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Old Town in Fournier St

March 10, 2010
by the gentle author

Over this last weekend, Old Town, the distinctive clothiers from Holt in Norfolk that make classic British workwear, set up shop in Fournier St for three days, as they do each year, to allow their London customers to come and say “hello” while also taking the opportunity to enjoy browsing the complete range of styles and fabrics that have created the company’s reputation for uniquely characterful clothes.

As I have been running around the streets of Spitalfields in the snow, pursuing interviews and carting wooden pallets home for the fire, my only pair of warm Winter trousers have gone in holes. A tailor patched them twice to get me through but now they are entirely finished. Ever since I was a child, I have had an unbroken chain of pairs of tweed trousers that have seen me through all the Winters of my life until now. So this visit by Old Town was the perfect opportunity to go along and get measured up for a new pair all ready for next Winter, because there is no doubt I shall need them.

Let me admit, I had been corresponding in advance with Miss Willey up in Holt for months to arrange the crucial assignation on Saturday morning in Fournier St. When she threw open the door to me, I was stunned to silence by the shock of red hair that gave her the appearance of a dazzling pre-Raphaelite beauty, radiant in the low-angled March sunlight in Spitalfields. Swallowing my amazement, I followed her upstairs to enter the drawing-room where I was transported to discover it rigged out in the style of the clothing department of an early twentieth century regional store.

Everyone that lives in these so-called temperate climes, needs a reliable pair of Winter trousers that fit. And the history of my life has taught me the possession of a good pair can make all the difference when the weather turns grim. So I listened attentively as Miss Willey explained the style options to me with practised eloquence. For women, the choice is between The Denes or The Malverns, both of a wide legged cut, buttoning at either side of the waist – The Denes being of a wider leg and more relaxed waist than The Malverns. For men, there are five options, The Plains, Orfords, High Rise Trousers, Vauxhalls and Dreadnoughts which provide various permutations of leg widths and waist heights, some with high backs and others with fall fronts.

Already, I was captivated by the splendid names, their litany was a poem in itself. Once I had selected the style, I was able to rifle through the swatch book to choose between the linens, corduroys, serges, twills, moleskin and tweed. So much possibility, but, because I need maximum insulation when I am carting pallets through the windy streets of Spitalfields in the icy blast, I chose Harris tweed for my trousers. Then I had the option of herringbone or plain, but this was an easy choice because I am one of those who always chooses “plain” whenever it is an option. As they say, I find “plain” exciting. Now I was almost at the end of the multiple choice questionnaire that would lead to my new trousers. It all came down to blue or brown, specifically Lovat or Heather, and experience told me that I choose brown, which will not show the dirt as readily as blue. Now all I have to do is to travel up to Holt in a few weeks time to collect my new trousers, made especially for me.

It was Walt Whitman who first wore workwear with attitude. When he put on a pair of denim workmen’s trousers, he was a poet and liberal intellectual making a deliberate gesture of solidarity with the working people and over a century later we see the result of his powerful innovation all around us in the ubiquitous blue jeans, that are the most democratic item of clothing on the planet today. Old Town take this to a whole new level, making a wide range of work clothes inspired by classic twentieth century models. Neither slavish imitation, nor parody, the design of Old Town clothes manages to evoke the poetry of their origins while creating comfortable well made garments that transcend fashion, yet blend sympathetically with your Paul Smith, Miu Miu, Dries van Noten and Comme des Garçons pieces too. For years I used to go to great lengths seeking out rare original specimens of canvas work jackets and pull-on shirts to wear, so it is wonderful to discover you can get them made in your size. This is why Old Town evokes such passion among aficionados who are happy to travel to Norfolk for a shirt.

Will Brown, an unassumingly charismatic gentleman in a fetching tweed cap who describes himself as a clothesmaker, is the remarkable talent who designs all the clothes and is also responsible for creating the Old Town “look” including the elegantly austere graphics that make such confident use of Gill Sans. His partner in this singular enterprise is Marie Willey, the flame-haired Geordie with a poet’s grasp of the English language who described her role succintly and incontrovertibly thus, “I am the world’s best critic.” before explaining that she deals with the customers, supervises the work of the seven machinists and cutter, as well as personally making sure all the orders get sent out too. “A huge part of my job is trolling down to the laundry and washing and pressing everything,” said Marie, graphically illustrating her hands-on approach to quality control, “You’ve got to keep it tight,” she declared strictly.

