You may remember that I won a box of haberdashery from William Gee, a Dalston (Hackney, London) institution. While I had ordered a few products from them, via the internet, I decided to visit the shop. Adam Graham – the manager – agreed to meet me, with his father Jeffrey who owns the company. There is a nice write up on Spitalfields Life and on their own website, so I will not repeat the history.
I turned up on Friday afternoon, and rather than talk in the shop I suggested we went out for “a coffee”. Luckily none of us like coffee so we went across the road to another veritable institution, Arthur’s. This is the sort of place you can have breakfast up to 12 noon, then they serve lunch and if you ask for a slice of toast at that point you can’t have it. Arthur reminded me a bit of Jeff Tracy with his bushy eyebrows and thick grey hair. I wonder where the “son and grandson” were that day.
While we drank our tea we talked. First Jeffrey:
“My father was in the haberdashery business in Commercial Street, and in 1964 he merged with William Gee and became the MD. I worked in the shop during the holidays.”
“Me too” added Adam. “I was counting scissors at five”.
“We had manual stocktaking then” explained Jeffrey. “Now Adam is modernising the company with computerisation, the internet and so on. I have four children and they all helped in the shop in the holidays. I didn’t encourage them to come into the business – Adam trained as a graphic designer – because the industry was in decline for many years. From about 1990s/2000s the factories we supplied in the East End and North London were all closing down and the work was going abroad. When I started all the big retail shops mainly sourced their products from factories in the UK, but now virtually everything is made abroad.”
“But you need to change, adapt and vary what you do. Today we feel we need to have both the bricks and mortar shop and an innovative website. What was suitable and necessary in the past is not necessarily the right thing to offer today. We have this issue with some of our employees. They are really longstanding people who have been with us a decade or two – brother and sister, husband and wife – we are a family firm! And many of them are traditional and a bit stuck in their ways. They say “we have always done it like this” and they don’t really want to change.”
“We have always been a wholesaler, business to business, with large volumes and small margins. We have a large warehouse and we were very competitive, but we always offered direct sales to local people. But over the last 20 years we have become more retail based, selling direct to the consumer through the shop and increasingly through our online shop. There are now only three or four clothing factories in the whole of London. Nevertheless there is still a garment district in the East End – lots of designers are based here and of course the fashion colleges – so we sell to everyone.”
“So this area was really a semi-industrial area that had got run down as the factories started closing, but then the designers and the artists and the fashionable people came and took over the warehouses and the area started to improve and regenerate. And we were still here and thriving. The way I look at it the internet allows us to sell to people all over the country – Adam is going to make it possible for people to purchase internationally too – but they come to the shop for an experience. Not just to see the products up close, but also to feel connected. Shopping is different now – the shop is more of a showroom and not just a selling place. In fact we think of it as a service to the community.”
Adam explains that the Great British Sewing Bee (which they supplied) has made dressmaking fashionable and they are benefiting commercially. “We are thinking of our shop being a textile hub, a workshop, a place to find out how to do things or meet people from the same community; we want to run some classes. My girlfriend has some great ideas for how to respond to the great boom there is in sewing nowadays. We want to create a buzz”. Adam with his eye for design has redesigned the shop to include lots of original vintage features, but also to offer a tidy well signposted shopping experience.
I said I thought the next big craze would be about the provenance of materials, similar to what we had seen with cheese, sausages, wine etc. People want to know where the product was made, if it is ethical, what it contains, the story etc. and Jeffrey took up the theme:
“We only sell British and European goods. You have to go to France, Italy, Spain and Germany as well as the UK for the quality people want. The Chinese stuff is sometimes OK but just about everything we sell is British or of a similar quality. Most of the sweatshops that we had here in East London have closed.”
Finally the Grahams showed me round the parts of the shop hidden from view and it was decidedly “Dickensian”, but beautifully organised. I was amazed at the variety of zips they had. “I bet you have every type of zip known to man!” I said. “Usually” Jeffrey replied. I am pretty sure the lino hadn’t been replaced since 1930.
What a fun experience – a fantastic family firm, offering a wide range of quality products at reasonable prices, and a little bit of fashion history. I really liked Adam and his Dad and I am sure that as they modernise and change they will continue to thrive.