Method in the Makers

The latest additions to Coal Drops Yard: handmade finery from two forward-thinking accessory brands

Posted: Wednesday 11th April 2018

Thanks to a new generation of visionary ‘makers’, craft has become synonymous with credibility. Katie Baron meets two London accessories brands bringing the handmade renaissance to King’s Cross’ newest shopping quarter, Coal Drops Yard.

Cubitts’ co-founder Tom Broughton, whose passion for optics is as straightforward and pleasingly non-marketer- derived as being a life-long glasses-wearer, believes the current renaissance of craft is being powered by more conscientious consumption. “The Nineties was about logos, while the Noughties were about a fast, throwaway, disposable culture. We’ve hit a time where owning stuff feels like a hindrance and therefore only excellently crafted items will really matter,” states Broughton. “There’s an emergence of people wanting ‘fewer but better’ — a smaller number of things that represent oneself more keenly as an individual.”

One such way of doing this is via the brand’s handmade ‘ready-to-wear’ glasses, sunglasses and bespoke made-to-measure service which, incidentally, is booming (there’s currently a six-month waiting list). Soon returning to their roots with a new store in Coal Drops Yard, Cubitts sees its main mission within a shifting landscape as resuscitating traditional processes to raise design quality, and reviving a full-service experience. As standard, a pair of Cubitts glasses traverses 50 stages of production across six weeks — covering everything from shaping and groove insertions to polishing and ‘tumbling’, while all five shops host clinical eye exams by professional optometrists in workshops with décor mirroring the retail space. The synergy is key, symbolic of a brand that equally reveres analysis and creation.

Broughton views this holistic approach as battling “the Specsaverisation of optometry” that he believes has dumbed down the industry, and is deploying a full armoury of modern tech to raise the bar: “We’re not into celebrating craft via a rose-tinted sense of nostalgia, it’s about applying a modern filter to the processes of optometry that previously, inaccurately, weren’t even considered craft.”

Broughton’s own introduction to optical artistry came from a chance meeting with seasoned London spectacle maker Lawrence Jenkin (“a man so dedicated to his profession his entire house is a workshop”). Broughton, whose background in applied mathematics involved assisting decision-makers in industries as diverse as children’s TV and Transport for London, became Jenkin’s apprentice, and never looked back. “He let me peer behind the curtain of this incredible 300-year-old legacy of making spectacles. We stumbled on the craft, and these people with real workshop skills, real knowledge.” Real is a salient point; the design of Cubitts’ most recent frames, Broadfield and Guildford, both reference National Health Service specs — an ode to grass-roots British life, and a less ‘Hackneyed’ heritage narrative.

Broughton’s extraordinarily personal experience, epiphany even, pervades the brand’s fondness for rituals and plays into his belief that the ascendance of craft is being propelled by a new-found appreciation of the joys of making. “Physically making things creates a sense that anything is possible. Go to somewhere like Hackspace London [a community-run, tools and knowledge sharing workshop in East London] and you’ll feel the transformation. That space is a very positive metaphor for our times.”

Cubitts’ recently addressed the premise of experiencing craft not only first-hand but literally hands-on by launching quarterly day-long workshops where it guides (paying) guests through the basics of spectacle creation. The courses have been a sell-out. “We’re hosting everyone from bankers to housewives, which shows the scale of interest. In a land of ubiquity, experience becomes the desirable scarcity, just as you see in music,” says Broughton, who suggests the courses also communicate a commitment to substance over style. “We’re often called a hipster brand and while it’s nice to be considered part of the zeitgeist, hipster culture is essentially vapid. We are different in that we are full of substance.”

The nod to ritual will also be evident in Cubitts’ forthcoming Coal Drops Yard store which like its products — all of which are named after North London streets — pay homage to the locality. Broughton reveals three central themes present in the design concept of the store: rejuvenation and renewal; celebrating water (referencing the canal that supported local industry); and the ‘Cubitts’ rivet’ butterfly motif — honouring the three Cubitts brothers who together revolutionised the 19th Century British building industry and are the brand’s original inspiration. Expect a vaulted space with a hydroponic foliage system, plus a window ‘stage’ for live making sessions offering another critical peek behind the artisanal curtain.

