The Leather Shops of Brick Lane
Everything at Oceanic Leather is made in Brick Lane
Not so long ago, almost all the shops north of the railway bridge in Brick Lane sold leather jackets and bags manufactured locally, but now there are only a handful of these businesses left. So Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie and I went along to find out what is going on in the world of East End leather, and we encountered an entire spectrum of human emotion.
The manufacture of leather garments is an age-old industry on this side of London, existing as part of the clothing and textile trade that was a major source of employment here for centuries. A hundred years ago, the industry was predominantly Jewish but when Asian people arrived in significant numbers in the last century they worked as machinists in a trade that they eventually took over and now, a generation later, they find themselves presiding over its slow demise.
At Truth Trading, 151 Brick Lane, I encountered the father and son in a family business that began in 1978, sitting facing each other across a desk in an empty shop. “It’s dead! I make but I can’t sell,” declared Abdul Bari, leaping up almost apoplectic with frustration at the seventeen pounds they had taken that day, while his son sat watching with visible concern for his father’s distress. A skilled man who trained as a cutter and knew everything there is to know about the making of leather garments, Abdul Bari worked in the trade locally since 1968. Then he started making clothes at home before opening a shop in Commercial St, graduating through premises in Wentworth St and Bell Lane, then purchasing the Brick Lane premises in 1986. “We have a factory in Pakistan with one hundred sewing machines but it is closed down because there are no orders,” he lamented, leaving me searching for words that might console him.
Across the road in the compact corner shop packed with glistening leather, Open Space, 200 Brick Lane, Mohammed Kamran was resolutely cheerful, explaining that his uncle Mohammed Yusuf Nagory started the business, making leather jeans and selling them at Kensington Market in the seventies. Moving to Brick Lane in the eighties, he started a factory with twenty-five people in Cheshire St which his nephew joined at fifteen years old. Today, as a smaller business they are sustained by loyal customers and have recently made costumes for Harry Potter and the West End theatre. Astonishingly, you can buy a handmade leather jacket there for as little as thirty-five pounds.
Mr Mahmood at the Brick Lane Boutique, 137 Brick Lane, who began working as a machinist twenty-six years ago and started his own business twenty years ago, explained the root of the problem to me. “When I started here, I used to sell everything I made, but now the Chinese use artificial leather and in the chain stores people can buy one of these jackets for £15. So why are they going to come here and spend £100 for real leather?” he asked, his eyes glistening with emotion as he gestured around his shop which was more-than-half given over to t-shirts, with leather jackets consigned to a corner. Fortunately our conversation was interrupted by a customer who did want to spend £100 for a real leather jacket and so I left Mr Mahmood to it, thankful that his salesmanship had been given an opportunity to shine.
Bashir & Sons (London) Ltd at Bashir House is a towering landmark at 180 Brick Lane, where you can walk in to admire a vast stock of leather jackets in every permutation of design upon rails in a labyrinthine ground floor showroom. I was welcomed by the ebullient Mr Ahmed, one of the brothers in this family business which started forty-six years ago in Commercial St and moved to the current premises thirty-five years ago. “I started when I was sixteen,” he admitted to me in a nostalgic tone, “In those days, the customers just came and bought the stuff but now we have to sell it.” With outlets in Birmingham and elsewhere, this is an elaborate operation, manufacturing in Asia and distributing throughout Europe. “We’re not the biggest but the best,” Mr Ahmed assured me, demonstrating professional charm while boasting Dustin Hoffman and Lennox Lewis among his customers, “And we sell the largest selection of fancy sun glasses in London.”
Further down, at 168 Brick Lane, another Ahmed, proprietor of Oceanic Leather was the most frank of the leather sellers, in spite of his self-effacing demeanour. “A lot of people left or went bankrupt. We had a regular business and then one day it dried up.” he revealed with a melancholy frown, “I’ve suffered pain, but I rode out the worst part of it.” In his store, everything has been made in the workshop above, though there is nothing to indicate this to customers, just piles of pieces of high quality leather stacked up in the crowded space attesting to the distinction of the garments on display.
My final call was Rana Leather, 160 Brick Lane, where I discovered the proprietor Mr Rana and his beefy assistant trying to squash an impossibly large number of leather jackets into a tiny cardboard box. The beefy assistant held the box shut while Mr Rana wrapped it in tape and they succeeded in packing a curious irregularly-shaped parcel. Afterwards, Mr Rana wiped perspiration from his brow while explaining that he was one of three brothers who ran the business which started on Fashion St in 1975. This busy shop was filled with boxes of clothes in transit, as much a warehouse for the wholesale trade as a retail outlet, and it indicated that a certain volume of business was being done on the premises.
All but one of the leather shops I visited owned their buildings, which proved to be the key factor in their survival when others that paid the escalating rents had gone. I was fascinated to find that most were run by skilled men, experienced leatherworkers who offer the facility to have clothes and bags made to order. It was even more remarkable to learn that for a modest price you can buy a good quality jacket which has been made by hand in a workshop on Brick Lane. There may be only a few left, but my discovery was that these leather shops still have plenty going for them – if people only knew.
Abdul Bari, Truth Trading, founded his business by making clothes at home in 1978.
The grandchildren of M.Schulman, the kosher poulterer, gave this photo to Truth Trading, now operating from the same premises.
Mohammed Kamran’s uncle founded the business, Open Space, by selling leather jeans in Kensington Market in the seventies.
Mr Mahmood, Brick Lane Boutique, started as a machinist twenty-six years ago.
Mr Ahmed at Bashir Leather - “We are not the biggest but the best”
Ahmed, proprietor of Oceanic Leather.
Mr Rana of Rana Leather
Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie
You may also like to read about