So Long, Blustons Of Kentish Town
This week, Michael Albert announced the imminent closure of Blustons – so I publish my story today as a tribute and to give my readers the opportunity to make one final visit to purchase a frock as a souvenir of this legend in ladieswear.
If you are considering a new gown for spring, then this might be your last chance to take a hop, skip and a jump over to Blustons in Kentish Town, and find Michael Albert waiting eagerly to welcome you to the family business founded by his grandparents Samuel & Jane Bluston. Pictured above in the changing room at the rear of his immaculately preserved eau-de-nil store – standing between portraits of the progenitors of this legend in ladies’ clothing – Michael was the proud custodian of the shrine to the Blustons, whose romance blossomed over sewing machines in an East End clothing factory a century ago.
Outside, upon the art deco facade, the heroic name of Blustons was proclaimed to the world in three-dimensional block capitals, flanked by the words “coats” and “gowns,” paying court like flunkeys. A marble checkboarded entrance led you between gleaming windows filled with a magnificent array of clothing, some on mannequins and some suspended upon lines as if floating like kites on the breeze. You seized the chrome handle and pulled, and you were transported into a Shangri-La of green paint and old lino, where the dress styles had remained eternally unchanged. In the fickle and capricious world of fashion, this was the strange magic of Blustons.
Michael Albert and his colleague Barbara Smith ran the shop with the effortless aplomb of a vaudeville conjurer and his assistant. You selected your desired gown, Barbara lifted it from the rails with a flourish, swept aside the curtain of the cubicle with practised ease, and invited you to step inside. Yet, even though I was a perverse customer who had come not to seek a gown but to discover the story of Blustons, Michael was gracious enough to indulge my fancy.
“My grandparents started the store in the nineteen twenties, they had four shops including one on Oxford St and they had four daughters – Minnie, Sophie, Anne and Esther – who were each given a shop to look after, but two weren’t interested, so my mother and her sister had to run them all.
My grandparents were originally sent here from Russia by their parents towards the end of the nineteenth century to get away from the White Russians – Jewish people were restricted in what they could do, banking and commerce were closed to them, so really the only trade open to them was tailoring or being seamstresses. They came to live with relatives in the East End and ended up working on sewing machines in the same workshop, one behind the other – that’s how they met – and they got talking. They discovered they shared an uncle, and because they were closely related, they had to get a special dispensation to get married.
My mother, Minnie, had this shop when she got married and my aunt Sophie ran the shop in Dalston, where they started. My grandfather had a workshop over the shop there and he specialised in tailoring suits for ladies. When I was sixteen, my father had a heart attack and I came here to help my mother while my father was in hospital. I never intended to go into the shop, yet when my father eventually came back, I stayed on and I have been here ever since. It gives me great satisfaction, going out buying goods, displaying them and selling them. I do the entire window display every season, perhaps four times a year. I don’t do it quite as often as I did, I’m getting lazy.
It hasn’t really changed the whole time I have been here. When I started, we sold a lot of bridal gowns and mourning wear. Nowadays we do a lot of separates, blouses and skirts, and twenty years ago we didn’t sell any trousers, whereas now we sell more trousers than skirts. Over time, the age group of our customers has gone up and up. On average, our customers are eighty to one hundred years old. We have people who buy clothes here for for their mothers who are 104 and 105, in two cases. A lot of our older customers moved out to live in new towns such as Basildon and Basingstoke, but they come in when they visit relatives nearby. One woman came from Australia to see us.
We are open five and a half days a week, we close on Thursday and I go down the East End in the afternoon to do a bit of buying. Most of our clothes are made there by suppliers we have always worked with, I try to buy British made where possible. We do get youngsters in for fifties and sixties styles now, they like our shirt-waisted dresses. We sell classic ladies wear.”
And then, to illustrate the cyclical nature of fashion, Michael produced the current edition of Vogue, leafing through with pride to reveal a photo of a model standing in the entrance of Blustons in a Dior suit, not so different from those on sale. Both he and Barbara exchanged knowing smiles, glowing with pleasure at such an authoritative confirmation of their shared belief that the clothing they sell transcended mere trend. And as I knew my story would not be complete without a word from Barbara, I took this opportunity to ask how she came to be there.
“First of all, I came as a cleaner for Albert’s mother, Minnie, when my youngest daughter was ten months old and, once she went to primary school, Minnie asked me to work in the shop – and that was forty-two years ago. She was a darling, a lovely lady. She made such a fuss of my little girl. I used to bring her in a carrying cot and Minnie would keep her quiet while I did the cleaning. It’s always been like a family here, a close-knit family business. At seventy-four, I should be retired but I don’t want to and so I am still here. My husband is retired and he does the house work.”
Something becomes classic when it cannot be improved upon and this was the nature of Blustons’ dress shop. Even though most of the customers were octogenarians and their seniors, the renewed appeal of this clothing for the younger generation brought a whole new clientele. So, as there was no reason to suppose that this cycle should not repeat in perpetuity, I hoped Blustons would go on forever.
Yet age creeps upon us all and the time has now come for Michael Albert to retire. A story that began over a century ago in the East End concludes here. I am sure we all wish Michael well in his retirement but, in my mind, I shall always think of his shop as the eternal Blustons of Kentish Town.
Barbara Smith & Michael Albert welcome you to Blustons.
Barbara Smith with one of Blustons’ classic dresses.
Michael Albert - “On average, our customers are eighty to one hundred years old.”
Blustons, 213 Kentish Town Road, London, NW5 2JU. 020 7485 3508
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