Fashion and sustainability writer Tamsin Blanchard recalls her time spent exploring the independent and conscientious brands she loves in Seven Dials
We only had a one-night honeymoon, but that one heady night, 12 years ago, was spent in Seven Dials, at the Covent Garden Hotel. We had already been together for 14 years, with a five year old and another on the way, so getting married wasn’t such a big deal. But I will always remember Sunday morning after a late breakfast, walking up Monmouth Street on our way back home (we probably took the 38 bus), the smell of coffee never far, savoring the peaceful atmosphere of one of London’s most unspoiled neighbourhoods.
Back then, I was working at the Telegraph Magazine, a fashion journalist with a particular interest in sustainability, and Seven Dials has always been more my kind of shopping destination than the designer boutiques of Bond Street. I’m drawn to independent fashion brands, small businesses who are focused on doing things right and making relationships with their customers that outlive a single transaction. Some of those businesses have been on that journey as long as I have, if not longer. Birkenstock is a prime example, with its cork footbed system for healthy feet, its double buckled sandals that have been a staple in my wardrobe for as long as I can remember, a brand that is beyond fashion but somehow constantly relevant. In the same way, Vivo Barefoot is a footwear brand that isn’t quite as old but with similar values of trust, longevity and functionality. In fact, I wore a pair of cream trainers by Vivo Barefoot’s precursor company Terra Plana founded by Galahad Clark, on my wedding day (yes, it was important that my wedding shoes were both comfortable and ethically made).
Vivo Barefoot’s ethos is one of making shoes that have as low an impact on the earth and as long a life as possible. I love that they offer a repair service on their shoes and am a particular fan of their vegan shoes made from recycled materials, as well as their Soul of Africa range, which is made in collaboration with a social enterprise initiative in Ethiopia.
So shoes well and truly sorted, my next stop might be for a pair of jeans. We all know how polluting and water intensive the denim industry can be, but there are some wonderful, innovators in the sector. Nudie Jeans is one of them, leading by example with everything from a transparent, publicly mapped supply chain, to organic cotton, responsible manufacturing as part of the Fair Wear Foundation and a living wage programme. Most striking in the Seven Dials shop is the repair station where you can take your jeans to be mended or part exchange a pair of worn-out jeans, so that you can keep your jeans in use for as long a time as possible, which ultimately is the goal for anything we buy. These are my kind of jeans. I have my eye on a pair of ‘Clean Eileens’ (wide legs, high waist), in organic cotton. But I’m waiting for my current pair of jeans to need replacing – and that could take a while.
For this reason, I am very taken by Emin & Paul, a brand that makes no grand claims about sustainability but which nevertheless, makes timeless, functional, classic clothes designed to last, which makes complete sense to me. We are artists who keep sending messages through our garments, they say. When the message is ‘Wear me, I’m yours and will stay in your wardrobe a long time,’ who can resist? I love their cool Korean modernity and can see myself finding a few forever pieces there. Also, just wanted to give a shout to Gudrun Sjödén, while I’m here. This Swedish brand has been pioneering ethical fashion with organic cotton and natural dyes since 1976. The founder, Gudrun, loves nature, good old-fashioned flower power, and a good dose of folky prints and craft. Aesthetically, it’s the antithesis to Emin & Paul, but I’m probably one of the few people who would happily find something to spark joy at both.
Another favourite for me, as an everyday specs wearer is Ace & Tate. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of being part of a panel discussion at this lovely, welcoming shop, to help launch a manifesto on mental health and wellbeing, Slow Fashion to Save Minds, by my friend Georgina Johnson. For the evening, the shop became a community hub, packed with people interested in finding out how to find space in their lives to be more mindful and more supportive of each other. The manifesto has since evolved into a book called The Slow Grind, which is now available to order at theslowgrind.bigcartel.com. It’s more relevant now than ever, and I’m thankful to Ace & Tate for using their space and their community to help small creative initiatives like Georgina’s. I’m also inspired by their ongoing generosity of spirit as a brand, sharing stories of other businesses they like, or their successful Giving Goggles campaign, which donated 16,000 pairs of safety goggles to medical workers and volunteers in Europe. I am also impressed by their openness and honesty around their own commitments to working more responsibly, which is made available via deeper dive blog posts called “We’re working on it…” on Medium. Subjects include the nitty gritty of switching to renewable energy in their stores. Plus, their frames are very, very cool.
Finally, I mustn’t forget a little pampering. I find it difficult to walk past a brand of Aesop without going in for a squirt of delicious smelling hand cream, or just to admire the plants and soak up the calm, and remind my husband that the tube of Geranium Leaf body balm he gave me for Christmas was a really Good Thing. Similarly, Le Labo is a perfume boutique that will make my senses soar and even if I’m saving up for my next bottle, (it’s going to take me a while to finish my current Rose 31, a well-chosen gift from friends), I always love to see what other people are buying and try out a few scents along the way. I’m also very tempted, particularly having lived with a birdsnest on my head during most of lockdown, to treat myself to a hair treatment – a new colour, perhaps – at Karine Jackson, which specialises in low PPD (Paraphenylenediamine) Organic Colour. If it’s good enough for my friend, fellow activist and journalist Lucy Siegle who’s a regular and whose hair always looks particularly glossy and luscious, then it’s more than good enough for me.
I confess, I’m not a big shopper, mainly because I have accumulated decades’ worth of clothes and cannot justify buying much more, and of course, lockdown has made us rediscover the clothes we already have in our wardrobes. I will not be rushing out for ‘non-essential’ shopping, but for a treat, something to cheer me up, or to give new life to an old outfit, Tatty Devine is a jewellery shop that will put a smile on your face. Founded in 1999 by Rosie Wolfenden and Harriet Vine, Tatty Devine has officially now come of age celebrating 21 years of bringing positivity and good vibes, not least this summer with their glam rock ‘n’ roll inspired collection launched with an online festival day of crafts, talks and virtual togetherness. It is a community that nurtures inclusivity, support, and wellbeing – with extra feel-good sparkles. Who could ask for more right now?
While Seven Dials always brings back happy memories whenever I’m there, a visit to any one of these shops will make me feel as though when I do spend my money, I’m supporting good people, who are doing good things. You can’t buy your way to sustainability, but you can certainly choose where you shop, and most importantly, think before you buy. All of these shops are spaces I feel I can go to, browse, have a conversation with the staff, and know that retail really is a form of therapy, even if they don’t make a sale.
Tamsin Blanchard is a fashion and sustainability writer. She is the editor of Hole & Corner and also writes for The Guardian and Vogue