The manufacturing side of the fashion industry exists, for the most part, behind closed doors. Garment production commonly takes place overseas, and it’s rare for a designer to have hands-on access to every part of the sampling and production process. Sometimes nuances are lost in translation – which isn’t surprising when you’re creating entire collections by email. Thankfully, this isn’t the case for Studio Nicholson, where provenance is key. Seeking out first-rate British manufacturers hasn’t always been easy, but founder Nick Wakeman prefers to work with experts closer to home whenever possible; so, for the denim category it made sense to enlist the skills of Blackhorse Lane Ateliers in north London, just 20 minutes away from the Studio Nicholson HQ.
Denim is the true pillar of a working modular wardrobe, so it’s critical to get the fabric, fit, comfort levels and performance absolutely spot on – there are no shortcuts to the perfect pair of jeans. Speaking about the decision to make denim items domestically, Wakeman explains, “This isn’t just about convenience, it’s about being serious on the sustainability promise. What Han and his team are doing in Walthamstow is a million miles away from the faceless production that most brands buy into. We have the privilege of collaborating with a true atelier and have the ability to work alongside master craftspeople who revel in every stage of the sourcing, sampling and final production. This has never been a relationship based on email exchanges and twice-yearly visits by plane – because the beauty of working locally means we can get together in person, with a box of pins and a tape measure to move things forward mindfully instead.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Han Ates, founder of Blackhorse Lane Ateliers, who we spoke to recently, in a bid to uncover the reasons behind the synergy. Launched in Walthamstow in 2016, the quality of the denim that BHLA are producing is just one part of the story. Han employs local machinists and offers shared ownership to each employee. The team takes an artisanal approach, where the importance of the right machinery and a perfect finish reigns supreme.
Han, tell us what makes the relationship between Blackhorse Lane Ateliers and Studio Nicholson work so well?
Although we’re two different companies, we’re aligned because we both have the curiosity and willingness to share and exchange each other's ideas in a very collaborative and transparent way. I learnt my trade in London, which has a very strong heritage and tradition when it comes to garment-making, especially tailoring. When we started BHL six years ago, it was because we decided to change the denim world and manufacture jeans with tailoring details. So, we took traditional, detail driven tailoring skills and implemented them with denim. When you look carefully at the jeans we make, there are no unfinished edges – anywhere, ever.
Can you explain the benefits of high calibre denim?
There are so many ways of producing cotton. Perhaps the best way to explain how our denim is different is to think that it’s a little like ordering 'table' wine at a restaurant. This is cheaper, because it’s produced with lots of pesticides, chemicals and lots of non-natural ingredients. Then if you go for a more expensive wine, the farmer looks after the land in a different way; the quality of the plant and how it's been treated is paramount. The eventual yield is secondary, because the quality of the fruit is far more important. The end result is that this farmer creates a delicious, gorgeous wine, but with significantly reduced quantity, making it more expensive than 'table' wine. This goes some way to explaining the quality of the organic, selvedge denim we use at BHL denim.
Has collaborating with other like minded brands always been part of the plan?
Right at the beginning of our journey, we knew we wanted to work with designers to create ‘made in London’ denim. Of course, like any partnership, there needs to be a certain chemistry, but when we were introduced to Nick Wakeman and her team there was an instant appreciation for each other’s approach. Sometimes less is more, and for Studio Nicholson the sophistication is rooted at the choice of fabric, in addition to the signature silhouettes and the high spec production. I think Nick is on a constant journey; it’s a quest to improve fit, functionality and quality. It’s the same at BHL, where we ask ourselves every day, “How can we improve this?”. The answer of course, lies not only in the standard of the garment, but also in the harmony of the team at the workshop.
What do you enjoy most about working with other external designers?
Because we’re constantly collaborating with others, each time a designer comes to us with a new shape it challenges our skill sets. It shakes up our set-up, which means we’re always improving our techniques and never stand still. When other brands feel that the person (or people) they are working with are authentic, it creates trust. As you can imagine, in any relationship, trust and authenticity are probably two most crucial factors. When you choose to take production offshore, sometimes, sadly, it can be really difficult to get to that stage.
What are your thoughts on the accessibility of cheaper denim products on the high street?
I find this question interesting. The emphasis should not be on the high street and what they do, it should be turned instead to us as individuals. We should ask ourselves, what is our responsibility, especially when it comes to shopping habits? Together, we are so powerful, so if (and when) we change our behaviour, the high street will automatically adapt to the consumer.
Leanne Cloudsdale is the Studio Nicholson Editor-at-Large