Crescent Trading, rising through fire to meet local and international customers
Crescent Trading “is a unique business, there is no one to match us, we are on our own. We have got the knowledge and the contacts to buy these goods at these prices” its two business partners, Philip Pittack and Martin White said when I met them in their small office one day in early September, writes Bill Bowder. They have a flair for the dramatic which I am certain appeals to the theatre and film directors and fashion students who make the shop/warehouse in Quaker Court, 41 Quaker Street, London E1 6SN their regular stop in their search for material inspiration. There’s plenty of scope too for those of a less creative nature, those who just want to choose their cloth from amongst the best English fabrics that Philip has bought from the few remaining northern mills on one of his half yearly visits to find good, reasonably priced materials.
The drama, however, is not just in the trading, the place itself has a dramatic, and very recent history. A year ago this month, on September 26th an electric fire at the back of the warehouse engulfed the whole business.
“At 8am I get a call from the neighbours who says ‘get down here quickly, there’s been a fire.’ I was on my way to the synagogue for the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur and I phoned Martin, and he came here half an hour after me,” Philip said. At first he could hardly bring himself to look. “When my neighbour opened the door I fell to my knees and I cried my eyes out like a child. It was devastation.”
The fire had been spotted at 4 in the morning. By the time they arrived it had been put out and all that was left were smouldering fabrics, the smell of damp and dust and water dripping down from everywhere.
“We pride ourselves in selling woollens, silks and cottons so there was very little polyester, if there had been that would have gone up like a bomb. But wool does not turn into a gas, it just smells like burnt chicken feathers. The smoke and the damp and the fumes had got into the fabrics and it was just a blackened hell. The heat was so great that rolls of fabric at the far end from the fire, the plastic wrappings had melted.”
The company has been in its premises for three years and has been trading close by for 22 years. After the fire it took months to replace the burnt-out roof and restore the building. Nothing daunted, they traded on through the wet and the cold. “If you put the locks on the door of any business, people come two or three times and then they think that you have gone.” So they traded from a container. Each day the two business partners and their part time worker spent a couple of hours of sweeping the water away. It was cold work “not conducive to business in the middle to winter, freezing your what’s its off and getting wet going from the container to the office. At first the insurers allowed neither electricity nor heating . When they relented, they huddled beside an electric fire, waiting for customers to creep in, and they did. “Most of them went out crying.”
The contrast in trading with past glory days when the company sold in volume to the factories in the East End was great, even without the fire. The factories had moved off-shore and England’s clothing industry had suddenly collapsed from a giant to something quite modest. “We could not follow the factories because we were not big enough, so we turned the firm round, put our prices up a little bit and cut lengths. We were still half the price of anywhere else.” The area changed to cottage industries and the firm changed to meet their needs.
“We also supply home sowers, cloth shops, fabric retails. We moved into a field of costumiers, film and theatre industry.” Somebody from Kays Directory had persuaded them to advertise in their theatrical publication. Now the costume departments of the film companies come. Only the day before Far from the madding crowd was in buying, Fox comes, National Theatre comes, Royal Opera House, Pinewood Studios they all come, Sands films and Les Mis in the Old Kent Road (and Les Mis is in Austria, Spain Korea too), they come.
“They are keeping us alive again, they are our new found wealth, if you want to call it wealth. We are a little company, only two of us really. The year before the fire we turned over £250,000 which is minute, but as I say to everybody, ‘turnover is vanity, profits are sanity.’
“People say, ‘how do you sell the fabrics so cheap?’ My answer to that is we go out with balaclavas and shot guns every night looking for fabrics, and we find it, mostly English fabrics. We go up north twice a year because the mills are closing one after another, it’s a sad tale. But customers are coming back in their droves, last month and this month have been very good. They say, ‘We’re so pleased you are open again, we have had to go to Berwick Street and it’s twice the amount.’ We have a promotion for students, they are the future of the fashion industry they come from London College of Fashion, Marangoni, St Martins; they are coming from as far as Newcastle. They are looking for a bit of guidance which we give them, our knowledge. I have been in the game for 55 years.
“They will say ‘We want to make trousers out of this.’ and I say ‘You can’t make trousers out of that, this is what you make trousers out of.’ We guide them to the right fabrics. If we say a weave like barathea or serge or gabardine they don’t know what we are talking about. ‘Wool.’ ‘What, suited? Jacketed? Coated? What weight? Tweed? Plain?
“Now we are cutting off one, twos and three meters, we have a five meter minimum on the cheaper end. We look after them. A couple of students have won awards, some have become very big designers. And they still come in, though there are some when they get big shots they forget about us.”
Crescent Trading was a founder member of the East End Trades Guild, and attended the launch just a few days after the fire. “The trades guild is a louder voice than if I got up and started to talk to people in the council,” Philip said. “It’s for us remaining in the area. That’s what is so importance to us, this is the right place to be. We are known here, and we do get passing trade.”
James Brown the illustrator who designed the Guild’s logo also designed a new set of branding and rebranded for free after the fire, The Gentle Author who runs an invigorating blog about the Spitalfields area stepped in to help and encouraged photographer Jeremy Freedman, a Guild member, to do so too; a new website was built. So the firm is back and has changed to meet the appetite for local and personal.
“No one envisaged the clothing industry disintegrating like it did. It’s been enormous, for all out working lives we had clothing manufacturers in this country and in these last few years it has disappeared, gone, finished. Gone from a giant to a minor thing. We were forced into this, but we like it.”
Copyright Bill Bowder