Jean genie - Alde Custom Clothing's selvedge denim jeans May 12 2017

John Francomb of Old Custom Clothing CoJohn Francomb of Alde Custom Clothing Co takes the artisan approach to denim, making off all of his selvedge jeans by hand in his Aldebrugh workshop. 

Flying in the face of mass-produced fashion, his determinedly micro brand extols the virtues of 'slow fashion' - from its sustainable provenance to creating a bespoke fit.

We persuaded him to take a break from stitching to chat about his business.

Tell us about your business?

Alde Custom Clothing is what you might describe as a ‘micro’ clothing brand – it’s just me! I make jeans and other denim products; I design, cut and make everything myself – by hand in the traditional way.

I set up the company 4 years ago when I made the decision to give up my job as a director of a large fashion business in order to re-focus on small-scale clothing production. I also wanted to move out of London.

Why did you set up shop in Suffolk?

I had been coming to Suffolk at weekends to see friends for years, then about 10 years ago I decided to buy a weekend cottage here. I had always thought that one day I would like to make the move to Suffolk a permanent one, but needed to find something to occupy my time. It is then that I decided to set up an artisan-clothing studio where I could satisfy both needs.

How would you describe the style clothing you make? 

It is classic workwear inspired clothing - elevated to a higher level by design and the use of beautiful fabrics sourced from the best mills around the world. It’s then cut and made into garments using traditional sewing methods and machinery.

Why did you want to focus on this particular style? 

I had been involved in the garment industry for over 30 years, mainly focusing on Formal Menswear and I loved it. Spending more time in Suffolk meant I had little need to wear a formal shirt, tie and suit: I wanted to make clothes that were more relevant to my new lifestyle. I noticed that this was also what my friends here in Suffolk were wearing and this gave me the idea there may be an opportunity.

You seem to celebrate a small-scale/artisan attitude - why is that?

buttons from John's custom made selvedge jeansThere is a growing band of people who want to know the provenance of their clothing. Thankfully, there is now more awareness of how low-cost clothing is made and how people are exploited in the supply chain. Disposable fashion is such a waste of resources and is ultimately unsustainable. I believe that it is good sense to buy better and buy less and by doing so, we could make huge positive impact on the environment.

I was brought up to understand that things should be bought to last - and I still hold that value today. I embrace the process of how garments age and become unique to the wearer – showing signs of wear is a reflection of it’s journey you take it on through your life. That’s why I offer a free repair service for my jeans so they can continue to be of service long after most people would have relegated them to landfill.

What makes your clothes different?

Jeans, in particular, tend to be viewed as a bit of a commodity. Often, even expensive jeans are made in large factories, in large numbers, by automated machinery and therefore the construction can be only be described as ‘mass-produced’. I make jeans one pair at a time and pay particular attention to the finish both inside and out. My jeans have a personality that cannot be achieved in bulk production.

The denim fabric plays a crucial role too. I use Japanese selvedge denim that has been woven on old-school shuttle looms. These looms produce a narrow width cloth (half the width of mass-produced denim). As the shuttle bobbins pass back and forth they create a natural, contrasting, woven edge. This woven edge creates the eponymous finish of the leg seams of selvedge jeans. These looms weave fabric much slower than the newer ‘power looms’ giving the fabric a unique, artisanal feel. The Japanese term for this translates as ‘gentle weaving’.

Rolls of selvedge denim in John's workshopHow does denim retain its unique appeal? 

When it comes to the blue jean - I cannot think of another piece of clothing that’s as versatile. They can be worn by old or young, can be high fashion or ultra classic, can be smart or casual. Apart from jeans, denim is used for all sorts of clothing and accessories: it can be raw and clean, distressed and dirty; it can be new or vintage: it can be recycled. The fact that this fabric has been used for clothing for a century and a half is testament to its appeal. Who doesn’t own a pair of jeans in some form or another?

Where is the demand coming from/what kind of people are buying?

