“To us, this is new generation London,” says Charly Jacobs, Head of Design at Blackhorse Lane Ateliers, London’s first ever selvedge and raw denim jeans manufacturer, as we survey the brand’s converted 1920s factory. Large windows flood light into the room populated with machinists, who busily cut and stitch strips of rich indigo denim. In the far corner, founder Han Ates chats to prospective clients, while Pedro Passinhas – who runs the supper club that occupies the factory by night, fires up the ovens in his adjacent kitchen. Down the corridor, leather craftsman Jonatan Staniec is putting the finishing touches to a new wallet and textile designer Katherine May is examining her latest crop of Japanese indigo, grown on the local allotment. Seeing the whole operation in full swing, it feels like the labels ‘business’ or ‘factory’ aren’t enough to encapsulate the broad vision of Blackhorse Lane Ateliers, which has become a hub of creative energy and community-based enterprise in an unlikely corner of East London.
Founded just last year, Blackhorse Lane Ateliers is the product of Han's gradual disillusionment with the fast-pace, high-waste ethos of the contemporary fashion industry. From humble beginnings as a presser, Han worked his way up to owning his own clothing factory in London, and despite years of success, as mass-manufacturing boomed and prices began to drop, Han found himself forced to relocate abroad – first back to Turkey, then to East Asia. In the face of increasing demands for cheaper products regardless of quality, Han quit fashion and created Homa – a sustainable, organic restaurant with an emphasis on provenance. The restaurant’s success uncovered a public appetite for quality ingredients and supply chain transparency, inspiring him to apply the same principles to fashion. From this, the idea for a London-based selvedge denim brand was born – producing high-quality jeans made ethically and sustainably from the finest raw materials.
Han teamed up with Toby Clark – formerly of Margaret Howell, and together they set out the key principles of Blackhorse Lane Ateliers. “They wanted to create a community-led project that gives customers contact with how their garments are made,” says Charly. This transparency forms one of the most refreshing aspects of the brand, which operates an open door policy that enables customers to meet the people making their jeans and hand-pick their favourite style and type of denim from the rolls on display. The importance of full transparency means that even the wholesale price of the jeans is openly displayed in the factory. “We do this to demonstrate how reasonable our mark ups are and also where our profit is going – funding this entire community we’re creating,” says Charly. As part of this ethical ethos, all employees are shareholders in the company, and on top of a living wage, receive a cut of all profits. The project also supports future talent by providing three craftspeople with free studio space, with a view to collaborating with them in the future.
A far cry from its mass-produced equivalents, each Blackhorse Lane Atelier jean is a feat of complex engineering. “We offer eight fittings per style,” says Charly. “Even in high-end fashion you would normally only perform three or four.” Only the finest raw denim is used, meticulously stitched on vintage machinery and finished with copper rivets and hand-stamped patches made from English leather. However, despite this painstaking attention to detail, Charly is not precious about how customers wear her designs. “Denim is made to be worn,” she says. “I can’t wait to see our pieces in 20 years time when they’ve been broken in.”
In this spirit, customers are encouraged to refrain from washing their jeans for a minimum of six months, occasionally spritzing them with neutralising spray or popping them in the freezer to kill bacteria. “It preserves the authenticity of the fabric,” explains Charly. “Denim obsessives like to take pictures to document how their jeans are wearing, so I’ve designed a ‘Wash Diary’ to be printed on the underside of the pocket so customers can log their washes.” All of this helps preserve the natural qualities of the raw denim that Han and his team hold in such high esteem. “For me, what I love is the integrity of the product,” says Charly. “It’s the most honest product I’ve ever worked with.”