Blackhorse Lane Ateliers tailors jeans that are as desirable to style geeks as they are to sustainability champs.
Katie Baron indulges her denim desires at Coal Drops Yard Legend has it that in (almost) any country in the world, on any given day, at least half of every group of 100 people walking by will be wearing jeans. Born as workwear in the late 19th century and bred into a fashion colossus, jeans are arguably one of the most ubiquitous everyday garments – and also the most fetishised.
There are gazillions of jeans aficionados who have PhD-level knowledge of denim’s finer details and are hungry for every imaginable morsel of the minutiae, from the degree of fade to the stiffness of the weft. Getting it right is therefore not a task for the half-arsed; plenty of brands have come, seen and left humiliatingly empty-handed. Defying the odds is a relative youngster, Blackhorse Lane Ateliers (BLA), which started in 2015 and is London’s only craft jeans maker. The progressive company has just opened its inaugural flagship store at Coal Drops Yard, King’s Cross.
NW3, Blackhorse Lane Ateliers
As brands go, denim or otherwise, BLA is a lodestar for a new era of retail based on ditching rampant consumption in favour of a sense of personal investment, both in the product and the culture of the brand itself. Being at the pinnacle of ethical commerce as well as a denim head’s sweaty dream (thanks to an aesthetic based on very structured tailoring), BLA sources selvedge and organic raw cotton denim from Japan, Italy and Turkey, which it then hand cuts at its Walthamstow workshop and constructs into jeans. It’s possibly the only retailer to actively discourage bulk buying; should you try to buy more than two pairs at once, you’ll be softly dissuaded and reminded of BLA’s free lifetime repair guarantee. To help people choose their ideal pair of BLA jeans, each of the styles (five for men and three for women, in multiple fits and raw denims) is named after a London postcode matched to the aesthetic of the area’s “social demographic”. For instance, the NW3 is a classic 1940s heritage style for a more buttoned-up customer, to be “dressed up or dressed vintage”, while the E5 (the current best-seller) is “refined yet comfortable”, and arguably stealth-trendy.
Blackhorse Lane Ateliers Store, Coal Drops Yard
BLA also sells jackets, bags and aprons. In addition, it offers a Denim Haberdashery (in-store and online), which provides denim enthusiasts with a smorgasbord of tools to maintain, repair or even make their own jeans. Most of the products come from the family-run suppliers that BLA uses in its own factory. Think: denim wash and spray, chalk markers, paper patterns from Sussex brand Merchant & Mills (not for BLA styles) and Wilkinson scissors from Sheffield company William Whiteley. “If you’re looking for great scissors, then you only go to either Japan or Sheffield,” says one of BLA’s key players, Stephanie Steele. Care and an honest, open-source stance are at the core
Han Ates, founder of Blackhorse Lane Ateliers
The visionary driving force behind the brand and its unusual sensitivity (towards products, people and the planet) is Istanbul-born, London-based founder Han Ates, a tailoring and textiles specialist. For the best part of a decade, his former firm managed the production of tailored apparel for mid-level high-street brands, requiring him to spend increasing amounts of time away from London, first in Turkey and then in Asia. When there was pressure to shift manufacturing to China, in the pursuit of quickly producing vast volumes at lower costs, regardless of the ethical fallout, Ates became burned out. In 2008, he sold his shares in the business to his partner and took a year off with his family to travel throughout Europe. “When you dart away from your core values, you effectively create a split in your psyche, which is a very painful process. I felt I was losing my connection to London, the city I called home. But the lack of intimacy in general was a problem.”
Patterns, Blackhorse Lane Ateliers
The change had seismic ramifications. After returning to London, Ates began studying humanistic psychotherapy (a practice that emphasises looking at the whole individual and stresses self-efficacy and self-actualisation, among other things) and established successful Stoke Newington restaurant Homa. He credits the venture with giving him a better understanding of the power of community, not to mention maker culture – an inadvertent lesson in place – making. “I felt I knew Stoke Newington so well because of Homa; the people who would come in, the subtleties of the place and what people responded to. I loved my clients. It was also the time that people were becoming obsessed with craft beers. There was an obvious appreciation of high-quality, smaller-batch production.”
Blackhorse Lane Ateliers Team Members
He was also part of a discussion group centred on “how you define yourself as an artist in the widest sense of the word and how you can connect with your creativity. I felt I was actually at my most creative in a factory setting.” The result was establishing the BLA factory workshop in Walthamstow. It’s adjacent to a weaving workshop, fashion studio, an art conservationist and a pop-up restaurant called Gather E17. Ates believes a collective mentality is what has been essential to building brand spirit. Unsurprisingly, the team is wholeheartedly devoted to the BLA philosophy. This includes everyone from the expert machinists (it takes at least a year’s training to create the highly complex designs for BLA’s jeans) to Steele (who has an MA in Fashion for the Environment from the London
College of Fashion). Like Ates, Steele believes in the power of making genuine connections to create the kind of brand addiction that’s capable of making a real difference: “We’re not preachy. We’ve always relied on a sense of curiosity.”
Organic Denim, Blackhorse Lane Ateliers
It’s all conceived to tap genuine emotion. “How do you create an item to be more sustainable?” asks Ates. “You create an emotional connection, invite people to really care. It’s one of the reasons why we design as we do, with our unique tailoring aspect. It’s much more finessed, more polished than other jeans. There’s no ugliness.” It’s also apparently the only brand to create a one-piece fly-a process considerably more complex than the standard joins. The point is that if you make something genuinely desirable enough, the rest of the agenda will likely permeate organically. “For me, BLA is the pinnacle in great jeans production – from the organic raw denim they use and authentic styling to the lifetime repair policy and an intense focus on quality in construction,” says Emily Gordon-Smith, head of fashion at trends forecasting and innovations business Stylus. “The fact they’re the only jeans makers in London is also pretty impressive – especially if you’re interested in supporting sustainability through locality. It’s no surprise that BLA is loved by even the most ardent and purist denim heads, giving it the credibility it deserves.”
Button detailing, Blackhorse Lane Ateliers
Steele confirms that the factory has had its fair share of enthusiasts who are so keen that they’re borderline combative. “We’re already getting a lot of brilliant, quite nerdy people who come in and try to test us. They know everything from the details and fits to the unusual features, like brace buttons.”
Expert Machinist at work, Blackhorse Lane Ateliers
Primed for such aficionados, the store’s interior – a cavernous room within Coal Drops Yard’s industrial arches -was designed by Ates. It is a beacon of both conviviality and care, an homage to functionality and detail. As such, it bears out a radical simplicity inspired by the Bauhaus principles of uncluttered modernism, of the beauty within pure form. The aforementioned Denim Haberdashery sits at the back of the store, behind a vintage glass-fronted, department store-style counter. Two repair stations are at the entrance and a 5.5-metre-long table (made from a tree felled nearby during construction of the HS2 railway line) carves through the central length of the space. It will soon play
host to denim masterclasses and Denim & Dine – a series of private gastronomic events that were previously hosted in the factory, which Ates says is also critical to establishing his emotion-first ethos. “The more people are relaxed, the more they connect.” The store also contains a 1960s-era Dieter Rams shelving unit, which holds accessories and Ates’s own turntable. “It’s almost 60 years old and yet it looks so modern and amazing. Like jeans, simple lasts longer.”
Blackhorse Lane Ateliers / Yard level – Coal Drops Yard
This article first appeared in the Autumn 2019 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.