Starting at the beginning, what did you do before you started your brand? What pushed you make the jump into your own business?
I studied fashion and textiles at college in my hometown, I moved to London to study tailoring at uni but dropped out after half a year as it wasn’t as practical as I was hoping for. I then worked in a bar for a while but went on to work as a sales assistant at Paul Smith in Covent Garden, then as a fitter in their mainline and suit departments. On the side I started up my own small scale business offering colleagues and a few clients alterations tailoring. That way I continued to learn and was using a machine all week in the evenings after work. The bags came shortly after, but started in a similar way. I made one for myself, then for family, friends and colleagues, and it organically grew from there really.
From the start, has there been one main direction you wanted to follow with the brand or a certain product, material, or style you intended to champion?
I always wanted to manufacture myself and champion British made material where possible. I find making fascinating and really satisfying. You’re constantly learning and developing your skills. I find my designs evolve and the brand direction slightly changes course as my skill set develops.
What does a typical Charlie Borrow customer tend to favour and are their and common factors that you are regularly addressing with your customer work?
I find my customers like the human interaction and the ability to see where the products are made. I have an open workshop/shop space, it’s great as clients can come behind the counter to look through leather and materials with me. We can discuss customisations to existing designs or we can work on fully bespoke items if they prefer. It gives the clients a chance to be involved in the process and have their say.
As a small business owner what does your typical day/week look like?
In recent times I find myself doing way more emails and organisation then I use to, not my favourite part but definitely something that needs to be done. I tend to do a 10.30am to 6.30pm day give or take with half hour lunch. Morning is a 25 minute cycle to work stopping off for a sit down coffee on route to go through a couple of emails and start the day without stress. Once at the shop I’ll finish off a few emails then make a plan for what to make that day. The weeks can really vary as the business is split up into a few different sectors. One side we have the bags and leather goods, the other is furniture restoration and commercial manufacture of seating, aprons and soft furnishing for restaurants and private clients.
We’re aware of your London workshop, how do you find working in the city space and what plans might you have moving forward with your workshop? We heard there might some extra-curricular, music-based activities in the works?
I love being based in London. I feel like central London has expanded with more of the bigger retailers moving east, so kind of feel like I’m in central London now. Lots of people are really surprised to see things actually being made in the shop, that always gives me a buzz as I feel like I’m keeping a part of the true east London alive. Where I’m based was originally made up of upholsterers and furniture makers with a bit of leather trade too. I took on the current workshop the dreaded March 2020. I saw it as a great opportunity to expand my business as it was 4 times the size of my old shop. There was plenty to do as it was a local shop/off-licence so you can imagine that it needed a bit of work to bring back the buildings old natural charm. Luckily the lockdown gave me the time to do that.
There are a few things in the pipe line, the basement is currently being turned into a bar. It’ll be open every Thursday and for private hire with the main access through the shop. Ring the door bell on arrival and you’ll be let in, there’s no secret gimmicky passwords or any of that bollocks, which is what everyone thinks when I tell them it’s a Shoreditch basement bar!
I always have to tell people I’m not trying to have a peaky blinder themed prohibition speakeasy haha. What I’m wanting is to create a great space to come to if you know it’s there for a local brewed beer, some great wine and a whisky if the night takes you there. Watch this space for opening dates.
In the workshop, what’s your favourite machine, tool or element of the process in creating your products that you enjoy?
I love hand stitching if I’m honest, it makes the process feel less mass produced and the stitch appearance and durability is so much better too. The process is so much longer though, so the business man inside me does cry out and say “what the hell are you doing? Use a bloody machine!” But it’s not as satisfying. The Wholecut Tote I make is a days work hand stitched but with machines it would absolute tops be half a day so if a client is price conscious, I can offer a machine stitch option which is made from a lightweight leather.
Moving over to the subject of design and materials now, are there any specific characteristics to your design approach you'd say that you follow and what's your favourite material or materials to work with?
I’ve got lots of new old deadstock cloth from a British military supplier. Some amazing heavy weight flax and lighter weight ripstop. The flax has a great slubby texture and the ripstop is lightweight but super strong as it’s used for military tents. These paired with the leather I use from the fifth generation tannery down in Devon makes a really nice combination. The tannery has a really great story, they have been producing traditional oak bark tanned leather for a thousand years at that same site. Owned by the same family for five generations, they have developed the business and managed to maintain a large enough customer base to keep going through the tough decline of the British leather industry.
To finish, what’s next for Charlie Borrow, anything coming up in the near future that you are particularly excited about?
I’m looking to develop my own range of furniture and interiors. The business seems to be moving in that direction and I’m interested to see where it goes. I’ll always produce the bags and leather goods as I have a great loyal customer base who want them and continue to place orders both in the UK and abroad. It’s nice to work in other industries too though. And I guess the bar will take up a fair amount of time too. So a busy few years ahead.
We’ll leave it there for the questions and thanks again for agreeing to let us grill you. It’s always interesting to get an insight into how a fellow British made brand and craftsman thinks! Hopefully we can work together in the future in some capacity or at the very least catch up over a pint in your basement bar when it's open!
Thanks for getting in touch, and yes that does sound like a plan!
For his Crown Northampton product, Charlie chose the always popular, Woodford Desert Boot in snuff kudu suede with toffee sole. Great choice Charlie and thanks for your time. Wear them well!
You can view all of Charlie Borrow's products here
Photography - Alex Natt
Shop the Crown Northampton Stitchdown Collection here