I have been surprised by who is interested in my denim. It is not just ‘denimheads’ who are buying them! People are genuinely interested in the story and investing in a product that is designed to last.

Is there an environmental element to what you're doing?

A detail shot of a pair of Old Custom Clothing Co selvedge denim jeansIt might surprise you that, from cotton field to consumer, it takes around 10,000 litres of water to make the average, mass-produced pair of jeans! Then there is also the impact on the environment from the finishing process. Pre-distressed jeans require the use of several chemical intensive washes and masses amounts of energy to produce – aside from any impact on the factory workers having to work with these potentially harmful substances. Now multiply this by the two billion pairs of jeans produced worldwide each year and that’s a lot of unnecessary waste. At Alde Custom, I only produce raw denim jeans (there is zero post–garment processing) and, as they are not already half-destroyed when you buy them, they will last longer – therefore you will need to buy less frequently.

Do you think people are changing their attitude to fashion due to environmental concerns?

I would like to say yes, but sadly we still have a way to go before a majority of consumers think this way. We are all to easily seduced by the sexy marketing and low prices in the shops. Being realistic, it can’t change overnight – sadly, there aren’t enough small producers, especially in the UK, but we are getting there and we will have to change our attitudes one day.

What is the benefit of a 'smaller' approach?

Working closely with the customer. When I worked in a larger organisation, with a multi-platform, multi-national sales strategy, we had to spend so much time on consumer research, customer surveys and sales analysis to understand what the customer wanted. Now I can just ask them!

How can you compete against bigger players - must be tough?

The mainstream jeans market is huge and highly competitive. Thankfully, I’m not in that game. There are only a handful of people producing handmade denim clothes. Most of which are in the USA and a few in the Netherlands, Sweden and, of course, Japan. Due to the nature of our production, each of us has our own style and ‘handwriting’ and a very limited output. I don’t see it so much as competition – it’s more of a club.

Any reason why you are focusing on menswear?

tools of the trade for pattern-making selvedge denim jeansMy entire career has been focused on menswear, so I understand it very well. Partly, it has to do with the fact that I can wear what I produce and I do enjoy designing clothes that I want to wear. I’m fanatical about fit, so being able to try the clothes on myself helps as I can tell if something needs a tweak here or there. However, the products I make are, in a way, ‘gender-neutral’ so I find that women also buy the jeans. Not surprising really as women have been buying and wearing Levi’s 501’s for years!

Where can people buy your products?

The premise of the business is ‘custom made’ so most of my products are made-to-order. That way I can give the customer exactly what they want. I have a wide range of denim fabrics of different weights and types and I have several different styles of jeans from which to choose. I can also make in half-sizes too (31”, 32”,33”, 34”, 35” etc). By making to order, the customer can also request some specific changes; for instance, a wider leg or longer rise - and hardwear and stitch colour can also be specified. I can usually make a pair in 2 to 3 weeks – not long really to get your perfect pair of jeans. This is after all “slow-fashion”!

For those in a hurry, I do carry a bit of stock and I’m delighted to be working with Sam Denny-Hodson who owns HOMESPUN in Woodbridge. Sam has supported me from the start and she stocks a range of my products alongside some other fantastic brands. VANIL (also in Woodbridge) stock the aprons – well worth a visit too.

What does being in Suffolk bring to the products?

The thing I love about living and working here in Suffolk is that it is full of creative people and I find it a stimulating place to be. If ever I need some inspiration, I’ll take some time out to meet up with my artist or artisan friends and look at what they are creating; then I soon find myself back on track. Even a walk along the coast or a woodland path can clear the mind and re-energise me.

How/where do you relax in Suffolk to escape from the business?

When I’m not making jeans or out for a walk or going to an art festival, I like to cook. Food is my other passion: I love baking, roasting, bread making – anything I can eat really! There’s nothing better than sharing it with friends, so often I have guests over for a meal and how lucky we are to have such fantastic produce to work with here in Suffolk.