Ally Capellino, Bag Lady
This is Ally Capellino outside number six Sunbury Workshops at Arnold Circus where she started her own label thirty years ago. It is just a short walk from her design studio and bag shop in Calvert Avenue, which she opened in 2005. Yet it has been a long journey that Ally travelled between these two locations, during which she designed clothes for twenty years, then split from her partner and re-established herself again independently as a designer of bags.
Years ago, I used to cherish the clothes that Ally Capellino designed and sold in her shop in Soho. And I remember pulling a shelf of my books off the wall, one miserable afternoon at this time of year, and selling them to a second hand book dealer – in order to go and buy myself a new coat at Ally Capellino to cheer myself up. Let me assure you, I never regretted it and I still have the velvet coat in question.
When I bought my coat, I did not know if Ally Capellino was a man or a woman, and – since it was Soho – I somehow imagined Ally Capellino was of Italian descent and, in my mind’s eye, Ally wore a straw hat just like the gondoliers of Venice. In fact, it was a pleasant surprise to discover recently that Ally is a diminutive yet superlatively elegant Englishwoman with deep grey eyes and long glossy brown hair to her waist. Wrapped in indeterminate layers of coats and cardigans, accessorised with beads and silk scarves in a style that recalls Vita Sackville-West, and possessing an impressive manner of walking, striding forth as if she were a tall person – Ally is the most sophisticated bag lady you could imagine.
Visiting Ally in her large design studio in the former counting house of the Boundary Estate in Calvert Avenue, where members of her all female staff scurry around between crates of bags piled up high, it was immediately apparent that this is no cottage industry. Yet Ally sits quietly in a corner, and assumes a levity of tone which dispels any sense of professional hauteur that you might expect from one whose identity is manifest as an internationally recognised brand. Ironically, it is her personal sense of understatement that the cognoscenti appreciate in her designs – in other words Ally Capellino does “plain” brilliantly. Her work exists as the antithesis of those fancy bags which are the vogue, adorned with buckles and straps and quilting and tags and gilt and labels and other frippery.
“I think we’re getting plainer,” revealed Ally, as if she were forecasting the weather, “we’ve discovered our customers like to take the labels off. I’ve always started with materials, I’ve never designed anything and then worked out what to make it from. I’m interested in materials – quite often pretty basic, unpretentious, cheap ones – that have an inherent quality and stand up for themselves. But I’d never made anything in leather before I made bags, so I’ve had to learn to work with it.”
And you can find these covetable bags in Ally’s Calvert Avenue shop (once Feldman the tailors) that exemplify this pared-down aesthetic, of durable construction and graceful proportion, with subtle contrasts of canvas and coloured leather. It was Ally’s sympathetic utilitarian style that led to her commission to design new outfits for the Brownies and Girl Guides, and, thanks to her, never was Guiding as stylish as it is today.
Ally pulled on her Peruvian knitted hat and we set out together up the Kingsland Rd in the biting wind to visit the workshop of Rupert Blanchard, who has a way with material too. He works with discarded timber, old doors, drawers and anything else he can get hold of – chopping them up and reassembling them to make contemporary furniture and fittings. When we walked into Rupert’s workshop in the labyrinthine spaces at the rear of the former Shoreditch Police Station, where he has been cutting up rotten old doors salvaged from Bethnal Green to make a new counter for Ally’s shop and a display for her bags at Liberty, I expected piles of sawdust and disordered piles of scrap timber but instead I discovered his painstakingly organising trove of raw materials and curios. A pale-faced man with wayward lanky hair, who likes to hoover up every grain of sawdust after each job, Rupert seemed happy alone here tending his collection of broken things and so we chose not to interrupt him too long.
Returning to Arnold Circus, we sneaked around the back to the Sunbury Workshops to visit the place where Ally started. Climbing up the worn old stairs in the gloom, ahead of me, “It hasn’t changed at all!” she declared in a whisper as, in excitement and without compunction, she walked right walking into her former studio. Today people mostly sit at laptops in these workshops designed for artisans, although we learnt that wood turning continues below as it did in the days when Ally was first here. The man behind the computer, whom we walked in on, was happy to meet the celebrated Ally Capellino in person, succumbing to her charm, and as quickly as I noticed that his bag was one of hers, he produced his wallet that Ally had designed, proffering it with a smile to show her in illustration of how nicely it had weathered.
As we walked back to her studio, I asked Ally how she has preserved her capacity for delight after more than thirty years, and she gave a modest explanation. “I love Scrabble, and my job is bit like Scrabble, the manoeuvring and making it fit together.” she explained, revealing a naturally fertile imagination. Then, “I play Scrabble online constantly.” she confessed with a wicked smile of self-parody.
In the world of fashion and style, where so many designers come and go, Ally Capellino is still here and still enjoying herself too.
Ally’s bags loaned by their owners for her thirty year retrospective last year.
Designs from when Ally began at the Sunbury Workshops at Arnold Circus in the early eighties.
A desirable knitted waistcoat.
The history of Ally Capellino.
Ally’s shop in Calvert Avenue.
Ally Capellino at Pitti Immagine Uomo in Florence.
Rupert Blanchard in his workshop.
My other Calvert Avenue stories: