William Gee set up this haberdashery shop in 1906. At that time, there were hundreds of clothing factories in the area, and someone had to supply them with the goods they needed- such as sewing threads and fastenings. This was at a time when the UK was a thriving textiles workshop. People forget that companies like Marks & Spencers used to make their own clothing in this country.
William actually began in the building opposite us, where Arthur’s Café now stands, but moved because he needed larger premises to store all the stock. Before and after the Second World War the business was very labour intensive, so we had about 70 or 80 people working here, either in the shop or in one of our warehouses. Eventually Mr Gee merged with my father’s company in the 1960s, and some years later I entered the family business.
It wasn’t long after I started that things became a lot tougher for the business. In the 1990s through to the early 2000s, clothing manufacturers began looking abroad for cheaper sources of labour. They went to Eastern Europe first, then North Africa, and finally China and other places in the Far East. All of this led to a boom in cheap clothing, which is why places like Primark and the supermarket fashion labels took off. It became more difficult for makers of high quality garments that were made in the UK to compete, though hugely talented and creative designers made a huge resurgence.
The knock-on effect was that most of the big clothing factories in London and throughout the country closed down. You can still see remnants of the industry dotted along Kingsland Road, except now the former factories are wine bars, galleries and studio apartments. It took a while, but the Dalston and Hackney area has got back some of its vitality. The artists were the first to move in because the rents were cheaper at that time. They also had the skills to renovate the derelict buildings. No one wanted to look at living in Brick lane in the 1990s apart from the likes of Tracey Emin and Gilbert and George.