An obsession with fabrics and tactility filters into every part of our lives; “we like to embrace a visceral space,” explains Lost Property of London founder, Katy Bell. The brand, which is soon to open a new flagship store in Coal Drops Yard, has a subtle, borderline Scandi aesthetic built on ingeniously crafted materials and sourcing integrity. This strategy has helped sell the notion of eco-luxury to global audiences fatigued by flashy status symbol ‘It’ bags, or their opposite, ‘ethni-goods’ with their charitable credentials made clumsily obvious.

Bell’s husband John Maskell came on board in August 2017 to support her in running the company (the pair met while she was studying Textiles and he Graphic Design and Advertising at Central Saint Martins). Maskell attributes the direction of the company to Bell who “grew up in the country with a focus on a more self-sustainable way of living, instilling a kind of hunter- gatherer mentality and a desire to repurpose early on.” Bell had always cherished scavenger- style upcycling, recalls Maskell — a vision of zero-waste style transplanting superfluous textiles from one design or industry to another, taking beautiful yet difficult to re-use items like old parachutes (a fabric similarly beloved of fellow British fashion designer and sustainability champion, Christopher Raeburn) to forge something conceptually new.

But the genesis of the brand proper (which is nearing a remarkable decade in business and still has its main studio-workshop in North London) came when Bell spotted a pile of discarded jute coffee sacks in Borough Market and re worked them into prototype bags. A meeting with a buyer from Liberty department store as part of a competition garnered an on-the-spot order for 250 and both the bags and the brand morphed from personal passion project into commercial venture. “It was instant and it was gratifying. The brand was literally built on the back of that,” says Bell, who suggests that it was a case of right place, right time courtesy of the then-zeitgeist for heart-on-sleeve, eco-conscious product design. It was in 2007 that Anya Hindmarch’s celebrity-endorsed ‘I’m NOT a Plastic Bag’ cloth slogan tote had Notting Hill’s yummiest mummies so excited that it sold out within minutes of launching, and The New York Times homed in on the topic with features such as Eco Fashion? A world consumed by guilt.

“At the time, it was about trading on the whole ‘Rough Luxe’ movement, using very overt visual signifiers to show eco-credentials, but it began to feel uncomfortable. Sustainability needed to become a stealthier proposition because it ought to be inherent, and as such we refocused that ethos via craft, design and functionality. Desire and need became key, locality and provenance essential.”

Since day one every item bears upcycled materials (the brand even uses specialist suppliers that source off-cuts on its behalf ) or ecologically sound crafting processes such as natural, nonpolluting vegetable dyes or oils. While the magpie-like sensibility prevails (its most premium pieces to date have been the holdalls and totes reconstituting old sail cloth salvaged from a Dorset boatyard) it’s the collaborations with craft-world compatriots that are likely to keep the designs — and message — fresh and relevant. Key partnerships include outerwear brand Parka London (in 2016), using its surplus coat fabric to create handsome leather/cotton hybrid rucksacks; and a one-off piece for auction with 250-year-old British embroiderers Hand & Lock (in 2017) whose elite specialisms include couture fashion, royal monogramming and embellishing ecclesiastical garments. Capsule collections featuring entirely unique components such as a pocket or strap in a one-off material (thus making the item non-replicable, a forever-twist on a signature style) are also high on the agenda — presenting a kind of lucky-dip scenario that will require the brand’s suppliers to exercise a new degree of faith in unpredictability. It’s a strategy consciously courting the increasing consumer desire for the sense of rarity and even ‘imperfection’ inherent only to crafted goods.

“Some people see craft as old and dusty. We want to contemporize it for people interested in more considered purchasing — buying less and choosing well,” says Maskell, who also teases that a forthcoming collection is likely to involve “some very technical fabrics.” It’s obvious that as a brand, Lost Property of London firmly occupies future-gazing territory — cleverly circumventing craft’s clichés.

Cubitts and Lost Property of London are set to open at Coal Drops Yard this October.

This article first appeared in the spring 2018 edition of King’s Cross Quarterly magazine. Read more about the people and stories that make King’s Cross, or find out where you can pick up the latest copy of King’s Cross Quarterly below. 

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