Saturday, 28 April 2012

Albam, and the rightness of things

Albam is a small British company that's carved out a distinctive niche for themselves over the past few years: their clothing shows the simplicity and high-quality materials that we all recognise from workwear,  but there's a modern edge to their look. The look is understated, one which lets the details speak for themselves. In many instances, that detailing isn't what you'd expect on workwear –  fleece materials or modern meshes – but of course this isn't workwear; it's contemporary clothing, but with old-time values. Each item of clothing has a certain integrity to it.

I was treated to a walk-through of the whole Autumn/Winter range; there are so many details, and so many stories, attached to each item that I can only present a few snapshots – and speaking of snapshots, many of these photos are poor and don't really do the clothing justice. But, still, I hope this sheds some light on a British company whose clothing is unique, and stands up alongside the best American and Japanese items.

One of the key factors that sets Albam apart from many mid-priced rivals is their sourcing; much of the production is British, with some denim and shirting fabric coming from Japan, and other items from Europe. So by way of introduction, here Albam founder James Shaw runs through the philosophy underpinning their sourcing.

You seem to have quite a distinctive philosophy behind your sourcing, correct?
Yes. Our philosophy was to start making a really honest product, based around a real simplicity. And to do that it, it was essentially about how it had to be right, the fabric had to be right, how it was made had to be right, and how it fits has to be right: the design is something that is really subjective, someone might not like the design, but they'll can't say it's not made really well. So that means good ingredients, in at the start. Our design is then influenced by my passions really, and now that's varied as we got more people in the team. The outdoors always influences what we do, in that, it's less styling, more an approach to being in the outdoors, where everything has to have a purpose. Finally, there's that  idea of treading quite lightly, but covering a lot of ground in what we do, whether it's the design team learning far more than they would by sitting behind a computer, because they're in the factory, working with the guys, and the girls, making the garments. 

That did come through when I was looking at the products. Talk me through some of the people from whom you're sourcing materials – for instance, you had some magnificent black jumbo cord that was woven in Germany. Where did that come from?
They're a company called called Kindermann. We were looking, as these thing happen, for an English cord, but the one we were looking at is not actually woven in England, it's produced in the  in far East and brought over. Then we came across this company, who are almost like the Audi of the safety and workwear fabric. They have such a meticulous approach to making something, and I've never seen anything like this in a cord or moleskin, it's tough  but without being safety tough. They just want to make the best, almost no compromise on it, which really resonates with us. Because cord is normally quite a weak fabric, because of how it's made, and Kindermann were an amazing find,  I think we'll work with them again, there is such an incredible attention to detail. 

You also source fabrics from the UK, who are your main suppliers?
There are two; one is Fox Flannels, which has a huge heritage - a couple of other brands use them, Ralph Lauren have used them a lot – I can't remember when they go back to, I believe it's over 200 years - at one stage they even had their own money, their own currency! They used to make all the puttees for the First World War military, and theirs is an amazing story. We used their cloths for an overcoat that we then made in a North London factory, a tailored coat, we took all the interlinings out  and it's solely the structure of the cloth that holds this amazing shape. So you get this really traditional Twill Melton, and it does the most amazing things. You would have to use a lot more materials to get that with a lighter, cheaper cloth; so there are only three materials in it, a satin pocket lining, a technical mesh, and this Twill Melton. And that's it. And I like the idea that  the less you put in, then there's less to go wrong, and it's down to the skill of the people  that do it.

How do you feel about the future of European manufacturing? Is it getting easier or harder to source good fabrics?
It's changing. What I've noticed is, good mills stay around, the mills aren't up to the mark they move on quietly, or change what they do. But more Japanese mills are exporting, whether it's denim or amazing shirting, they have a completely different approach. And the Europeans are stepping up… they're just raising their game, because it got too easy, to make all colours the same, all finishes the same, it all becomes a bit M&S, making a million meters of the same shirting. But the Japanese are making shorter runs, and putting more love and care into it, I guess how it was done in the early days. So that's exciting, to see more blends. So I believe it's pretty good – it feels like the right time for a postive change to be happening, a redress of the balance.

And now, what I thought were some of the highlights of the Autumn/Winter range, which I was walked through by Rosamund Ward.  This doesn't include every notable item - for instance, I didn't get good enough photos of the Twill Melton coat mentioned above. Hopefully, this brief tour will give some examples of how the philosophies mentioned above manifest themselves in practice.

Chinos are a signature Albam garment, simple and practical. The standard versions are neatly-thought out, a cotton drill, piece-dyed I believe, with a simple wash, but by eye was particularly taken by the jumbo cord version. This item is sewn in Nottingham, while the fabric comes from Germany's Kindermann, who make many fabrics destined for safety wear for industrial workers.  Like many Albam items, there's a simple rightness to this piece which speaks for itself. Simply gorgeous.

A Gansey knit. Personally, I love the resurgence of practical, tradition knits - I noticed a lot in this spring's RRL range, many of which were in China I believe. This knit feels that bit richer - it's made by a specialist factory in Scotland. "This was a new factory for us," says Albam designer Rosamund ward, "they're a beautiful, idiosyncratic setup on the borders" – where, incidentally, the water is softer, so the wash is that much more gentle. This typifies the Albam look, somewhat minimal with little extraneous detailing.

 I loved the Submariner Jumper: "this was a collaboration with the Stevenage Knitting Company," says Rosamund Ward: "you can see we've made a feature of the loom faults, which differ from one to another - so every piece is unique."

