By: The Gentle Author, @thegentleauthor, author and researcher of Spitalfield Life, a website dedicated to the area of the same name in London’s East End.
Ally Capellino took me to visit J&R Designs in Homerton yesterday, the small East End factory run by the Persaud family where many of her leather handbags are manufactured. Ten years ago, Ally brought some of her first designs for handbags here to be made and over the years a lively partnership has developed that permits her to create distinctive designs taking advantage of the unique possibilities offered by the experience and talent of those who work here – in direct contrast to the standardisation that is occurring in the mass production of bags by overseas manufacturers.
Until fifteen years ago, J&R designs mass-produced bags for large British High St retailers like C & A, Dolcis, Lilley & Skinner, and Stead & Simpson. But as these closed down and competition from the Far East eclipsed the cost of production in this country, most of the bag manufacturing companies in the East End – that once lined the entire stretch of the Hackney Rd – shut forever. Yet the Persauds managed to adapt, and today they thrive by working with small labels and new designers to produce limited quantities of bags to a high standard of finish in fine leather, by contrast to the thousands of PVC bags they once churned out to order.
From the outside, their factory looks derelict, but once you enter through the rusty steel doors, you find yourself in a busy workshop. Here in one long room, lit by the streaming afternoon sunlight, a small number of skilled makers work amidst a breathtaking maze of old machines, workbenches and piles of leather. They sit beneath fluourescent tubes suspended at irregular angles, and amongst hundreds of metal patterns for cutting leather and all kinds of different handbag frames hung in clusters from the ceiling, as if deposited there by a steel spider. At the far end of the room, sits a collection of old frame-making machines upon which all manner of clasps and frames for handbags can be custom-made. In the centre of the space, leather is being cut into the pieces of the pattern and laminated before the edges are sealed and polished. Finally, the pieces are sewn together at the near end of the room.
At the centre of this organised chaos works Bano Persaud, surrounded by her longtime collaborators, placidly slicing pieces of leather and applying soft laminates to the reverse – demonstrating consummate skill honed over half a century making bags. In 1958, her late husband Alfred Persaud decamped to London from Guyana. “
One day, dad went to see an Elvis Presley film in Georgetown and decided to come to London and be a Teddy Boy, but when he got here, the Rockers thing was over so he became a Mod.” explained Junior, who runs the company today with his sister Linda, adding cheerily, “
And then he met mum on a trip home and it was love at first sight, so he decided not to get married to the girl he was engaged to, and he and mum both became Mods.”
Bano’s father had been a tailor in Georgetown and Alfred’s father had been an engineer, so while Alfred went to work in engineering each day, Bano did piecework for bag companies in their basement in Stoke Newington, making handles and pockets. When Alfred was made redundant, they started their own bag factory together and rented the flat above to live with their children, eventually buying the house next door and expanding into it too, before moving to the current factory in 1978. At first, they found that shops would not deal with them directly as immigrants, so they employed English representatives to speak with the retailers.For Junior who grew up living over the factory, it remains his playground and his personal universe, and the loss of the East End bag industry and its attendant trades is his personal loss. “
The whole of the industry is gone,” he lamented,“
the board makers, the fittings makers, the knife makers, the leather merchants, the tanneries, the guys who made the PVC, the embossers – everyone’s gone. If you’ve got a handbag factory, you’ve got to do it all yourself now!”
And he led me and Ally over to the forest of old equipment that his father had bought up from bankrupt factories, remortgaging the house to acquire it. His eyes widened in excitement as he explained how these machines allow the manufacture of styles of handbag that no-one else can make, and I saw Ally became mesmerised at the possibilities of the unusual clasps and frames. “
There’s so many frames that the world’s forgotten about, it would be a shame to lose them all!” he exclaimed, wrapping an affectionate arm round a device that can make one hundred and ten handbag frames a minute, before changing tone to look me in the eye and declare his trump card, “
The Chinese and the Indians don’t know how to do a lot of the things we can do!”
Junior stays here through the night working on these machines, committed to keeping the knowledge and culture of a lost industry alive, and through a working collaboration with Ally Capellino he has found a way to give it a future too.