Words by Paul Jeursen, taken from an interview for our collaboration with Denham.
The inspiring story of Bilgehan “Han” Ates doesn’t start with the opening of his successful Blackhorse Lane Ateliers in London in 2016. It goes way back. Ates, a second generation Londoner with Turkish Kurdish roots, has a long history of manufacturing in the clothing and textile industry. As with every inspiring tale, the road to success and happiness isn’t just an upward curve. But with Han’s love for creating the most beautiful denim pieces through the highest level of craftsmanship, his ever-present ambitions and philanthropic standpoint: his mission could not fail.
“I came to London from Istanbul in 1987. I was just 19 years old,” says Han in his own factory, appropriately located on Blackhorse Lane number 114b in Walthamstow, London. “I worked as a presser and quality controller in my uncle’s textile factory. Working part time and studying full time, was a bit much and I couldn’t manage it. After a few years, I left and started my own catering business.”
Some years later, Han’s uncle requested him to take over one of his factories. “I was a good quality controller and presser and I was a tailor at heart. But I did not have the skills.” The ambitious Han enrolled in Central Saint Martins to master the art of tailoring. “I learned a lot there and got skilled. After a while we were producing some of the best garments in London.” In 1996, Han moved his business to Blackhorse Lane 114b, the same building where he would start Blackhorse Lane two decades later.
“Business was going very well, but by 2001 the UK was becoming too expensive so I moved the production offshore. I opened a factory near Istanbul and when Turkey became too expensive as well, we moved production to China. I was travelling to China every other week and really missed my family in London. After a few years I realised that I didn’t see my oldest daughter growing up. I felt disconnected, dissatisfied and I was drained by fashion. I couldn't do this anymore.” Ates returned to London in 2008.
Back home in London, Han realised he also lost touch with the city and the inhabitants he loved so much. “I lived in my neighbourhood for 22 years, but I didn't know any neighbours. With my catering experience and love for food, I decided to open a restaurant.” It was a great success and Han really rediscovered and reconnected with his local community. “After just a short while after the opening, all of a sudden I started calling people by their first name! I knew their children, their grandfathers and their grandchildren. I truly felt as if I was a part of the community again after feeling so disconnected all these years. This was the moment where I found out that connecting with people and togetherness were vital elements for me. It gave me a huge sense of satisfaction on a very holistic level.”
The restaurant was a success, but Han couldn't express his creativity in the right way. “My chef was the creative person in the restaurant, not me. During that time, I also studied psychotherapy, and I'm still doing that by the way. Not to become a psychotherapist, but I believe in self development and I want to understand who we are. In one of the classes I got asked: ‘How do you define yourself as an artist?’. It made me think, and doubt as well. If I could not connect creatively, how could I define myself as an artist? I remembered when I was most happy creatively: it was when I was in the factories producing garments. That ‘aha moment’ really sparked a fire for starting a new business,” Han explains.
“You have to have a relationship with denim. You imprint your lifestyle onto jeans. The older it becomes, and the more repairs you do to it, the more beautiful it gets.”
Han completed his holistic circle when he founded Blackhorse Lane Ateliers in 2016. But why premium denim? “The moment you start using any other material in the world, it gets older and it's start losing its shininess. Denim is the opposite. It gets more beautiful. You have to have a relationship with it. Also: you imprint your lifestyle onto them. The older it becomes, and the more repairs you do to it, the more beautiful it gets.”
Han’s favourite part of creating premium jeans is not designing a pattern or a certain detail. “Jeans have been around for over 150 years. So knowing that, we know we are not reinventing the wheel by making them ourselves. I see us as ‘keepers’ of this amazing garment and I think jeans are going to be part of our world for another thousand years or so! Feeling part of that journey is the most fulfilling for me.”
With a world population exceeding eight billion people, it’s fascinating when two creative masterminds find each other and have so much in common. Especially when they both have the same ideas when it comes to premium quality, craftsmanship and giving back to the community. When the visions of Han Ates and Jason Denham came together, it resulted in a small capsule collection created by two jean makers with a big love for London and premium denim. The DENHAM x Blackhorse Lane Collection consists of one RIDGE jeans, a T-shirt, a sweatshirt and a denim jacket. The garments are hand-stitched at Blackhorse Lane Ateliers by talented craftsmen and craftswomen, using only the finest virgin selvedge denim from Candiani Denim in Italy and Japanese denim made by Kaihara in Japan featuring organic cotton. The collection is concepted and designed in Amsterdam and cut and crafted in London.
With Han as the creative force, Blackhorse Lane Ateliers is thriving. “We make and sell ready-to-wear selvedge and organic raw denim jeans from this atelier with a focus on sustainability, community and unmatched quality. We use a mix of tailoring innovation and heritage construction to create these garments of unmatched quality.”
Giving back to the local community is essential for Han. But it is not something he sees as doing a good deed. It is just everyday business for him. “Our factory is based in London, where life is really expensive. So we pay premium wages to our workers, because we need them and they deserve to get paid well,” Han explains. “We also believe in growing the maker community here in Walthamstow. That’s why we employ local people and employees will be given the opportunity to be shareholders in Blackhorse Lane Ateliers.”
In the meantime the Blackhorse Lane Ateliers headquarters has become much more than a factory. “We now have 28 art studios there. There’s architects, carpenters and furniture designers. It has become a really inspiring and creative hub,” says Han. London really became his hometown since he moved here in 1987. “I would say: I'm a Londoner. As a person, I never felt foreign in London. It has the capacity to make you feel special, to make you feel inspired. London has an ability to stimulate you to become a better person. I love being here!”
By re-evaluating what was most important in his life, by listening to and following his heart, Han fell in love with fashion again. He regained his creativity, completed his holistic circle and reconnected with his community. For the love of denim and: for London. He aims to give back as much as he can to the city that made him feel so loved.
You can listen to a podcast of this interview on the links below.
You can also see the full collaboration below which is now available.