33 stores worldwide including a recent opening in Dublin.

“The Canada Place shop is a new concept, which we’ve built to further engage customers,” said Andrew.

“We’re data-led as a business so we see how customers interact with our stores and what they require. It’s the balance of online and in-store shopping.

“People like to try shoes on in person. There’s nothing like walking out of a shop with a pair you know will fit.

“Buying online works too and that’s a big part of our business – customer satisfaction is about wearing fashion that’s comfortable, modern, puts a smile on your face and gives you confidence.

“Shopping in a store is a different experience, but still incredibly relevant.

“When customers come in to see us they will find a team with great expertise, knowledge of the trends we’re offering and the outfits they can be worn with.

“We love people to feel welcome and that comes from the environment we’ve created, the skills of the team and the general ambience.

“The most exciting thing for us is to see a customer’s face when they walk out of the shop happy.

“We aim to create a family environment in our stores and in the company as a whole.

“That binds us together and adds an element of the personalities of all those involved in the journey.

The Canary Wharf store features plush upholstery and plenty of brass

“The store team in Canary Wharf will add their piece to the story while also having the knowledge passed down from the buying and marketing teams, so they know what fits with what our customers are after.”

While Andrew and the team are unquestionably focused on the business side of the brand’s operation, there’s a real sense of enjoyment at the prospect of engaging with customers on the Wharf – a place that’s long been on the firm’s radar as a possible location.

“Black is, of course, one of the main colours, but coming out of the pandemic we’re seeing people really wanting some colour,” said Andrew.

“One of the big things we look for when selecting products is that glint in the eye – shoes where the customer can have a bit of fun trying them on, then going out for dinner or heading out to meet friends.

“We have really important relationships with our manufacturers – we don’t own a factory ourselves, but work with different suppliers. 

“What people see in the stores is a very carefully considered, curated edit.

“The customer is always in our minds and the data we have from them is central to the whole process. It’s about presenting people with what we feel they need.

“I could easily say that it’s the opening of the Elizabeth Line that has led us to Canary Wharf, but there’s been a constant increase in interest over a much longer time.

“We had success at Westfield White City and we always felt our brand would do well in Canary Wharf.

“It’s a huge community which has developed beyond just office spaces.

“There’s a lot of lifestyle options here, a lot of residents and a lot of hospitality businesses. 

“People are living their lives in Canary Wharf in a way that perhaps they didn’t before, so we felt now was the right time.”

As for the future, the brand’s latest store is right at the forefront of its increasing integration of digtal and traditional retail.

“We’ve got a big project to enhance customer experience – joining up online and in-store to make things seamless,” said Andrew. 

“It’s bringing the storytelling of what we do and why we’re doing it to both places. 

“About 80% of customer journeys start online, and yet nearly 70% of our business is in-store. 

“There’s always going to be a need – a lot of brands that started online are now seeking physical space. Our message is that wherever you want to buy, we’re here for you.”

THE WHARF LIFE EDIT

Six styles picked out from the brand’s current range for Wharfers to consider:

CLEOPATRA, £275

R&B says: “Cleopatra is a contemporary reimagining of our bestselling loafer.

“Crafted from smooth nappa leather in a bold pink hue and set on a lightweight contrast sole, this style has been adorned with a chunky gold three-ring chain trim, structured piping detail and a subtle plaited welt, offering chic finish to a cult classic.”

SLINGPOINT, £245

R&B says: “Bringing back the Y2K kitten heel, Slingpoint is a comfortable way to wear the heeled slingback trend.

“Crafted in Italy from metallic pink leather, this chic pump has been set on a vintage-inspired kickback flared heel wrapped in matching pink metallic leather.”

TOPFORM, £245

R&B says: “Evoke 70s styling with the Topform sandal.

“Crafted from criss-crossing straps of smooth lilac suede, this style has been detailed with a flattering ankle strap and buckle fastening.

“Set on a chunky platform sole and comfortable block heel, effortlessly ease back into occasion-wear in style.”

QUILTBOX, £295

R&B says: “Refined elegance is optimised with Quiltbox, our timeless quilted shoulder bag. It’s crafted in Italy to a rectangular silhouette.

