“You missed me,” wrote Junior Persaud in his first email . It came with a link to a story on Spitalfields Life. This was in October last year. A few weeks later, on a damp winter’s evening I was stood in his Homerton factory along with my friend Julian, the photographer for this visit.
“You’ve missed quite a few guys. In Somerset, Clarks village, there were lots of factories nearby. The satchel company, not Cambridge Satchel: the Satchel Company. All of these guys used to work for Clarks. Then they moved it all to China, the whole industry was left, the whole village. Can you imagine what that did to them?”
For Persaud, the business of making bags seems to be as much, if not more, about the people and their stories as it is about the product and profit. An hour spent with Junior is a fascinating one. Within moments of us arriving he’s telling us about his newborn boy (who arrived just days earlier), showing us around the cluttered space, explaining the company’s history and plucking metal frames from hooks hanging above to explain different jobs undertaken over the years. Despite the sheer amount of work and tools that surround us, Persaud knows exactly where everything is.
Demand is high for J&A’s creations, when we leave, two machinists are still working away while chatting to friends and family on their phones (in-ear headphones required, to allow for hands-free talk), according to Persaud, late nights are common at present.
J&A has produced bags for the likes of Paul Smith, Lulu Guinness, Christopher Raeburn and Ally Cappellino over the years. Needless to say, the quality is of a premium. “We use point eight gauge steel here, whereas the Chinese bag makers will use point five, point six. Ours is a tenth of the thickness of a Lancia. They’re not the toughest cars but for a handbag that’s pretty good. We hand braise everything. Everything is double welded so we can give our fittings a life range of eight years. Ally (Cappellino) wants her bags to last so we’ve toughened up our frames as much as we can. They’ve got a good shelf life.” On this particular evening, some sturdy looking numbers are being made for product designer Tom Dixon. Persaud’s address book, a who’s who of British design over the years, would be the envy of many.
As we shuffle about this vast old warehouse, Persaud’s story hurtles back-and-forth, with tales of brothers who traded exotic animal skins decades ago to the coming of the “hop, skip and jump” Olympic Park, situated a javelin throw away from the premises we’re stood in.
“I lost a lot of suppliers. I struggled. I had to go out of London. We had all our workforce round here. Dad (pictured above, in photo frame, on scooter) had this building and the workers would all live in the flats opposite; they’d roll out of bed and straight into here.”
The construction of the Olympic Park saw Persaud (and East London) lose a whole cluster of manufacturing businesses that are unlikely to return. He reels off a list of companies and characters that were lost: the mattress maker, Mr. Ettinger (“The council started to strip the machines down to move them and they just fell apart. You can’t move a machine that’s been sat there for 50 years.”), the board cutters (“Their machine was sat there for donkey’s years, they started to strip down the machines, the machines couldn’t take it. Neither could the guy who was running it.”) and the guy who rewound the motors (“The motors - they’re quite huge and the winding machines were massive and quite complex, built into the building. And the same happened: these guys came along and took apart the machine. Those machines can’t be recalibrated again.”)
“They wiped the whole lot with one hit. That left a lot of these guys in problems and a lot of it went over to China. But now it’s coming back. What I need to do is build that ecosystem back up,” Persaud says, optimistically. The ecosystem he talks of encompasses a wide array of makers, “Quality Castings, Premier Plating. These guys are a lot older than us and they don’t advertise, not much of a website. Nothing. The more chance we have of them sticking around, the better. We’ll regret it if they go.”
Alongside sourcing suppliers, he’s doing his best to encourage new blood into the industry, “We have to show the guys that this is not a woman’s trade. It’s a serious job, there’s a lot of engineering goes into a bag, the amount of companies we have to go and see to see each individual finish. We take on people all the time. I try start them off young, 18 -23. But we take people on to their mid-thirties. London College of Fashion help me out a lot with pattern makers.”
As well as his desire to keep business buoyant, Persaud also has a very keen interest in the heritage and history of British bag making. Earlier, he tells us of a visit with his dad to a Birmingham factory that was winding up production, “They had a ‘Hall of Frame’! It featured everything from 1800 to 1998 or whenever it was. We didn’t have any money but we’d always find a way of buying the tooling. A lot of them owned the copyrights to different frames – the English Inverted, the Queen mum has her bags made with that frame.” He tells us that many of their clearance purchases are still in storage, “at my mum’s place, we have a garage absolutely stacked full. It’s the fear of something important getting lost,” he confesses, “That’s why we’re holding on to the frames and fittings, we want to get them back up and running, because a lot of the stuff that’s made in China is based on old British manufacturing companies from back down the line.”
“It’s not about the money for me. Otherwise, why would I do it? These guys will pick up companies, strip them to their bones, relocate parts of it and try to make money out of it. The guys who are left are without a job and there’s no one to pass the skills on to. There’s a lot of guys who you’re going to miss out on.”
For more photos of the visit, see the M&I Facebook page