Simpson London in Canning Town is one of those rare things in British menswear: a shining new and dynamic factory.
I’ve visited dozens of British factories over the past 10 years, and although many of them have character in spades, they are often tired, uncomfortable places to work.
Simpson’s new operation is not in a particularly nice part of London, and is one unit in a small industrial park.
But inside, every craftsman has a large, well-lit bench to themselves.
There is space to move around, to communicate, and to consider things like efficient workflow.
“When we first saw this space last year it was just a big, white hangar,” says Patrick Coyne, managing director. “We had to imagine how it could become a workspace.”
They put in a mezzanine for the workers (and offices), and now use the level below for carpentry, storage and leather stock.
“We’re already looking at expanding into the other side of the building,” says Patrick. “We’ll need it - we’re hiring another five people over the next six months.”
The history of Simpson is a little complicated.
I first visited their factory in 2011 (see post here) at the invitation of Tanner Krolle. It was a ramshackle but charming place, and one of only a handful of places doing hand-sewn leather in London.
Robert Simpson had set it up in 1997, and it became the place where any high-end bag or shoemaker in London sent small orders to - including Foster & Son and Cleverley.
“I’ve sold Simpson-made products my whole life,” says Andy Murphy, who joined Simpson as business development manager last year from Foster & Son.
“Originally when I was at New & Lingwood, then Edward Green, then Cleverley, and finally Foster’s. I feel I know the product pretty well now!”
Robert sadly passed away in 2013.
A few years earlier William Asprey (founder of William & Son), who was also a big customer, bought the factory rather than see one of his main suppliers go under.
William has been the driving force behind it ever since, including the creation of a ‘Simpson London’ brand (largely sold in Japan, but now expanding) and the move in 2016 to this new factory.
I’m discussing the history with Andy as we tour the ground floor, looking through the stocks of bridle leather (which unlike most leathers, has to be stored flat).
“One of the things William insisted on when he bought the factory was that we had to have leather in stock - good supply, so we could deliver consistently,” he says.
“There have been so many changes like that. The passes, for instance, that allow people in and out of the store room. Before we’d often have no idea who was taking leather and where it was going.”
Next door a large, modern machine is set up to split leather to any required thickness.
And although press knives (above) are still created for every piece, large runs are all cut with a laser-cutting machine upstairs.
“The aim is to be very efficient, but also able to accept small orders,” says Andy. “We want to be consistent, and then open and transparent with how we work.”
The next room is my favourite: the carpentry.
Here wooden frames are made for attaché cases, games sets and jewellery boxes. But there is also a lot of design and prototyping.
John, the head of the department, potters around showing us various things in development.
“We’re cabinet makers really - making boxes to be covered in leather,” he says. “But there are also so many interesting new ideas.
"Like this barrel [not pictured]: we need to decide whether to make a leather one and line it in cedar, or try and make a cedar barrel itself first. I think either could work, but one’s likely to be a lot more efficient.”
There’s also an attractive flapped opening to many of the boxes (below) which John is putting into more and more things: “It should become a trademark. So people can tell it’s a Simpson product without having to put ‘Simpson’ on it.”
Upstairs on the main floor, the bag designer is being filmed by a film crew from a large brand - to show how their new women's handbag is made.
Everyone else is busy in their wide (and widely spaced) workspaces.
There is still a fair amount of hand-sewing going on, but orders for traditional attaché cases or doctor’s bags are rare.
Instead, hand-sewing is sometimes applied to other items, such as cases with nylon bodies but bridle-leather bases.
The bespoke area is interesting. One client has brought in a several leather cases and asked them to be copied several times in different leathers. (The new ones look better.)
And although the inking of leather edges is done by hand, again there is a new machine to speed up the drying process.
“It was such a bottleneck having dozens of pieces lying around, drying,” says Andy.
“There is even a machine that mixes the ink now, and will match the colour of any leather perfectly.”
As we look round the brand showroom Patrick talks about how pleased he is to have so many young people working in the factory. And about implementing an apprentice scheme.
From a customer's point of view, it’s interesting to see how broad the Simpson London range is, including games sets and luggage, plus soft leather pieces normally associated with French or Italian brands.
“This Pitti Uomo is only the fourth year under the new brand,” says Andy. “It's been interesting to see the reception - particularly as the offering has grown."