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Blackhorse Lane Gives UK Designers a Domestic Solution for Denim R&D

Blackhorse Lane Ateliers (BLA), London’s only denim clothing manufacturer, is now home to the first U.K. denim wash facility powered by sustainable technologies.

Located inside BLA’s artisanal factory in Walthamstow, where the company produces jeans for its own label and other premium British brands, the Blackhorse Lane Denim Wash Lab and Innovation Hub is ready for business, welcoming independent designers, small startups and larger heritage brands to conduct their R&D onshore or to produce short-run collections. The facility will also serve as a learning source for design students, giving them access to hands-on experience in a washhouse.

It will officially launch on April 20.

Funding for the hub was secured in conjunction with Chelsea College Centre for Circularity (UAL), through the government-backed Business of Fashion, Textiles and Technology’s (BFTT) Small to Medium Enterprises Creative R&D Program. In 2020, BLA was selected as one of 10 U.K.-based companies to receive more than 1.2 million pounds ($1.4 million) from the program which supports sustainable R&D projects. 

Additional funding came from a 120,000-pound ($149-000) loan from the Mayor of London council to build and protect the “creative enterprise zone” in East London and help restore London’s industries. The loan “creates a different kind of responsibility,” said BLA owner Han Ates, “because if somebody really believes in you, you don’t want to disappoint.”

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Breaking new ground is nothing new for Ates. “When we first started with the idea of opening a small workshop in London, everybody laughed at us,” he said. “They said, ‘Are you crazy? What are you doing?’”

With BLA, the idea was to create a space where Ates and his team could share their knowledge in garment making and tailoring, and denim was the chosen canvas for its seasonless appeal. In that journey, university students were invited to get a behind-the-scenes look at garment making but Antes realized that BLA would have to focus on washing to have the biggest impact.

“How can you have a leading fashion school without real knowledge of denim machines?” he said. 

The BLA Denim Lab gives U.K. designers the chance to take back creative control and form a “London aesthetic” for denim washing instead of relying on other countries that have a deeper knowledge and access to technologies to set the trends. “We don’t have it because we never had the chance to play around in the lab like they do in Italy or Japan. They have the chance to fail and try and fail. They lead the trends,” Ates said.

Creative meeting at BLA

The knowledge around denim in the U.K. is “so limited,” he added, in comparison to production hubs such as Italy, Japan, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Turkey Morocco, Tunisia and Mexico. 

“Funnily enough, 60 to 70 percent of the consumption happens in Western Europe and North America,” he said. “Unfortunately, the knowledge around denim is so little where the consumer concentration is. We wanted to bridge that gap.”

The commercial side of the lab caters to emerging designers and small labels that otherwise wouldn’t have access to industry-leading technologies because of their small production runs. The facility is running at 20 percent since it started to commercial wash garments in November for Mr. Porter, Studio Nicholson, Issue Twelve and Toast.

Depending on the complexity of the wash, Leanne Jae, BLA Denim Lab’s process and laundry manager, estimates that the facility will produce 250-350 garments per week when it reaches 100 percent. 

Leanne Jae, BLA Denim Lab’s process and laundry manager

The critical technology comes from another stakeholder, Tonello. The hub is powered by two of the Italian company’s machines, the G1 70 All-in-One washing machine and The Laser finishing machine. Both are connected to Tonello’s Metro software that provides real-time data to control all laundry consumption and optimize process times. Compared with standard denim washing that uses 70-100 liters per instance, Tonello’s system can wash 12 pairs of jeans in just 4 liters of water.

Any attempt to reduce the cost of denim production—from the resources used to the travel expenses involved—is crucial right now. For example, Jae said shipping rates have skyrocketed since Brexit

Tonello machines arriving to BLA Denim Lab

“I won’t name the chemical supplier, but I got one quote which was 1,000 pounds [$1,245], and the shipping was another 500 pounds [$623]. That’s quite significant for like a startup wash lab,” she said. “Setting up our supply chain could have been a lot easier. It was a challenge.”

Ates said the U.K.’s decision to exit the European Union has created a lot of “red tape” for exports. Additionally, slowing immigration impacts industries like restaurants and the rag trade which historically rely on the immigrant population. 

“Everything is becoming so expensive…gas, electricity…our price structure is becoming more and more expensive. The challenge now is we can’t compete with the price with the rest of the world, but we can compete with quality and creativity,” he said. 

Inside the BLA Denim Lab

Jae added that there’s no shortage of creativity in the students working with the BLA. “Denim is just a canvas and it’s also fed into students and their great minds,” she said. “It’s exciting because we’re looking forward to being challenged and we have been already by some students. Knowledge is power, so we’re equipping them and enabling them and empowering them by making this technology available to them, so that they can start planting the seeds of creativity very early on.”

Despite the challenges, Ates believes the facility will enable “creativity to blossom.”

“As designers, if you don’t have much knowledge about the fabrics’ integrity that you work with, your creativity will be limited. But once you start to understand a bit more about the fabric itself, I think then your creative mind will enable you to think further,” he said. “And that’s where I get excited because if more U.K. designers understand this incredible fabric, they will be more creative designs.”