“Wear it day and night, casually or to finish off evening looks.”

ORIEL, £275

R&B says: “Add the preppy refinement of collegiate style to your outfits with Oriel.

“Crafted from butter-soft tan-brown suede to a round-toed frame that contrasted with sleek leather panels, piping and tassels, and set on comfy gum soles, they’re the perfect week to weekend shoe.”

HOVE M, £245

R&B says: “Hove M is a luxurious yet laid-back lace-up derby designed to walk you through the everyday.

“Crafted from rich double-faced calf leather in a glossy brown hue, this style boasts a buttery soft, sumptuous feel from top to toe, whilst a statement square toe detail has been accentuated by enlarged piping and intricate stitchwork.

“Finished on a translucent, leisure-inspired gum sole creating a clean elevation, Hove M offers both style and durability with each step.”

Read more: Discover the work of fashion businesses Fabrika and Vavi Studio

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Greenwich: How Karyna Sukha created Fabrika to serve fashion designers’ needs

The Greenwich Peninsula manufacturer also produces garments for Vavi Studio, her own label

Fabrika and Vavi Studio founder Karyna Sukha

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A niche is what every entrepreneur needs for their business to be a success and that’s what Karyna Sukha spotted while working in the fashion industry.

Originally from Ukraine, she came to the UK to study some 13 years ago.

“I did my degree at the London College Of Communication in graphic design and illustration, but I always wanted to work in fashion,” she said. 

“My parents thought I should study architecture or interior design, so graphic design was somewhere in between.

“It’s something that gives you a wide range of skills.

“After university I started working for fashion companies such as Tata Naka, House of Holland, Alexander McQueen and Tateossian.

“I was mostly doing graphic design including print, textiles, photography, editing and that journey eventually led me to become a studio production manager

“That involved a lot of work with manufacturers to develop the collections and that’s when I first thought about starting my own company.”

Fabrika is based at Design District on Greenwich Peninsula

The challenge for Karyna and the designers was the traditional approach of the makers when faced with fresh ideas.

“At that time, communication was difficult and it was causing problems with both design and manufacturing,” she said. 

“So I thought it would be great to set up a company that would understand the new generation of designers.

“I was a young graphic designer at the time – I had so many friends who were finishing their degrees in fashion and needed someone they could relate to and have their designs produced by. 

“I bought a machine, started making garments for them and that was the start of Fabrika.

“After about three months we got our first client – a bigger brand – and we’ve now been working together for more than six years.”

Originally operating from North London, the business – which produces garments for Richard Quinn, Phoebe English and Matty Bovan as well as smaller labels and startups – recently moved to Design District on Greenwich Peninsula.

The business has grown to a team of 13 with further expansion planned

Occupying a lofty triple height space in one of 6A Architects’ steel, glass and marble cheesegrater-like buildings, Fabrika today is a team of 13, having grown its pool of skilled machinists to meet demand.

“We specialise in working with small designers producing anything from one to 300 pieces depending on their needs,” said Karyna.

“They might come to us with a drawing or a pre-made sample and we will then help them develop the design, produce a paper pattern and then continue to make reproductions for however many items they need. 

“Our current turnover per month is 600 garments and we’ve moved to Greenwich to expand – we want to push things a bit further this year.

“I’ve developed with the company – I was in my early 20s when I started and I’m 30 now. 

“It’s been a long journey to get where we are now.

“The more clients we got, the more people started talking about what we were doing because of the quality we were able to achieve.

“We expanded with machinists and some freelancers working from home.

“About two years ago I employed a studio manager and that really helped because before that I was doing everything myself.

“There have been ups, downs and lots of nice times over the past few years.

“But it’s always interesting to grow and develop, to try new things and to meet new people. Every challenge is a good challenge.

“There is definitely a demand for garments made locally and sustainably.

Karyna created Vavi Studio as a creative outlet for her own fashion ideas

“We’ve always tried to build strong relationships with the clients we work with – we love when they come down to see how their garments are made.

“Moving to Design District was about growth, but also about breaking the stereotype that manufacturing takes place in large spaces with no natural light.

