In 1906, William Goldstein- an East European immigrant- changed his name to William Gee and opened a small trimmings shop at 495 Kingsland Road with £2 worth of stock.
At that time Hackney was a well-to-do area as well as being a centre for the rag trade. There were garment shops, clothing companies, factories and small units all along the road. Most products were manufactured locally and then supplied to the big shops and manufacturers in the West End. William Gee’s business soon started to expand and moved across the road to larger premises at 520 Kingsland Road. His sons, Sidney and Alfred, built up the business and merged with David Graham who had his own business in Commercial Street in the East End.
As a child I remember there was almost a Dickensian atmosphere, clerks sat on high stools working with big ledgers. There were seventy to eighty people working here and all the floors were occupied with separate departments for zips, sewing threads, haberdashery, buttons, and linings. There’d be ten or twelve ladies upstairs making covered buttons – it was like a bingo session. People left school at fifteen and were here all their working lives. It was a career for life and many couples and families worked here.
I worked here as a student in the summer holidays and my father (Adam’s grandfather, pictured above right) asked me if I could help out. I’ve been here full time since 1988. It hasn’t changed an awful lot since I remember it as a child. We thought about modernising it and making the shop self service like a supermarket but people come in and say ‘don’t change it’. They’ll say ‘my grandma used to send me in here for buttons, and we like it as it is’. So we’ve kept it in its old style; there have always been two long benches for serving at the side of the shop and despite its old fashioned style (or maybe because of it) it has a certain charm.
Although as a company we are predominantly a wholesale company supplying manufacturers and hospitals, bridal wear and corporate wear suppliers, the shop has always served the local trade. But over the years that has changed. Many factories have closed down as production has moved to cheaper labour economies, first East Europe and now the Far East. These days we are much more retail based. We have a very wide and varied customer base supplying trimmings to film companies and theatre groups, fashion colleges and students, and many local designers and their studios.
Like everyone in the fashion business we are customer driven and our business is supplying what the customers require. Just like in the days when William Gee started his business.
As for the future…
In the early 2000s we took part in an exhibition all about shops and the shopping experience in our area in Hackney Library. The organisers asked shopkeepers what they thought business would be like in 10 years, and without exception everyone said they were worried and lacked confidence. There was a feeling that the high street was in decline due to the growth of massive shopping centres, rising rents and business rates and more people looking to buy online. In my opinion the high street is changing but there is a need for a vibrant high street, full of indie stores, for the sake of local communities.
So how do we see the future for William Gee? We are expanding our online shop and constantly adding to our catalogue and there are exciting plans for future developments. My son, Adam, is involved with the management of the company, the day to day operations and in particular growing our online site which has been most successful. After 117 years of trading, William Gee is still looking to adapt and grow as a company and to help all our customers – both in the clothing trade and domestic customers alike.
Here’s to the next 117 years.
Jeffrey Graham – Director