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So Long, Blustons Of Kentish Town

March 19, 2015
by the gentle author

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

You may also like to read about

An Afternoon in the East End With Michael Albert

19 Responses leave one →
  1. YVR permalink
    March 19, 2015

    Time marches on …relentlessly.

    Still a shame the past must go, love ones depart, our bodies grow frail.

    The renewal is good – if it was not so hard to let go of the past.

  2. marianne isaacs permalink
    March 19, 2015

    Oh I am so sorry they are going . Its a wonderful story . I remember when shops like this had wires where the cash was put into a shuttle which was flown on the wires across the shop to a cashier who sat high up in the corner and could keep an eye on everyone as well as the money.As a little gil mther would take me in when we went into town as i loved watching this performance . That was in a tiny town of 3000 in country Queensland Australia. Ladies would wear gloves and hats and going to town was a big event . Lunch was had wth other farmers wives at the CWA (country womens association ) rooms . This was usually sandwiches and tea followed by dainty cakes. These dresses would have been perfectly appropriate for a day in town.The men would be havintheir liquid refreshements in one of several pubs in town after having attended the slaes of cattle and pigs . There would an exchange of inforamtion , a lot of cameradery and a very rapid consumption of beer before we would all meet outside the pub and be driven home by a somewhat befuddled driver !! OH dear ! On one memorable occasion we ran into the neighvbours bull and ended up with the Ford balancing on a tree stump beside the road !! The drivers response was ” bloody bull”

  3. March 19, 2015

    In the 1930′s , my late father Joe Goldstein of Boreham Street used to supply Bluston’s with funeral coats made to measure at very short notice.

    If my memory serves me rightly it was the custom of the time to employ “Shlappers” whou would stand outside the shop to persuade window shoppers to enter the premises.

    Good luck to all those who were connected to this landmark of the shmutter trade !

    Ron

  4. Susan permalink
    March 19, 2015

    Oh my Lord, I love this comment! “Michael Albert – “On average, our customers are eighty to one hundred years old.” I’m a mere 64, but if I lived there, I’d come by to have a look!! (Probably not my style, but hey, you never know if there might be some cool normcore/vintage look happening there.)

  5. Laura Jacobs permalink
    March 19, 2015

    This is a shock though perhaps I am to blame as I have lived in the area for 30 years and never bought anything from Blustons a.k.a the nan shop. I am not in the target age range and never saw a customer going in. The facade is lovely and I hope that stays.

  6. Victoria permalink
    March 19, 2015

    What a shame. I have never set foot in the shop but walkl/run/drive past it all the time for 25-30 years and it is
    a part of the landscape……

  7. March 19, 2015

    Any news on what will happen to the shop front? I suspect it’ll be in the hands of whichever business moves in next but perhaps they’ll take nearby E.Mono’s approach and keep this classic fascia…
    http://www.ghostsigns.co.uk/2015/02/e-mono-in-north-london.html

  8. ROBERT GREEN permalink
    March 19, 2015

    It made me feel very sad when I read this news today, this shop has been a “gem” in the midst of the mainstream mediocrity that fills what is left of the high street Kentish Town, I know retirement is the reason given for the sad closure of this well known local landmark store but I am almost certain that a decline in trade will have also played some part, which is why I now echo the comment of Laura Jacobs, as I said in a previous post on local hardware shops as quaint as these places may look they are not museums and if people do not support them in sufficient numbers then one by one they will go, so if you have a valued local independent shop in your area my message to you is USE it or you will LOOSE it, FOREVER.

  9. March 19, 2015

    What a refreshing blast from the past. I wish the proprietors a happy retirement, but it is sad to see such a lovely shop disappear. Valerie

  10. Barbara permalink
    March 19, 2015

    I wonder why some of us are so attached to the past and others don’t give a damn ? A fascinating piece of social history , pity somebody couldn’t take it on as a “vintage ” business. Let’s hope the building remains intact .

  11. March 19, 2015

    I’ve never been to Blustons but love going into clothing shops like these, so reminiscent of a bygone age and your post has brought back memories of my going into a similar store as a child in the 1970′s with my mother. I’m sorry it’s closing

  12. March 19, 2015

    Great that Bluston’s survived so long but I do hope the listed shop-front can be preserved. It’s sad to see both Bluston’s and Doreen Fashions over in east London go within a few months of each other. Though Doreen’s clientele was rather different … http://bit.ly/1AJBEdF

  13. Ken permalink
    March 19, 2015

    The shop front should be listed so that it, at least, will survive. It is a very good example of 30s styling and now quite a rarity.

  14. Jonathan permalink
    March 19, 2015

    Nooooooooo!

    Another cornerstone of old London gone.

  15. Martin permalink
    March 20, 2015

    Perhaps some clever entrepreneur could open a cafe or restaurant called Blustons and keep the signage…can you see it?

  16. Annie S permalink
    March 20, 2015

    I’m really sorry they will be closing!
    I passed the shop on the bus frequently during the eight years I lived in Highgate, it’s a real landmark of Kentish Town.
    I do hope there will be a good future for the premises – it’s unique.

  17. Pam Saunders permalink
    March 24, 2015

    I only learned from Marilyn that Michael was retiring. I am a Volunteer at PAH, where l run an Art & Crafts group. Your mother in-law Esther Cohen is keen, talented and regularly partakes in the group. After a century it is so sad to hear you are closing and that the shop cannot be passed on. But we all need to retire and l am delighted you have had such customet support over the years + your recent publicity+ all those wonderful memories.

    I myself embarked in the fashion business in 1973 as a young College graduate. I have only spent some 35 years in fashion working in both design and buying roles. I loved it! Fashion is in my blood.

  18. Colin permalink
    March 29, 2015

    I lived nearby whilst at university and always loved this shop, especially the window displays with signs pinned to the items: eg “Model Dress” , “Smart Coat” etc. I’m very sad that this shop has closed (I have checked that it was still there now and then, when I have been back in the area and today found I had missed it’s closing by a few days). And it’s poor customers will be left bereft – I don’t think Net A Porter etc or Primark will have much truck with them. With an aging population I can’t see why someone didn’t carry this shop on? And what will become of it. Probably an estate agents.

  19. Simon Bullivant permalink
    March 30, 2015

    I took a photo of the shop front when I first stumbled upon it, more than twenty years ago. It looked like something from a bygone era then, but Blustons far outlasted almost everything else round about it. Like so many other people, I always looked in the window as I went past, glad that it was still there in a world where so much comes and goes so quickly. I’m glad to say that one December day instead of just passing I took the time to go inside, and bought a sensible cardigan for my eighty-something mother. I believe I still have the Blustons plastic bag somewhere. When I saw the empty shop window, last Sunday, I couldn’t help but take a few pictures. Perhaps like Palmer’s in Parkway, the shop front can be preserved If Camden Town can have their monkeys and talking parrots, why can’t Kentish Town have its coats and gowns?

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