“Here we have a beautiful space that is comfortable for our workers.

“We are trying to be as open as possible to show that manufacturing is not something scary that happens in the background but something people can see.

With the core business on a stable footing, Karyna has turned her attention to a fresh, albeit complementary venture, in recent years.

“I got a scholarship to study for a masters degree in international fashion business at Polimoda in Florence, which led me into thinking about what other ways there might be to develop Fabrika,” she said. 

“We’d got to the point where everything was working without me having to be in direct control – I didn’t have to worry 24 hours a day anymore.

“So I stepped back a bit and tried to decide what other options there might be.

“I’ve always been creative and I wanted to put a little bit of creativity back into my business.”

Sapphire Dress, £195, and Opal Top, £100, by Vavi Studio

The result of that thought process is Vavi Studio – her own label, named for her younger sister.

It’s a creative outlet for Karyna’s own designs, which are then made to order by Fabrika in Greenwich.

“I wanted to develop clothes for the everyday, busy woman,” said Karyna.

“The collections are based on interchangeable garments, which can be mixed and matched and are appropriate both for a working environment and then going out in the evening.

“Each piece is made to order so there is no waste.

“I think sustainability is increasingly important – especially manufacturing in London where a lot of people expect this in the production of the garments they buy. 

“We are making clothes locally rather than overseas, so that cuts down on transport emissions and a lot of our clients also try to source fabrics in this country. 

Spinel Jacket, £285 and Moonstone Shirt, £185, by Vavi Studio

“Many ask for the offcuts too so they can recycle them.

“Right now, the plan is to expand, to grow the team and to start working with bigger brands to bring more production back to the UK.

“It does cost more but it’s good for the environment and for people to have longer lasting garments rather than ones they just wear once or a few times and quickly wear out.

“I hope that people will be thinking about these things in a more environmentally positive way in future especially as the industry has not been so good in the past.

“A lot of people are talking about it and brands should too.

“We do our best, but a lot depends on the designers too.

“Many are now interested in using recycled materials and that’s great. 

“We also recently worked with a designer who was using silk that was produced without the silkworms being harmed – normally they die in the process. 

“I think there should be more educational content produced so people know how things are made to enable them to be more responsible as consumers.”

Gatsby And Daisy Polo, £250, by Vavi Studio

Read more: How The Ignition Platform is bringing dance to the Isle Of Dogs

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Isle Of Dogs: How Laura Zabo makes jewellery from waste rubber bike tyres

See Laura’s pieces and others from Craft Central makers at its Open Studios and Winter Market

Laura Zabo wears her most popular necklace, the Curlywurly – image Matt Grayson

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

When Laura Zabo moved to Tanzania in 2015, she was seeking change.

Her business in Hungary had failed and she needed a new passion.

What she found there were dirty old tyres. She loved them.

“Africans recycle everything and, one day, I was walking through the local Maasai market and found some brightly painted sandals made out of car tyres,” said Laura.

“They were so pretty and colourful and I found this a brilliant idea – that such an unwanted material could become so useful.

“I realised I wanted to show the world that we can recycle tyres and we have to, because we just have too much waste.”

She immediately started buying supplies and tools and learning how to transform the rubber into wearable objects such as belts and shoes – sometimes working 15 hours without eating.

“I just felt like: ’Wow, this is the mission of my life,’.” she said. “I was sure, with my creativity, that I could make pretty items people would want.”

By the time she moved to London, jewellery was her focus and she began selling at markets in Spitalfields and Greenwich and at craft events in between day jobs in marketing and hospitality.

It revived the entrepreneurial spirit she had first discovered aged eight – selling beaded jewellery at school – but which had been dampened by the failure of her homoeopathy business.

Earrings at Laura’s Craft Central studio – image Matt Grayson

“When that happened I was really depressed and was just surviving because I really didn’t know what I should do with my life,” said Laura

“I moved to Africa to reset and find something interesting that I could really dedicate my life to.”

After she discovered it, London called to her because of the freedom it offered.

“I come from a much more conservative country – the UK really has the vibe of opportunities,” she said.

