An Afternoon with Michael Albert
For twenty years, Michael Albert has been popping down to the East End every Thursday afternoon to buy new stock for Blustons of Kentish Town, the celebrated dress shop founded by his grandparents Samuel & Jane Bluston in the nineteen twenties, where today the majority of customers are between eighty and one hundred years old.
“In my dad’s day, everybody came to us in vans and, because they were small manufacturers, if they didn’t have the size or colour you wanted, you could have it by the next week.” Michael recalled fondly, as we drove Eastwards through the back streets circumventing Holloway Prison, on a dress buying expedition last week.
In fact, it makes a welcome change of scene for Michael – who has worked in his parents’ shop for six days a week since he was sixteen – to hang up the grilles upon the grade II listed Art Deco facade, switch out the lights, turn the key in the old brass lock, close the padlocks that secure the grilles in place and set out on his weekly outing each Thursday at one o’clock. The wonder is that even though the suppliers no longer come to Michael, he is still able to source the stock for his shop from a handful of wholesale suppliers in the East End and most of it is manufactured in this country.
“I’ve got a little list,” Michael informed me with a twinkle in his eye, as we parked up a side street in Whitechapel. Our first stop was The Nicole Lewis Collection, for thirty years the small family business of Richard Walker – named after his two children, Nicole & Lewis. Upstairs, Richard still has the long table where he once cut patterns – but these days he simply buys the cloth and has the clothes made up at factories in East Ham and Plaistow. “We’re not Top Shop, we’re classic ladieswear,” he explained, revealing the unexpected virtue of making clothes for older people in styles that never go out fashion, since there is no requirement for Michael to update his patterns and no dead stock or wastage. He can simply recycle his designs endlessly. It appears a very satisfactory arrangement for all concerned – fulfilling a need for those who are under-represented elsewhere in the clothing industry.
Round the corner at Capital Garment, Michael led me into a huge warehouse with ladies’ suits on rails lining the walls and knitwear in a variety of colours filling the floor. He prowled the aisles with an intent, self-absorbed expression, studying the colours and the cloth, and scratching his chin. Always, it seemed he was drawn to the plainest, least fussy designs, in a nineteen fifties palette – pale blue, shell pink, lilac, burgundy, teal and beige. “Colour is everything,” he admitted to me, “You buy a wonderful thing, but if it’s not the right colour you can’t sell it.” As Michael deliberated over a dark red sweater of conservative design knitted in a sparkly yarn, I asked if he thought his ladies might like it. “We sold something very like it in the past,” he informed me with a reserved smile.
We got back in the car and drove further East.”When my father was a boy, my grandparents had a factory in Arbour Sq and he was the delivery boy, using a great big black car for deliveries that they called “the family car.” He would call for my mother in it when they were courting, but when they got married he had to give it back to his brothers and his father,” Michael, confided me with significant look indicating how family politics and business can get mixed up.
Arriving at Michael Gold in Nelson St, Sajid Tailor welcomed us to the business his father bought from a Jewish gentleman in the seventies in Brick Lane and which today he runs with his brother from a modern showroom in Stepney. “I’ve a fair idea,” he whispered sagely, when I asked him if he knew in advance what Michael might buy. Sajid and his brother were surrounded by the patterns they send out to the factories to get their clothes made up – owners of a thriving business, they export fifty per cent overseas. “All the survivors of the East End,” declared Sajid, when he heard Michael’s itinerary for the afternoon. By now it was apparent that Michael was perhaps the longest standing customer at these companies, where they set their watches by his arrival each Thursday afternoon, a ritual extending as long as anyone can remember.
Our final destination was DBK London Ltd in Mile End, where Sales Manager Larry Peterson could not wait to show off his warehouse. “People’s eyes go pop when they see this!” he promised me, and I was not disappointed as we entered a space of seemingly indefinite dimensions where motorised clothes rails of coats ascended several storeys and warehouse men ran through the structure, clambering like monkeys among the tree tops to retrieve the required styles. “This must be the largest in the East End?” I asked. “In the world,” replied Larry with cool satisfaction.
Larry runs the business (David Barry Kester Ltd) with his brother David Barry and Maurice Kester, supplying coats to some of the biggest High St shops. “We’ve all done it our whole lives. We started off as salesmen in the market and worked our way up to where we are now,” he enthused, proudly handing me a colour catalogue of keenly priced Winter coats and a DBK corporate diary for 2012, and confessing, “I absolutely love what I do, I hardly ever go home.”
Michael and I accepted Larry’s offer of a cup of tea at a round table set with a tablecloth in the warehouse, and he admitted they were all grieving the recent loss of their former partner Laurence Matz. “I came in and found him wearing an oxygen mask. I thought it was a joke,” recounted Michael in regret, “‘I’m waiting for a lung transport,’ he said and the next thing he was dead.” We sat together in silence, contemplating mortality amongst the endless rails of coats.“I meet all my old friends in the East End each Thursday,” said Michael in recognition, shaking his head with a tender smile,“It’s ridiculous.”
“I was buying from your father thirty years ago, when this was called Snug Coats” he reminded Larry, getting lost in affectionate reminiscence now, yet adding for my benefit, “They used to make these beautiful double velour coats in pure wool with floss stitching.”
Later, as we climbed into the car outside, dusk had fallen and there was a November chill in the air. Just the right weather to sell Winter coats, Michael told me. As umbrella makers hope for rain, Michael longs for the cold weather to set in before Christmas. “Yet not so cold that old ladies won’t go out” he qualified, outlining the ideal meteorological conditions favoured by one who has been selling Winter coats since he was sixteen.
“Colour is everything – if it’s not the right colour you can’t sell it.”
“I’ve got a little list”
“warehouse men clambering like monkeys among the treetops”
A useful Christmas present from Blustons.
Michael Albert at the shrine to Samuel & Jane Bluston in Kentish Town.
Blustons, 213 Kentish Town Road, London, NW5 2JU. 020 7485 3508
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