On the edge of the River Lea in Hackney Wick is a building which has been home to London Tradition for 15 years, having previously been a bakery. The area has seen great change in that time, particularly following the creation of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park; before moving to the current site, the business was located on the other side of the river, now home to the sprawling sporting complex and public green space. Today, what was once a solely industrial area is now home to new flats, craft beer bars and restaurants, with London Tradition nestled among them. Making duffle coats and outerwear, the company preserves the area’s manufacturing traditions and looks to the future of British making while surrounded by the buzz of new developments.
“We chose the duffle coat as a core product as it’s difficult to make,” says Mamun Chowdhury, who founded the company with Rob Huson in 2001. “You need both special machines and people to operate them. It’s not easy for any new factory to get hold of the equipment and train people. So, we wanted to be in a unique position where we were creating quality products that weren’t easy to replicate.”
Duffles began to be manufactured in England in the mid-19th century, and became ubiquitous in the 1950s and ‘60s, as military surplus styles were sold off after the First and Second World Wars. Focused on creating garments that are now key expressions of British material culture, the name London Tradition is fitting for the manufacturer, which has created outerwear designed by TOAST for over three years. For the TOAST Autumn Winter collection, it has made the womenswear Textured Duffle Coat and menswear Single Breasted Car Coat.
Mamun’s son, Tafhim, leads me around the factory. “A lot of people have been here since the beginning,” he says, as we meet Yoshiko Kendal, who works on the patterns in a quiet room at the top of the building. Here, she makes the final adjustments to the patterns before they are passed on to be cut. “I studied in Japan,” she explains, “and after that, I joined London Tradition. That was around 15 years ago.” The country has a strong appetite for British-made garments, and London Tradition exports many products to people there who appreciate heritage craftsmanship.
When the pattern has been finalised, Singh cuts out the fabric in the cutting room, which has insulated walls from the building’s days as a bakery. Large tables run the width of the room. With a skillful hand, covered with a chainmail glove, he guides the cutting machine around the pieces that make up the coat. “There’s about 40 layers of fabric here,” he says. He artfully arranges the pattern pieces so there is minimum waste, and the small sections that are left are collected to be recycled.
Next, Hussein carefully marks the placement of pockets with chalk. “He’s like an artist,” says Tafhim. Hussein has been working with London Tradition for over 20 years, following the path of his father. “I remember Tafhim when he was a little boy!” he says. Upstairs on the mezzanine, machinist Jamal waits to reference the paper pattern before stitching the pieces together. “We have to look at the sketches carefully to see the details,” he explains. Leatherworking was his trade before joining London Tradition, and informs his attention to detail.
The coats then have the binding added by Mustaq, one of the latest additions to the team, having joined around five years ago. He was based in Italy previously, where he perfected his technique, and his expert hands bring clean lines to the interior of the pieces. The garments are then pressed, and finally the toggles, so intrinsic to duffle designs, are added. The binding and toggles are both bought from English businesses. “We have a community with these other companies,” Mamun explains. “We small businesses help each other. This is something that I have done since the beginning.”
This time of year is very busy for the company, but there is still a sense of calm. Everyone works diligently on their areas and the relationships they have built with each other over many years means they are like a family, says Tafhim. “Everyone takes care of each other,” adds Mamun, “and everyone takes pride in creating pieces to a really high standard. We all feel responsibility, and there is a real sense of trust. This is our business, and everyone is invested in the results.”
Interview by Alice Simkins.
Photographs by Aloha Bonser-Shaw.