“If you come here and believe in something, you can make it happen.”

The 43-year-old has lived across the capital including in Lewisham and Margate – she’s now on a boat in West India South Dock.

But when it came to her business she realised she needed a more permanent base and landed at Craft Central on the Isle Of Dogs’ Westferry Road in February.

“I was making from home before, but it was really uncomfortable, after so many years,” she said. 

“Sometimes I would finish working at midnight and the next morning there was rubber everywhere. I knew that if I had my own workspace, I could focus much more.

“I find the space at Craft Central so inspirational and I really like that the Isle Of Dogs is like a piece of countryside in London”

Her supplies mostly come from a tyre recycling firm but she often pops to Canary Wharf to collect supplies from NipNip’s bike servicing and repair shop at Westferry Circus.

You won’t find her pedalling though, as Laura isn’t a fan of cycling – or the cleaning required when tyres arrive.

“Everything is dirty and has to be sorted because each type of tyre has a different purpose,” she said.

“When I’m sorting them I get completely dirty and then the tyres have to be cut in half and soaked for a few hours in disinfectant before I start scrubbing.”

Laura with one of her creations – image Matt Grayson

Once they are dry, the inner tubes are ready for crafting into delicate necklaces and earrings but the tyres, which she uses for belts, have to be painted to make them perfectly black. 

Laura can make around 30 pieces a week and her biggest seller is the Curlywurly Necklace, which she said would be impossible to make from any other material.

Prices range from £12 for a pair of leaf earrings to £89 for her statement necklaces and Laura said it had been a conscious choice to charge as little as possible.

“I come from a very poor family and know how bad it is when you like something and you just don’t have money for it,” she said.

“I didn’t want someone to be unable to afford my pieces.

“Also, some customers are unsure how people will react if they buy recycled bicycle inner tube jewellery, so I don’t want the price to put them off.

“More sales means I can spread my message.”

It has been working. Sales have increased fourfold this year and Laura has been inundated with requests for collaborations and photoshoots.

“I am so happy people are valuing my items,” she said. “I really feel the buzz from every direction and like it is becoming something very popular. 

“Obviously, this is what I wanted when I started this business, but for many years people laughed at me when I told them my job was to recycle tyres and said I was not normal.

“Now it’s becoming an industry and it’s brilliant.”

Belts made by Laura – image Matt Grayson

Laura believes her success is down to a change in her mindset.

“I have read about 80 books since November about business and personal development and feel much more focused on my goals,” she said.

“I think once your way is clear, you feel more stable in your journey and good things happen more easily.”

Unlike many makers who guard their processes, Laura is now keen to share hers widely.

“My next call is to open a shop and teach my techniques to make people realise anyone can make money out of upcycling,” she said.

“It has been a game-changer in my life. When I craft, it is like meditation. 

“Even if you sell it very cheaply, the fact you created something and someone wants to buy it, will really change your life.

“Upcycling also teaches us what we throw away and that our main focus should be on creating instead of useless hobbies like shopping.”

Laura, who buys 95% of her clothes second hand, added: “I find fast fashion so useless and super stupid.

“People work so hard, then buy valueless items nonstop and it just doesn’t make any sense for me. I would love to inspire people to try crafting instead.

“I think every market should have one person who sells upcycled tyre jewellery.

“I hope to be the person who teaches them how to do that.”

Craft Central’s event takes place from November 19-20, 2022

SHOP LOCAL – CRAFT CENTRAL OPEN STUDIOS AND WINTER MARKET

See the work of Craft Central experts, including Laura Zabo,  up-close at Craft Central’s home at The Forge from November 19-20, 2022, 10.30am -5pm.

The charity will be hosting an Open Studios and Winter Market event, which is free to visit and includes Silphi ‘s Venetian coloured glass jewellery and Pon Studio’s playful homeware.

The gallery space will be full of items to browse and buy, including Frank Horn’s leather accessories, Sato Hisao’s pop-up cards and paper craft and other products such as home accessories, jewellery, fashion, prints, ceramics, stationery and textiles, from £2.50 to £500.

