Han Ates has been a tailor, a maker and a restaurateur. He’s returned to fashion this year with Blackhorse Lane Atelier, where he applies top class tailoring methods to jeans. He does so in such a sustainable manner that ethical designer fashion houses are knocking at his door.
I met him at his cavernous 1920s workshop on Blackhorse Lane in Walthamstow, London. Four or five years ago this warehouse was the original epicentre of a now sprawling creative hub in the borough that includes metalworkers, carpenters, designers and artists.
However it hasn’t been easy to create a new company that needed tailors. Ates used to run a clothing manufacturing business in this same space a couple of decades ago. Ten years ago he decided to get out of fashion and since then the tailoring skills that used to be in the area have vanished. Whereas before he had tens of tailors working for him, this time around he had eight applications to his adverts for skilled employees – and they all needed training.
“When you lose skills in an industry they don’t come back.” he says. “We have to make sure we foster artisan skills and help maintain a creative community."
“In order to grow enough cotton for one pair of jeans you need 24 tonnes of water. While we make jeans we want people to make better choices. Buy less, wash less”
Each pair of Blackhorse Lane jeans is made by hand using 24 processes and 14 different machines that clack away loudly in the workshop. Each pair takes around six hours to make and is expected to last at least three years. The brand offers lifetime repairs and a tailor-style fitting service to get each pair just right.
“I love it when someone leaves with a smile on their face, because they’ve got something that fits” says Ates.
He’s spent the last decade running a restaurant but was persuaded to get back to tailoring after buying endless pairs of ‘fashion’ jeans that weren’t up to scratch.
“Despite being happy in my restaurant, in a corner of my mind, I thought if I ever go back to tailoring I’ll make the best jeans in the country.” he says.
“Whenever I look at the stitching of jeans there are so many inconsistencies because they’re mass produced. Because of my tailoring background everything has to be symmetrical and consistent. Usually inside jeans it’s quite messy with finished off stitches and threads. Our jeans are like human beings, beautiful inside and outside.”
He pulls a pair of jeans out of a small pressed stack and opens them up so I can peer inside. They’re fastidiously neat and it’s not hard to see where the six hours goes.
The jeans - just men’s at the moment, are made using 100% organic cotton. While researching the material and realising the best denim comes from Japan, Ates weighed up the environmental consequences. Japan doesn’t grow cotton so it has to be flown from Africa or Europe before it’s made into denim then back to the UK for Blackhorse Jeans to turn it into clothes. The brand has a cult Japanese following so it might be flown back again a third time. It was too much for Ates.
“We got out a map and worked out where the best and closest denim factories were to London.” he explains. “We narrowed it down to Italy and Turkey and went to visit them. In Turkey we found one factory which grows its own cotton not far away, so everything is done there which means it’s travelling less than 2,000 miles to reach us, rather than 30,000."
With a consumer base increasingly concerned about where their clothes come from, Ates knows it’s about making positive choices and sharing that information with his customers.
“We have a social responsibility to share information to help people make good choices.” he says. “In order to grow enough cotton for one pair of jeans you need 24 tonnes of water. While we make jeans we want people to make better choices. Buy less, wash less.”
What he’s doing hasn’t gone unnoticed by the wider fashion industry. High profile designer brands known for their ethical stance are pushing to collaborate, something he’s more than happy to do.
“We don’t just want to work for our own label, we want to work in the industry and change it positively to get everyone making better jeans.”
“Our jeans are like human beings, beautiful inside and outside”
It’s not just the environment that Ates involves Blackhorse Jeans in. He sees it as the brand’s responsibility to be proactive in the local community. We dive into one room behind the main workshop to discover a school like world of dyes and plants in jars. He is hosting natural dyeing workshops using Japanese indigo that is grown in a nearby allotment. A professional kitchen has been installed and the warehouse hosts pop up supper clubs with local chefs.
The dying room at Blackhorse Lane jeans is like a school science lab
Another room is filled with an enormous loom, where a girl patiently weaves a shuttle and a leatherworker’s bench waits for its master. They’re the first two artisans on an informal ‘pay it forward’ scheme he has set up.
“This first year they won’t pay any rent to help them establish their businesses, then next year their rent will go into a pot to help new artisans buy equipment or pay for their first year of being here” he explains.
Ates takes me for coffee at the organic café next door that’s sprung up to caffeinate the creatives.
“I believe one person can make a difference where he or she lives. You don’t know how it’s going to work out but you have to try."
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