Recently there has been much chatter about authenticity and honesty in clothing.
As if one shirt is more authentic than another. They’re both just shirts.
This fits in with a particularly human trait, the need and desire to explain and justify decisions. I’m as guilty of it as the next. From Ice Cream to Cooks Matches, all have stories I’m only too willing to share.
Often the stories are surface deep, and the products themselves are not the recently banned ‘fit for purpose’ – apologies JRM.
We love things to be over engineered, to go beyond the call, our 100m dive watches, our 4x4 tyres, our extreme mountaineering equipment ready for suburbia.
Because if needed to be tested, damn, they’d stand tall. They’d protect us and make our lives better.
Desire and need such as this, is possibly why we have a fascination with ‘workwear’.
But, what is workwear? I’m a man who works, what do I need? Probably less than 10% of the things I claim to be indispensable. But, I have all the kit. I mean all of it.
Rough and luxurious flannel and cotton shirts, hunting vests a plenty, boots and shoes for every occasion, fatigues, rigid and beat up jeans, heavy and light knits, plus outerwear to get me up and down each side of K7.
Then don’t get me started on the accessories, it’s just me, apparently I love stuff, I love stuff with a purpose, maybe I’m giving off signals, covert and overt, that hey, I’m a man and I like man stuff.
Problem is most of the kit, really doesn’t compute with my daily work. I may look like I’m digging for oil in 1920’s California, but the only digging I do is my own grave.
On Sunday’s I go to church, now don’t worry my Catholicism has lapsed beyond repair, rather it’s the weekly gathering of locals in our local pub.
Racehorse trainers, builders, aristocratic farmers, property magnates and me.
Of course the one who looks like he does the most work, is always me.
A little while back this was a problem, living in East London with longish hair, a beard, and my wardrobe, well that was ripe for parody, urban woodsman, urban something else with a W.
That period and trend is long past, and thankfully I can continue furrowing my own path, because there is a reason I like this stuff and it’s not really because it’s practical. I mean that’s a bonus, and I do actually use this stuff to do other stuff, even (occasionally) digging. The reason I like it, the reason I wear it, use it, consume it, is because it’s beautiful.
Beauty comes in a variety of forms, the make, the cut, the fabric and sometimes all three.
Often we confuse beauty with sleekness, with pointiness, and yes those can be the traits of beauty, but they need a bit of heart and soul.
Because that’s where beauty comes from, from touch, love and passion.
This is an ugly world, and to me, anything you can do to alleviate that, well it’s worth it.
So we should strive for beauty rather than supposed authenticity and honesty, as those are just marketing catchalls, and actual beauty cannot be faked.
Charlie Borrow makes beautiful things, which fulfil a purpose and perhaps could be seen as ‘workwear’.
From his Columbia Road workshop bags and objects you actually need are born.
Born from oak bark pit tanned leather, cotton canvas, dead stock ripstock, vegetable dyed horse hide, solid metal hardware, beautiful things.
And they are beautiful. The design references and cues are traditional menswear, from military to workwear, but the finished works, they’re different, imbued with a softness of shape and cut, which matched with the substance of the materials creates something tactile for hand and eye.
So that’s the cut and fabric, what of the make? Well that’s fine but not stupidly so. It’s by hand and to last, there may be the occasional machine but it’s hand operated and there is no production line.
When I was with Charlie the other week for a coffee, a customer came in, she’d ordered a bag the previous weekend and wanted to discuss it further in relative quiet. Moving the handles, shortening the length, particular hardware, making something her own. Of course the bag will always be hers, and in time will mould and shape further to her life, but the idea of personalisation beyond the basic is so attractive and can only come from a maker who is a true craftsman.
I always think you can tell if someone loves their work, their craft. Yes, of course it’s a business, but in order to create a business worth something, there has to be care and love. Otherwise the corners get cut, the standards slip and over time it becomes homogenous.
Charlie is plainly in love with what he does, there is a sparkle that occupies his being when talking about where things come from and how they are made. I don’t get a sense of searching for a cash cow, if it’s not good enough and he doesn’t love it enough, then what is the point?
There’s a roughish charm, work is important, but life more so. One feeds rather than dominates the other. With a love of life which applies to the items he makes, but also to the world around him.
So what elevates the maker and the brand? What turns person and product A into something more extraordinary than person and product B? I believe one of the best judges is how a maker, designer etc views the product’s lifespan, how it’ll change and evolve.
Those who are able to marry the two, the design and the making, viewing the materials, design and construction with both eyes are those who succeed.
The product obsessive, touching the cloth of your shirt, how it feels, how it’s aged, how it looks, examining your shoes, the way things move and interact with your body. From before, to during and after.
Each time you see them they’ll examine the items, how they age and make notes for future.
That’s Charlie and is an integral part of what he does. In the window is his own bag, with the nicks and marks and patina gained with age. Everyone wants to buy this bag, of course they can’t. Thankfully once they create their own stories with their bags, they know they were right to buy that instead.
