Barry Laden brings Rag Trade home with his new East End garment factory

Machinists at Barry's new factory

Machinists at Barry's new factory - Credit: Barry Laden

The Rag Trade is making a comeback in London’s East End with fashion guru Barry Laden returning to his family roots.

Barry Laden

Barry Laden - Credit: Archant

He has moved into new factory premises for his clothing business and is looking for good machinists to join his team of 18 which has just started production in Mile End.

Sweatshop in Christian St,1 913

Sweatshop in Christian St,1 913 - Credit: Bishopsgate Inst

It’s a far cry from the days when his grandparents sweated all hours in a garment workshop near Petticoat Lane in the Depression of the 1930s.

Barry has signed a £60,000 annual deal leasing two floors of a new complex for his company, East End Manufacturing, which counts House of Fraser and Debenham’s among its clients.

“We’ve been preparing the factory for the past six weeks,” the 48-year-old entrepreneur explained.

“We want to bring manufacturing in the Far East back to the East End. And it’s Mile End that’s proving a great hub for the fashion industry.”

His deal with landlords VVUK Holdings gives him a five-year lease on the first and second floors of the new complex at Solebay Street, off the Mile End Road, three times larger than his old factory two miles away in Bethnal Green, where it was set up just 10 months ago.

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He has been running an independent showroom in Brick Lane for 14 years, The Laden, promoting new and independent designers.

But now he has ventured into manufacturing, a bold move in an industry nowadays dominated by cheap, backstreet sweatshops in the Third World and Far East.

Barry, who was awarded the MBE for services to fashion industry in the 2011 New Years Honours, has a mission to bring clothing manufacture home.

He wants the East End to recapture its traditional role in the garment trade which goes back to the Huguenot silk-weavers in the 17th century.

Stretton’s, the commercial estate agents brokering the deal for his new premises, had run up against “a distinct lack of industrial property” in central London—so it has turned to areas like Mile End.

Stretton’s Jonathan Cuthbert said: “It’s getting more difficult for expanding businesses to find space. East London is now attracting back a growing number of fashion, media and creative businesses. Mile End is ideal for Barry Laden’s company.”

The expansion is creating jobs in a trade suffering in the recession. It is also creating apprenticeships for a new generation of machinists, cutters and pressers.

The trade went into serious decline long before the recession, when the high street chains began looking abroad to produce clothes with cheap labour.

The East End lost out, despite its proud history. It had been the birthplace of the garment trade’s modern industrial relations and employment reform that began with the Great Tailors’ Strike of 1912.

The Rag Trade reforms began when thousands of Jewish tailors, seamstresses and felling hands in the backstreet workshops around Whitechapel and Spitalfields went on strike for union recognition and collective bargaining.

It ended the spiral payment system where a Master tailor had to undercut rivals to get the work by employing skilled cloth-cutters and pressers he needed, who in turn took on machinists from their own wages to sew garment sections together. Lower down the spiral were seamstresses employed by the machinists to rough-sew garment sections ready for machining, then lower still the felling hands with whatever money was left who took out the rough stitching afterwards.

Felling hands only got five-shillings a week (25p), a-quarter of what William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, saw as the weekly subsistence of 21 shillings in his 1889 Survey of Whitechapel a-quarter-of-a-century earlier.

The 1912 strike changed all that. The sweatshop workers were galvanised at public meetings at the Mile End Assembly Rooms and the People’s Palace—just two minutes from Barry’s new factory.

It is a social history close to his family story. His grandmother, now aged 92, went to work on a Monday morning to find everything cleaned out—her livelihood closed down without a penny compensation.

Barry is determined those conditions can never return.

“I’ve been in factories where they are made to eat at their workbench,” he adds. “I’ve given staff at the new factory a decent place to eat and a kitchen—it’s good for them and good for productivity.”

He has a team of 18 at Solebay Street, plus two ‘work experience’ youngsters, but intends expanding and eventually taking on apprentices.

“The skills needed to bring the garment trade back to the East End are close to dying out,” Barry fears. “I want to reintroduce those skills and bring the industry back home.”

It’s the sort of spirit that got him his MBE—and he’s still looking for good machinists.

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