A clothing rail full of crisp new garments sits where a heap of old tyres and a mouldy old mattress once lay. All it needs is the models and the photoshoot can begin. Nearby, where a rusting car used to languish, rolls of fabric and patterns are laid out on a table ready to be cut, sewn and fitted.
This is a new fashion startup hub in Poplar, east London, on the edge of the roaring Blackwall Tunnel approach road. Bringing a new lease of life to a bunch of old lock-up garages, Poplar Works was busy welcoming local businesses into its new workshops and studios – until the pandemic struck.
“We had just moved in and were raring to go,” says Mohammad Muhith, a local resident who recently co-founded a sustainable knitwear brand, Essential Range, making garments from waste yarn. Muhith, who grew up near this site, remembers his grandmother receiving huge sacks of fabric to stitch together on her sewing machine, playing her part as a seamstress in the area’s thriving Bangladeshi rag trade.
“A lot of our grandparents used to tailor at home to support the family,” he says. “There were lots of clothing factories in the area. With these new studios it feels like the fashion industry is coming back to the East End.”
Developed by housing association Poplar Harca, with support from the Mayor of London’s Good Growth fund, the £6m Poplar Works project is the first part of a wider strategy to revive the fashion industry in the Lower Lea Valley. For 250 years, east London was a centre of clothing production, from the arrival of the Huguenot silk weavers in the 18th century, to eastern European Jewish traders and later Bangladeshi tailors, but activity declined in the 1990s as manufacturing increasingly moved overseas.
Since then, London has faced the progressive erosion of space for production, with workspace relentlessly converted into higher value housing. In recent years, the Conservative government’s relaxation of planning laws, including the extension of permitted development rights, has seen countless studios converted into apartments, allowing building owners to cash in while avoiding the usual obligation to provide affordable housing. The situation has hit the fashion industry particularly hard, with graduates unable to find studios and growing businesses struggling to secure move-on space.
“There is currently a chronic undersupply of quality studio facilities which emerging fashion labels can afford,” says Charles Armstrong, director of the Trampery, the creative workspace provider that will manage the new Poplar studios. “This is directly impairing the development of London’s fashion industry.”
Poplar Works stands as a small beacon to counter the trend. Presenting a cartoonish sawtooth factory roofline to the six-lane highway, it is a billboard of production, a Venturian decorated shed that shouts: “Making is back!” With its rooftop illuminated by a zigzag neon strip by night, its black bulk is jazzed up by day with flashes of red and yellow stained timber, a bright palette that continues around the building, where the first-floor studios open on to an access deck the other side.
It is a cheery arrival on the 1970s Aberfeldy estate, forming an attractive lane in place of the off-putting gauntlet of garages, and provides a welcome buffer from traffic noise. Across the road, a further strip of garages has also been converted into “makery” spaces, their new colourful frontages beaming out beneath the existing shaggy roof, overgrown with long grass.
The project is the work of Adams & Sutherland architects, a practice with a history of light-touch interventions in the Lea Valley, from collaging industrial fragments into the Greenway footpath across the Olympic Park, to erecting an elegant footbridge and floating towpath on the River Lea. Here, they have continued their knack of doing a lot with a little, retaining the concrete structure of the garages and placing a simple box of cross-laminated timber on top.
“I would be very happy if I never designed a new building from scratch ever again,” says architect Liz Adams. “We love working with existing structures, making the most of what is already there.”
The building takes its character from the pre-existing garages, which stood in a kinked line along the street, lending the new studios a charmingly wonky gait as they snake down the road. The first floor addition flares up to an angled peak at its northern end, where a new cafe and exhibition area enjoy a light-flooded triple-height space, overlooked by a shared mezzanine meeting area. Some of the former garages have been knocked through to form wider studios, while some have been left more raw and unheated as cheaper workshop space. Upstairs, the exposed wooden walls lend the bigger top-lit studios a warm, crafted quality, while the long row of cellular rooms is broken up with a shared roof terrace, where there are plans to grow plants to make natural dyes.