There will be drop-in, pay-what- you-can workshops from noon-4pm in badge making on the Saturday and Christmas decoration painting on the Sunday.

Also, Carb Club will host Paint Your Own Pieces ceramics workshops all weekend and, on the Saturday, Sarah Richards will run an upcycling DIY Christmas Jumper workshop for £15 adult, £10 child.

Both require pre-booking.

Read more: Discover Wilton’s Music Hall’s festive show for 2022

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- Laura Enfield is a regular contributor to Wharf Life, writing about a wide range of subjects across Docklands and east London 
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Royal Docks: How Jake Wigham took the plunge in lockdown and created a brand

Jake’s button-down shirts are made by hand at The Silver Building, inspired by classic American styles

Jake at work at The Silver Building
Jake at work at The Silver Building – image Matt Grayson

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When I knock on the door of Jake Wigham’s workshop at The Silver Building in Royal Docks, I can hear fast-paced music within.

Located at the end of a long white corridor in the Brutalist confines of a former brewery, there’s little to indicate that this is the site of intense industry, creativity and craftsmanship.

Step inside though, and its occupant openly wears and displays the influences that, woven together, help tell the story of his business and the clothes he designs and makes.

Jake’s is a menswear company focusing on the styles of 1950s and 1960s America,” said Jake. “It’s not just about the clothing, but the culture that surrounds it.

“I’ve always had an interest in youth sub-cultures and in music. My dad was a punk in the 1980s and, when I started making my own choices aged around 12 or 13 I got into punk and he said: ‘If you’re going to listen to punk, this is the real stuff’.

“He gave me his records, I’d put those onto tapes and I would have them in my Walkman – not really too great for a teenager, I guess, that angsty, bad attitude thing.  

“At about 15 or 16 I got into vintage black music – soul, reggae and jazz – and that was a turning point.

“My whole personality changed. The music is a lot more joyful and it helped me learn about cultures different from my own.

“That’s been a lifelong passion for the last 20 years – music is what I spend all my time and money on – buying records, going to gigs.

“That’s the good thing about London – all that culture is on your doorstep.”

Growing up in Carlisle, Jake initially left school to become a bricklayer but after a few years “got really sick of it”.

Turning instead to art school, he found inspiration in his tutors who suggested he try a creative craft.

“I liked the sound of tailoring, being able to make my own clothes,” he said.

“I’ve always been into specific cuts of clothing and I’ve always bought vintage items but, because of my height, finding things that fitted was a problem.”

Inspired by the works of Jack Kerouac, John Cooper Clarke and Linton Kwesi Johnson, he wrote a  “quite aggressive” application to the London College Of Fashion in the style of a beat poet, setting out his likes and dislikes about the industry and modern culture. 

Life in the capital was something he’d wanted to try, having seen his brother’s experience studying in the city.

So, egged on by his tutors, he sent his piece off and was duly invited for an interview. His interviewers told him on arrival that they’d been waiting to meet the man behind his punchy personal statement and he won a place. 

Jake's shirts are cut in a traditional breezy fit
Jake’s shirts are cut in a traditional breezy fit – image Matt Grayson

“I did the degree, loved it, made a lot of friends, learned a lot about the industry and the craft,” said Jake.

“When I left, I tried to get an apprenticeship in Savile Row – I tried lots of different places, and all of them wanted me to work for free for the first six months at least.

“I’m from a northern working-class town and my parents couldn’t help support me to do that, as much as they wanted to, so I couldn’t stay in London.

“Luckily, in my home town, there are two Savile Row tailors. They are based up there but they travel all over the world.

“I had a relationship with them anyway, because in summers when I’d go back home for a few weeks, I’d go in, show them my work, and we’d chat and maybe I’d spend a few days working with them, learning bits and pieces.

“They always said: ‘When you’re finished, come up and see what you think’. But I didn’t want to move out of London.

“In the end I had to. I went up there and was offered a job – not a lot of money, but it was paid, so that was fine and I could move back in with my parents.

“I specialised in trouser-making, did an apprenticeship for a few years, and then I went freelance.”

