Frank Clegg, Fall River: Factory visit

Wednesday, January 2nd 2019
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It’s not hard to spot an old mill town.

Mills were large buildings and needed lots of light. In Britain, this often came in through so-called sawtooth roofs: a zig-zag shape that allowed windows to be placed in the top of the building, bringing in the sun.

This was less common in America. The roofs were usually flat: but there was still the need for light, and the large rectangular buildings had sides filled with long windows.

Driving into Fall River, Massachusetts this past October, the town’s history was immediately apparent.

As soon as you looked beyond the McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts signs, you could see the preponderance of large, long buildings, with hundreds of windows down the sides.

Fall River and New Bedford were at the heart of the industrial revolution in America. At one point New Bedford was the richest city in the country.

Today, sadly, Fall River is more likely to appear in a list of the worst towns to live in in the US. It’s not the poorest, but industry has largely gone.

Some of those old mills have been turned into flats. But just as common is to see all the windows on an old mill boarded up, as it’s too expensive to repair them.

Frank Clegg Leatherworks is in one of the few to still contain manufacturing.

Not that this is a historic works: Frank and his two sons (Ian and Andrew) have only been here two years, and hope one day to move again and find something more permanent.

They’re on the fifth floor of the building, with a boxing gym next door and a variety of retail on the ground floor.

But it’s clean, and it’s warm, and it's well run.

Our visit was peppered with stories of the other mills in the area, and their managed decline. Burst pipes and poor heating seemed to be the chief complaints, often with stand-offs between owners and tenants that led to people working in unheated buildings through the winter.

This all brings into sharp relief the energy, craft and progressive attitude at Clegg.

It’s a big space - more than enough for the 12 people working there. But it doesn’t feel big.

It's warm and noisy. Music pumps out from a sound system in the corner, with Frank’s collection of a few thousand CDs stacked up around it.

There's everything from Leonard Cohen to Pavarotti in there, though it's mostly rock and country.

The back third of the room is storage, for leather and old samples. Plus a booth for product photography that Ian is excited about.

The front is mostly a showroom, with bags displayed on shelves around the walls.

And so most of the work goes on in the middle, with long tables separating out the different tasks, and a huge American flag hanging from the ceiling above.

Apart from the photo booth, there are several new machines Frank, Ian and Andrew have invested in in recent years.

They were one of the first in the US to use a computer-controlled CNC cutter for leather (above, manned by Andrew), rather than doing it by hand.

And a new skiver has just come in, and is being tested.

“Over time, you learn the little idiosyncrasies of these machines, and the mistakes that are easy to make,” says Frank. “That’s when you start to see marks or guidelines drawn on them, or Post-it Note reminders.”

The family has always been quite progressive when it’s come to new technology.

Frank remembers they were the first to get a particular edge-dyer in the US, in the 1980s. It was imported from Italy, and the only reason they knew how to use it was that their mother read Italian, and could translate the manual.

The company has been through lots of ups and downs since Frank (above) started it.

There have been more and less successful tie-ups. There was the steady move of manufacturing to Asia. At one point, when work was slow, Frank started making guitars as well.

But he has always had a talent for design, and a lot of Frank's original models remain among the company’s best sellers.

Pieces like the Lawyer's Briefcase (above top - middle column, on the floor) are a little too traditional for me, but I love the Zip-Top Briefcase (same column, top), which manages to be sleek and modern, yet practical and masculine.

It is also, I just discovered, the bag President Obama chose for an American-made briefcase.

I have a Large Working Tote (chestnut tumbled leather, acquired in 2011 and still regularly admired); and a tall tote bag, a collaboration between Frank and Michael Bastian (bought 2013).

If could add one more, it would be a custom tote in the beautifully soft nubuck that was laid out on the cutting table when I visited (below).

The next stage for the family is women’s bags, and I saw some very elegant designs with custom hardware.

They were slimmer and more refined than the men’s, but I think still recognisably Clegg, partly due to the colours - even if women apparently favour chrome-dyed leathers with their clean, unblemished surfaces.

The factory also continues to do third-party work, at the moment largely belts for a South American brand. “It’s relatively straightforward compared to bags, but it is a good training ground for new workers,” says Frank.

By the time we’ve finished the tour, had some doughnuts, and talked about the early days in the showroom, the light has changed.

When we drove in this morning from Boston, it was slanting low through those windows, casting long shadows.

Now the sun is high and the space is filled with light. Before everyone heads off for their lunch break, Ian gathers everyone for some group photographs. It’s not often they get a photographer up here.

Then Ian, Frank, Andrew and I head down to the waterfront from some local seafood.

Clegg doesn’t have its own physical retail, but there are 30+ retailers around the world. I’d particularly recommend the selection at The Armoury, and in London there is a small selection at Richard Gelding and Fenwick’s. Full list here

If you’d like to read more factory visits on Permanent Style, you can find them collected here.

Several of those, including the sawtooth-roofed John Smedley, were also collected in the book Best of British, which I wrote with photographer Horst Friedrichs. That is available here.

Thanks to all at Frank Clegg for your hospitality, and in particular Ian for helping organise the trip.

Photography by M.Studios.