I relish the humour and style of Old Town. They even produce a newspaper the “Evening Star” with the byline “Small life is here” that celebrates their playful world view and guarantees a chuckle. You could never have predicted that a business in a remote corner of Norfolk making clothes that are almost anti-fashion could thrive in the way it has. “We are the slowest growing business you could ever find,” said Marie, proudly aware of the absurdity of their success, based nevertheless upon hard work, imagination and flair. Old Town want to stay small, there will never be a chain and they will never sell out. And this is the beauty of it, doing something modest, doing it expertly, earning a decent living, treating everyone with respect and making clothes people love.

In the Spring, you will be able to read about my trip to Holt on the pilgrimage for trousers, but in the meantime you can watch a soundslide sequence about Old Town by clicking here.

8 Responses leave one →
  1. March 10, 2010

    Oh, I think that I might have visited Old Town in a little hill in Norwich. The sense of style seems to be what you have described. Perhaps the company moved to Holt?

    You will surely have worthy, well made trousers that will transcend current trends.

    Best wishes.

  2. Susan permalink
    March 10, 2010

    Only in England would you find a pair of trousers named the Dreadnoughts! And despite your tag of “As they say,” I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone comment: I find “plain” exciting. But as described by you, plain is very exciting and simple is scintillating

  3. McNeill permalink
    March 10, 2010

    Would it be selling out to become a chain? Isn’t that just a perception created by certain chains that drive away competitors and reduce variety? I think they could open, say, a branch in every city without losing the wonderful appeal of their clothes, and without causing any damage to the local … flora and fauna.

    That said, there is a romance about there being just the one shop – and there has to be romance! It must be lovely for them to be in such close contact with their daily work and craftsmanship. Oh, Hell. Even Zappa was a capitalist.

    Thanks for this, anyway. While the UK allegedly goes to the dogs people are just getting on with their lives. Making tweeds. Baking biscuits. Congratulations on your new pair of trousers. May they stay, in the words of Bob Dylan, forever young.

  4. March 10, 2010

    I paid a visit to Old Town in Holt last year and met the fiesty and flirtatious Miss Willey!
    I love the whole concept and often visit their delightful and humorous website.
    When I have the funds, I will return and purchase a pair of Harris Tweed ‘Plains’!

  5. March 10, 2010

    Standing up and cheering for Old Town and your post. Reminding me I need a new pair of wool trousers, and so tempting they are made to measure (for small Chinese-Italian types like meself?). I was going straight for “Plain” and a Ludgate tie would look so snappy draped across my bedroom furniture. (Since on me, just shorter and shorter – thinking Tweedle-Dee, Tweedle Dum.)

    My father-in-law, from Norfolk, never made the transition to “workingmens” clothes. He would never EVEN wear corduroy! Jeans, OHMYGOD! The idea was laughable to him. On the other hand, never a “dickie bow” at Xmas either. Squarely stubbornly his funny little idea of middle class.

  6. March 11, 2010

    I love a nice bit of tweed myself and have a stash of lovely pieces waiting to be turned into something – I bought a length of grass green flecked tweed on ebay this week and it arrived with a label reading “Butt of Lewis Handwoven Tweed. Woven by the Weaver on the Croft on the Isle of Lewis Outer Hebrides from 100% wool.” And it smells gorgeous too. In response to your default choice of brown in things you wear can I offer a motto of my Father’s who uses it whenever there is a question of “which colour?” …. All Stains Are Brown….. and that settles it! If you don’t want stains, buy it in brown.

  7. March 11, 2010

    “Dreadnought” trousers – it makes one proud to be British! Indeed, there’s a faint echo of Major Bloodnok and Gritpype-Thinne in there, for those of a certain generation.

  8. gary permalink
    March 5, 2011

    miss willy is really nice , i met her in a pub in spitafields and guess what she drinks
    light and bitter

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