Han Ates, founder of Blackhorse Lane Ateliers, cares about the details. He’ll happily take the time to explain exactly what it is about the belt hook or an inside pocket that differentiates the Atelier’s jeans from the norm. As London’s only craft jeans makers, they not only manufacture their own ready-to-wear line, but also collaborate with the likes of Christopher Raeburn and King & Tuckfield. But it isn’t only about the clothes: Han cares about the role that businesses play within our communities, our lives. Against the soundtrack of the makers at work, he shares something of the story, philosophy and style of Blackhorse Lane Ateliers.
Frances Ambler: Can you say a little bit about the story behind Blackhorse Lane Ateliers?
Han Ates: I came to London in 1987 – my uncle had a factory, he’d been a tailor all his life. I started my own factory in 1995. As business grew, I moved to much bigger premises in Turkey, in about 2000. About four or five years later, the high street was demanding even cheaper production, so I moved it to the Far East. I witnessed what this was doing to the environment and also the local community: the industry was like a parasite looking for cheaper and cheaper places. I took a year off and, on returning to London, I opened my own restaurant. Within one year, I knew all my neighbours’ names – something that hadn’t happened in the previous 22 years! When you feel rooted to a community, it gives you such purpose. But, in terms of creativity, I realised that I wanted to go back to my heritage, to the work floor. My experience in the hospitality industry meant that I wanted it to be very, very different. I wanted to create a space with an open door policy. Here, we have a pop-up kitchen, an
FA: Why is that so important to Blackhorse Lane Atelier?
HA: The Atelier is very interactive. We really like coming to work. It’s a joy. But it’s because of the people. We all create ideas. Thanks to our open doors, people come in and see the jeans being made. That’s creating awareness and it’s having a ripple effect. I think that small, craft producers are much more appreciated now than four years ago, for example.
FA: How have you rethought the ways jeans are made?
HA: We don’t work seasonally. We really believe that people should buy well but buy less. With my heritage in tailoring, I was very dissatisfied with the quality of craftsmanship in denim. Before opening, about four years ago, I bought about 40 different pairs of jeans and looked at ‘premium’ brands to see what made them premium. Apart from better quality fabric, they’re made exactly the same as much cheaper jeans. You can tell it’s a very fast production. We realised that, like with beer before the impact of craft beer producers, there was an accepted standard. Nobody wanted to raise it – partly because they didn’t have the know-how. The Japanese heritage styles were the best out of all the samples. So I said, okay, we need to be better than these guys. It’s the details that are so important, things that most people wouldn’t even notice. Look inside – most jeans, you see the exposed over-locked edges. We don’t have that. Some Danish fashion students came in and commented that you can wear our jeans inside out, they’re that clean. Of course, this makes them more expensive to produce but our idea is to produce the best jeans in the world.
FA: Your designs are named after London postcodes. How do they inspire the styles?
HA: My professional heritage is a London heritage. I wanted London to be at the centre of our brand – and is there anything better than London postcodes? It started with where I trained – E8, then E5 – areas that were full of factories. It’s changing now. When we think about new styles, we think about the area’s parks, rivers, museums. If there’s a war museum in the postcode, for example, the garment will have military styling. We want them to reflect the fabric of the neighbourhood.
FA: I understand that when you started you had difficulty recruiting skilled machinists?
HA: Finding skilled machinists is one of the hardest things. It’s even harder now because of Brexit. And, as a society, we don’t appreciate makers. One of the reasons we host masterclasses on how to make jeans is to encourage people to become makers themselves. We make one pair over two days in the classes so they appreciate the work that goes into a pair.
FA: You also offer a lifetime repair guarantee on your garments…
HA: We really believe that we need to create a personal relationship between the human and the garment, so that garment is looked after better and for longer. When we see what needs repairing, we can refine it, make it better. We don’t shy away from improving all the time. Our culture needs to change. You should be as mindful with your clothes as you are with your friends – because your clothes are your friends.