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Blackhorse Lane Ateliers Founder Bilgehan Ates on launching the UK’s first sustainable denim Research and Development Washlab

Tom Bottomley
20 April 2023

London’s only craft jeans maker Blackhorse Lane Ateliers is launching the UK’s first sustainable denim research and development (R&D) wash facility today at the brand’s artisanal factory in Walthamstow, East London.

Previously, brands and designer would have to travel to the world’s leading denim houses located in Italy or Japan to carry out such R&D, complete with the carbon footprint that entails, but now they will be able to do it on their home turf.

It’s not only established names that will benefit either, as the door is also open to students to have access to a world class facility for the first time. In fact, funding for the facility was secured in conjunction with the Centre for Circular Design at the University of the Arts London (UAL) in Chelsea, through a government backed creative and scientific innovation fund that supports sustainable R&D projects.

In line with the brand’s core values, the washing and finishing lab will therefore be a space where students, small start-ups and larger heritage brands will be able to research and develop new and more sustainable ways of working with denim washes.

At the centre of the new facility are two state-of-the-art machines - the G1 70 All-in-One washing machine and THE LASER - made by respected Italian denim machinery specialists, Tonello, who, through pioneering technology, are continually improving the performance of their equipment to further reduce impact on the environment.

Where standard denim washing uses 70 to 100 litres of water per wash, along with tonnes of chemicals and stones, the Tonello system, which uses oxygen as part of the process, can ‘wash’ 12 pairs of jeans in four litres of water.

The benefits of facilitating R&D around sustainable laundering and finishing in London to the industry are manifold, and it is Bilgehan Ates’ biggest ambition for UK designers to develop a unique London aesthetic for denim.

With the flexibility of the small minimums the R&D centre will enable, Ates believes that designers will be able to push the boundaries of creativity where previously high minimums have forced them to play it safe. He tells us all about it.

How do you feel about launching a UK-first R&D Washlab in London and what’s special about it?

We are very excited to be starting from a blank page - it means we have all that space to play and create. Predominantly there are two countries spearheading denim wash trends in the world; Italy and Japan. As a result, the knowledge remains in those countries, as well as having a huge cultural influence on the rest of the world. By having the first UK R&D wash facility in London, working alongside universities, young and emerging designers and established labels, we will gradually build our own knowhow and through that establish our own UK aesthetic. This is exciting because we can culturally influence the world. It will also enable many creatives to exchange ideas and initiate collaborations among themselves.

How has it come about?

Seven years ago we started production in London, and within two years the New York Times wrote an article entitled ‘The British are coming for the United States denim market’. We realised we could go further. Denim is a blank canvas and denim as a fabric can be changed drastically through the wash process. We also realised that some of our business to business clientele were sending their production to Italy for wash finishes and we would receive them back to finish in the UK. That created havoc in production and dramatically increased carbon footprint and costs.

It also meant we had to follow the advice from the overseas wash labs. That created its own challenges as the creative culture wasn’t always aligning with our own here in the UK.

Has it been a long time in planning?

We conceived the idea in 2018/2019 and, because of our philosophy, we wanted to involve the wider community which included education and local government. That was very important for us. By involving different aspects of the community, it created another layer of accountability and understanding. This project has been partially funded by the Business of Fashion, Textile and Technology and we also borrowed money from the Productive Valley Fund. COVID-19 delayed our progress, so we are thrilled to finally arrive here.

What is the benefit to your brand?

By having the R&D facility for denim washing on-site we will retain a huge amount of knowledge and expertise, and that will enable us to collaborate with like-minded people. Through this we will become an institution.

How much will it be to use the facility?

That all depends on the requirements for the washes. We charge an hourly rate for experimenting, then once a wash is approved the costs for production washes are quoted.

Blackhorse Lane Ateliers

What is the new facility capable of?

The new washing facility is capable of washing denim in the most environmentally sustainable ways. We finally have a facility where we can compete with the world leaders in denim washing, at a craft level.

When did you launch Blackhorse Lane Ateliers and how has it developed?

We launched on 21 April 2017, so our wash lab launch fits with our anniversary. Since then, we have worked with over 50 brands including Belstaff, Ben Sherman, Christopher Raeburn, Turnbull & Asser, Matches Fashion, Mr Porter, E.L.V Denim, Toogood, Le Kilt and, most recently, Denham and Toast.

What is your real speciality?

We pride ourselves on making the best jeans in the world. Our specialities lie in tailoring and therefore we are able to create garments with fabrics like linen, cotton twill and wool. As a team, we develop these products gradually over time - to not coincide with fashion calendars as such. We strive for quality, longevity and style over fashion.

Not only ‘garment-making’, we want to offer the best service to all our customers. That is so important to us. Everybody’s shape is different, so we expanded our services to offer made-to-order and made-to-measure, for which appointments can be booked in our Coal Drop’s Yard shop at King’s Cross.

Why are you based in Walthamstow and what is the appeal for people to see your set up?

We have been operating in the same building, as tailors, since 1996, so locality is extremely important for us. We are a very rare breed, as a production unit (factory) we believe in transparency and connectivity, therefore one of our pillars is that we have an open-door policy for people to come and drop by to see production first-hand.

For business to business, we ask for appointments so that we can spare enough time to be thorough and establish relationships. We also open our doors to education at least once per month, with tours to student groups so that we can inspire and excite the younger generation to see garment production in a different way to mass-manufacture.

What enquiries have you had so far to use the new denim wash facility?

We have had dozens and dozens of enquiries surrounding the wash lab. From small, independent labels to high-end, world-renowned brands. The relationship and journey is so important to us, so we are careful to ensure that the brands we work with appreciate and share our ethos.

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