At Batty Fashions
This is Devinder Singh Battu, seen in the basement of 127 Bethnal Green Rd where he works with his brother Gurmeet creating the leatherwear sold under their own label Batty Fashions. The two brothers have always worked together, Gurmeet as pattern cutter and Devinder as machinist putting the garments together, and now Batty Fashions is the longest established leather business in Brick Lane still making clothes, when the others have switched to wholesaling imported leatherwear.
The musky tang of leather exudes from the walls here, walls lined floor to ceiling with rails hung six deep with leather jackets in muted tones of black and brown. There is a gleaming magnificence to it all, and it extends further than the eye can see – as I discovered when Gurmeet led me into the next shop, equally filled with leatherwear, and the basement workshop also hung with rails of leather jackets and a vast stash of leather in a multiplicity of colours and finishes. And as Gurmeet led me on the tour, ever garrulous and brimming with good humour, he told me the story of Batty Fashions, and the rewards that he and his brother have reaped from their labour.
“We came from Kenya in 1971. My father was a tailor and he worked in a leather shop here. My brother had rag trade connections in Whitechapel at that time and – looking at their business – we thought we can do our own. We started out as partners in this business in 1978 and we had some help from our father. We were on the second floor in the Whitechapel Rd and we were making for other people but we made some for ourselves too. It was jackets and we did some marketing and slowly we built it up. We moved here to the Bethnal Green Rd in 1986 opening up The Leather Ware House and we had up to eight people working here in this building. This used to be the centre of the leather market, before 1990 London was supplying the whole world but then the whole world started making and the quality has gone down. Now we can’t find people who want to work making leatherwear for the wages we can offer.
We’re taking it easy now because we’re secure. We worked hard for years, seven days every week we were working and late nights too. Our business is wholesale, we’re supplying a lot of leather shops around the country. We’re trying a bit of retail ourselves because so many of our wholesale customers – the High St stores – are closing down, so now we try to do everything, we even do repairs. And we enjoy our work.
On Sundays, my wife Kuldip comes here, she is a partner. Our four children are grown up, all educated. My first daughter, she is a pharmacist married to a senior maths teacher. My second daughter is a teacher married to a businessman. My third daughter is a dietitian married to a doctor and my son has just qualified as a dentist. And my brother Devinder, he has three children. His first son is an optician with three shops in Essex, his second son is a dentist, and his daughter is a student. We’ve got three sisters and four brothers – a large family – the sisters are married and everybody is here, living their lives.
We are having a good life, we live in big houses in Essex. Our grandchildren can play football in our back gardens. We made the money and we spent it. We saved the money first and then we spent it. I attribute our success to hardworking and being a close family, we help each other a lot. My father Bachan Singh Battu, he is ninety in March – he’s active and he enjoys his life. My mother Bhagwanti is blind and every day, before work and after work, we go to visit. If we wanted to, we could sell out and pack up at any time but we want to work as long as we can, to stay fit.”
By now, we were standing in the basement workroom, where Devinder was placidly at work at his ancient sewing machine. More reserved than Gurmeet, he extended a warm hand to greet me and Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie, before dampening his appealingly wispy beard under the tap and scooping it up under his chin to look more kempt for the camera. Meanwhile Gurmeet was taking hold of irons and patterns demonstratively, offering any number of staged poses to Sarah’s lens. It was obvious that the two brothers delight in each others’ company and, “We have our ups and downs,” was the only admission I could evince of the nature of their relationship, though I did discover they live close to each other in Essex and drive up together each day in the same car.
Yet while Gurmeet & Devinder’s designs are modest and conservative, those the brothers create for Boudica (the trendsetter of Brick Lane formerly known as Mark Petty) are extravagant in style and in colour, bringing glamour and flamboyance into the workshop. “Mark is a nice person,” Gurmeet assured me while Devinder grinned in agreement, rolling his eyes in excited confirmation,“He comes here and we sit down with him. What we do for Mark is fun!” In fact, a pale pink fur-trimmed cape hung awaiting collection by Boudica, the single coloured item, frivolous and fluffy among a sea of dark jackets. And, after Gurmeet pointed out the cape to me proudly, I noticed the two brothers exchanged a private glance of wonder at this ostentatious confection.
Gurmeet Singh Battu
Gurmeet & Devinder
Kuldip & Gurmeet Battu with their most celebrated customer Boudica (formerly known as Mark Petty), the trendsetter of Brick Lane, in a Batty Fashions creation.
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