London & Fashion

"Buy less. Choose well. Make it last."

Dame Vivienne Westwood OBE

Dunelfen cape-coats are made by hand in the East End of London, the centre of the British “rag trade” since the 14th Century, when Flemish incomers set up dye works on the River Lea and brought in new textile working skills. Two hundred years later, religious persecution in France drove thousands of protestant Huguenot silk weavers to England, where they settled en masse in London’s Spital Fields and set up their intricate works. Painstakingly, they produced beautiful silks and velvet for the gentry, and silk woven in East London was considered the finest in Europe. (In 1870 the Vatican chose a Huguenot Spitalfields silk weaver to make the Pope’s robe - something of an irony since it was Catholic persecution that drove the weavers to England!)

London and Fashion | Dunelfen yarn
London and Fashion | Dunelfen attention to detail

Then an influx of Jews also fleeing religious and economic persecution settled into the area. With their prized tailoring expertise, they swelled the textile industry more and the East End was a powerhouse of output and clothing production. But in the mid 19th Century came the rumblings of irreversible change - the industrial revolution.

In 1824 there were 20,000 looms in Spitalfields; almost all individual people using skills cemented over 500 years. Fourteen years later, half that. As in similar spinning and weaving cottage industry communities in the North of England, these plentiful little looms were replaced by great industrial power looms in forbidding factories that could produce cloth in quantity and more cheaply than individual homeworkers could. Workers’ rates were cut, and cut again, and the small cottage looms gradually fell silent.

But there were still forty six weaving workshops in the East End in 1914. Whitechapel, it was said, with its skilled tailors and textile workers, was clothing half the world in the early 1900s. And in 1908 a small company in Petticoat Lane run by two Lithuanian tailors started a brand that was to be iconic - Lee Cooper. By 1914 they employed 600 people. Watching what Levi Strauss was doing in California, they successfully took their denim farm workers’ jeans and put them in the high street; by the 1950s almost every teenager would have a pair.

Through the first half of the 20th Century, British Fashion meant textile quality, impeccable tailoring, restraint and refined elegance. Milan, Paris and New York produced more exuberant and exciting designs, but British-made was seen as best-made; it never compromised on quality, it made the rules and it stuck to them.

But in the 1960’s, something happened. London started adding to the rules. Perhaps the world’s first super-model, Jean Shrimpton stunned the world in 1965 by arriving in Australia wearing a skirt 4 inches above her knees, without gloves or hat. It made the front pages of British newspapers. In Chelsea, a young designer called Mary Quant was forging ahead with the mini skirts Shrimpton wore so shockingly, her mod signature look was worn by The Beatles, and suddenly, the swinging sixties meant London, and London meant young, cool and slightly edgy fashion.

It does to this day.

But Britain’s reputation for textile quality, forged in the mills of Yorkshire and Lancashire, refined from the earlier exquisitely perfectionist looms of Spitalfields and the measured tailors’ tables of Whitechapel, is the bedrock that today’s British designers grew from, and depend on. It is this powerful synergy of history and innovation that gives Made in Britain a label that is recognised and respected the world over. Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, immediately recognisable names as fashion icons, are heirs to this history. In a fashion world tainted by appalling conditions in Third World countries with their child labour, collapsing sweatshop factories and industrial pollution unchecked, Buying British is not just about supporting British jobs and our historic manufacturing base, it’s not just about expecting and getting a superior quality garment, it’s also about being more ethical and responsible consumers. We hope our customers are as proud of Buying British as we are of Making in Britain.