At the centre of it all is a large workshop run by the London College of Fashion’s Making for Change initiative, an outreach programme that began in 2014, running training sessions for women prisoners at HMP Downview, building employability and reducing reoffending in the process. The Poplar Works outpost will run training programmes as well as operate a production unit to serve the industry, employing machinists who graduate from the programme to deliver large-scale orders, with clients including Bethany Williams, Ally Capellino and Savage Salvation.
We see it as an experimental space to reinvent what manufacturing could be“It’s a dream working space,” says Claire Swift, director of social responsibility at LCF. “All of my colleagues are so envious.” Equipped with custom-made furniture, including sturdy pattern cutting tables and sewing benches with built-in storage, the workshop has been reconfigured following the pandemic, with work stations carefully spaced at least two metres apart. Swift and her colleague Jo Reynolds have been busy co-ordinating a PPE production drive, as part of the Emergency Designer Network, manufacturing scrubs for the NHS and now perfecting face mask prototypes, using fabric donated by local businesses.
“We see it as an experimental space to reinvent what manufacturing could be and how the fashion industry could change,” says Swift, describing how the project is part of a programme of strengthening community links in east London, in advance of LCF’s move to its new home on the Olympic Park in 2022. “People are becoming much more demanding about the traceability of their clothes, keen to know how and where they were made. Makers are always invisible, so we’re trying to highlight them and give them a voice.”
The arrival of Poplar Works hasn’t been welcomed by everyone. Artist and campaigner Rab Harling, a former resident of the nearby Balfron Tower, sees it as another agent of gentrification. “Annexing social tenants’ assets to build a ‘fashion hub’ for rich kids isn’t social enterprise,” he wrote on his blog, “it’s social cleansing.”
It’s a PR distraction, say its critics, from what is happening all around. Harca is halfway through the redevelopment of the Aberfeldy estate, in partnership with contractor Willmott Dixon, where plans include the demolition of almost 300 homes, 211 currently at social rent, and their replacement with 1,100 new homes, of which only 170 will be for social rent (with 20 for intermediate rent and the rest at market rate). The Teviot estate across the road has also been earmarked for a £1bn demolition and rebuild along similar lines, seeing up to 2,500 new homes.
The housing association’s “Robin Hood” business model has drawn the fiercest ire for its redevelopment of the Balfron Tower, which saw all social tenants rehoused elsewhere to make way for the brutalist icon to be scrubbed up and sold as luxury flats – in order to fund the construction of more affordable housing nearby. Poplar Works itself will soon be surrounded by steroidal private developments, with Chinese giant Country Garden planning a £400m scheme to the north, RER bringing a cluster of towers to the east, and the Berkeley Group plotting almost 3,000 homes on a former gas works site beyond.
“The area is subject to enormous change, with up to 15,000 new homes coming over the next 10 years,” says Blossom Young, who led the Poplar Works project for Harca. “If that level of regeneration is going to come, is there an opportunity to influence it in a way that builds on what’s here already?” Young’s team is working with the surrounding developers to influence the nature of the commercial space in their forthcoming schemes, hoping there will be opportunities to seed further spaces for different parts of the fashion industry in their plans.
In response to the criticism, Harca insists most of the garages on the Aberfeldy and Teviot estates were vacant, and the handful that were being used have been reprovided elsewhere, while the studio tenants are not incoming “rich kids”, as those suspicious of the Trampery might imagine, but mostly Tower Hamlets residents often renting an office space for the first time.
Judea Bogle and her partner had been working out of a spare bedroom to develop their Kitsch Kandy business, a clothing label aimed at the LGBTQ community, before they moved in to a studio in Poplar Works. “It’s amazing to be part of this community of like-minded people,” says Bogle. “We had been looking for a local affordable space for ages and this was a perfect fit. I love the quirkiness of the building and the possibilities for collaboration. It’s exactly what we needed to drive our business forward – I can’t wait to get back in there.”