Striking out on his own, Jake headed back to London after about six months, working for three tailors and renting the unit at The Silver Building to cope with the workload.

“I was doing really well, not making vast amounts of money, but getting lots of work,” he said.

“Then, when Covid hit, Savile Row was destroyed by it because tailors couldn’t travel and a lot of their business revolves around that.

“I’d always made my own clothes and shirts and so on, and they’ve always been specific cuts, I just decided to give it a go and make it into a business.”

“It was always my dream to have my own brand, but bringing it to fruition is a different thing. Obviously there’s a lot of money and work involved.

“Because of the freelance work I was doing, I’d never had enough time to focus on it, but that changed because of the pandemic.”

After a month of research and painstaking development to get the cut, sizes and fabrication just so, Jake was ready to launch his first shirt.

Some of Jake's equipment at his workshop
Some of Jake’s equipment at his workshop – image Matt Grayson

Promoting his brand through Instagram, on the first day he went live he had orders for 30 shirts.

“That felt fucking great, to be honest man, really incredible,” he said. “For a one-person small business it was a lot and I was really happy.

“Now I get orders worldwide from such a broad demographic of people – I suppose it’s people who appreciate craft. 

“Every piece is made to order – I don’t have any stock so every shirt here is accounted for.

“I’m trying to build a little community of like-minded people who are into the kinds of things I am.

“Jazz and reggae are my two biggest passions and everything feeds back into the company – I want to put my whole personality into it. 

“I spend a lot of time mulling over imagery and watching period films just because that’s what I’m interested in. 

“Whether that comes across when you’re just looking at a shirt on someone, I don’t know, but I try and tell the story.

“The main shirt in the range is like a mid-century cut button down from the 1950s with full sleeves and a full body.

“There’s no lining on the collar or cuffs. It’s a very soft Oxford fabric, which is heavy, durable and will literally last a lifetime.

“I use real mother-of-pearl buttons and try to make my shirts the best possible quality they can be.”

Jake's workshop is filled with vintage paraphernalia
Jake’s workshop is filled with vintage paraphernalia – image Matt Grayson

Shirts are made in a traditional breezy fit and are based on each customer’s measurements with an option for custom sleeve lengths and to have a name sewn into the collar.

“People need to understand it’s a specific cut,” said Jake.

“I get a lot of people asking for a slimmer shirt, but I always say no because you can get them anywhere. That’s not what I’m doing.

“It’s the same when people ask for a lined collar. It’s very much take it or leave it.”

That’s not to say the brand doesn’t offer options, including a shirt inspired by Miles Davies on the cover of his 1958 Milestones album.

Trousers are also soon to be available, manufactured in Yorkshire to Jake’s specifications. 

To cope with demand for his products, he’s already had to take on help.  

“The downside of the way I run the business is that there’s only a certain level I can get to, if it’s me doing it all, so I have to relinquish some of the responsibility,” he said. “I don’t really have ambitions to be Ralph Lauren or someone like that.

“I quite like the idea of it staying niche and relatively small. I’d like to have an atelier, where me and a small team of people produce really top-end products for a small customer base, because then there’s nothing throwaway about it.

“If someone buys a shirt from me, I want it to be that they want to get a lot of use out of the shirt. People are trying to go down more sustainable routes and that’s the future of clothing.”

Jake’s shirts generally cost £145 plus delivery. Orders are despatched within five weeks or sooner.

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Fish Island: How Rewritten rewrote the rules on sustainable bridesmaids’ dresses

Katie Arnott and Fran Cookson started their brand, which now offers a bridal collection too

Rewritten founders Fran and Katie
Rewritten founders Fran, left, and Katie – image Matt Grayson

The story of Rewritten has, at its heart, a friendship. Katie Arnott had been working at then emerging jewellery brand Astley Clarke for about four years when she was assigned as a buddy to incoming head of communications Fran Cookson.

Despite being in different teams, the pair worked closely, becoming good friends over the next four years when one night, over several glasses of wine, inspiration struck.

“We were both getting married and we couldn’t find nice, cool, contemporary bridesmaids’ dresses for adults,” said Fran.

