At London Trimmings
Moosa, Ashraf & Ebrahim Loonat
If you ever wondered where the Pearly Kings & Queens get the pearl buttons for their magnificent outfits, I can disclose that London Trimmings – the celebrated family business run by the three Loonat brothers in the Cambridge Heath Rd – is the place they favour. And with good reason, as I discovered when I went round to investigate yesterday, because this shop has a mind-boggling selection of wonderful stuff at competitive prices.
Zips and buttons and buckles and threads and tapes and ribbons and snap fasteners and elastic and eyelets and cords and braids and marking chalk and pins, and a whole lot of other coloured and sparkly things, comprise the biggest magpie’s nest on the planet. Now I shall no longer go to fancy West End stores to buy taffeta ribbon to tie up my gifts and pay several pounds for just a couple of metres – not since I discovered that here in Whitechapel you can get a whole reel for five quid and choose from every colour of the rainbow too.
With his lively dark brown eyes and personable nature, Moosa Loonat was my expert guide to this haberdashery labyrinth. He took me on a tour starting in the trade orders department which occupies one of London Trimmings’ two premises in this fine red brick nineteenth century terrace of shops, built by the brewery that once stood across the road. Translucent glass windows might discourage the casual customer, but in fact everyone is welcome in this extraordinary store which feels more like a warehouse than a shop.
Once we had trawled through the crowded aisles here and in the basement, with Moosa pulling out all imaginable kinds of zips and buckles and toggles to explain the stories behind each and every one, he assured me with a proprietorial grin, “I know where everything is, because if you pay for it you know.” I surmise that Moosa said this because while everything has its place at London Trimmings, the overall effect might be described as organised chaos of the most charismatic kind.
Yet, as we explored, Moosa told me the story of the business and I learned there was even more going on here than you can see on the crowded shelves of this extraordinary emporium.
“The shop was started by my father Yousuf Loonat and his partner Aziz Matcheswala in 1971 at the corner of Whitechapel High St and New Rd. My dad came to this country from Gujurat just after the war. He went to Bradford where all the mills were and he worked his way down to Leicester, and from Leicester to London. He told me, at first, he worked in a factory manufacturing street lights and, in Leicester, he went into the food trade and then he got into the textile trade.
At eight years old, I used to go and help count out buttons for my father. Every single holiday, he’d say, “I’ve got lots of work for you.” In 1987, when I was seventeen years old, my father and his partner split, so he gave me a choice – “Either go to university or join the family business – but if you don’t, I’ll sell it.” I took the opportunity and I’m happy that I did. That choice was offered to my brothers too and we realised that if we didn’t all club together, we would lose it. Now every brother runs a different department.
In 1985, we had a fire and lost everything – a couple of hundred thousand pounds of stock and we only had thirty thousand pounds insurance. It was an arson attack. I remember it clearly, it was a dramatic time for the family and my dad was really upset. All our suppliers helped us, they put a freeze on what we owed them until we could repay it and allowed us a new credit account. They contributed to fitting out this new shop in the Cambridge Heath Rd too, they even paid for the sign.
It was busy in the old days, everything was sold by the box then, we had four or five vans in the road and we wouldn’t even entertain student customers. Fifteen years ago, every shop in Brick Lane had a factory above it. In this immediate neighbourhood, we had a thousand customers, now we have a hundred here. We supply the leather trade, the bag trade, the garment trade, the jacket trade, the dry-cleaning and alteration trade, and the shoe repair trade. We cater to students who buy one button and to designers like Mulberry, Hussein Chayalan, Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen, and to High St stores like Top Man and River Island. During London Fashion Week, we had forty people in the shop all wanting to be served first.
Our main speciality is zips, you can buy one for 5p up to £20. We have two hundred different styles and each comes in several sizes. Other suppliers only stock up to No 5, but we have No 6, No 7, No 8, No 9, and No 10 -we even have No 4. We have double-ended zips, fluorescent zips, invisible zips, plastic zips, pocket zips, copper zips, aluminium zips, steel zips, nickel zips, satin zips and waterproof zips.
One customer comes from Ireland, an eighty-five year old man, he comes over every month with a suitcase, packs it up and is gone. Another customer comes regularly from Iceland, she spends two days in here to see what’s new. We had one tailor, he sent back an empty box of 1,044 pins he bought twenty-five years previously, saying “I’d like another one but this is the last I will need because I am over seventy.” Sometimes, people ring from New Zealand to buy press fasteners for the covers on on open-top vintage cars. Kanye West came in twice before we recognised who he was, he came in four or five times altogether, choosing trimmings. He spent a couple of hours each time and had a cup of tea.
I arrive at eight-thirty and I work until seven each day. I do an eleven hour shift. I could choose not to come because I’ve got the staff, but I’m a workaholic. We don’t open at weekends but I still come in on Saturdays to catch up. One day I could be serving customers at the counter, the next day unloading a container and the next out on the road to visit customers. It’s never the same. It’s not a mundane, everything the same, day-in-day-out job. We’ve had my father, me and my nephews all in here at once – three generations working in the same place. Some of the staff have been here thirty years and all the youngsters who came to work here straight from school have stayed.
We run a tight ship financially. The last to get paid will be me and my brothers. We only get our wages if the money’s there but if it’s not, we don’t take it.”
Moosa Loonat - “The last to get paid will be me and my brothers. We only get our wages if the money’s there but if it’s not, we don’t take it.”
Teresa Brace, Manager of Haberdashery - “It’s a lot tidier on my side of the shop!”
Moosa - “As you can see, we’re short of space…”
Shirley Mayhew, Accounts Department – in the trimmings business since 1980.
“the biggest magpie’s nest on the planet”
London Trimmings, 26-28 Cambridge Heath Rd, London E1 5QH. 02077902233