This is an unusual, quirky piece - the shape is reminiscent of the old British Army jerkins, while the stitching and details, too, look resolutely traditional, but it's designed for sporting wear, with a high-tech mesh interior. Like many Albam items, it's designed to be layered.

An example of the overshirts, in this case in a Japanese fabric.

 "This is new for us," says Rosamund Ward, "a Cinch Pant, in a cotton wool blend twill, made in England." The fabric gives a really nice drape; the shape is related to the existing Albam chinos, but in the flesh they look very different. Somehow the fabric, and the styling, makes these look resolutely English.

I'm sorry that time constraints, and poor light, stopped me from profiling more items, but I'll try and return to some of the key items when the range reaches the shops. In the meantime, look out for a lovely Waffle Base Layer Henley, a winter Harrington in a Macintosh fabric, a Liberty Print shirt (just visible behind the Cinch Pants), a beautifully-crafted Rain Duffel and the aforementioned classic overcoat, in a Fox Flannel fabric.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Retail Therapy - denim in London

Just to placate anyone who's waiting for my interview with Jenny Balfour-Paul (nearly there!), I thought denim fans preparing for a spring denim overhaul might appreciate a quick roundup of the major retail outlets in London. I'll come back to this post and update it - please feel free to email me or add comments about places I've forgotten.

Son of a Stag is on Drapers Walk, Truman Brewery, Brick Lane; carries a decent range including Lee, Levi's etc - they now have a Union Special chainstich machine so can alter the length of your jeans and keep the right style of hem.

Union Special at Son of a Tag. Check out The Clerk, too, for more chainstitch tomfoolery

Butchers of Distinction has indeed closed down.

Beyond Retro on Cheshire St, just off Brick Lane, sells vintage stuff. You will pretty much always find Big E and Stormrider jackets, with occasional choice 50s items, hats, old Converse, you name it.

Present is at 140 Shoreditch High St; expensive, but they sell great stuff including Studio D'Artisan, several of their own Trickers collabs, Nigel Cabourne and some lovely oiled Parkas from Millerain.

You can drop on Brick Lane, take in the market, all the above shops, the overpriced market in Spitalfields, Columbia Rd on a Sunday and finish up here for an espresso although sadly world champion Barista   Gwilym Davies  has now moved on to his own shop on Leather Lane.

Spitalfields market
Personally, I would rather shop in Spitalfields market than pay retail at some of the bigger stores. THursday is the best day - lots of vintage clothes, as well as bric a brac and antiques. (some of the same stallholders will do Portobello on a Friday).

For denim freaks, David White's Ragtop stall (at the front, on the left) is a must-see. Items are reasonable prices - not a bargain, but not as pricey as, say, The Vintage Showroom.

Dover St market is worth a look; mostly overpriced fashion brands, but I did see some nice Chambray shirts in there last time I went.

You should also check out Cinch on Newburgh St for the full range of LVC; this is one of Levi's few remaining boutique stores, along with Buttenheim in Berlin. Althoug their LVC is £20 or so more expensive onan online, you get to try them on first; they have reasonably regular sales and if you're a regular they will look out old items - they found me some old Valencia St 201s, and I've had other choice sale itmes from them. 

Don't forget the Lee store nearby on Carnaby St; they have the Edwin-made vintage range downstairs (again overpriced I'm afraid, but you can try them on before buying via Rakuten).

There's also Meet Bernard, for Nudies, Edwin at College Approach in Greenwich, SE10. Look out for T-shirt stall in Greenwich market run by - Cary, aka The Clerk, also has a vintage Union Special and offers a chainstitch service. Nearby, on Creek Road, is the Emporium - their stock is mostly vintage, but they usually have a good range of vintage reissue Lee and Blue Bell/Wrangler.

The Vintage Showroom, 14 Earlham Street, Seven Dials
A nice store, with a good selection roughly similar to David White's. The first couple of times I've been in they've been friendly, but... but not consistently so.

 RRL, Mount Street, Mayfair
 In recent months, I think their collections have arguably improved - lots more hunting- and military-inspired collections. And the nice staff help make up for the hefty prices. Full story here.

 American Classics on Endell St in Covent Garden is the grandaddy of denim in London, and has carried LVC, Lee and others for a couple of decades now.


The shop has a great range including LVC, Lee, SDA and Sugar Cane, plus jackets by Filson, Belstaff and others. The quality of stock has gone up and down over the years, as has the service, but last time I popped in it looked impressive. Cav, a tallish guy, shaven-headed, knows what he's talking about.

I have also been a customer of Interstate, opposite, for many years. They used to do Euro Vintage Lee at bargain prices; now Lee's range is dull, but they still stock Edwin and a lot of Carhartt plus other workwear-related stuff.

17 Endell Street
London WC2H 9BJ
020 7836 0421

Selfridges must have changed their buyer; their range is pitiful these days.

FInally, Liberty has recently opened a denim department (March 2011).
The assistant, who was reasonably helpful, told me this was "the first department working with heritage clothing in London."

This, the basement section, has always been a bit olde-worlde. And there is of course an irony implicit in a swanky department store hosting such blue-collar clothing, with fake wear, augmented with expensive working men's ephemera.

Still, an attractive RRL range. As ever, their washes are very impressive.

And a good range of LVC, too, altho based mostly around the Rough Rinse, without all of the good new flannels and duck items.

They also stock Jean Shop, a fair amount of SDA (103XX, Chore jacket, sweartshirts), PRPS and Edwin.