Blue is the colour of Blackhorse Lane Ateliers. Deep indigo blue, punctuated by lustrous threads of gold and umber, and the glint of copper-plated nickel rivets and buttons, which as the founder Han Ates notes start off a little matt but become more shiny penny-like with time and wear.
Time, it seems, is a key component here. Unlike high street jeans that are manufactured with great speed, each pair of jeans at Blackhorse Lane Ateliers, situated in Walthamstow, North London, takes on average four and a half hours to be made and requires twenty four different processes, from the marking and cutting, to the stitching and pocket pressing.
You can really see the difference on the inside, says Han, who himself cuts a dapper figure in his workwear jacket, neatly tailored jeans and dark, plum-brown leather lace ups. Look, he says, turning a pair inside out and pointing to the stitching around the button fly, in a standard high street pair that would be stitched using an overlocker, instead we use French seams. Following traditional methods of jean construction a subject Han has studied meticulously might be more laborious, but it means the finished garments have longevity. Good jeans, says Han, should last a lifetime.
Though the team are clearly busy, the atmosphere in the factory floor is oddly relaxed. A faint hum of music underscores the clack of the sewing machine, and now and again there is a delicious waft of herbs and spices. That's coming from our kitchen, smiles Han, noticing my confusion and beckoning me to the back of the room. Two chefs are vigorously kneading dough while a rich stew simmers on the stove. Food is really important to me, he explains, I think it's the most honest thing in life. It opens up conversation and brings people together. Next to the kitchen is a large wooden dining table and from the beginning, the factory has hosted pop up supper clubs. They are currently being run by Gather 17, who are open Friday and Saturday evenings and Sundays for brunch.
Han believes in the importance of connectivity, a word he uses frequently. The twenty-eight studios upstairs are occupied by painters, sculptors, weavers and conservators, and anyone can walk in and explore the factory floor. We have an open door policy, enthuses Han. It's good for us to meet new people. It's inspiring! And we need to make more multi-disciplinary spaces, because these days we are all multi-interested people. We're all so curious about everything and have so much to learn from one another.
After spending just a short while with Han, it is clear that he has his philosophy and aims buttoned down. He wants to create best-in-class jeans that raise the level of jean manufacturing as a whole as customers become more educated, they will demand better and build a creative community. There is a quiet purposefulness about him. When I ask where the idea for Blackhorse Lane came from, he explains that it is a decision he arrived at after taking several wrong turns.
Tailoring is in my family. I started off working with my uncle, who sold me this factory, he gestures to the space we're standing in, twenty-five years ago. We were making tailored jackets for the high street and I was learning pattern cutting at Central St. Martins, practising everything I learnt on the job. He goes on to describe how the business was doing well, but as demand for cheaper garments grew, his team were forced to look further afield, moving first to Turkey, then to China and Vietnam.
Han spent years constantly travelling, away from his family for months on end. It was while staying in a factory dorm in China, that he realised things had gone very awry. My family was crumbling, I never saw my daughters. I felt completely disconnected from my old life. I had lost all sense of value. I didn't recognise myself. Han's response was to sell his share of the business to his partner and head home to North London. He then took a year out to drive around Europe - in my old Volvo - with his family.
On returning, Han opened up a restaurant in his local neighbourhood and, for the first time in a long time, felt rooted. He describes how he would take huge delight in knowing the names of the grandparents and children of the families who came in.
Han relished being part of the community but, over the years, began to miss the creativity. "Though I loved it, I no longer felt creatively fulfilled. I've always been happiest when I'm cutting, making, sewing. Being physically connected to raw material. Tailoring is clearly in Han's blood and, despite his efforts, eventually pulled him back. Han sold the restaurant and started Blackhorse Lane Ateliers in April 2016. He kept the kitchen equipment, installing it on the factory floor.
Han's decision to pursue the making of jeans came from a fascination in their history and technical construction. I like how they started off being worn by sailors and miners and are now worn by everyone. They're functional and democratic. He's also drawn to the cloth itself and the beautiful way denim ages, softening in handle and colour. As he speaks, he passes me a jacket that he has had for many years. It is a beautiful and supple faded blue, no longer a deep indigo. I had to repair a small hole on the inside pocket, he points out, because the coins I kept there eventually wore through. But I like having the patch, it's a record of my habits and my life in some way. Han is a strong advocate for mending and all his jeans come with a lifetime free repair.
Today, Han has a small, dedicated team of local machinists and offers shared ownership to each employee. He has created a wonderfully unique environment where makers of all disciplines can congregate. On leaving, I glance back at the factory and realise that the logo a line drawing of a rectangle topped with two sloping triangles and circles within is a representation of the building itself. There are the circular windows and the unusual sloping roofs. It makes sense that this building should stand for the essence of the brand Blackhorse Lane Ateliers is the first factory to manufacture jeans in London for over fifty years, but it is more than this, it is about the potential of a space to bring people together and to grow a community.
Words by Emily Cameron.
Photography by Jack Symes.