Because these are investments and treated as such. That morning a pilot bag had arrived from a customer who after years of solid daily use needed to repair the straps, they’ll be leather bound. Charlie asked him if he wanted to make any other changes, because that’s how it works, just because an item has left the workshop doesn’t mean the relationship is over.
This impacts future products which are often a mix between conversations and in response to something Charlie needed.
Charlie and I spent an age running through some recently delivered materials, discussing their composition and how they’ll change. This natural curiosity and commitment to never stop learning makes the difference.
I have a friend who argues that it’s easy to fake being an expert in cut but it takes time, knowledge and inbuilt ability to understand materials and how to use them. In many respects they’re right.
One man’s cotton canvas is another’s mistake.
As for the leather itself, the core of the business, it is beautiful. Strong and pliable, shiny to the eye, creamy to the touch and the leatheriest aroma.
It does amuse me that the tannery which provides that beautiful natural looking leather, is the same one used by William Kroll of Tender. There are similarities between Charlie and Will, perhaps not so much in their aesthetic, but in their way of approaching and solving problems and desire to create the best that they can.
What both men have is a natural confidence. In their ability and their work.
It’s far removed from arrogance and ego. Instead it’s an inbuilt joy and the chance to showcase what they can do.
In Charlie’s case that joy is the building of objects and a business. Controlling and creating your world.
Charlie’s careful precision in his work is tempered with a sense of fun. These are not revisionist items, perhaps that is why the Japanese customer has taken to him so, it’s quite British.
No, not Union Jack waistcoats, nor tweed inserts, just items which are built in the maker’s image, thoughtful, and purposeful, urbane and sophisticated yet lacking flash, at home in town or out.
Oh and sustainable. Product made to order, little wastage, not overstretching, playing the long game. It’s to be applauded.
There is also a lack of pretension, because pretentiousness is the friend of inability. Always beware those who over intellectualise their work, it’s a disguise.
It was a fun afternoon, and as ever with Charlie, overran and ended up going off in numerous tangents, from discussing Charlie’s love of tools and proper shop fittings, me trying to sell him a land rover, through to life and love – both which would be improved with said Land Rover, oh and a discussion of the perfect pint. That pint, was taken in on the terrace of The Marksman, with some curried lamb buns and sunshine.
The Marksman is a good example of somewhere with a bit of love and soul. It’s also a good example of regeneration done right. When I started out in the industry, one of my first buying appointments was up the road in what was then pretty much a shack and now is an investment opportunity already taken.
After the appointment, myself and colleague were walking down Hackney Road, nature called and the only place open was The Marksman. Through the door was a cordoned off area, well a couple of cones, which highlighted the large hole in floor. We ended staying for a pint, was a great pub. Old school in the best sense.
Years later, just after reopening I popped in, what could have been a disaster wasn’t. Yes, the food was great and still is, but the real worry for me is that it would have lost that sense of place, belonging in a particular community but not becoming a stop off on an East London theme park map.
Having been reopened for a while, won plaudits and prizes galore, it’s the same and like all good local restaurants and pubs contributes to different areas and aspects of the community simultaneously.
That’s what good businesses do, they’re businesses, but they offer more, they enrich an area. Charlie’s business does that. Columbia Road, is a great street, from the flower market through to The Royal Oak and I think now you can safely say Charlie Borrow Workshop.
Below are Charlie’s answers to our set questions, you know the drill…
They’re a far better take on the man than I could ever offer.
I’ll say this though, any day which involves his 4 favourite British things, well that’s a day for the ages.
Later on this year, we’ll have some more from Charlie, in the form of showcase of how great products age…
Why do you do what you do?
I love making things, things that are tactile hardwearing, constructed to last. There’s a real satisfaction holding a bag, shoe, object with a substantial and heavy feel to it. Not always the most practical but these objects stand the test of time and tend to age gracefully. It’s also quite exciting to develop an idea, source the correct material for the job then turn that idea into a real thing.
Originally I’m from Brighton on south coast, I moved to London 8 years ago and recently moved to Leyton in north east London.
What do you collect?
Always buying Victorian shop fittings and interiors, leather tools and anything well engineered. Space in London is always the issue there’s always too many things to buy but nowhere to keep them.
Not really... is that bad?
Moussaka, love Mediterranean and Greek food.
Primeur, near Newington Green.
Growing your business organically, everyone seems to be in a rush to be the next big brand.
Keep working at a steady pace, the company is growing year on year and retail is growing with the introduction of the store. I’m determined to keep control of the manufacturing and keep it in house. I’ve started working on some furniture with a friend of mine so will explore more options there. Refining styles and options in the collection of goods.
Four items which sum up the UK...
- Striped deck chairs
- English breakfast/ bacon sarnie
- country pubs