“We’d asked our friends where they’d been shopping for them and were told there were only traditional, old-fashioned shops – we saw this gap in the market and decided to launch a bridesmaid’s dress brand.

“We always knew we wanted to do our own thing and between us we thought we had the right skill set. Katie understood retail and operations and I had a background in fashion design as well as marketing.

“We put a business plan together and approached Virgin for a business startup loan in 2016 and that’s how we founded Rewritten.”

startup

“We’ve nearly finished paying back that loan,” said Katie. “Applying for it was really good for us because we had no idea what we were doing at all. 

“We’d never started a business so we didn’t have a clue how to write a plan for one. Doing that really forced us to sit down and look at so many different aspects of the company. 

“We put this huge document together, applied and got accepted straight away. Virgin has been very supportive over the years. We have often gone back and done talks there because they have lots of entrepreneurs and startups going though their programme.”

Rewritten Bridesmaid
Brookyln Dress in Olive Green, £140

styles

“We started with four colours and four styles, and now we have around 14 colours and 10-12 styles,” said Fran who designs Rewritten’s products.

“We’ve grown quite a lot as a brand and we have a wholesale channel as well, so we have stockists around the UK and internationally.

“We sell mainly through our showroom appointments and we’re fully booked until August as well as selling a lot online.

“We’re quite a disruptive brand, in that we were really the first ones to do a wide range of colours and sizes and styles available digitally, which wasn’t really a thing before in this market. 

“The bridal industry is very old fashioned although it is changing. Traditionally bridesmaids’ dresses would be very generic and really expensive – £300 per dress – that’s a huge amount of money if you have eight to buy. 

“Many were prom-style – it was almost a joke category and that’s what we wanted to change.

“The question we ask is: ‘Why can’t you wear a really cool dress or a jumpsuit as a bridesmaid – something that you could potentially wear again?’. We call it sustainable bridesmaid-wear – the idea is that this no longer a ‘single use’ industry.

“Women’s fashion is one of the biggest environmental offenders and bridesmaids’ dresses are a big part of that – they’re relegated to the back of the wardrobe and we wanted to change that, making pieces you want to buy and wear, whether that’s different styles in the same colour or the same dress in a wide range of sizes. 

“When we started, this approach didn’t even exist and people really enjoyed that autonomy rather than being told they had to wear a horrible dress.”

Rewritten Bridesmaids
Rewritten can provide different dresses in identical colours

showroom

Having originally opened its doors in Tottenham, the brand has relocated to Fish Island in Hackney Wick, with premises that cater for its shipping operations and, crucially, customers who want to try dresses on.

“We make the whole thing really special with private fitting appointments and we open at the weekends too,” said Fran.

“People can come in as a group, have a glass of Prosecco and it’s a really lovely experience.

“It’s our clients with their mates having a trying on session – and our frosted glass makes it very private. Hackney Wick is such a cool area, with all the bars and restaurants around here – we have a blog on our website that tells visitors where the best places to go for brunch or a drink are and people really make a day of it.”

sustainability

Katie said: “We’re trying to change the preconception that weddings are about single-use fashion. Our brand is about rewriting the rules.

“We had to apply for our space at The Trampery in Fish Island – they were looking for sustainable fashion brands and we are one of the six founder members here. 

“We’re not saying we’re perfect but we’re really striving to make a lot of changes, using recycled fabrics and making a lot of the collection in London as well as only making dresses when people order them which is a sustainable way of manufacturing.”

Rewritten Bridal
Rewritten’s bridal collection includes Simone Dress, £575

spreading

Rewritten recently launched its first bridal collection, made entirely from organic and recycled fabrics in response to demand from fans of the pieces in its core collection.

“We’re quite a London-centric brand at present so we’d like to become a lot bigger in the UK,” said Fran. “We’ve been looking at Manchester and we also have a lot of Irish brides, so Dublin could be an option too.

“In terms of sustainability we want to have the whole collection made in recycled fabrics by the beginning of 2023 and that’s partly about changing people’s mindsets about what that means, educating our customers. Our bridal collection really shows that – it’s affordable and the dresses could really be worn again.”

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