One of the great advantages of being small and independent as a business, according to Blackshore Coastal Clothing founder Simon Middleton, is the freedom to respond to moments of inspiration as well as to the suggestions and requests of customers.
Blackshore opened its first ‘shop with workshop’ in the autumn of 2019, situated on Southwold High Street, just half a mile from the town’s fishing harbour, after which the business is named.
Half of what Blackshore sells in its shop is made by them quite literally, ‘in house’. The small premises at the beginning of the High Street (one of the first shops that visitors to the town see on arrival) houses a pattern cutting room and a sewing room, as well a retail space.
Customers are encouraged to explore and follow the hum of the sewing machines to watch the garments actually being made on the premises, and to ask about the fabrics being used in the various styles.
Southwold, situated on the Suffolk heritage coast, is a charming seaside town complete with a pier and a long line of much-photographed stripy beach huts.
The Blackshore is Southwold’s inner harbour, so named after the coal barges that used to ply the route from the sea, carrying raw materials upstream and agricultural products back down, transforming the 18th century economy of the surrounding area.
Blackshore Coastal Clothing was dreamt up by founder Simon Middleton, who lives in the neighbouring village of Reydon, during numerous walks across the marshes and reclaimed saltings, where cattle still graze much as they did three hundred years ago, and on the harbour foreshore itself.
Just a couple of years from the first concept, and after a few months proving their manufacturing mettle in a workshop space in nearby Lowestoft, Blackshore is now established as Britain’s most easterly small clothing workshop.
The key colours of the brand and its clothes (blue and orange, earth tones and sand, as well as shades of green) are inspired by the sea and the surrounding landscape as well as the colours of the clothes and safety gear used by the local fishermen too.
Core products include traditional worker jackets and trousers, shirts and overshirts, fisherman’s smocks, rainproof ponchos and various bags.
Being the designers and manufacturers, they can respond to customer interests and their own passions: quickly trialling new products to assess customer interest.
They created a new version of their classic overshirt recently, adding a Nehru collar for one specific customer, which was immediately spotted and requested by another.
Similarly they have created a water-resistant waxed version of their Reefer jacket, simply because a customer loved the style of the standard canvas version but wanted the rain protection of a waxed version.
Frequently Simon, who is Creative Director as well as founder and MD, will respond to external inspiration for new designs. The Blackshore poncho, a dramatic looking cape with a hood, made in drywax ripstop cotton, was specifically inspired by the films of M Night Shymalan.
“Hollywood movies might seem a long way from Coastal Clothing,” says Simon,
“but they can be very inspiring aesthetically. Our poncho was directly inspired by a military cape worn by Bruce Willis as a reluctant super-hero in the film Unbreakable, as well as by the yellow woollen medieval-style capes in the film The Village. In both films the cape symbolises protection and safety.
“Our poncho offers the same protection against the elements, and its dramatic appearance, particularly in the orange version, is empowering. It’s more than just a rain-cape. People respond to it emotionally when then see it in the window of the shop,” says Simon.
Another new design from Blackshore, the Harbour 14oz Denim Jacket, was inspired by images from Japanese vintage fashion magazines, which in turn were inspired by 1950’s American workwear.
“We were already making our signature jacket, the Southwold Worker Jacket, in various colours of heavy twill, and I hadn’t really considered denim until getting absorbed by Japanese vintage styles. So we made the style in a lovely heavy denim and it’s fabulous.”
“We opened here just over three months ago weeks ago, after a few month’s run-up in a workshop in Lowestoft a little further up the coast. Moving here and getting in front of customers has been transfirmational. Visitors love the combination of ‘Made-In-Britain’ with ‘Made-On-Premises’. They understand it, they appreciate it, and they enjoy it. In time we hope to grow our team at the workshop of course. But we are also starting to collaborate with other producers who can make some of our garments in larger quantities (though that is still at exploratory stage) as well as offering other exclusively British-made brands too such as Gloverall, Peregrine and Corrymoor.
“We’re not really about fashion… but we are about the coolness of things well made, things made to last, and things made locally, within a community and within view of shoppers, by real people. Most of all we’re about bringing the power of ‘making’ back onto the High Street. In one sense it’s terribly old-fashioned, but in another it’s pretty radical!”