This article is part of a guide to London from FT Globetrotter
2020 was a marvellous year for moths. As the cashmere classes fled to Cannes and the Cotswolds, the moths moved in. Suitcaseful after suitcaseful of pullovers and pashminas, tweeds and tartans were nibbled over the course of thousands of pestilent lockdown parties. As their owners returned from exile, rather than replacing their damaged finery, many turned to repair services.
There is nothing new about repair services. For years, I have taken my umbrellas back to James Smith & Sons on New Oxford Street to replace a rib, fit a new cover or revarnish a scratched wooden handle. Turnbull & Asser on Jermyn Street regularly replaces the collars and cuffs of the shirts it has made for me and repairs its pyjamas and ties. And we all have our favourite cobblers. There is something profoundly satisfying about old friends coming back rejuvenated, ready for another few years of dapper companionship.
But in the past couple of years, repair services have blossomed. Misgivings about the ethics and sustainability of fast fashion, an expectation that things must be repairable, the rediscovery of craft and an appreciation of vintage clothing have created the perfect conditions for this renaissance.
The British Invisible Mending Service is the doyen of sartorial repairs, having operated out of Marylebone for around 70 years with a workshop in Mid Glamorgan. It provides a very specific service — the restoration of woven fabric, usually woollen (and not silk or cotton) integrating threads taken from an unobtrusive part of the garment into the warp and weft of the damaged area. As the name makes clear, this is pure restoration work intended to return the garment to its original appearance, as if nothing had happened. The art of concealment.
The other way of approaching repair work is to celebrate, rather than disguise, damage: the triumph of texture. The moth hole or burn mark is part of the history of the object, and the way the damage is repaired becomes a visual record of that history as well as an aesthetic enrichment of the piece. The Japanese art of kintsugi rejoices in the appearance of pottery repair by the use of gold or silver lacquer insertions. Such visible mending is the approach taken by Shelley Zetuni of Sewingsmith. Zetuni’s interventions take the form of bursts of multicoloured needlework (she is as happy to discuss the choice of colours with her clients as she is to be given free rein by them). In one case she restored a pullover with 30 moth holes — a polychrome inventory of the damage but also a reinvention of the pullover.
Changes in the appearance of an object following its repair can also be driven by practical matters. Turnbull & Asser cannot always match the exact colour of a well-worn and slightly faded cotton, and I am regularly charmed by the sight of my once sober blue shirts having morphed into flamboyant 1980s numbers thanks to the addition of brilliant white collars and cuffs — from less is more to Roger Moore.
Reinventing objects is a recurring theme in this world of creative repair. At Pristine Dry Cleaners, a highly recommended neighbourhood tailors and dry cleaners in Lancaster Gate and Kensington, a client recently asked for a worn-out couvre-pouf to be repurposed into party pants. Repairs often give rise to creative engagement and dialogue with customers. As Paarus Shah, the genial son of Pristine founder Nita Shah, explained to me, two minds can have completely different approaches to repairing the same thing and the key is to let staff use their imagination.
Vanessa Jacobs, founder of The Restory, specialists in the restoration of luxury clothing, bags and shoes, identifies a tension between manufacturers intent on their damaged objects being returned to their original state and an increasing number of clients who want something more personal to happen. Jacobs is able to cater for both extremes by employing people from a variety of backgrounds, from fine-art restorers to fashion designers. Internal design competitions are held for “transformations” of objects before an idea is presented to a client.
Jacobs, whose clients include private customers, shops and businesses, has observed a real and recent shift in the approach of the industry to repairs as people have become more aware of the environmental impact of fashion. “The penny dropped for many brands in 2021,” she says, noting that a number of them have signed up to plans to reach net zero emissions by 2030. Selfridges offers The Restory’s services as part of its Repairs Concierge, while Brora has Sewingsmith spend time in its shops demonstrating to clients how to repair cashmere products. For James Smith umbrellas, there is also a sense that a repair service needs to be available to clients, even if it is time-consuming for the five production staff in the workshop beneath its historic premises. And this trend is spreading to other sectors: Cubitts has a “Rehab” service for its spectacles, while interiors company Soane Britain has started to offer repairs to its customers.
I asked Zetuni of Sewingsmith how repair services in economies with high labour costs could be reconciled with mass fashion being produced in low-cost countries — are repair services a luxury, a product of philosophy and fashion rather than economic sense, and so not scalable in any meaningful way? The key for Zetuni lies in education — for repairs to become more widespread, people need to be taught how to sew, to be made aware about the benefits of sewing. During the pandemic Zetuni gave online visible mending classes and has continued these in person. Zetuni also tells me about the “Stitch It, Don’t Ditch It” movement in high streets around Britain — lines of seamstresses sitting outside popular retailers, sewing away at repairs in an attempt at making people pause before buying yet more disposable clothing. For Zetuni, “salvation will come through stitching”.
The mend trendsetters
Clothing and accessories
British Invisible Mending Service, 32 Thayer Street, London W1U 2QT
Heritage Dry Cleaners, 13 Chestnut Grove, London SW12 8JA
Pristine Dry Cleaners, 2 Craven Terrace, London W2 3QD; 47 Kensington Church Street, London W8 4BA
The Restory, online with collection service and in Selfridges stores in London, Trafford and Birmingham
Selfridges Repairs Concierge, 400 Oxford Street, London W1A 1AB
Sewingsmith, mending classes
Turnbull & Asser, 71-72 Jermyn Street, London SW1Y 6PF
James Smith & Sons, 53 New Oxford Street, London WC1A 1BL
Furniture and interior design
Soane Britain, 50-52 Pimlico Road, London SW1W 8LP
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